Soccer America
Friday October 30th, 2009

With one playoff series underway (Houston and Seattle drew 0-0 Thursday night), we break down the remaining three series, all of which kick off this weekend:

The Eastern Conference semifinals get underway Saturday with a "crossover" Western team, Real Salt Lake, hosting the defending champion Columbus Crew, who didn't fare well the last time they visited Rio Tinto Stadium (first leg Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, MLS Direct Kick only).

Way back in early April, when the weather was cold and so were the Crew, RSL laced Columbus 4-1 in Utah with a Robbie Findley hat trick. The Crew eventually posted the league's best record, but finished just a point ahead of Los Angeles and Houston. RSL needed to win two of its last three games to sneak into the playoffs, yet retains the experience gained from upsetting Chivas USA in the first round last year.

RSL's dominant home form (9-1-5) gives it a great opportunity to take the lead in this series, as do the speed and finishing of Findley (12 goals) and Yura Movsisyan (eight). Yet more than the zealous work rate and energy of midfielder Kyle Beckerman may be needed to unlock the Crew defense, and this hasn't been a great season for playmaker Javier Morales (one goal, five assists). More may come from Clint Mathis and Andy Williams, who registered a combined 13 assists. They will be closely watched by Crew destroyers Brian Carroll and Adam Moffat.

Columbus has lost three of its last four league games while scoring just one goal. Though Guillermo Barros Schelotto's total of 12 goals during the regular season is the most he has scored in his MLS career, the 2008 league and MLS Cup MVP has been bothered by injuries. A sprained knee has plagued '08 Defender of the Year Chad Marshall, who hasn't played since Sept. 13 and is listed as probable. Columbus may be the most potent flank team in MLS with midfielders Robbie Rogers, Emmanuel Ekpo and Eddie Gaven, plus outside backs Gino Padula and Frankie Hejduk, so RSL must stay tight in those areas while it monitors Schelotto's movements.

Prediction: RSL 2, Crew 1

For the fifth straight year, the Fire and the Revolution meet in the playoffs with both teams missing key players because of injuries (first leg Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Sports en Español).

The Revs -- deprived of Taylor Twellman for nearly the entire season and Steve Ralston for the past month -- have scored only 33 goals, the fewest of the eight playoff teams. Yet at home, they outscored opponents 22-11 while posting a solid 7-4-4 record. They lost at home 1-0 to the Crew late in the season, yet reversed that score line on the final match day in Columbus with a Jeff Larentowicz free kick to book an eighth straight playoff appearance. Can New England use the speed of forward Kheli Dube (eight goals) to get past Chicago in a series that might only feature a goal or two?

In their two regular-season meetings, the teams played 0-0 and 1-1 ties, with the goals coming from Fire defender Wilman Conde and New England's Mr. Everything of '09, Shalrie Joseph. That speaks not only to the value of Joseph, who led the team in scoring with eight goals and eight assists, but the Revs' success at containing Chicago's attack which, in three October games, scored only one goal, and that was an own-goal. Brian McBride led the team with just seven goals. The Fire's defense may be strengthened by the return of left back Gonzalo Segares, who hasn't played since early August because of a sprained MCL, and Conde, bothered by a hip contusion.

Prediction: Revs 1, Fire 1

After five seasons of knocking heads as neighbors at Home Depot Center, the Southern California teams square off for the first time in the playoffs (first leg Sunday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes).

If dominance is outscoring a team 2-0 over three games, then yes, the Galaxy dominated the season series with archrival Chivas USA this season while winning twice and tying once. Yet the latter team won more games, and complied only three fewer points than L.A. while conceding just as many goals (31).

Still, even with seven shutouts in their last nine games, the Galaxy can't be confident of preserving Chivas USA's blank slate indefinitely. More worrying, perhaps, to Chivas USA coach Preki is a three-game winless streak with which his team finished the season after reeling off six games unbeaten while outscoring foes 9-3. Justin Braun has scored three goals in the last four matches, and is mobile and strong enough to test the Galaxy back line, but not without help up top as well as support. After a moderate resurgence late in the season, midfielder Sacha Kljestan needs another wake-up call.

In its season finale (a 3-2 loss) against Houston Sunday, Chivas USA conceded the first goal after keeper Zach Thornton badly misjudged a cross. With Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Eddie Lewis always a threat on set plays, the Galaxy can find opportunities in those situations. They need an active and dangerous Edson Buddle, however, to exploit their possessions in the run of play. The possible absence of Stefani Miglioranzi is a concern; either Dema Kovalenko or Chris Birchall needs to be sharp and aware of late runs coming out of Chivas USA's midfield.

Prediction: Chivas USA 1, Galaxy 1

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