Who wants it more in final four?
Last year's champion, the San Jose Earthquakes? Gone.
This year's regular season champion, the Columbus Crew? Finito
What Major League Soccer is left with is four teams, all of which took different roads to the Conference Finals that take place this weekend.
The Kansas City Wizards needed a miraculous three-goal eruption last Saturday night to pull the rug out from under the San Jose Earthquakes and survive an action-packed two-game series to get to the Western Conference Final.
The Los Angeles Galaxy also needed to comeback in their series with the Colorado Rapids before looking impressive in a 2-0 victory at the Home Depot Center.
In the East, both D.C. United and the New England Revolution finished off their opponents in the second game after winning in Game One. The Revs moved on despite some nervous moments that included two saved penalty kicks on Sunday at Crew Stadium, while United seemed to have little difficulty in sweeping the MetroStars with 2-0 victories in both matches.
If there is a favorite now, it'd have to be the Wizards.
Bob Gansler's side had one foot in the fox trap before getting loose, and now has to be breathing a collective sigh of relief. With Landon Donovan and Co. out of the way, the Alan I. Rothenberg Trophy seems to be the Wizards to lose.
Kansas City is not the sexiest team left in the playoffs - that moniker would go to D.C. with Freddy Adu's smiling face gleaming on a poster board near you. They are also not a team that MLS secretly wants in the final - an L.A.-D.C. matchup would be ideal for the league. But they are the team that's the most well-rounded of the bunch with the strongest defense to stand behind, which should be enough to carry them through this weekend, and perhaps the following Sunday in the 10th annual MLS Cup title game.
It's a lot more difficult to call in the East. At full strength, it'd be extremely difficult to go against D.C. United. But yellow card accumulation will keep both Ryan Nelsen and Dema Kovalenko off of the field on Saturday night.
Despite playing in front of what should be a raucous group of Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava supporters who literally make the lower bowl at RFK Stadium shake, the pendulum may have shifted to the surging Revs, which has the luxury of having all of its starters from the last several games available.
Here's a closer look at both games:
Western Conference Final: L.A. Galaxy at Kansas City Wizards
Season series: Kansas City went 2-0-2.
Last head-to-head match: Kansas City won 1-0 on Oct. 16 at Arrowhead Stadium.
Who's Hot: For Kansas City, it's Jack Jewsbury. The second-year midfielder sacrificed his body to free up teammate Khari Stephenson for the team's first goal, and then scored on a blinding right-footed volley that caromed off the left post in stoppage-time to allow his side to move on to the conference final. For L.A., it's Jovan Kirovski, who was the Galaxy's best player in both matches against Colorado.
Who's Not: For Kansas City, it's Davy Arnaud, who hasn't scored a goal since Aug. 21. As Josh Wolff's partner up top this year, Arnaud scored nine goals and led the team with eight assists. However, his goal-scoring drought has now spanned 10 games including the two playoff matches against San Jose. For L.A., it's Andreas Herzog, who hasn't been embraced as part of the Steve Sampson Era. After scoring four goals in his first 13 MLS matches, the former Austrian international has failed to find the back of the net, and has been relegated to an off-the-bench-role for the Galaxy.
Galaxy player to watch: Kevin Hartman. While Joe Cannon and Jon Busch got much of the press in 2004, the bleach-blond goalkeeper in L.A. had another excellent season. He can single-handedly move his side to the MLS Cup final if he's on his game. In addition, experience is on his side, as he's won 18 career playoff matches, which has included 10 shutouts and an MLS Cup title in 2002.
Wizards player to watch: Wolff. The U.S. National Team striker has scored four goals in 13 matches against the Galaxy since joining the Wizards in 2003. It includes his game-winning goal on the final day of the regular season to give Kansas City a 1-0 victory and home-field advantage throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs. While Wolff's pace is always an issue for opposing defenders to deal with, he also possesses good vision and playmaking instincts around the goal, which makes him one of the biggest threats in the league.
What the Galaxy need to do: Free up Carlos Ruiz. The Little Fish got on the board last weekend after going scoreless for several matches, which is exactly what needs to continue for L.A. to stay alive. The battle needs to be won in the center of the field where Kerry Zavagnin and Diego Gutierrez have often dominated for the Wizards. When San Jose beat Kansas City 2-0 in the first match, it was able to move the ball around quickly and stretch out the Wizards' back four. L.A. needs to do the same by getting the ball to players like Marcelo Saragosa, Peter Vagenas and Kirovski.
What the Wizards need to do: Play with the same speed and emotion they showed against San Jose last weekend. In the first match, they were lifeless, uncreative, and overmatched, but that changed once the side got back to Arrowhead. All season long, Gansler's squad has been very organized in the back behind the leadership of Jimmy Conrad and Nick Garcia. Those two will need to pass off Ruiz when needed and not allow him to create fouls around the box as he's known for doing. Kansas City also has to be careful on corner kicks, as it allowed several Earthquakes players to get a head on serves in the first series. If Bo Oshoniyi stays in goal for the Wizards, he must be a bigger presence during such situations.
The Pick: Kansas City. Let's face it, the Galaxy haven't won a road match in their last nine games (0-5-4). They also haven't beat the Wizards all year. Hartman is too good of a goalkeeper to allow Kansas City to get too far ahead, but it should be a decisive victory for the home side.
Eastern Conference Final: New England Revolution at D.C. United
Season series: D.C. United went 2-0-2.
Last head-to-head match: D.C. United won 1-0 on Oct. 9 at RFK.
Who's Hot: For D.C. United, it has been goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who shut out the MetroStars in consecutive games while making a combined 13 saves. He has won his last five games, which has included four shutouts. For New England, it's also the goalkeeper, as Matt Reis was the difference in getting the 1-1 tie against Columbus in Game Two with his two PK saves. In his last five games, Reis has a 0.60 goals-against-average.
Who's Not: For D.C. United, it's Ezra Hendrickson, who has played only 25 minutes over the last four games. The veteran defender will need to be on his game now that he is needed as a starter with Nelsen not being available. For the Revs, it's Avery John, who is coming off a lackluster performance against Columbus last weekend, just one week after scoring the game-winner against the Crew.
Revs player to watch: Clint Dempsey. Not having to deal with Kovalenko in the middle of the field should make matters easier for this standout rookie.
D.C. United player to watch: Christian Gomez. The Argentine midfielder's first-half goal against the Revs was the difference the last time out at RFK. With Kovalenko out, he needs to cover more ground.
What the Revs need to do: Find Taylor Twellman. In 10 total games against United, the former University of Maryland star has eight goals. Yet, in the four games against Peter Nowak's side this season, he has only managed one shot on goal. Without Nelsen to knock him or anyone else around, Twellman will have a better chance to get his head on a serve from one of the flanks or get loose in the box as he did last Sunday against Columbus.
What D.C. United needs to do: Strike early. If Jaime Moreno and Alecko Eskandarian can put the pressure on New England early by scoring or creating a goal, it'll get the crowd into it, which is so important at RFK. The longer the Revs are allowed to stay in the game, the better chance they have to pull off the upset.
The Pick: The Revs in a high-scoring affair, perhaps in a wild 3-2 victory.
The loss of Kovalenko and Nelsen is just too much to overcome for a side that is much stronger offensively than it is defensively to begin with. In fact, D.C. United's record without Nelsen, alone, this year was 4-5-4. This Revs side has also been here before, having played in two straight Eastern Conference Finals.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org