Steve Davis
Friday October 22nd, 2010

This weekend's final round of MLS regular season matches may shuffle the first-round playoff pairings -- but that's all. The eight teams are set. Postseason play begins Thursday as the survivors reach for a Nov. 21 date in Toronto, site of the 15th MLS Cup. Here are snapshots of each side -- and how they may or may not get there.

Why they could lift the MLS Cup: They have what every team wants: difference-makers. Yes it's still fashionable to lampoon David Beckham's age and how he's long been more show business than soccer business. Problem is, that's not exactly accurate. He can still deliver a ball from the right side better than anyone in MLS. And when you talk about difference-makers in MLS, you had better start with Landon Donovan, whose speed is best applied when combining with Beckham. Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts dropped a notch from his fantastic 2009 form, but just a small one. And Edson Buddle, chasing the league Golden Boot with 17 goals and a game remaining, can still decide a game.

Why they might not: Coach Bruce Arena has successfully stocked his roster with "soccer players," men guided by instinct for the game. But the salary structure means he can't have everything, so his side is full of vets a bit on the slow side. The midfield and central defense are particularly vulnerable, especially as Gregg Berhalter has just returned from a lengthy absence that was only vaguely explained away. The men of Home Depot Center could really be in trouble in a first-round matchup with Seattle's speedy attack.

Why they could lift the MLS Cup: So much has been said about the current champs' tidy possession and remarkable brawn at home that the buzz has been insufficient about this remarkable defense. Driven by Jamison Olave, who has cleaned up his discipline and concentration issues, RSL isn't just about to break the league record for fewest goals allowed in a season; the side from Sandy is about to obliterate it. They have allowed just 18 goals, well below Houston's 23 in 2007. At home RSL is even better with just seven conceded in 15 matches. "It's pretty amazing when you think about how well we have done at home defensively this year," center back Nat Borchers said. "I am still trying to process it all." On the attack, Alvaro Saborio (10 goals) is making a case for league Newcomer of the Year and Javier Morales (seven goals, nine assists) is making an good MVP argument.

Why they probably won't: Truly, weaknesses are tough to locate for Jason Kreis' side. But there are a couple of matchup difficulties en route to a potential Toronto date. A possible first-round home-and-away with Seattle would be tricky since RSL isn't at its best on artificial turf. Or, if Los Angeles prevails in the first round, a trip to the Home Depot Center for the conference final would stand between RSL and Toronto.

Why they could lift the MLS Cup: Consider the big-game experience Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez bring; Does anybody think for a second that guys who have presided over so many World Cup matches and Champions League fixtures will be the slightest bit undone by an MLS playoff match? Of course not. So long as the key players are healthy, the Red Bulls midfield will be a regular buzz saw. Dane Richards has sprung to life with five goals in his last seven games, Tony Tchani plays within his abilities centrally, Marquez orchestrates from deep spots and Joel Lindpere supplies lots of drive with his energetic persistence on the left.

Why they probably won't: For all the skill and intuition Marquez and Henry have brought to Red Bull Arena, they aren't doing so well at staying healthy. Both have been nicked here and there since signing on at midseason, and Henry's continued knee niggles appear particularly problematic. Coach Hans Backe's side remains vulnerable at fullback, where Roy Miller and the right back of the moment can sometimes be had. And while the team has made Red Bull Arena a comfortable home (4-0-1 and a plus-eight goal difference lately), they aren't nearly as formidable on the road.

Why they could lift the MLS Cup: Columbus definitely has issues at the moment -- but the Crew also has Guillermo Barros Schelotto, whose sublime skills are amplified by his fierce competitiveness. Coach Robert Warzycha won't repeat the mistake he made last year, when he left the Colombian creator on the bench in the postseason opener at RSL. In the back, Chad Marshall is having another outstanding season, although injury and age to the fullbacks on either side of him have made things far more dicey in the back at Crew Stadium.

