The Major League Soccer playoffs begin today and run through November 20, when the last two teams standing will play for the MLS Cup. This year's title game will be held at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., home stadium of the Los Angeles Galaxy, who once again compiled the best regular-season record to win the Supporters' Shield and are, at least on paper, the team to beat. "They have the perfect mix of superstars, young talent and veterans who have been in the league a long time," says ESPN's Adrian Healey. "All over the park they are solid. Defensively they've been very hard to score on. The only thing you wonder about with the Galaxy is the weight of expectation on them. That can so often sink teams. They almost breezed to the Supporters' Shield, the final is at their stadium, they are expected to be there." (The Galaxy have previously won the MLS Cup twice, but not since 2005.)
The Galaxy will benefit from the unique architecture of the MLS playoffs, which pits Western Conference rivals Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake — the No. 2 and 3 seeds overall — against each other in the two-part conference semifinals (Saturday, Oct. 29, 10/9c on Fox Soccer, and Wednesday, Nov. 2, time TBD on ESPN2). Meanwhile, L.A. will face the lowest-seeded team to survive the opening-round wild-card matches (Sunday, Oct. 30, time TBD on ESPN or ESPN2, and Thursday, Nov. 3, 11/10c on ESPN2).
One big — and surprising — reason for L.A.'s success and playoff prospects is David Beckham. In the final year of his MLS contract, the 36-year-old Englishman has backed up his status as a marketing marvel with excellent on-field credentials, finishing second the league in assists and providing strong leadership. "He's had a magnificent year. I'm actually surprised he's not more in the conversation for being league MVP," says Healey, who suspects Beckham will sign a new contract for at least one more year in L.A. "He's very happy here, his family's settled. It may depend on what happens to the Galaxy in the playoffs. If they win the championship, he may consider it job done."
The Major League Soccer playoffs begin tonight with the New York Red Bulls at FC Dallas, 9/8c on Fox Soccer. For the full schedule, click here.