MLS playoffs have a history of being unkind to superstars like Wayne Rooney
The winner-take-all one game format of the first round of the MLS playoffs always produces its fair share of drama and this year was no different, as a pair of thrilling contests on Thursday night ended with road teams Columbus Crew and Real Salt Lake eliminating D.C. United and LAFC, respectively.
Not only did it serve as a reminder of the unpredictable nature of the MLS postseason, but it also reinforced the notion that the MLS playoffs have the quirky tendency of tossing any narrative about a star player leading a team to a championship promptly In the dumpster.
Consider that heading into last Sunday's Decision Day, all five MLS MVP finalists had either already helped their teams qualify for the postseason or were on the verge of punching their playoff ticket. Five days later, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is at home after the LA Galaxy's collapse against Houston on Decision Day, while Carlos Vela's LAFC and Wayne Rooney's D.C. United are cleaning out their lockers on Friday after first-round exits..
The aforementioned three players did wonderfully in their first year in MLS and gave the league some serious star power, but all failed to answer the bell in crunch time. Ibrahimovic was a no-show last Sunday, while Rooney did not have the same impact as he had in the season's run-in, and his penalty miss is one that will stick to the ribs for a while.
Vela had a bit more influence for LAFC with an assist on the first LAFC goal, but he was unable to take over late in the second half when his team needed him the most down 3-2, including scuffing a late chance with only RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando to beat.
For MLS, these early exits to Ibrahimovic, Rooney and Vela also means the loss of global eyeballs as the playoffs progress.
Last Sunday's collapse at the StubHub Center was a harbinger of things to come. Not only did Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy fail to protect a two-goal lead at home against an already eliminated Dynamo team, but it also robbed fans of a LA derby in the first round of the playoffs. Considering the drama served up by both teams in their three meetings during the regular season, a playoff clash between the two would have been scintillating.
Rooney and Vela were still in the picture though and considering the form of both D.C. United (13 wins, 2 losses and 2 draws) and LAFC (9 wins, 1 loss and 7 ties) at home, one gave little chance to the Crew and RSL. But just like in 2017 when they walked out of Atlanta with a win after a penalty kick shootout, Columbus quieted Audi Field by proving superior from the spot. In Los Angeles it was Damir Kreilach who stole the show to lead RSL into the next round.
Columbus and Real Salt Lake aren't the sexiest of teams in terms of star power, and really, that's the point. They are balanced teams, and in MLS playoff history, teams advance and win titles, not stars. The balance and depth of the past three champions, Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers, encapsulated that perfectly.
You have to go back to 2014 to find the last time the league MVP also took home MLS Cup, when the Robbie Keane-led LA Galaxy sent Landon Donovan into retirement (the first one) as a champion by beating New England in the final.
Taking it a step further, in the past 10 years the Galaxy has been the only team immune to the "Team over Stars" notion, with David Beckham winning titles in each of his last two seasons (2011 and 2012). The likes of Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba and Kaka all came to MLS in that time and left with nary an MLS Cup appearance.
Two MVP candidates remain, Atlanta United's star South American pair of Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, the former a strong favorite to take home the league's top individual honor thanks to his record 31-goal season. Unlike Ibrahimovic, Rooney and Vela, this duo has the experience of last year's Columbus stunner under their belts, plus they will have the benefit of a two-legged series rather than the helter-skelter first round one-off.
It remains to be seen if Martinez and Atlanta can equal the feat of Keane's Galaxy, but the 2018 MLS playoffs have already reminded everyone that for all the attention that a superstar can bring, the top-heavy teams usually end the season empty-handed.