The MLS playoffs are an exercise in which lunacy often prevails. In the past five postseasons, the lower seeds have won their first-round series almost half the time. Top seeds have found the going especially rough, falling six out of ten times during this period. In fact, you have to go back to 2003, when Chicago and San Jose both triumphed, to find the last time that the No. 1 seed in each conference survived the first round.
So is there any reason to think that the favorites will prevail this time? The nuttiest end to the regular season in league history doesn't hint that some normalcy will emerge. The West bracket seems especially vulnerable, since only three points separated the four qualifiers. Out in the East, the gap among the participants is more pronounced, but that hardly screams "mismatch." That was what everyone was saying about last year's matchup between Houston and New York, and the Red Bulls produced the biggest playoff upset in league history.
All the more reason for this year's presumed heavyweights to be on their guard.
No. 1 Columbus Crew vs. No. 4 Real Salt Lake
The league's most consistent side takes on the most schizophrenic. Columbus won the Supporters Shield for the second year running, while RSL's home goal differential of plus-23 stood in stark contrast to their road mark of minus-15.
That puts the onus on Real to make the most of Saturday's first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium. RSL put a 4-1 hurt on the Crew back in April, only to suffer a 3-1 reverse in Columbus three months later. The first encounter is one that Crew head coach Robert Warzycha remembers well, but he's confident that a repeat will be avoided.
"In [the April match] we gave them two goals in the first half from two mistakes," said Warzycha. "So I don't think those mistakes will happen again. But [RSL] are still very dangerous at home, so we have to be very careful."
The Crew manager is especially concerned that several elements of RSL's offense seem to be coming together at the right time. Real midfielder Javier Morales looked livelier in the season finale against Colorado than he has in months, while running mate Andy Williams also looked sharp. And forward Robbie Findley -- who has found it difficult to stay in the lineup -- profited the most from RSL's stellar play in midfield, netting two goals.
Given that Crew defender Chad Marshall is still an injury doubt heading into the series, dealing with RSL's lightning quick attack could be even more daunting. But Columbus remains one of the deepest team in MLS, and central defenders Eric Brunner and Danny O'Rourke have had plenty of time to work out any kinks.
The Crew's attack also remains formidable, with Guillermo Barros Schelotto recovered from his litany of minor ailments, while Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven provide further attacking support from midfield.
That will make for a busy series for RSL holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman, as well as his teammates in the back. But an upset is more than possible, especially if Schelotto can be contained.
No. 2 Chicago Fire vs. No. 3 New England Revolution
With these two sides squaring off in the postseason for the fifth year in a row, the contempt-o-meter has long since hit the red line. And much like last year, Chicago enters this series as favorites over an injury-hit New England side.
The absences of Taylor Twellman and Steve Ralston due to injury have shorn the Revs of their two best attacking players, leaving head coach Steve Nicol trying to answer the same question he's faced all season: Where are the goals going to come from?
"That's obviously a concern, but we've been around long enough to know that all it takes is that wee X factor to spark some goals," said Nicol. "But it's just as important that we don't give anything away, and we didn't the other night [against Columbus]."
Compounding matters for Nicol is the fact that Chicago's defense appears to be hitting its stride, posting two clean sheets to finish the season, including one at New England in a 0-0 tie on Oct. 17. And the unit could be strengthened by the return of Wilman Conde and Gonzalo Segares. But the Revs have managed to find a way this season, with MVP candidate Shalrie Joseph helping them score goals when they've needed them most.
Yet the challenges for New England aren't just on the offensive end. Chicago's attack has some dangerous components: Marco Pappa, Chris Rolfe and Brian McBride all are capable of punishing the opposition. Throw in the unpredictability of Cuauhtémoc Blanco, and a Revolution back line that sports rookies Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston will be severely tested, although they held up well enough to shut out the Fire in the aforementioned October match. But if New England is forced to defend for long stretches, Joseph's ability to get forward will be limited.
That is exactly how Chicago is hoping things will transpire, although the Fire will need to buck their odd tendency of underperforming at home. Given the relatively advanced age of the team, it's also clear that the championship window of opportunity is closing fast for Denis Hamlett's squad.
