Among some soccer fans, MLS has earned a reputation as a low-quality “retirement league” where European veterans looking for one last payday can leisurely cruise through games while picking up a nice paycheck. Soccer expert Billy Haisley, writing for deadspin.com, called the league’s squads “glorified college teams with a few ringers sprinkled about.”
As the MLS playoffs get into full swing, though, it’s worth mentioning the players that don’t fit either one of those profiles. Run your finger down the list of the highest-paid MLS players, and you’ll find plenty of big-name veterans with European experience alongside well-known North American superstars. The league’s list of Best XI players, though, might not include many of either. It’s those players, not the ones with the enormous paychecks, that really make the playoffs worth watching.
The top two seeds in the East are led by two of the league’s top goal-scorers. Columbus forward Kei Kamara, who tied for the league’s scoring lead with 22 goals, made a name for himself at Sporting Kansas City before trying his hand in England’s second division. He returned in the offseason, this time with the Crew, and had his best season to date – an MLS veteran returning to run roughshod over the league. In New York, Englishman Bradley Wright-Phillips fell off his record goal-scoring pace from 2014, but still scored 17 goals to lead the Red Bulls to a surprising regular-season championship.
In the West, keep an eye on FC Dallas winger Fabian Castillo. Just 23, the Colombian may well be the fastest man in the league. He has the combination of quickness and skill that makes defenders look like cement-shoed lummoxes. When he gets the ball, things happen; he might be the league’s best young player, and apart from Toronto forward Sebastian Giovinco, the closest thing that the league has to a player like Lionel Messi. The other top seed in the West, Vancouver, led the conference in shots on target — mostly due to the duo of Octavio Rivero and Kekuta Manneh, the focal points of the Whitecaps’ strategy to cut off midfield passes and counterattack as fast as possible.
MLS as a league has plenty of problems. Champions League junkies would be right to laugh at the league’s utter lack of decent defenders, a big part of how a past-his-prime striker like Didier Drogba can score 11 goals in 11 games to lead Montreal to the playoffs. After two decades in business, the league should have done more to develop its own great players, rather than depending on NCAA development and buying under-the-radar players from Central and South America.
That can all be true, and yet the playoffs can still be fascinating. Thursday’s knockout-round game between Portland and Kansas City, which ended with the Timbers winning a dramatic penalty shootout, was as thrilling a game as you’ll see anywhere. For the next few weeks, set the MLS criticisms to one side, and just enjoy playoff soccer.
• Outgoing FIFA President Sepp Blatter, in an interview with the Financial Times, said that the 2022 World Cup was all set for the United States in a pre-vote deal — until now-suspended UEFA president Michel Platini was wooed by cash from Qatar representatives and used his power to swing the vote to the Middle Eastern nation. The allegations of an anti-democratic pre-vote agreement and of corruption in the official voting process, from FIFA’s top official, are incredibly troubling for the beleaguered organization.
• The Macalester men’s soccer team can complete an undefeated regular season by avoiding a loss on the road at Bethel today. The No. 17 Scots clinched the MIAC title last week, and if they navigate past the Royals today, it will be their third undefeated conference season in school history, after 1991 and 2002.
• United States striker Abby Wambach announced her retirement, following the end of the national team’s Victory Tour late in 2015. She will retire with at least 184 international goals, 26 more than second-place Mia Hamm on the women’s list, and 75 more than Iranian striker Ali Daei, the men’s record holder.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Liverpool at Chelsea, 7:45 a.m. Saturday, NBC Sports: Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho is under increasing pressure as his team struggles and has responded with increasingly bizarre rants against imagined refereeing conspiracies. Who knows what he might do against a rejuvenated, Jurgen Klopp-coached Liverpool team?
Premier League: Arsenal at Swansea City, 10 a.m. Saturday, USA Network: Arsenal is known as a fickle team, but its last two weeks nearly defy description. In the span of eight days, it became the only team this season to beat powerhouse Bayern Munich, won a tricky Premier League game against a good Everton side, and then lost 3-0 in the League Cup to second-division Sheffield on Wednesday.
MLS: New York Red Bulls at DC United, 2 p.m. Sunday, ESPN: The Red Bulls beat up on the weaker Eastern Conference on their way to their second Supporters’ Shield in three years. But their chase for their first MLS Cup begins with a tough first-leg trip to DC. United beat New England 2-1 in midweek, thanks to a second-half winner from Chris Rolfe.
MLS: Dallas at Seattle, 8:30 p.m. Sunday, FS1: The Sounders finally broke through against Los Angeles in the playoffs, beating the Galaxy 3-2 in midweek after going out of the MLS Cup against LA three times in six years. Their reward is a semifinal against top-seeded Dallas, whom they beat 3-0 and tied 0-0 in two games this season.