Major League Soccer – First Round Playoff Preview

by Michael Orr

mls cup

The Major League Soccer playoffs begin Thursday night with Columbus Crew traveling to Colorado Rapids for their first leg at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Colorado only secured their spot in the post-season in the regular season’s final weeks, and did so with flare, defeating LA Galaxy and coming within a freak play of taking down Real Salt Lake. Columbus were a solid side throughout, but will be missing their first choice goalkeeper William Hesmer. That will leave Colorado’s league-leading strike force of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey, who combined for twenty-seven goals on the season, a chance to pounce in the first leg at altitude. If the Rapids can get a positive result at home, expect them to pack it in and keep the Crew at bay back in Ohio in the second leg. The embarrassment of losing a two-goal lead in the final regular season game against Salt Lake will keep the Rapids sharp over both legs.

On Saturday, FC Dallas host Real Salt Lake at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas. Just two weeks ago Salt Lake snapped Dallas’ eighteen-game unbeaten streak with a 2-0 win in Utah. The MLS Cup holders used a miraculous comeback to nearly steal the Supporters’ Shield and finished with the league’s second best record in the regular season. Dallas was clearly the story of the second half of the season in MLS but their magic could be wearing off, having lost not only to Salt Lake but to LA Galaxy in the season’s last game. Some might say those losses are not bad, as they were to the top two teams in the league. But facing one of them in the first round of the playoffs is not the scenario Dallas wanted. If the Texan side can win on Saturday at home on the return of standout goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, there is a chance in this tie. But if Salt Lake can prevent Dallas from winning, behind their own star keeper, Nick Rimando, the MLS Cup will remain in Salt Lake City for at least another round.

Of all the names that could be first mentioned in a playoff tie involving Red Bull New York, Chris Wondolowski probably wasn’t on the list, even in August. But nine goals in six games earned the San Jose Earthquakes’ forward the Golden Boot and has defenses across the league terrified. One has to assume his amazing run, one that has included two hat-tricks and a brace in the past month, has to end eventually. But is star power alone enough to quell his amazing run of form? New York will want to earn at least a draw from San Jose’s pathetic Buck Shaw Stadium on Saturday as a start and bring the action back to Red Bull Arena next week to finish the Earthquakes off. Despite Wondo’s goal-scoring explosion, San Jose haven’t actually played particularly well this season. They slipped in with the eighth seed and lost five times at home. The key for the Earthquakes could be Designated Player Geovanni, the former Hull City and Barcelona man, in the midfield. New York will counter with Tim Ream and Carlos Mendes in central defense, a pairing that helped Red Bull to the league’s third best record.

Sunday will feature Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles Galaxy at Qwest Field. The Sounders will absolutely have to earn a result at home to have any chance against the high-flying Galaxy. The Sounders were outscored 7-1 by the Galaxy in their two regular season matches, including an embarrassing 4-0 disaster at Qwest in May. Seattle lost the highest number of games as any playoff participant and could struggle if they do not win in the first leg. The Sounders could have passed Dallas on the table and faced Salt Lake in the first round, but they lost to Houston Dynamo, leaving them with a tie against the Galaxy. Los Angeles are a strong side, though their Supporters’ Shield is thanks in large part to an outstanding first half of the season. The return of David Beckham helped keep LA’s big club from losing their grip on the league’s top seed and will be an important addition with composure needed for a deep playoff run. Los Angeles are clearly the better of the two sides. If they prevent a big win by Seattle in the first leg, the tie will be over.

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