Taking a look at the first round of the MLS playoffs, which begin this week:
The difference-makers: The Rapids' Omar Cummings and Conor Casey were the league's top scoring combo with 27 goals. Behind them, Pablo Mastroeni looked like he found the fountain of youth with his best MLS season in years. That was largely thanks to the Rapids' shrewd offseason acquisition of Jeff Larentowicz, whose midfield industry allowed Mastroeni to scoot forward more comfortably. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, 37, isn't quite the influence he was two years ago while driving the Crew to MLS Cup glory. He had just four goals this year that weren't from the penalty spot. Schelotto can still serve a devastating free kick or corner kick, and big center back Chad Marshall will always be his favorite target.
On the bench: Rapids coach Gary Smith has quietly assembled a well-balanced group with lots of fight and belief, guiding his Rapids to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Crew manager Robert Warzycha has something to prove after Columbus fell in the first round last year -- with lots of grumbling about the coach's controversial choice to bench Schelotto for the series opener.
X's and O's: Schelotto has always enjoyed a free role behind a striker in the Crew's 4-4-1-1, allowed to roam and find the soft spots. The problem is that Columbus hasn't found the right striker to pair with Schelotto. Steven Lenhart, a human wrecking ball of a striker, was usually assigned the role this year. But his game is all brawn, and it doesn't always mesh with Schelotto's cerebral ways. Smith's 4-4-2 revolves around a busy midfield, where Brian Mullan and Jamie Smith scurry up and down the wide channels. Casey remains one of the league's top target men. Cummings moves around but prefers to attack from the right.
Drilling down: Mullan's late-season acquisition amplified the Rapids' collective playoff experience. The combative former Houston Dynamo, always a standard bearer for midfield toil, owns four MLS championship rings. ... Columbus will be without goalkeeper William Hesmer because of a shoulder injury, but backup goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum isn't necessarily a significant downgrade. He has 23 MLS career starts and was the Crew's choice in goal for CONCACAF Champions League games this year. ... Robbie Rogers, a man with World Cup aspirations a year back, is healthy again but hardly sharp or confident after a mess of a season. Injuries contributed to his spotty form, but he did play in 20 matches, with just one goal and no assists. ... Colorado's back line is built largely of players unwanted at other clubs, including the highly effective Drew Moor, left back Anthony Wallace and center back Marvell Wynne, a former right back who has benefitted tremendously from a position switch.
The difference-makers: Two of the league's premier creators face off in Real Salt Lake's Javier Morales and FC Dallas' David Ferreira -- both of whom are carrying strong MVP arguments. (FYI, they were the league's most-fouled players, too.) Kevin Hartman's 0.62 goals against average for Dallas led the league. He hasn't played in six weeks but has trained lately and should be available Saturday. The Dallas defense is night-and-day better when commanded by Hartman and defensive screener Daniel Hernandez, who has also been injured. RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando had his finest season for the defending champs. In front of him, center back Jamison Olave, shedding those previous discipline and concentration issues, had a season worthy of Defender of the Year consideration. Next to him, Nat Borchers also had a great season.
X's and O's: Real Salt Lake's diamond midfield (in a 4-4-2) works because of scrappy battlers like Kyle Beckerman and Will Johnson. Under coach Jason Kreis, the men of Rio Tinto have become the league's best at tidy possession thanks to attention to spacing, Morales and the sharp target play of Alvaro Saborio, the team's only major offseason acquisition. The indefatigable Johnson's starting positions are on the left but he works inside so dependably that he's often working in tandem with Beckerman to extinguish attacks in midfield. Dallas' high-pressure 4-1-4-1 was designed to get the best from Hernandez and Ferreira. Dallas fullbacks Heath Pearce and Jair Benitez get forward more than any MLS pair.
On the bench: Kreis remains the league's youngest coach at age 37. His staff is built largely around teammates from his days in Dallas, where the former striker spent the bulk of his playing career. Dallas' Schellas Hyndman needed about a year and a half to get a handle on the pro game after 34 years in collegiate coaching. He's a leading Coach of the Year candidate thanks to a breakthrough season, one that included a league-record 19-game unbeaten streak.
Drilling down: This would have been a better series six weeks ago before injuries to Hartman (thanks to Thierry Henry's needless stunt) and Hernandez. Plus, Brek Shea has fallen off the radar after a sizzling summer, and that hurts Dallas, too. ... Real Salt Lake's last MLS loss was to Dallas, when the Red Stripes owned the night in a 2-0 result. It proved to be an important lesson for Kreis, who had leaned toward caution by electing to match Dallas' midfield with a 4-5-1. He quickly acknowledged the error, convinced that his team is best when doing what it does, pressuring from its usual 4-4-2 set-up. ... What's more impressive than RSL's 11-0-4 home record? RSL's jaw-dropping plus-24 goal difference in those matches.
