‘IT’S hard to believe Toronto FC are in this very same league," I thought to myself this week while watching a Major League Soccer playoff double-header. The punchline, as many disillusioned followers of Canada’s first MLS club will tell you, is that they’re really not.
Now, what follows here will not be another whiny, angst-ridden evaluation of the disaster that has been Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment's foray into the soccer business, but I do feel it's important to point out that those who have limited their MLS viewing experience to Toronto and exclusively Toronto have really been missing out on what is not only a fantastic league, but one that, as it matures, is developing a personality as well.
Thankfully, it's not too late for them to broaden their exposure to North American soccer's top flight. The 2013 MLS playoffs will enter the conference final stage on Sunday when Houston Dynamo host DC United (3 p.m. NBC Sports Network) and Los Angeles Galaxy face Seattle Sounders (8 p.m. TSN2), and if previous rounds are any indication the two games will be furiously fast, occasionally violent and brimming with intensity.
Thursday's quarter-final second-leg between New York Red Bulls and DC United was MLS at its most, well, MLS.
Coming five days after an enthralling first leg that finished 1-1 following a pair of own-goals and a sending off, the return match at Red Bull Arena--delayed 24 hours because of a snow storm -- really started boiling over in the 69th minute when DC goalkeeper Bill Hamid was ejected for fouling Kenny Cooper who, upon converting the subsequent penalty, had his effort disallowed by the referee for encroachment.
His follow-up effort was saved well by Joe Willis, and a quarter-hour and a Rafa Marquez red card later, DC had won the series thanks to an 88th-minute strike by rookie midfielder Nick DeLeon.
It was the sort of match you didn't have to play in to leave exhausted. But, not to be outdone, the second game of the evening's doubleheader between Seattle and Salt Lake -- two of the league's most technically-gifted teams -- offered up an equally delectable taste of MLS.
Having played to a 0-0 draw in front of nearly 35,000 fans at CenturyLink field in the first leg, the Western Conference rivals played 81 minutes of tactically sound, mistake-free soccer in Utah before Mario Martinez won it for Seattle with nine minutes left on the clock. Seattle have made the playoffs in each of the four seasons they've participated in MLS, but Thursday's win marked the first time they progressed to the penultimate round of the competition.
Waiting for them on Sunday will be Los Angeles, who knocked off regular-season champions San Jose Earthquakes over two legs in the conference semifinals.
Designated players David Beckham and Landon Donovan -- the linchpins of L.A.'s MLS Cup-winning season of 2011 -- are still vitally important to the cause a year later, but no more so than midfielder Juninho and striker Robbie Keane, who scored twice in 13 minutes midway through the first half on Wednesday to give L.A. the early edge against the Earthquakes.
Only two points separated Seattle and Los Angeles during the regular season, although with only 33 goals conceded Seattle compiled by far the better defensive record -- something they had on full display against Salt Lake.
Whether Beckham, Juninho, Donovan and Mike Magee can play the ball in behind the Seattle defence with enough quality and regularity for Keane to be a difference-maker in this series will have a lot to do with L.A.'s chances, but then again, in Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montery, Seattle have the type of strikers who can do the business in front of goal as well.
DC United, meanwhile, will be in Houston for the first leg of their home-and-away contest against the Dynamo. Houston, like L.A., had to play a knockout match just to qualify for the conference semifinals, but once again manager Dominic Kinnear's side is proving it's made for this time of year.
On paper, the two matchups are as intriguing as they are difficult to call, but if we've learned anything the past week it's that the prognostications can be crumpled up and tossed out the window as soon as the first ball is kicked.
This is MLS, after all.