Why they probably won't: Talk about limping to the finish line. Warzycha's club looks awfully tired, knackered from the CONCACAF Champions League-MLS regular season double whammy. (Seattle and RSL haven't been similarly affected, but never mind that for now.) Simply put, Columbus doesn't look like a team up for the job right now.

Why they could lift the MLS Cup: Around this team, it's all about David Ferreira and his ability to keep possession, to draw fouls (he leads the league in that), to make three or four killer passes a half, and to dart into the penalty area at crucial moments. Elsewhere, coach Schellas Hyndman has personnel options once again as first-choice center backs Ugo Ihemelu and George John are healthy now. The current striker rotation is working like a charm; Milton Rodriguez starts, Jeff Cunningham comes in late to bother defenses with his speed. Most of Cunningham's team-leading 11 goals have been off the bench.

Why they probably won't: Midfielder Daniel Hernandez and goalkeeper Kevin Hartman mean so much, not just in ability and role management but in leadership and experience. Though they each missed about a month at the worst time. Both are back on the field now, but it's tough to regain the edge in just a couple of meaningless matches. Plus, if teams can plot a way to shut down service into Ferreira, the Red Stripes offense will find itself severely hamstrung.

Why they could lift the MLS Cup: It seems counterintuitive, but the evidence looks clear now: this is a better side without Freddie Ljungberg. Fredy Montero has been free to run the offense and the midfield now has more bite. Steve Zakuani is enjoying a fantastic sophomore season on the left, while raw product Sanna Nyassi's evolving game is making people fear the right side, too. Blaise Nkufo is scoring lately in addition to his contribution through smart holdup play. So there's more variety in the attack at Qwest Field now, and the Sounders are wearing it well.

Why they probably won't: Montero certainly dragged the Sounders out of the ditch with a fabulous July and August, but he has slumped noticeably since. And while the attack has proper pep, the defense isn't nearly as strong. Center backs Patrick Ianni and Jeff Parke (third and fourth choices going into 2010) have heroically done their part, but they do have limitations. (Especially alongside fullbacks who are sometimes stretched, and behind wingers who aren't great defenders.) Hence, Seattle's 33 goals allowed matches Columbus as most allowed so far by a playoff team.

Why they could lift the MLS Cup: Chris Wondolowski! What a story. This guy wouldn't have been the 20th forward picked on a fantasy team as far back as June. Now he's got a great chance to lead the league in goals and he's making a stubborn argument for league MVP. You know what else? Because of Wondolowski, no one is talking about the splendid Geovanni and everything he's done to spice up the Earthquakes attack.

Why they probably won't: Injuries along the back line have created instability at Buck Shaw this year. Ramiro Corrales has returned to left back but could still be rusty. Coach Frank Yallop has Brandon McDonald, Bobby Burling and Jason Hernandez to choose from at center back; all are adequate options although none have been playoff-tested. And while rescuing goalkeeper Jon Busch from the scrap heap has proven such a master stroke (because of Joe Cannon's subsequent injury), the Earthquakes' current No. 1 will give up a stinker here and there.

Why they could lift the MLS Cup: The Man may tell you the best MLS strike duo is in New York. Be wary of The Man. Because the league's best strike duo is at the edge of the American high planes, just outside Denver, where Omar Cummings and Conor Casey roam. They have 25 goals between them. And now they have Brian Mullan serving them, as coach Gary Smith has assembled a midfield balance that rivals RSL, Dallas and New York. In the back, Drew Moor has been one of the top underrated men of MLS this year, while Marvell Wynne has repurposed a set of skills that had seemed to hit a plateau.

Why they probably won't: Pablo Mastroeni has two World Cups on his resume and Mullan has four MLS Cup rings. But the Rapids are pretty shy on big-game experience from there. There has never been an MLS playoff game at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, in fact, as Colorado hasn't been involved in postseason play since the grounds in Commerce City opened in 2007. That doesn't mean Smith's men will sink beneath the playoff weight -- it just means we don't know.

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