Prediction: Real Salt Lake
The difference-makers: The next time someone says that attackers need time to adapt to MLS, point to Geovanni and declare that argument over. He came to San Jose and immediately began pulling the offensive strings with a flourish. Chris Wondolowski's amazing back half of the 2010 campaign has partially shielded how easily Geovanni, the former Barcelona, Benfica and Hull City man, assimilated at San Jose. The Red Bulls can only hope that DPs Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez are fully fit, as both have proved a tad fragile since their heralded mid-summer arrivals. Henry's training ground knee injury from two weeks back continues to be a problem; he remains doubtful for the weekend, although he could still train this week. All that star power means we've heard less about Dane Richards' second-half season surge. Finally (finally!) learning more about how to utilize his speed and spunk, he hit all five of his goals this year over the Red Bulls' last nine matches.
X's and O's: Frank Yallop typically demands a lot from his wide midfielders in a straight-line 4-4-2, although he does allow Wondolowski plenty of freedom from his right-sided position. Assuming everyone is healthy and available for the Red Bulls, coach Hans Backe has important choices. Joel Lindpere moved to the left side of midfield upon Marquez's arrival, but the versatile Estonian has moved back inside recently. Backe likes Mehdi Ballouchy's inventive game, and he has stationed the attacker out wide on the left, with permission to move inside on offense. But that would leave Ballouchy to track Wondolowski, and that looks like a problem. Either way, the offense will go through Marquez, one of the league's premier passers.
On the bench: Yallop has captured two MLS Cups as a coach, although you have to go back to 2001 and 2003 to find them. In fact, it's a bit surprising but Yallop hasn't been to the MLS playoffs since 2003. Of course, Backe has never been part of MLS postseason, although he seems to have quickly figured out everything else about MLS.
Drilling down: Brandon McDonald and Jason Hernandez are San Jose's center backs; both are talented, although neither is a standout at the position. McDonald probably could be, but shuffling between center back and center midfielder throughout his career hasn't helped. McDonald is a center back once again only because of Ike Opara's season-ending injury. ... Both left-sided midfielders are interesting figures. For the Red Bulls, Lindpere is one of the lesser decorated but probably no less important figures in the locker room. For San Jose, Bobby Convey has enjoyed a rebirth after a lost and listless 2009 season. He was playing left fullback last time the teams met but has regained his midfield role again thanks to Ramiro Corrales' return from injury in the back. ... San Jose's 7-5-3 home record is worst among the playoff teams. ... Tim Ream's Rookie of the Year-worthy campaign has overshadowed how solid Carlos Mendes has been as a central partner, as well as goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul's greater dependability this year.
Prediction: New York
The difference-makers: Since each team has something special for the offense -- league MVP candidates in Seattle's Freddy Montero and L.A.'s Landon Donovan, plus the illustrious David Beckham -- let's start with the less obvious, the men in the back. Seattle's Kasey Keller, at age 40, had another fine season, a couple of atypical blunders notwithstanding. L.A.'s formidably lanky Donovan Ricketts, whose wingspan is perhaps the most daunting among MLS 'keepers, dropped a notch from 2009 but can still turn a match with his saves. So if we call that one a wash, the Galaxy get the edge in defense because of prize young center back Omar Gonzalez.
X's and O's: The Galaxy plays a diamond midfield, although the way it works depends on where Donovan and Beckham line up. Beckham is usually right, but coach Bruce Arena has also played him centrally in spots. Donovan has toggled between second forward and left midfielder, which is where he played for the Galaxy's season-ending win over Dallas. Seattle's 4-4-2 looks a little different, with Nathan Sturgis and Osvaldo Alonso generally playing side-by-side and sitting a bit deep. That allows wingers Sanna Nyassi and Steve Zakuani to track back a little less. The Sounders' offense depends heavily on Blaise Nkufo's hold-up play and Montero's ability to dip and dash in behind him.
On the bench: These two managers have four MLS Cups between them. Schmid still has a home nearby the Galaxy's Home Depot Center; he formerly managed the Galaxy, winning one title there before capturing another with Columbus in 2008. Arena's two titles were way back in the 1990s with D.C. United, although he did guide the Galaxy to last year's MLS Cup, where the side fell to Real Salt Lake.
Drilling down: Foot speed remains the Galaxy's weakness. That's something Nyassi and the especially zippy Zakuani can exploit. Zakuani's solid sophomore season (10 goals, six assists) gets a bit overlooked behind Montero and others. ... The Galaxy kicked Seattle around pretty good in the regular season, winning twice by a combined 7-1. But both matches came early when the Galaxy were all that and Seattle was still flummoxed by the Freddie Ljungberg factor. Seattle has been the better team over the season's second half. ... Three of the Galaxy's last four wins have come against non-playoff teams. Arena keeps saying his team is fine and wondering why it doesn't get more credit. Here's the chance to prove us all wrong.
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