Sporting Kansas City closed out the 2013 regular season with a 2-1 victory on Saturday over the Philadelphia Union, a game capped by a late Lawrence Olum tiebreaker.
But the victory wasn't enough to earn Sporting the Supporters' Shield, a piece of hardware given each year to the team that finishes with the best regular season record. That award went to the New York Red Bulls, which leapfrogged Sporting in the standings with a 5-2 beatdown of the Chicago Fire on Sunday. That means Sporting Kansas City travels to the East Coast on November 2 to start the playoffs against the New England Revolution.
How the MLS playoffs work:
The MLS playoff structure seems to befuddle casual sports fans in the United States. It's an unusual format compared with other sports leagues in the U.S., and it's far different from most other professional soccer leagues that don't do playoffs at all and simply crown the team with the best record at the end of the season as the champion.
The top five teams from both MLS conferences earned their way to the playoffs. Sporting was the second best team in the Eastern Conference behind New York. That means Sporting plays New England, which finished with the third best record in MLS. New York, on the other hand, will wait to see who it plays. Houston Dynamo and Montreal Impact finished fourth and fifth, respectively, and play in a one-game knockout match on Halloween to determine who plays New York.
Sporting will play two games against New England, the first one on the road on November 2 and the second one either November 6 or 7 at Sporting Park. Many casual fans have trouble wrapping their heads around a playoff series with an even number of games that's decided by aggregate goals. But it's a soccer tradition that's done all the time elsewhere in the world with few complaints. It works this way: Both teams play two games and whichever squad scores the most goals combined from those two games is the winner. Think of it not as much as two 90-minute games, but rather a 180-minute contest. For example, if New England wins the first game 1-0 but then Sporting wins the second game 2-0, Sporting is the winner by 2-1 goals in the aggregate and advances to the next round. See how that works?
But what if New England wins the first game 1-0 and then Sporting goes up 1-0 at the end of regulation in the second game? Then the teams play two 15-minute overtime periods. If one team scores a goal in these extra periods, it does not automatically end the game like an overtime goal does in hockey - there's no sudden death here. The other team can still try and tie it up as both periods get played out in their entirety. If the tie isn't broken, then the game gets decided by penalty kicks.
The next round will also be decided in this two-game aggregate format. The MLS Championship game, however, is just a one-game winner-takes-all final. If Sporting can make it to the MLS Championship, that game will be held at Sporting Park because Sporting finished with a better record than any of the teams in the Western Conference.
Who is the New England Revolution?
New England, like Kansas City, has been part of MLS since its inception. Amazingly, the two teams have never met in the playoffs before. New England's third-place finish was somewhat surprising given how lousy it was last year. But the Revolution plays good defense and got a boost to its previously anemic offense when it traded for flashy but inconsistent 20-year-old striker Juan Agudelo in the middle of the season. Agudelo helped New England's fortunes late in the season; the Revolution hasn't lost in their last six matches.
What's the outlook for Sporting?
Sporting is hitting its stride late in the year, which bodes well for a club that has struggled quite a bit over the length of the 34-game MLS season. It has lost once August 23 and seems to have cinched down its defense, a strength of Sporting's on paper that in reality has looked clumsy and lost at times this season. Sporting will probably advance beyond New England, but the next round will be difficult for Sporting.
If it plays New York, it goes up against a team with a reputation for floundering in the playoffs (not unlike Sporting) but enters this year's postseason on the heels of several dominant performances in the dying weeks of the season.
If it plays Houston, it will encounter a team that always plays stout in the playoffs. The Dynamo have played in the last two MLS Cup finals, losing both to the L.A. Galaxy both times but not before dispatching Sporting from the playoffs in earlier rounds. Sporting probably won't face Montreal because the Impact backed into the postseason after struggling mightily the last two months of the season. But Montreal has vexed Sporting in the regular season, winning two of the three matches between the teams.
If there ever was a year to make the MLS Cup for Sporting, this is the year. On paper, Sporting is one of the strongest teams in the league, if not the best. And no one else in the league is particularly strong in a year in which the league's parity among teams was on full display. We think Sporting advances past New England but believe the team may be in for another postseason disappointment in the next round. A Kansas City-New York matchup would be a great (and likely) series for the MLS. But while Sporting's defense has played exceptionally well, its offense remains spotty and unable to convert the many goal-scoring opportunities that it gets into actual goals. We think that could haunt the team in a playoff series against either New York or Houston.