Normally, a matchup between the Colorado Rapids and the Los Angeles Galaxy has about as much intrigue as a slasher movie. The pairing carries with it none of the history or angst that other, more celebrated contests possess. This year's playoffs have proven to be anything but normal, however. How else can you explain two .500 teams battling for a spot in the MLS Cup final? And given some of the roster moves that each team has undergone in the last year, Saturday's playoff tilt contains plenty of subplots.
The emergence this year of forward Herculez Gomez saw Kirovski's playing time diminish. Factor in his hefty contract, not to mention Sampson's penchant for stocking his midfield with holding types, and Kirovski became surplus stock. When a trade to Colorado was consummated, the Escondido, Calif., native could barely contain his contempt for Sampson, and didn't hesitate to take some parting shots at his coach.
Now Kirovski has a chance to get back at Sampson when it matters most, and given Alain Nkong's suspension for a dubious red card incurred in Saturday's victory over Dallas, the Rapids will need their new acquisition to provide enough creativity to break down the suddenly resolute Galaxy defense.
The other story line involves the confrontation between former roommates Joe Cannon and Landon Donovan. In 2004, the two squared off against each other for the first time, with Donovan expressing an odd reluctance about scoring against his former teammate. The two-time MLS Cup MVP showed no such hesitation this year, tallying three times in his matchups with Cannon, although two of those scores came from the penalty spot.
But none of Donovan's goals came in the rarified air of Invesco Field, and that highlights the biggest challenge for both team and player. While Donovan's playoff pedigree has been well documented, he hasn't scored in a road playoff game since 2001. And lost amidst the Galaxy's postseason run is the fact that Los Angeles has been a wretched road team in 2005, especially in Colorado. Invesco was the scene of a humiliating defeat for the Galaxy back on June 15, when despite playing against nine men, they were unable to find a way past Cannon and Co. in a 1-0 defeat.
Granted, the Galaxy expertly killed off their playoff series on the road against San Jose, but the advantages that Los Angeles carried into that game will be absent in Saturday's contest. Unlike San Jose, Colorado won't be required to take the game to their opponents, thus exposing themselves to the kinds of counterattacks that ultimately sealed the Galaxy's win over their California rivals. The altitude could also play a factor, especially if the game is tied in the latter stages.
For Colorado, one question that remains is will head coach Fernando Clavijo field a lineup containing all of his attacking talent? Kirovski's arrival in September meant that either Jeff Cunningham or Jean Philippe Peguero was consigned to the bench. Given Nkong's absence, Clavijo almost has no choice but to go with his three best offensive threats.
If Cunningham and Peguero are paired up top, they'll be pitted against Los Angeles center backs Tyrone Marshall and Ugo Ihemelu. Both Colorado forwards have enjoyed success against the Galaxy in the past, but Marshall and Ihemelu seem to be jelling at just the right time, making for an interesting battle in Colorado's attacking third.
Another area of interest should take place out on the wings. Galaxy fullbacks Chris Albright and Todd Dunivant love to join the attack, and given the fact that midfielders Ned Grabavoy and Cobi Jones like to tuck into the middle, there is bound to be space for both fullbacks to exploit. If Sampson utilizes these assets Saturday, that could serve to occupy Colorado flank players Terry Cooke and Dedi Ben-Dayan to the extent that they spend more time defending than attacking.
Key matchup: Colorado defender Pablo Mastroeni vs. Galaxy forward Landon Donovan
With Nat Borchers still hobbled by a bad ankle, Mastroeni will likely continue to play in the center of defense, where he'll be charged with shackling the Galaxy forward. Given Donovan's tendency to drop deep into midfield in order to receive the ball, Mastroeni will need to keep his side organized, and that means calling on his midfield teammates, in particular Kyle Beckerman, to help starve Donovan of service.
Players to watch: For Colorado, goalkeeper Cannon and midfielder Kirovski; for Los Angeles, forward Gomez and midfielder Jones.
Cannon has been hampered by an abdominal strain in recent weeks, but still managed to pull off several outstanding saves in the Rapids' triumph over Dallas. Among Cannon's best moments was an incredible double save in overtime that kept the Rapids alive.
Kirovski has plenty to prove to his former coach and team, and lining up in a more withdrawn role may suit his talents more than a position closer to goal.
So far in his young career, Gomez has been a difference maker during big games, as evidenced by his goals in the U.S. Open Cup final and in the first leg against San Jose. Gomez was largely ineffective in the Galaxy's second match against the Quakes, and Los Angeles will need a bigger contribution from him this week.
Jones has proven so far that he still has the legs to be a factor come playoff time. His killer assist on Donovan's second goal in Game 1 proved to be the biggest play of the series against the Quakes.
X-Factor: Los Angeles midfielder Grabavoy; Colorado midfielder Ben-Dayan
Grabavoy enjoyed an outstanding series against San Jose, providing good balance on the left wing and chipping in with the goal that clinched the series. Given that L.A. plays with two holding midfielders in Peter Vagenas and Paulo Nagamura, Grabavoy will need to keep contributing to the Galaxy attack.
Ben-Dayan has the ability to turn a game on its head with his slashing runs from the wing. With Kirovski likely lining up at an attacking midfield slot, the Israeli may find himself seeing less attention than he normally does, which may allow him more one-on-one opportunities.
Outcome: The home crowd will buoy Colorado, but the Galaxy defense seems to have tightened up at the right time. Combined with the fact that L.A. possesses the ultimate playoff match-winner in Donovan, look for the Galaxy to prevail 2-1.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org