Western or Eastern Conference final: Which series will showcase MLS best?
Okay, so after all the craziness of the last few nights, it’s safe to say that this seasons MLS Cup playoffs have been the most dramatic in recent history.
Extra-time goals, comebacks galore and intense rivalries have all played out so far during the play-in games and the Conference semis. Now we’re down to four.
The Eastern Conference finals will be played out between Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo, while the Western crown will go to either the Portland Timbers or Real Salt Lake.
But the question I’m asking you guys, yeah you, which game will best show what MLS is all about?
Well for starters, I’m slightly glad these four teams made it to the final four because it proves that with draft parity, salary caps and strong management you can succeed in this league. Portland, SKC, RSL and Houston all have fantastic soccer-specific stadiums that are fairly new, they have strong owners who lead from the front and put their fans first and they also haven’t got any massive DPs who draw the crowds.
They’re proper MLS teams, more about the collective unit than individuals. Look, I love Seattle, LA and the New York Red Bulls and all the razzmatazz and glamor they bring to the league. But that’s not really what MLS is about. The league is about being sustainable, being smart with cash, using what you have and growing the fanbase in the cities and markets you’re in. All four conference finalists do that fantastically well.
When I think of MLS, I think back to discussions I’ve had with many journalists who say, “it’s so hard to predict this league, harder than any other league in the world.” This seasons playoffs has already proven that. The three biggest spending franchise have been knocked off in the Conference semis and teams like Portland and RSL, who’ve had complete rebuilds and rely on a mix of youth, smart draft picks and inspired signings, are prevailing.
But back to that question... which Conference final showcases what MLS is all about?
I could argue many reasons for both, but given the large number of USMNT players on SKC and Houston’s squads and the fact that they’ve met at this stage in the playoffs many times before, I’m going to plump for the Western Conference.
What Jason Kreis has done at RSL has been miraculous. The vision, leadership and cohesive bond he’s fostered at all levels of the club is fantastic. When they shipped out the likes of Fabian Espindola, Jameson Olave, Jonny Steele and Will Johnson last season, many were thinking “what the heck is going on?” But the main man knew what was going on. The clear out worked a treat as Kreis made room for talented youngsters like Luis Gil, Sebastian Velazquez, Joao Plata, Devon Sandoval and many others to break into the team and show just how good the club is at fostering young talent. That’s a true MLS hallmark and shows how sustainable Real Salt Lake are, not only this season but for many years. Kreis has done that, but the players, management and ownership have bought into it massively. The approach is paying off.
Then we have Portland, who like RSL underwent a huge transformation on the field over the last offseason. In came former U.S. Olympic men’s soccer head coach and Akron University pioneer Caleb Porter, and well, as they say the rest is history. The Timbers already won the regular-season crown for the Western Conference by playing attractive attacking soccer that pins the opposition into their own half, and now look like the favorites to make their first-ever MLS Cup appearance in just their third season in MLS. Young players like Darlington Nagbe, Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Kalif Alhassan have flourished under Porter and the opportunity to give a college coach the chance to shine on the big-stage, then seeing him do so, must give Timbers owner Merritt Paulsson a huge smile.
Both sides haven’t spent much on transfer fees and have passionate fanbases that have been staunch supporters of the USMNT, having hosted internationals both at JELD-WEN Field and the Rio Tinto. Portland and RSL have made it to the Conference final the hard way. When everyone was talking about LA Galaxy’s three DPs and the millions of dollars Seattle were spending, many dismissed that the Timbers and RSL could stick with the big boys out West. But they have... and they’ve surpassed them.
RSL were at the forefront when Portland finally changed their ways of bringing in expensive veteran foreign imports, as former head coach John Spencer lost his job following a 3-0 defeat to Real Salt Lake in July 2012. The penny had dropped as to how an MLS club should be run. Over a year later, can the Timbers go full circle and announce themselves as the model all MLS clubs should follow when they face RSL in the Western Conference final?
All four teams left in the MLS playoffs epitomize exactly what the league is all about. But Portland and RSL take the biscuit.