With the MLS Cup playoffs getting underway Wednesday night, SI’s soccer staff takes a look at a few storylines in a Planet Fútbol roundtable. Here’s part two of two.
What club is under the most playoff pressure?
Grant Wahl: Has to be the Seattle Sounders. Lead owner Joe Roth got tired of seeing his team losing to Los Angeles last year that he resolved to spend more than ever in the transfer market, resulting in the arrivals of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins.
Things seemed to be working out well until Seattle’s late-season swan dive (no wins in seven games) dropped the Sounders from the league’s best record to fourth place in the West. Coach Sigi Schmid has made the playoffs in five out of five seasons in Seattle, but his job could be in real danger if Seattle doesn’t pick it up in the playoffs.
Brian Straus: Seattle, because of the money it spent, the way it finished the season, its 1-4 record in playoff series and the pressure exerted by the league’s largest fan base. With the current MLS playoff format, judging a single year based on results in a couple of games is unfair. But fail for five straight seasons, and you’re going to face some scrutiny.
I don’t think this falls on Clint Dempsey’s shoulders. History suggests it takes time to integrate (or re-integrate) into MLS. He’s started six games. Look at how Tim Cahill finally blossomed after a slow start. And everyone remembers David Beckham’s growing pains.
Winning in the postseason usually is about collective effort. Playoff games are tighter and more frenetic. You don’t necessarily need a superstar to win. You do need 11 players on the same page. If the Sounders fall short again, questions concerning coaching and chemistry are inevitable.
Alexander Abnos: The Seattle Sounders. On paper this team has more talent than just about anyone else. The Clint Dempsey addition gives them a player in his prime that has played and thrived in one of the world's top leagues. But their startling fall from grace in the month of October has them vulnerable, and Dempsey has been well below par all-around.
If the Sounders are able to win against Colorado in the play-in game, it'll be their first victory in nearly seven weeks. Think about how much pressure can build during a winless streak in the regular season. Now imagine having to break that streak to keep your season alive in the playoffs. The only other team facing similar pressure is Montreal, and even they have won more recently than Seattle.
Avi Creditor: Real Salt Lake. Houston may have the itch to win after getting to the last two Cup finals but coming short. Seattle may have made all the moves to position itself to be the champion -- at least on paper. Sporting KC may not yet have had the postseason success to match their otherwise top-level ambition. New York may have the pressure of carrying the league's top record into the postseason.
RSL, though, has been the quintessential "Yeah, but" team. Like the great Atlanta Braves baseball teams that managed to win only one title, RSL has had such a talented core and been so close on the league, Champions League and U.S. Open Cup fronts only to fall short every time after winning the 2009 MLS Cup. It may have been a transition year -- and a successful one at that -- for RSL, but with Jason Kreis being courted by New York City FC, the window to add to the trophy case and avoid another "Yeah, but" is shutting.
What player must rise to the occasion?
Grant Wahl: Kansas City’s Graham Zusi. As impressive as K.C. has been the last three years during the regular season, the team has underperformed in the playoffs, going out to lower-seeded Houston in both 2011 and ’12.
When he’s on his game, Zusi has the potential to be the best player in MLS, the kind of game-changer who can take his team to the title. But he needs to take the next step, and that would mean guiding Sporting to at least the final. If that can happen, the Big Game would take place in Kansas City, too.
Brian Straus: New York's Thierry Henry. David Beckham and Robbie Keane have their MLS Cups; now it’s time for the league’s other megastar multimillionaire DP to come through. The Frenchman has tallied only one goal in five playoff starts. He’ll surely need to score a few more if the Red Bulls are going to make a deep run.
Henry has been happy at times to operate as a link player and typically is team-first. New York won the Supporters' Shield even though Henry netted just 10 goals this season, the lowest total of his MLS career. But the time for ruthlessness has come. Defenses tighten in the postseason, and Henry has the talent and experience to unlock them. That’s what the Red Bulls are paying for.
Alexander Abnos: Any Kansas City forward. Seriously, any of them. Sporting undoubtedly has the defense to lead them to the title game, but the attack sorely misses Kei Kamara, who was sold to Middlesbrough at the start of September and remains the team's second-leading scorer. Their top scorer, Claudio Bieler, hasn't played meaningful minutes for KC since the start of September, when he scored a goal and had an assist against the Columbus Crew. Bieler has been hobbled by a groin injury, and KC has scored more than one goal in just two of their seven MLS contests since.
Leading the attack in that span has been the young trio of C.J. Sapong (24 years old), Dom Dwyer (23), and Soony Saad (21), but none of them has led the line with either the inventiveness of Kamara or the stone-cold finishing of Bieler. At least one will need to step up and become a consistent goal-scoring threat because Graham Zusi can't do it all on his own, all the time.
Avi Creditor: Seattle's Clint Dempsey. You don't become the highest paid player in MLS and have the league "move mountains" to get you in uniform ASAP only to come up empty when the lights are brightest.
Dempsey has not had the impact on the scoresheet most may have expected following the U.S. captain's shocking move from Tottenham to Seattle, with just one goal to his name in nine matches. Dempsey starring in the MLS playoffs and helping carry the Sounders on a deep run is a best-case scenario for the league from a neutral spectator standpoint. It also would go a long way towards halting the scrutiny of his deal, especially considering counterpart Landon Donovan's history of postseason success.
