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MLS playoffs: Second-leg storylines


The two-leg, aggregate-goal first round of the MLS playoffs continues this week after a 2-2 split between home-field wins and losses. Here's a look at the storylines for each series entering the second leg:

New York's 1-0 victory at Buck Shaw Stadium was merely the beginning of what should turn into a blowout series for the Red Bulls. San Jose's nondescript roster just doesn't match New York's designated player-bolstered standard.

1. Bullies at home -- The Red Bulls conceded a mere nine goals at home during the regular season. This defensive prowess spells doom for the eighth-seeded Earthquakes, who failed to score in their home leg. Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski's wonderful year as the MLS Golden Boot winner (18 goals) only highlights the one-dimensional nature of San Jose's offense.

2. Henry's knee -- French superstar Thierry Henry must prove he's worth his $5.6 million guaranteed salary. OK, he sat out Game 1, but with three potential matches left, Henry needs to tough it out here and push New York into the Eastern Conference final and MLS Cup.

3. Will Coundoul crack? -- New York goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul earned a respectable 1.04 goals against average in league play. However, his early MLS career was marked by laughable howlers, errors that could resurface at any time. If he's consistent, though, a second shutout is there for the taking.

It certainly looked like the Crew might have taken on too many jobs heading into the postseason. Columbus suffered through a packed September and October with the U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League and the MLS regular season, which seemed to steal the vigor out of the Columbus legs. Colorado won the first leg 1-0 at home.

1. Use Schelotto more -- Guillermo Barros Schelotto is the Crew's heart and the reason it won the 2008 MLS Cup. Columbus boss Robert Warzycha strangely sat the Argentine playmaker in the second half at Colorado, but surely must start Schelotto in a match in which offense is now a necessity.

2. Colorado's strikers -- Colorado's Conor Casey (13 goals) and Omar Cummings (14 goals) enjoy the opportunity to prove they truly are the most lethal goal-scoring tandem in MLS. Sure, the duo combined for 27 of the Rapids' 44 regular-season goals, but that means little now. Pablo Mastroeni bagged his first playoff goal in 13 seasons in the first leg; now the two C's must do their part.

3. One and done again? -- The Crew are in danger of falling in the first round for the second year in a row. Last year, after winning the Supporters Shield as the league's top regular-season team, they lost to champion Real Salt Lake.

This could be a match where the first-leg result (a 2-1 victory for host Dallas) may not hold because of Real's home dominance (11-0-4 in 2010). However, the Salt Lake side must do a better job of eliminating the early ball into the area, which gave Dallas an advantage in the first leg.

1. A fast start from Espindola -- Another quick strike from Fabian Espindola, would negate Dallas' advantage. The Argentine striker made short work of the Dallas back line to start the first leg with a fifth-minute goal. Dallas proved to be a slow starter this year and Salt Lake could jump right back in this thing with a quick shot to the gut.

2. Hartman vs. Rimando -- Dallas' Kevin Hartman had the league's best goals against average (0.62). However, having to sit out about six weeks with a knee sprain stole some of his form. Salt Lake's Nick Rimando finished right behind Hartman at 0.67, but Rimando had 14 shutouts (in 27 games) to Hartman's nine (in 20 games). The keeper with the clean sheet in this game gets the final say on who was better in 2010.

3. Who was hit harder? -- The two ejections certainly put a damper on this game, but there's no question Salt Lake loses more with the red card picked up by Javier Morales. A key central figure along with stalwart Kyle Beckerman, Morales means far more to Real than the flank play of Dallas' Atiba Harris. Dallas now holds the advantage in center midfield with a triangle of Dax McCarty and Daniel Hernandez sitting behind David Ferreira.

The Sounders created more chances, but the Galaxy came away with a 1-0 road victory in the first leg.

1. Expanding the Galaxy -- Los Angeles brought an organized defensive posture in both the back line and midfield. Guess what? It's only going to get tighter in the back and Seattle will have to force the Galaxy to open up and then exploit the space. This will be a tall order because of L.A.'s 1-0 lead and strength at defending the counterattack.

2. More Donovan -- Landon Donovan found himself far too withdrawn in L.A.'s defensive posture, even if it was by Galaxy coach Bruce Arena's design. Donovan has proved capable of carrying a team through the playoffs and this could be another chapter in his MLS legacy.

3. The Freddy factor -- Seattle's Freddy Montero had two quality looks at goal in the first half but failed to convert. The missed chances could well be the story of the Sounders' postseason and moral victories about "pretty" play won't matter. On the other side, Edson Buddle's improbable bomb showed the Galaxy know how to seize an opportunity.