A look at the two MLS conference finals:
The Rapids needed to endure high drama to resolve their series -- and plenty of it. They took a 1-0 lead into last week's return leg in Ohio. The Crew owned a 2-1 aggregate lead when Conor Casey and Omar Cummings combined to equalize the series with just more than five minutes to spare. From there, Casey, Mac Kandji, Jeff Larentowicz, Claudio Lopez and Jamie Smith nailed their penalty kicks as their team claimed the tiebreaker shootout.
One underrated element of San Jose's play is Ryan Johnson's willingness to take the punishment as a target man, knocking balls off to runners. Hence, he recorded eight assists in just 19 starts this year.
The body of work for Colorado's Casey and Cummings speaks for itself: 51 goals combined over the last two seasons.
The series key is probably whether Rapids workhorse midfielder Brian Mullan, who has elevated his game once again for the playoffs, can both trouble and track Convey. And across the field, Jamie Smith is unlikely to fall asleep and lose track of Wondolowski as others have. In the middle, the Rapids have the right pair in Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni to help deal with Geovanni's roaming ways.
For his part, Colorado's Smith says cutting off the service from the wings means everything for his Rapids.
"I would think that if, as we have done on number of occasions on our home field, if we can get on the front foot, it negates a lot of what an opposing team can do at our place," he said.
And how. Colorado manufactures that pressure through the great, balanced work of Casey and Cummings. They'll be an absolute handful for San Jose's young center backs, Jason Hernandez and Brandon McDonald. There's nothing special about the Colorado duo's methods; Casey is a bare-knuckle brawler of a target man with a good burst of quickness over short distances; Cummings packs a punch with his speed, often drifting wide right.
Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni allow the Rapids to hold possession or to break quickly on the big field at DSG Park.
The teams split two 1-0 results this year, each winning at home.
Can the eighth seed do it again? Real Salt Lake was the last team in last year ... and won it all. This year San Jose is No. 8, although Yallop says his group isn't paying much attention to seedings.
"We don't think we're miles behind in performance compared to most teams this year," Yallop said. "It's a brand new season. ... We're not afraid of anybody, and we'll come out and play that way."
By the way, Yallop isn't saying where, exactly, Wondolowski will play; he lined up as a striker at home against New York but was back to his more familiar spot on the right in New Jersey.
"He'll find his spaces wherever he plays," Yallop said.
Dallas, meanwhile, took down defending champion Real Salt Lake in the first round. Goals off the bench from Jeff Cunningham and Eric Avila swept the Red Stripes into the lead after one leg. In Utah, Dax McCarty's early goal heaped additional pressure on Real Salt Lake, which got close but just couldn't close the gap. Dallas won its first playoff series since 1999.
Center back Omar Gonzalez was a Defender of the Year finalist and 17-goal scorer Edson Buddle (have you seen his
Another league MVP finalist, Colombian creator David Ferreira, propped up a Dallas offense that's still a little light on striking might. His eight goals and 13 assists, so many of those arranged through his ability to hold off defenders and retain possession, boosted what could have been middling production from strikers.
Goalkeeper Kevin Hartman was another hero of the opening-round triumph. Hartman, now 36, was always a brilliant shot stopper, but he'd occasionally get into trouble when venturing out of goal. Two unflinching center backs, Ugo Ihemelu and George John, helped make sure Hartman and his still-gimpy knee didn't need to race too far from goal against Real Salt Lake.
While L.A.'s Donovan Ricketts won Goalkeeper of the Year with another solid campaign, Hartman's slightly smaller body of work was more impressive. His 0.62 goals against average not only led the league but also shattered the record (Houston's Pat Onstad, 2007, 0.82).
Dallas prefers to work the ball on the ground, usually through Daniel Hernandez, the holding man in a 4-1-4-1. It moves forward quickly, but in control, with fullbacks who are comfortable on the ball.
Dallas has a chance because, unlike Seattle, which has speed in some spots, the Red Stripes have speed throughout the field. Along those lines, Hyndman must decide between Marvin Chavez's speed on the flank or Atiba Harris' physical presence, which Dallas needs to defend Beckham's pinpoint set-piece deliveries. Brek Shea on the left and Dax McCarty in the middle help provide additional drive from the midfield.
Dallas was one of the better road teams (4-3-8, plus-2 goal difference), while Los Angeles was just OK at home. The Galaxy's 9-4-2 mark was tied for fifth best.
If we're talking goals and assists, the Donovan-Buddle combo beat all MLS comers with 24 and 18.
Los Angeles beat Dallas twice this year. In fact, FCD's 1-0 loss to the Galaxy at Pizza Hut Park back on May 20 was the Red Stripes' last one before going on that MLS record-matching 19-game unbeaten streak. Dallas also lost 2-0 at Los Angeles late in the season.
"That's a bigger thing for everyone else than for us," Hyndman said of two losses to L.A. this year. "None of that enters our minds. What enters our mind is, can we handle pressure they'll be putting on us early? If we can ride that pressure like we did at Real Salt Lake, pick up a goal, then they'll have to keep pressing us."
If it works the other way, with L.A. striking first, the visitors are in trouble. The Galaxy in a "defend and counter" rhythm is the Galaxy at their best.
How the man in the middle manages things will say a lot about the result. Ferreira will be easier to contain if Dema Kovalenko, L.A.'s midfield enforcement arm, is allowed to kick and hack with relative impunity as he was in Seattle. If he is made to behave, Ferreira could open L.A.'s back line a time or two.