The MLS conference finals are just around the corner

The MLS conference finals are just around the corner

In just three days’ time, the MLS Conference Finals will kick off. We’ve had a long season of football, with 34 regular season matches and now two rounds of finals action. The Conference Finals are effectively, well, just that – the match to determine the best team in the Western and Eastern conferences, and the match to qualify two teams to the MLS Cup Final on December 8th. Here’s what you need to know.

Which teams have qualified?

From the Eastern Conference this year, we’ve got Atlanta United and New York Red Bulls. The Western Conference is contributing Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers. That’s not much to go off, so here’s a quick rundown of each side.

Atlanta United

Image result for atlanta united

This is just the Five Stripes’ second season in Major League Soccer, but they’ve made one heck of an impression so far. Last season, they finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, which qualified them for finals football. However, they went out in the Knockout Round (the first round) on penalty kicks to the Columbus Crew.

This season, Atlanta have upped their game even more, finishing second in the Eastern and qualifying for the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League. Venezuelan national team regular Josef Martinez has led that push with a huge 31 goals, the most ever scored in an MLS season, overtaking the 27 scored by Roy Lassiter, Chris Wondolowski and Bradley Wright-Phillips in 1996, 2012 and 2014 respectively. Once you see those numbers, it’s obvious why United are the top scorers this season, with 70 goals.

Miguel Almiron and Julian Gressel have been immense with their 14 assists each this season, and both of them – plus Martinez – are 24 or 25 years of age, meaning they’re coming into their prime. In addition, goalkeeper Brad Guzan, formerly of Aston Villa, has eight clean sheets (shutouts) this season, and Martinez, Almiron, Guzan, defender Michael Parkhurst and midfielder Ezequiel Barco were selected for the 2018 All-Star Game, held in Atlanta.

New York Red Bulls

Image result for new york red bulls

The Red Bulls have been going a little longer than Atlanta United – they were a founding member of the MLS, known at the time as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. In 2006, the Austrian trash-makers and football-destroyers over at Red Bull swept in and purchased the club, rebranding it. That said, they’re still nicknamed the Metros. Last season, they finished sixth in the Eastern, qualifying for finals but going out in the Conference Semis to eventual champions Toronto.

In 2018, they’ve gone better – they topped the Eastern and won the Supporters’ Shield (top of the regular season) to boot. That’s despite a coaching change midseason which saw old manager Jesse Marsch become assistant at Leipzig in Germany. In terms of players, they’ve got ex-Premier League player Bradley Wright-Phillips, and with 20 goals to his name for the season, he’s not doing badly either. He’s supported by Alejandro Romero Gamarra, with the Red Bulls’ new signing making fourteen assists.

The Metros also boast having the best goalkeeper in the division by clean sheets – Luis Robles has fourteen – and he’s a big part of the reason they’ve conceded just 33 goals this regular season, the least in the league. In terms of All-Star quality players, Wright-Phillips is in there, alongside midfielder Tyler Adams and a defensive partnership of Michael Murillo and Aaron Long.

Sporting Kansas CityImage result for sporting kansas city

In the Western Conference, we’ve got Sporting Kansas City, the only Big 5 team based in Kansas (yep, the Big 5 is totally a thing). The Wizards are the only team left in the MLS Cup this season with more than one championship – they’ve got two, whilst the Timbers have one and neither Atlanta nor the Red Bulls have won one yet. Also founded in 1996, Sporting KC finished last season fifth in the Western and lost in the knockout round to Houston Dynamo.

They’ve jumped up the table this season, with a first-place finish in their conference, although they still sit behind both Eastern finalists on points. And it’s not like they’ve done this with a star-studded side – with all due respect to SKC, their squad isn’t full of the big names. One big name is goalkeeper Tim Melia, with thirteen clean sheets for the regular season. Former Betis midfielder Felipe Gutierrez and Andreu Fontas, once at Barcelona, are also in the squad.

Kansas City’s top scorer for the season is the Scot Johnny Russell, with just 10 MLS goals. Looking at their squad, it’s hard to see exactly where the goals have come from, but they have, with Sporting KC being the fourth-highest scorers of the season. And yes, of course they got a few in the All-Stars, with defender Graham Zusi and midfielder Ilie Sanchez finding their way into the squad.

Portland Timbers

Image result for timbers

The Timbers, like Atlanta, are an expansion side. Founded in 2011, they’ve managed to lift the MLS Cup once, in 2015. Portland perhaps stand out among this crop of sides in that depending on what metric you use, 2018 may be considered worse for them than 2017. They’ve gone from first in the Western Conference down to fifth, but they’ve gained one point in the regular season and made it (at least) a round further than last season, where they lost to Houston in the Conference Semifinals.

