The race for the final available slots in the MLS Playoffs came down to the very last game of the season, but the dust has finally settled.
Eight teams are in and continue their quest for a title. Six teams are left sitting at home, hoping to figure out a winning formula for next season.
MLS has a very level playing field which makes predicting playoff results very difficult. The top seed in this year's playoffs, Columbus, only finished 15 points ahead of the eighth seeded New York Red Bulls. Few if any leagues around the world are this wide open. I see it as a very successful business model on the part of MLS.
There's no Big Four, there's no Old Firm and a bunch of also-rans. Every team has a legitimate shot at a title when the season begins.
Columbus Crew vs. Kansas City Wizards
Season series: Columbus won the series 2-0-1
Playoff series overview: Columbus come into this series with the best record in the entire league. The 2008 Supporters Shield winners will figure to make easy work of Kansas City like they did in the regular season. Columbus has the talent and experience to not only make a deep run into the playoffs, but to win the whole thing.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto should be back in the Crew lineup for this series. He spent most of the regular season carving up opposing defenses on his way to 19 assists. He'll provide a steady supply of chances to Pat Noonan and Robbie Rogers. Frankie Hejduk and Chad Marshall will lead a steady Columbus defense.
Look for a very one-sided series here. Columbus will not lose either leg.
Chicago Fire vs. New England Revolution
Season series: Chicago won the series 3-0-0
Playoff series overview: This series may be a little closer than the season series would indicate. New England has plenty of playoff experience on their roster with Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston, and Taylor Twellman all suiting up for the Revs. Despite their rich history of regular season success, New England has never brought home the MLS Cup.
Chicago boasts the best player in the series and the league in Cuauhtemoc Blanco. He's not as fast or as fit as he used to be, but his passing and vision still rank among the world's best.
Blanco has been nothing short of brilliant for Chicago and a nightmare for opponents. He always ranks among the league leaders in fouls drawn, a stat that Chicago will definitely use to their advantage.
Benefiting from Blanco's great play is the American legend Brian McBride. Captain America returned to the States this season after several successful seasons at Fulham in the English Premier League. He gives Chicago a great threat in the air, and on set pieces.
Chicago will take this series, drawing at New England and winning big in front of the home fans.
Chivas USA vs. Real Salt Lake
Season series: Chivas won the series 2-0-1
Playoff series overview: Real Salt Lake will be flying high after a last-minute equalizer put them into the playoffs and sent their opponents from Colorado home for the rest of the season. Salt Lake's gorgeous new football-specific stadium will now be showcased as part of RSL's first ever playoff appearance.
Chivas has a huge edge in talent, however. They feature an up and coming member of the US National Team in Sacha Kljestan. They can throw a fantastic MLS vet at you in Ante Razov. They've got the best defender in the playoffs in Jonathan Bornstein, and Paulo Nagamura is very solid in the midfield.
One would think Chivas would suffer from the loss of Brad Guzan to Aston Villa but that isn't the case. Chivas found themselves sitting in second place in the Western Conference with home-field advantage for the first round. When teams face Chivas in the Home Depot Center, the home fans create a great atmosphere.
Chivas should be able to win this series without too much trouble from Salt Lake.
Houston Dynamo vs. New York Red Bulls
Season series: The teams split the season series 1-0-1.
Playoff series overview: Houston is the defending MLS Cup champ and they finally appear to have rounded into form after a slow beginning to the season.
The Dynamo field a very talented and experienced team that should be able to advance to the next round. Brian Ching, Ricardo Clark, Stuart Holden, Dwayne De Rosario, Nate Jaqua, and Pat Onstad form a very talented core of players that will be looking to hang onto their title for another season.
You know what sort of play you'll be getting out of Houston each time they set foot on the pitch.
New York is a more difficult team to get a handle on. When they're good, they're good. When they go on the road, they're painful to watch. They'll need great play from Juan Pablo Angel and probably a goal or two from Danny Cepero if they hope to advance.
Houston should dominate the home leg, New York will struggle to score in both legs. Houston advances.
How Will the Rest of the Playoffs Shape Up?
Look for another preview after the Conference Finals are set, but I'll make my playoff predictions right now so I can't be accused of changing them. Houston and Chicago will meet in the MLS Cup final with Chicago beating the Dynamo by a score of 3-1.
Cuauhtemoc Blanco will be named the playoff MVP.
Now it's time for you to weigh in with your thoughts. Who will win it all? What's the most intriguing first round matchup? Who is the dark horse?
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