Major League Soccer’s playoffs get under way on Saturday with the sudden death knockout format sure to deliver some surprise runs, sudden exits and no end of drama.
While most leagues around the world crown their champions from a single league table at the end of the season, MLS, which has 28 teams split into Eastern and Western conferences prefers the drama of single elimination ties, a more familiar format for American sports fans.
Los Angeles FC are the favourites, having won the Supporters Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular season record, reward for an impressive campaign under first-season head coach Steve Cherundolo.
But the men in black, who feature former Real Madrid winger Gareth Bale and ex-Juventus and Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini, know that form over 34 games, while it guarantees home field advantage in the playoffs, often counts for little.
Only one of the last ten Shield winners has gone on to win MLS Cup, which last season was won by New York City, who triumphed after finishing eighth in the regular season standings.
LAFC and Eastern Conference winners, the Philadelphia Union, have both earned byes in the first round which starts on Saturday with New York Red Bulls hosting post-season debutants Cincinnati.
Having failed to come close to making the playoffs in their opening three seasons in MLS, Cincinnati have been a different beast this season thanks in large part to the 18 goals each from of Brazilian forward Brenner and American striker Brandon Vazquez.
But the Ohio side will be up against a Red Bull team who have the joint second tightest defence in the East – the winner will face Philadelphia in the next round.
Galaxy reach for stars
Saturday’s other game sees MLS’ most successful club, five times champions LA Galaxy, host Nashville who have reached the post-season in each of their three seasons in the league.
Once the established force in the league, when featuring the likes of David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, the Galaxy, who boast Mexican forward Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, have struggled in recent seasons and this is their first home game in the playoffs in six seasons.
“What players ultimately come to L.A. for is to try to win the championship and now we have the tournament to go win the championship,” Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney told the LA Times.
On Sunday, Austin will make their playoff debut, when they host Real Salt Lake in Texas while Orlando City travel to Canada to take on a Montreal team who ended the regular season in fine form with four straight wins.
One of the most intriguing first round matches sees David Beckham owned Inter Miami face champions New York in a game moved from NYCFC’s normal home at Yankee Stadium to Citi Field, the home of the Big Apple’s other baseball club, the Mets.
Phil Neville’s Miami team made a late surge to earn their post-season spot thanks to the goals of veteran Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain, who scored in five straight games to end the campaign, his last before retirement, with 14 goals in 16 games.
The Miami coach is well aware that the celebration of making the post-season for the first time will count for little if they crash out after 90 minutes.
“I think what’s really important now is to stress that we’ve achieved nothing yet,” said Neville.
“We’ve not climbed any mountains yet. We’ve just probably got to stage one of climbing a mountain. There’s another three, four, five stages to go,” he said.
The opening round concludes on Monday with Dallas, unbeaten in their last seven home games, hosting Minnesota who have lost their last four matches on the road.
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