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By Adam Curtis

     Unlike most leagues in Europe, the MLS has a playoff system. Instead of crowning the team with the most points at the end of the season as the champion, the MLS rewards the winningest team with the Supporters’ Shield. This year, the Seattle Sounders ended the season with 64 points, finishing on top of both the Western Conference and the league as a whole. This Seattle side is one of the favorites going into the playoffs with its balance of experience and youth. Clint Dempsey, the captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team, came over from Europe in 2013, and has played lights out for the Sounders at the forward position. Partnering with Dempsey has been striker Obafemi Martins, who has been in the discussion for league MVP with his brilliant goals and creative passes.  Twenty-one-year-old right back DeAndre Yedlin, recently signed by the Tottenham Hotspurs of the British Premier League, has brought energy and loads of talent to this team, but just because Seattle finished atop the league doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to win the MLS Cup.

     Parity has been a big selling point for the MLS. Unlike many top leagues around the world, the MLS isn’t dominated by only a handful of teams year in and year out. Take DC United, for instance. Just last season, they finished at the bottom of the league table, winding up with the worst point total in league history (granted, the league has been around for only 20 years). This season, however, DC United signed key veterans during the offseason and played their way to the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Fabian Espindola, an Argentine forward, has played brilliantly for United and was on pace for an MVP-caliber year until he got injured midway through the season.  Nevertheless, Espindola helped United break their losing ways of recent years. In the midfield, Perry Kitchen has been consistently great and looks to be a future starter on the USMNT for years to come. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid has also grown with Kitchen, and his stellar play has drawn interest from many clubs in Europe. Centerback Bobby Boswell and rightback Sean Franklin, both of whom signed with United during the offseason, made the all-star team this year and have exceeded expectations thus far, and United will need their strong defensive play throughout the playoffs to have a chance at beating the upper-echelon teams.

MLS Standings. 

     Most outsiders tend to associate MLS with David Beckham’s coming over to the LA Galaxy in 2007. Although the Galaxy went on the win the MLS Cup in 2011, this year’s Galaxy side looks even stronger. Up top, forwards Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, and Gyasi Zardes have been in great form all year long. Keane looks to be Martins’ biggest competition for league MVP, and MLS and USMNT legend Donovan, set to retire after this season, hopes to go out on a high note. Zardes is part of the new wave of young American talent and this has been a breakout season for him. You can easily spot him with his outlandish hairstyle, but luckily for the Galaxy, his terrific play has drawn the most attention this season.

     The New England Revolution are coming into the playoffs as the hottest team in the MLS thanks in part to the sensational play of midfielders Jermaine Jones and Lee Nguyen. Although Nguyen hasn’t played a single minute for the U.S. National Team since 2007, his stellar play in the midfield has been second to none, and with the addition of Jones in the middle of the season, momentum looks to be on the Revolution’s side as they get set to face the Columbus Crew in the first round.

MLS Cup Preview 

     Some other notable players to watch out for in the playoffs are Columbus Crew forward Federico Higuaín, older brother of Gonzalo, Canadian forward Tesho Akindele, who plays for FC Dallas, and midfielders Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman of Real Salt Lake.  New York Red Bulls’ forwards Bradley Wright-Phillips and Thierry Henry both had great years, with Wright-Phillips tying the single-season goal record with 27 goals, and Arsenal legend Henry, who is retiring after the playoff, providing highlight reel assists.

     The MLS has been an afterthought in the international soccer community, but with class talent coming over to the MLS, improved facilities, and rabid fans, the league is on the rise. This MLS Cup will showcase the best that MLS has to offer, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the greatest game on earth.