What club will be this year's inevitable playoff surprise?
Grant Wahl: Houston. Who else? Coach Dominic Kinnear has been a miracle worker in the playoffs the last two years, taking lower-seeded Dynamo teams to the final both times (and losing both times to L.A.). Houston isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing team, to say the least, but they know how to succeed in the playoffs with a tough-minded approach that grinds down the opposition.
Brian Straus: Is anything that happens in the MLS playoffs a surprise? I’m not sure at this point. This year, there’s really only one club in position to pull a genuine “upset” in the early rounds, and that’s New England. This is a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2009, and I doubt anyone picked them to get there this year.
But they’ve got some very good players, from goalkeeper Matt Reis through defender of the year candidate Jose Gonçalves and the brilliant Diego Fagundez. Yes, they’re inexperienced, but they’re also under no pressure whatsoever. Sporting Kansas City is vulnerable. There’s still a question about whether coach Peter Vermes’ team will be able to find a goal when it needs one. If the Revs win their home leg, it could be playoff déjà vu for Sporting.
Alexander Abnos: The New England Revolution. Jay Heaps' side's youth could be their undoing, but fact of the matter is they're rounding into form at just the right time, having gone unbeaten in their past six matches. Juan Agudelo and Diego Fagundez have been electric up top, while Kelyn Rowe has quietly been having a breakout season in the attacking midfield position with seven goals and eight assists.
The matchups work well for them, too. Sporting KC can struggle to handle teams that play as fearless as the Revs, and Rowe, Fagundez and Agudelo are just crafty and speedy enough to catch the Sporting defense off guard. Should they make it to the next round, the Revs will gain confidence from the fact that no matter who they face among New York, Montreal, or Houston, they will have won at least one game against them this season (though their victory against New York came in the U.S. Open Cup).
Avi Creditor: It shouldn't really be considered a surprise anymore for Houston to make a run as a low seed and cruise to another final appearance, so I'll say New England. I can't imagine many are picking the inexperienced Revolution to give battle-tested Sporting Kansas City a whole lot of trouble, but with a young and eager attacking core spearheaded by Stoke-bound Juan Agudelo and 18-year-old dark-horse MVP candidate Diego Fagundez, the Revs have the firepower, athleticism and flair to break down Sporting KC's typically resolute unit.
Sporting KC also has questions to answer about just who will step up and lead the line with Kei Kamara off to Middlesbrough, Claudio Bieler not a factor in the last couple of months and rising talents Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer answering the bell. All it takes is one convincing first-leg performance at home for the Revs to put the pressure squarely on a Sporting KC side that has high expectations for itself.
Who will play in the MLS Cup final? Who will win?
Grant Wahl: This may sound like a broken record, but I’ve got Los Angeles and Houston in the final for the third straight year. Los Angeles has to be the team to beat, no matter what anyone’s record says, as the Galaxy attempts to become the first MLS team to three-peat.
Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan are the most potent one-two combination in league history, and they know what it takes to win when it counts. Houston will have the mettle to win the East title (look for Brad Davis to be back to his most dangerous self), and unlike the last two years, the Dynamo will find a way to win the final in L.A. this time.
Brian Straus: That dream N.Y.-L.A. Cup final I mentioned in part one of this roundtable? Book it. The Red Bulls are the most complete team in a flawed Eastern Conference and have a ton of momentum. The Galaxy have Donovan and Keane, who nobody’s been able to stop in the playoffs. Don’t think for a second that Donovan doesn’t feel like he has something to prove and that the entire squad isn’t thirsting to make history with a third straight Cup.
As for a winner, I’ll go with the home team. New York just has that "team of destiny" feel. I never thought I'd write those words.
Alexander Abnos: The season ends just as it started: with a thriller between the New York Red Bulls and Portland Timbers. It'll be a matchup of the two top candidates for Coach of the Year (Portland's Caleb Porter vs. New York's Mike Petke) and an unlikely meeting of the league's top two seeds to crown a champion. However, the Supporters' Shield will be the only hardware lifted by New York at their home venue this season. The Timbers will win, probably in extra time.
Avi Creditor: The MLS playoffs are a cup competition that has been mastered by Bruce Arena. So while other sides might boast better regular season records, the L.A. Galaxy still boasts the firepower to compete with anyone, and Jaime Penedo has been a stud in goal since his signing. If Landon Donovan's ankle is good enough for him to be at his best, there's no reason L.A. can't earn a historic three-peat.
The Galaxy will do so against the winner of the eventual New York-Houston series (after the Dynamo best the Impact in the play-in round). I'm leaning toward the Red Bulls. Go figure, in a year when the Red Bulls eschew the big- and glamour-spending ways for MLS-tested talent and an untested head coach, the league may finally get its two marquee markets in the final. My preseason pick of Houston topping Seattle would not shock in the least, especially on the postseason-warrior Dynamo's end, but the manner in which Seattle has limped into the playoffs is too big a red flag to pick the Sounders to flip the switch when their competition is in better form. WILSON: Time for Manchester United's Moyes to start showing signs of progress