The MLS Cup playoffs are, to quote a famous political philosopher, "nasty, brutish and short."
The high-stakes crucible of knockout soccer can be counted to expose the cracks in a given team’s game, and the congested schedule doesn’t leave time for repairs. The postseason kicked off with 10 clubs on Oct. 30 and when the final whistle blows at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland on Thursday night -- just eight days later -- only four will remain.
Several teams hoping to be among those four have critical questions to confront over the next 90 minutes. Their seasons will depend on whether they find the answer.
Can New York hold off Houston without Jámison Olave?
Is it a curse? Or was it just stunning stupidity?
Either way, the Red Bulls may pay a steep price for Olave's moment of madness. New York led the Houston Dynamo, 2-1, in the 65th minute of Sunday's Eastern semifinal opener when the Colombian defender committed a totally unnecessary, two-legged assault on Omar Cummings. The hosts leveled the score in stoppage time, raising new questions about the Red Bulls' playoff composure and setting the stage for a winner-take-all game Wednesday night outside New York City.
The suspended Olave has anchored the Red Bulls' back four since arriving from Real Salt Lake and it’s hard to understate his importance to coach Mike Petke’s team. New York was 0-3-2 this season in MLS matches in which the burly 32-year-old didn’t appear. The Red Bulls yielded 1.1 goals per game when Olave started, compared to 1.6 when he didn’t. He is a formidable presence.
Considered a defender of the year candidate, Olave sets the tone at the heart of a back line whose strength is in the middle. New York might be particularly vulnerable against Houston, whose forwards benefit from outstanding service from free kicks and wide positions.
"He's been our starter all year, but we have guys that need to step up in a big way on Wednesday," Petke told MLSSoccer.com. "Yeah, it's a big loss, but we'll deal with it."
If they don’t, it very well could result in a fourth consecutive quarterfinal exit for New York.
Can Sporting Kansas City find a goal when it desperately needs one?
Over time, playoffs present patterns. Some athletes and teams are consistently clutch, while others repeatedly fail to rise to the occasion. Sporting, now in its third year among the league’s elite, is in danger of being labeled the latter.
In 2011, SKC watched chance after chance go awry as the Dynamo escaped Sporting Park with a 2-0 win in the Eastern Conference finals (then played as a single match). Last year, first-place Kansas City trailed visiting Houston by two goals after the quarterfinal opener. In the return leg, the hosts took 20 shots but managed only one goal, -- from defender Seth Sinovic -- and were eliminated.
On Saturday, the underdog New England Revolution snatched a 2-1 first-leg win in Foxborough. Sporting’s goal came via defender Aurélien Collin, making it four consecutive playoff games in which a K.C. forward or midfielder has failed to find the net.
The club's two leading goal scorers this season were Kei Kamara, who's now in England, and Argentine Claudio Bieler, who was signed to rectify the problems up front but hasn't started for coach Peter Vermes in two months. SKC has been relying recently on a committee comprising C.J. Sapong, Dom Dwyer, Soony Saad and others.
"We had some great chances the other night," Vermes told the league's website. "I think we'll have some chances, and when the time comes, I think we'll put them away. I feel confident from that point of view.”"
Can Real Salt Lake do the same?
RSL has the same problem as Sporting KC -- it can’t score at home when the chips are down.
From the shutout loss to Monterrey in the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League finals to this year's stunning U.S. Open Cup defeat to D.C. United, RSL has struggled to turn possession into goals when facing elimination. It was shut out by visiting Seattle in last year’s MLS Cup quarterfinals and was eliminated at Rio Tinto Stadium by FC Dallas at the same stage in 2010 after a 1-1 second-leg draw.
Now RSL trails the defending champion L.A. Galaxy, 1-0, heading into Thursday’s decider. Salt Lake can’t count on L.A. captain Robbie Keane leaving his finishing boots at home for a second straight game. Coach Jason Kreis' team likely will need multiple goals to advance.
RSL’s possession should improve over Sunday’s ugly showing. But it must remain wary of L.A.'s threat on the counter and needs someone, anyone, to score relatively early and force the Galaxy to open up.
"We hope to dictate more of the play on Thursday," defender Tony Beltran told the Deseret News. "We want to play our style and put our stamp on the game. The chances will come. We'll just have to take advantage of those opportunities."
RSL has dominated the ball in multiple elimination matches only to see those opportunities missed against teams focused on defending. It's the sort of trend that increases pressure. Only the Red Bulls scored more MLS goals that RSL this season. The talent is there, starting with leading marksman Álvaro Saborío. The system is in place. Now, once again, it’s about timing.
Is Seattle already beaten?
Last week’s knockout-round victory over a Colorado Rapids side riddled with injuries was Seattle’s only win in its past nine games. Now, after a disheartening 2-1 home loss to the arch-rival Portland Timbers on Sunday, the Sounders must reverse a litany of ugly trends if they hopes to continue their season.
Seattle has never overturned a first-leg deficit. It must win at Jeld-Wen, where the first-place Timbers are 11-1-5 in MLS play under coach Caleb Porter. It must get designated players Clint Dempsey (one goal in 11 games) and Obafemi Martins (out since Oct. 9 with a groin injury) going and face the potential loss of defender DeAndre Yedlin (ankle). Coach Sigi Schmid must decide if he’s going to stick with the diamond midfield used in the past few games or revert to a system that pushes Dempsey higher and leaves someone alongside Osvaldo Alonso in the middle –- perhaps to help slow down Portland’s Diego Valeri. There are goalkeeper concerns as well.
MLS clubs want to be hot heading into the playoffs. The Sounders were on a free fall and have form and health concerns from back to front. A return trip to the Western finals seems unlikely. "We have to find it within ourselves, that energy to go out there and just play to the best of our abilities. I hope that we can do that," Dempsey told reporters this week. "At the end of the day, it'll be a difficult game playing them, playing away from home, but we also have to go out there and play with confidence and leave everything out there and have no regrets."