In terms of top players, there’s not much to talk about from this season. Their one All-Star representative is brilliant midfielder Diego Valeri, who’s been running the show in Oregon for what feels like forever, but is actually since 2013. In goal, Jeff Attinella has been a decent replacement for Kiwi Jake Gleeson, and there’s another Kiwi in the squad in Bill Tuiloma.

Apart from that, there isn’t much to say about the Timbers. They’ve been OK at best for most of the season, with a +6 goal difference, the eleventh-best attack and the eighth-best defence. They qualified for the playoffs by six points only, compared to 14, 23 and 25 for the other sides in the Conference Finals. And, because of their fifth-place finish, they had to play one more round of football than the other Finalists.

What happens now?

The Conference Finals start on Sunday US time, Monday NZ time. Atlanta meet the Red Bulls in Georgia at 5pm Eastern Time (11am Monday in New Zealand) before Sporting KC visit Portland, with that match kicking off two and a half hours later. These matches are double-legged, however, and the second matches will be on Thursday US time, Friday NZ time. New York host Atlanta first, at 7:30pm Eastern (1:30pm NZ) and two hours later, Kansas City welcomes the Timbers. Only then will we find out who will meet in the MLS Cup final on December 8th.

 

A look at the eight A-League expansion bids

A look at the eight A-League expansion bids

The 2018-19 A-League, the top-flight of football in Australia, kicks off in just eight days’ time when Sydney FC travel to Adelaide United. Over the course of the next seven months, the next 140 games, we’ll see a new premier and a new champion crowned. What we won’t see after this season, however, is the current format. The A-League has had ten teams exactly since 2011, but that’s all about to change with two new sides joining the competition in 2019-20. Exactly who those teams will be is currently unclear, and there are eight competing bids. Let’s take a look.


The first bid to look at, and the most well-documented, is Canberra.

Image result for canberra

Australia’s capital city already has a W-League side, Canberra United, however it’s understood that this bid would be separate. The bid, led by Michael Caggiano of ONTHEGO, would see a new stadium built in the city for use by the football team, rugby side the Brumbies and league team the Raiders. The bid has also been negotiating with a Champions League side with a view towards a partnership agreement, similar to the link between Manchester City, Melbourne City and New York City in the MLS. The bid is considerably better publicised than any others, and should be a frontrunner for the spot.

Another bid comes from Ipswich, just west of Brisbane. Ipswich has seen a large population increase as people move away from the crowded centre of Brisbane and out into more suburban areas. Like Canberra, Ipswich want to build a new stadium, with the preferred location being at the North Ipswich Reserve and the capacity aiming for 15,000. Expansion into Queensland hasn’t gone brilliantly well for the A-League, with two of the three defunct clubs being from the state, but there’s no reason to think that trend will continue.

There’s also interest from an existing football team, Wollongong Wolves, to join the A-League.

Image result for wollongong wolves

The Wollongong Wolves, from Wollongong in the Illawarra area, were part of the National Soccer League, the top-flight in Australia before the A-League, and managed to win it twice as well as taking an OFC Champions League title. They’ve fallen into relative obscurity since then, but there’s good reason for them to join the A-League. 8,000 people showed up for a home cup game against Sydney FC, which is higher than two A-League sides’ average attendance last season. And the Wollongong area has some of the highest youth football participation rates in the country, only increasing the bid’s chance of success.


OK, now it gets boring, because we’re going into the big cities. Let’s start with the two Sydney bids.

Yep, two bids. Because apparently having one-fifth of the teams in one city isn’t enough. Anyway, one bid is coming in from southern Sydney whilst the other is southwest Sydney or neighbouring Macarthur. Details are a little scarce on these bids, but Southern Sydney would most likely play out of St George. Given that there are already two other teams in the city, and most likely very few football fans willing to swap allegiances, I don’t think either of these bids are likely to be picked.

There’s three more bids left, all based in Melbourne.

Image result for south melbourne fc

South Melbourne FC, the most successful team in Australian history (alongside three others), want to join the A-League. The side, formerly managed by Ferenc Puskas, have four Australian championships and an OFC Champions League win. They also have five million dollars and a 12,000 capacity stadium, which might prove useful. They’re also interested in entering a W-League team, and would be a popular choice with many Melbourne residents not wanting to have to choose between Victory or City. It remains to be seen if they’d be popular with anyone else, though.

The other two sides are… also Melbourne. One bid is from the south-east of the city, with the intention of building a 10,000 capacity stadium (at least). The region has 1.7 million people, and high participation rates in the sport. Six local sides are looking to unify for the bid to come together. The other bid is from West Melbourne, and there are barely any details about it out there.


So there they are, the eight bids to join the A-League. In my opinion, the two best bids are Canberra and Wollongong Wolves, however I am not a businessperson, or a CEO, or any other sort of decision-maker. I’m just a fan with 0.000002 bitcoin who wants to get his opinions out there. In any case, we won’t know the decision until its release, which should be before the end of the month.

So that’s that. Which bids would you like to be accepted? Tell us!