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Tuesday, October 28, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: October 30, 9:59 AM UK
Dynamo still the team to beat in the West

Jeff Carlisle

The roller-coaster ride that was Major League Soccer's regular season finally reached its chaotic conclusion last weekend. And given the four teams that comprise the Western Conference bracket, there is no reason to think the postseason will be any different.

•  Preview of the Eastern Conference

For the second year in a row, an Eastern Conference interloper -- in this case, the stumbling, bumbling New York Red Bulls -- will join the Western Conference party, taking on the top-seeded Houston Dynamo. In the other conference semifinal, Real Salt Lake -- who waited until the last minute of the season to book their first-ever trip to the playoffs -- will play a Chivas USA side for whom adversity has been a constant companion.

While these matchups appear to be relatively straightforward, history has shown that when it comes to the MLS playoffs, chaos theory is often the most accurate predictor.

Houston vs. New York

Given the Dynamo's nine-game unbeaten streak and New York's shoddy play down the stretch, this series has mismatch written all over it. But like a neighbor who insists on cranking up his or her stereo at 2 a.m., there are a few disquieting aspects to this series that will likely make it closer than expected.

New York's 3-0 skunking of Houston back on Aug. 24 not only highlighted the Dynamo's aversion to artificial turf (on which they are 0-2-2 in league play this season), but it also revealed some matchups that don't tilt Houston's way. In particular, the pace of flank players like Dane Richards showed the Dynamo's vulnerability to speedy counterattacks. The question is: Will New York's obsessive tinkerer, Juan Carlos Osorio, put players like Richards and Macoumba Kandji in the lineup? The Red Bulls' faint hopes of prevailing depend on it.

Key matchup: Houston forward Brian Ching vs. New York's central defense.

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Osorio's choice of attacking players aside, the Red Bulls must sort out their problems in the center of their defense, the better to contain the hulking presence of Ching. Gabriel Cichero has been dreadful for the last month, and fans will be praying that Diego Jimenez -- himself no stranger to defensive gaffes -- will feature alongside Andrew Boyens.

Unfortunately for New York, Ching is operating at peak form. The Hawaiian set a career high this season with 13 goals, and his hold-up play remains as solid as ever. Ching has also proven to be a clutch postseason performer, scoring five times in seven playoff matches over the last two years.

Players to watch:

Houston -- defender Bobby Boswell, midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, and midfielder Ricardo Clark.

New York -- midfielder Dave van den Bergh, midfielder Seth Stammler, and forward Juan Pablo Angel.

After an indifferent 2007, Boswell has enjoyed a huge bounce-back season, and the responsibility of containing Angel will fall in part to him. De Rosario, the owner of two MLS Cup-winning goals, is no stranger to playoff heroics, and his dynamic play out of midfield remains a big part of the Dynamo attack. Clark's defensive work often goes unnoticed, but it's his range that allows De Rosario to take risks in the attacking third.

Given the woeful form of holding midfielder Juan Pietravallo, Stammler will likely be asked to hold down the midfield fort. The service from van den Bergh on the left flank is vital to the effectiveness of Angel, who despite enduring several injuries this year, remains one of the most lethal finishers in the league.

X factors: Houston midfielder Stuart Holden and New York midfielder Dane Richards.

Given the Dynamo's midfield depth, Holden will likely begin the series on the bench, but his passing and ability to pop up for key goals could mean he plays a huge role. Injuries and a drop in form have made Richards an afterthought to Osorio, but the Jamaican has tormented Houston left back Wade Barrett in the past, and he could be the key to New York getting a result at home. If Richards is deemed superfluous, Kandji could assume such a role.

Outlook: Despite New York's earlier win against Houston, as well as the Dynamo's poor record on artificial turf this season, the reigning champs should prevail. New York will need to win the home leg by at least two goals to have a chance, meaning Angel and the Red Bulls' defense will need to come up big. Don't count on it, however. There are enough Houston players remaining from the 2005 San Jose side that was upset by Los Angeles to know that nothing can be taken for granted in the playoffs. Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear, who coached that Earthquakes side, will have his team ready, and they should progress to the next round.

Chivas USA vs. Real Salt Lake

After overcoming three years of futility to reach the postseason for the first time in their history, the big question is: Will RSL take the "happy to be here approach" or will their breakthrough allow them to scale even loftier heights?

Certainly Real has the attacking firepower to do some damage, but they'll be taking on a Chivas USA team that showed an unrivaled ability to get results in the most difficult of circumstances. The Goats' injury list in 2008 could have filled a season's worth of "House" episodes, yet head coach Preki refused to give in to that excuse and fashioned a solid season that ought to win him a few Coach of the Year votes.

Even more interesting is that aside from Sacha Kljestan, Chivas doesn't really have any offensive weapons operating at top form at the moment. But therein lies the strength of the team, in that a different hero has popped up every week.

Key matchup: Chivas midfielder Jesse Marsch vs. RSL midfielder Javier Morales.

Morales has been the attacking engine that has made RSL go all season, with his six goals and 15 assists indicating the magnitude of his influence. When the Argentine plays well, Real plays well, and when he doesn't, the team struggles.

Aiming to make sure the latter scenario plays out will be Marsch, who despite battling through an injury-plagued year remains an imposing midfield presence. The Chivas midfielder not only sets the tone with his tough tackling, but he's also capable of popping up for goals.

Players to watch:

Chivas -- defender Claudio Suarez, midfielder Sacha Kljestan, forward Alecko Eskandarian.

RSL -- goalkeeper Nick Rimando, midfielder Kyle Beckerman, forward Yura Movsisyan.

Suarez may be old and slow, but his experience still has him competing well in what is a notoriously physical league. Kljestan's maturation process has reached the point where he is a key cog in Chivas' attack, with his passing and classy finishing earning him consistent national team call-ups. After spending most of the season injured, Eskandarian is back on the field and delivered several key goals down the stretch.

Rimando is one of the best pure shot-stoppers in the league but is suspect in the air. Beckerman does most of the dirty work behind Morales but certainly has the skill to get forward and be dangerous. Movsisyan's playoff-berth clinching goal against Colorado last Saturday was just the latest in a series of vital strikes for Real. His combination of power and pace should do plenty to test Suarez and the rest of the Chivas back line.

X factors: Chivas goalkeeper Zach Thornton and RSL forward Clint Mathis.

With usual starter Dan Kennedy suspended for the first match, plenty of eyes will be on Thornton. Given his big-game experience while with Chicago, Thornton won't be overawed by the occasion, but after sitting on the bench for most of the last month, shaking off the rust could be a challenge. Mathis' passing and ability to shoot from distance make him a player to watch, even if his legs aren't what they used to be. And in the past he's shown an ability to conjure up something special when the lights are brightest.

Outlook: As so often happens with No. 2 versus No. 3-seed matchups, there isn't much separating the two teams, but the resilience Preki's men showed all season should carry the day. RSL showed some fortitude of its own getting the needed result in Colorado last weekend, but its defense hasn't recorded a shutout since late August, while Chivas has kept things tight in the back. Look for the Goats to prevail by the odd goal.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.


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