Too many teams are part of the Major League Soccer playoffs. Six of the 10 teams in each conference made the postseason this year, which helps make the regular season feel meaningless. It’s not until this week’s conference finals — four teams competing for two MLS Cup spots — that the playoffs feel like they really matter. Ignoring that two of these teams finished 12 points behind the best in their conferences, this week is when the excitement really starts.
The East final is a cross-Canada battle. Toronto and Montreal play Tuesday, then have a week off before deciding their series on Wednesday. The odd schedule stems from the most Canadian of reasons: Toronto’s stadium is hosting the Grey Cup next weekend.
All eyes will be on Toronto midfielder Sebastian Giovinco. The Italian had a hat trick in a 5-0 beating of NYC in the conference semifinals, his third hat trick of the season. Montreal, though, has had success containing him. Giovinco didn’t score in either game of last season’s playoffs against the Impact. He scored twice in a 2-0 victory early this season, but Montreal held him scoreless in each of the other two games this season.
While Giovinco has been neutralized in this matchup, Toronto has had an impossible time containing Montreal forward Ignacio Piatti, who has taken over for Didier Drogba as the Impact’s main goal-scorer. Piatti scored all three of Montreal’s league goals against its Canadian rivals this year. Like Giovinco, he is in form, having scored both goals in Montreal’s recent playoff victory over New York. Only one of the two prolific goal-scorers can move on to the final, and one will provide Canada’s first-ever MLS Cup participant.
Out West the matchup (Tuesday-Sunday next week) is between two different types of redemption stories. In 2014 and 2015, Colorado was one of the league’s most embarrassingly bad teams, driving most fans from attending Rapids games and making the club into a laughingstock. This year, though, the Rapids finally surrounded forward Kevin Doyle with a few more pieces, including U.S. international players Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard, as well as Albanian forward Shkelzen Gashi. By adding them to the league’s stingiest defense, which allowed less than a goal per game, the Rapids managed to climb all the way to second place this year.
Seattle, meanwhile, had a much shorter timeline on its fall and redemption. The Sounders, who have been perennial playoff bridesmaids over the past few seasons, crashed to the bottom of the West midway through the year. In the same week, they fired longtime coach Sigi Schmid, and brought in Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro. The combination of those moves, plus the dynamic presence of MLS Rookie of the Year Jordan Morris, pushed Seattle back to the playoffs.
With all four teams now within two games of the MLS Cup final, the excitement starts now.
• MLS is often derided as a “retirement league” by worldwide critics, thanks to a number of high-profile European players who have ended their careers collecting big checks on these shores. It looks like the league may lose three of them at once, though. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Robbie Keane have all left their MLS teams in the past week.
• “60 Minutes” interviewed a number of U.S. women’s national team players for its program on Sunday, giving the players a chance to state their case for being paid equally with their counterparts on the men’s national team. Given the continued success of the women’s team, and the huge interest from fans around the country, it’ll be increasingly hard for U.S. Soccer to keep up the pay disparity.
• Speaking of the men’s national team, speculation is flying about coach Jurgen Klinsmann after the U.S. suffered a pair of embarrassing losses to kick off the final round of World Cup qualifying. Bruce Arena, the current LA Galaxy coach and former national-team coach, seems to be emerging as the favorite to potentially succeed Klinsmann. Arena led the U.S. to its best World Cup performance, in 2002, but also to one of its most disappointing performances, in 2006.
Weekend watch guide
Premier League: Arsenal at Manchester United, 6:30 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. If you watched the Premier League before 2004, you’ll understand the excitement when teams once known as the Big Two play. Now this fixture has Man United manager Jose Mourinho, who fantasized in a book about punching Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. It’s like old times.
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich at Borussia Dortmund, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. Every year, we wonder if a German team will challenge Bayern for first. Dortmund is six points back already this year, but the boys of BVB usually come the closest to Bayern — and no one believes in the other Bundesliga contenders. This is Germany’s biggest game of the year.
La Liga: Real Madrid at Atletico Madrid, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, beIN. It’s probably too early to call this a must-win for Atletico. Still, the Rojiblancos have fallen six points behind their crosstown rivals, who have yet to lose this season. If Atletico is going to challenge Real and Barcelona for the title, it starts here.
Serie A: Internazionale at AC Milan, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, beIN. Inter’s plunge down the Serie A table makes this edition of the Milan derby slightly less meaningful than usual. I’m guessing, though, that none of the fans in the San Siro will particularly care. It should be an electric atmosphere when the two old rivals meet up again.