Two new teams, 34 grueling games interspersed with U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League games, and seven months later, the Major League Soccer playoffs are upon us at last.
The wild-card round will determine two teams to join the three best records from each conference for an eight team playoff, culminating in the MLS Championship game on Sunday, Nov. 20, at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., joint home of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA.
An exciting year in which the playoff standings came down to the final weekend saw the high-priced preseason favorite New York Red Bulls lock in the last wild-card playoff slot while Sporting Kansas City won the Eastern Conference,
The Houston Dynamo vaulted themselves from wild-card territory to second in the East, while in the Western Conference, the L.A. Galaxy had the Supporters' Shield wrapped up.
The playoff standings finished as follows:
Los Angeles Galaxy 67
Seattle Sounders 63
Sporting Kansas City 51
Houston Dynamo 49
FC Dallas 52
New York Red Bulls 46
The top two wild-card seeds will host the two lower seeds in a single winner-takes-all game to advance to the eight-team playoff round.
Dallas hosts New York on Wednesday, Oct. 26, and Colorado hosts Columbus on Thursday, Oct. 27.
The one thing the four wild-card teams have in common is inconsistency.
Dallas and the Colorado Rapids were the participants in last year's MLS Cup, with Colorado winning 2-1. Both teams returned much the same lineups and were poised to enjoy strong repeats of their 2010 seasons.
Dallas lost playmaker Daniel Ferreira early in the season, but with players like defender George John and the brilliant emergence of Brek Shea, they stayed well in the mix in a tough Western Conference.
But Dallas also finished the season poorly, going 0-3 in MLS in September with losses to New England, New York (at home), and Houston, and 2-3 in October, with losses to Colorado and non-playoff teams San Jose and Toronto.
Dallas did not score a goal in September, and finished with 6 goals for and 13 against in the last two months.
The Rapids returned their entire MLS Cup Championship starting XI, and looked poised to continue their success after 3-0 and 4-1 decimations of Portland and D.C. United in the first three games of the season, but then the injury bug and the significant 10-game suspension of midfielder Brian Mullan for breaking Seattle's Steve Zakuani's leg hit.
Ever since striker Conor Casey was lost for the season, the Rapids have had no consistency up front on a game-to-game basis despite having a deep forward stable. Nevertheless, the MLS Champions have salvaged their season with a home wild-card game and can only hope for a repeat of their late-season form that won them the title the year before.
Did I mention inconsistency as the hallmark of this wild-card group? The Columbus Crew's 2011 season had them at times leading the Eastern Conference to being all but out of the playoffs. For a club many considered to be in a rebuilding year, it can be considered a not bad result.
The Crew have talent, led by midfielder Eddie Gaven, sometimes national team winger Robbie Rogers, Emmanuel Ekpo, and one of the better goalies in William Hesmer, but the Crew also struggled to finish the season, winless in September, and 2-1-4 in their last seven.
New York Red Bulls
The star-studded Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez-led Red Bulls squeaked into the last wild-card spot with the best season finish of the four wild-card teams at 4-2-2 over the last two months of the season.
The high-priced Red Bulls were a pre-season favorite and they play a winner-takes-all away game at FC Dallas, whom they already beat on the road in September.
FC Dallas vs. New York Red Bulls
This will be an entertaining match. Dallas is a dangerous team even with their recent troubles, and while NYRB are miserable on the road, with only two wins all season, though one of those wins was at Dallas, they are resurgent, trying prove they're the legitimate MLS contender they were considered to be.
This will be the most hard-fought, entertaining match of the wild-card round. Offense meets defense in this one. Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers, meet George John and Ugo Ihemelu. Brek Shea, meet Rafa Marquez and Tim Ream.
FC Dallas 2 - 1 New York Red Bulls
Colorado Rapids vs. Columbus Crew
This match won't be as entertaining, as the Rapids will dominate the Crew in every area but struggle to put the game away. The Rapids will win possession, shots, shots on goal, and corners, but will give up a soft goal at some point, needing two goals to win.
Columbus' lack of horses, and the home altitude and cold advantage will be enough for the Rapids.
Colorado Rapids 2 - 1 Columbus Crew