No. 1 Los Angeles Galaxy vs. No. 4 Chivas USA
It's a good thing that MLS rosters have long since been frozen. Otherwise, L.A. and Chivas might have engaged in a bidding war for the rights to the Hanson Brothers (of "Slap Shot" fame). That said, with the likes of L.A.'s Dema Kovalenko and Chivas' Paulo Nagamura on display, there will be no shortage of robust challenges. And with three regular-season matches producing a total of two goals, free-flowing attacks will be a rarity.
Given their season-long struggle to score, such a tempo will suit the Goats just fine as they attempt to win a playoff series for the first time in their history. The potential loss of Jesse Marsch to a concussion could rob Chivas of a considerable amount of playoff experience. It will also make life more difficult for creative hub Sacha Kljestan, who finished an otherwise disappointing season on something of an upswing.
"We're hoping that [Kljestan] can get himself going," said Chivas coach Preki. "The group counts on him quite a bit and we all try to give him confidence every day. It's going to be up to him to come out and play."
The pace of forward Maykel Galindo will also be needed to test a Galaxy back line that isn't the fleetest of foot. But that will also require Galindo to show a bit more fight than he did last week against Chicago, making Preki's selection of his front-line tandem tougher than it should be.
L.A. coach Bruce Arena has fashioned a side high on organization and discipline, and after securing six 1-0 wins this season, the Galaxy won't be bothered if they find themselves in a low-scoring street fight.
Such comfort and confidence also comes from having two potential match-winners in their side, with David Beckham and Landon Donovan capable of delivering that spark of quality that can decide a series. Beckham's passing ability is well-known, and with Zach Thornton making an adventure out of every cross that comes into his area in recent weeks, expect the Englishman to test the Chivas keeper at every opportunity.
After sitting out the postseason the previous three seasons, Donovan will be plenty motivated as well. And having sipped championship champagne three times during his career, he has the requisite experience of carrying a team in the postseason.
No. 2 Houston Dynamo vs. No. 3 Seattle Sounders
While all of the playoff pairings possess some bits of intrigue, the series between Houston and Seattle is perhaps the most evenly matched. The two teams tied for the best defense in the league with just 29 goals conceded, and both sides possess some potent attacking elements.
Seattle has surpassed all expectations in its maiden campaign. Not only did the Sounders claim the U.S. Open Cup, but in reaching the postseason they established a bit of a hoodoo over the Dynamo, going 2-0-1 in all competitions.
That will no doubt inspire Houston to turn the tables on Seattle. The sour taste of last year's first-round exit at the hands of New York should also provide ample motivation for a side just two years removed from its second championship.
The player to watch in this series is clearly Seattle attacker Freddie Ljungberg. The Swede has stepped up his game in recent weeks, racking up four assists in his past two games. And while players such as Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani will look to test the Dynamo defense with their pace, the threat of Ljungberg in transition is one that is giving Houston manager Dominic Kinnear pause.
"The way [Ljungberg] finds gaps between the midfield and the back four when the ball turns over, that's when he's really dangerous," said Kinnear. "He has a good first touch, and he just explodes into space. He's also really strong on the ball and unselfish."
One key to stopping Ljungberg will be the play and health of Houston's Ricardo Clark. The U.S. international sat out the last game of the season against Chivas USA with a gimpy left knee, and he'll need to cover his usual vast amount of ground for the Dynamo to prevail. If the injury limits his effectiveness, or forces Kinnear to deploy Geoff Cameron in the center of midfield, then advantage Seattle.
Yet the Dynamo has their share of dangerous men in attack as well. Midfielders Brad Davis and Stuart Holden will be the main suppliers to forwards Brian Ching and Luis Angel Landin, assuming the latter recovers from tendinitis in his left knee. But another key matchup will be Houston's Brian Mullan against Seattle left back Leo Gonzales. If the Dynamo can give Mullan the time and space to run at the Seattle defense, then that should free up the likes of Ching and Holden to do some damage.
Both teams have had trouble with red cards this year, with each side enduring eight ejections. Yet Houston has had the more difficult time of late in terms of discipline, and plenty of eyes will be on the Dynamo to see if they can keep their emotions in check.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
|MLS Cup playoffs
Houston vs. Seattle
10 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
L.A. vs. Chivas USA
5 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
RSL vs. Columbus
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
Chivas vs. L.A.
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com