MLS conference finals preview

Publish date:

Colorado vs. San Jose (Saturday, 9:30 p.m. ET, Dicks Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City, Colo.)

Getting there: After looking ordinary in the first-round opening leg in Northern California (in a 1-0 loss to New York), Frank Yallop's Earthquakes found the higher playoff gear in the return leg at Red Bull Arena. Eschewing caution, the Earthquakes threw bodies forward; Bobby Convey scored once from his midfield spot and then again while playing after halftime as a fullback, and Chris Wondolowski got forward from his right midfield spot to supply the game-winner in a 3-1 stunner. The 'Quakes advanced 3-2 on aggregate.

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.

Difference-makers: Designated player Geovanni, who arrived midsummer after stops at Barcelona, Benfica, Manchester City and Hull City, does wonders for San Jose's possession -- when the Earthquakes decide to play that way. (San Jose can be a blunt object in its direct play at times.) At the other end, goalkeeper Jon Busch's acquisition after his surprising release from Chicago proved a master stroke. He was heroic against New York, especially in the first leg. Renaissance man Bobby Convey took the accolades for his monster performance (two goals and one assist) in the second leg against New York, igniting talk about a restart on his international career. (Psst ... he's a left-sided man, and that always means a lot.)

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.

On the bench: Frank Yallop's series win last week was his first in the MLS playoffs since 2003, back in his first go-around with the Earthquakes. Gary Smith, probably the least known among the coaching foursome still chasing MLS Cup glory, has quietly built a quality side at DSG Park outside Denver, where the Rapids' fan support is as thin as the attention they usually receive from national media.

X's and O's: Stopping the Earthquakes starts with finding them. They aren't masters at ball possession, and they tend to be direct to the point of predictability -- or so it seems. The trick is in the tracking. That's because Geovanni floats around liberally from his withdrawn forward spot, sometimes drifting way back into the midfield to assist possession in the middle third, or sometimes playing higher to work off Johnson's target play. Then there's Wondolowski and Convey, who move in and out and do a great job of getting themselves into advanced spots at the right times. So it's not always pretty, but the results can be devastating. Just ask the Red Bulls and their pricey DP trio.

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.

Relevant stats: You don't exactly need Jose Mourinho's educated coaching eye to see where the scoring comes from on both sides. Midfielders and defenders accounted for 32 of 34 San Jose goals in the regular season, with the bulk of those (18) from "Wonder Wondo" Wondolowski. Meanwhile, Casey and Cummings combined for 27 goals and nine assists. Those 27 goals were a league high among MLS tandems.

The teams split two 1-0 results this year, each winning at home.

Drilling down: Colorado's center backs haven't gotten enough credit for their contributions this year. Drew Moor has been excellent all year. And although Marvell Wynne's starting positions are sometimes untidy, he usually has enough recovery speed. Of course, it also helps having a double-edged buzz saw in front of them. Larentowicz came via offseason trade with New England, which didn't want to meet the veteran midfielder's salary request. His trusty presence has allowed Mastroeni to get forward more often; hence, the former U.S. man just recorded his first playoff goal, a critical one in that slim win over Columbus to tilt the series the Rapids' way.

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.

Prediction: Colorado's midfield is better because of the edge centrally. And while home-field advantage may not have meant much in the opening round, it means plenty in a one-game, winner-take-all league semifinal. Go with Colorado.

Los Angeles vs. Dallas (Sunday, 9 p.m. ET, Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.)

Getting there: There are playoff victories and then there are resounding statements. The Galaxy's first-round destruction of the surprisingly unresponsive Seattle Sounders was the latter. Perhaps Bruce Arena's men were motivated by talk that Seattle was the better team over the back half of a long season. Los Angeles put its heavy edge in big-match experience to work when Edson Buddle's wonder strike and a smothering defense led a 1-0 victory at Qwest Field in the opening leg. Back at the Home Depot Center, the Galaxy's professional management in a 2-1 win (3-1 series aggregate win) confirmed the Galaxy as men on a mission, having come so close as MLS Cup runner-up in 2009.

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.

Difference-makers: Everyone knows about Landon Donovan's speed and sublime skill. But his diligence over 180 minutes against Seattle was inspirational as he toiled tirelessly to support left back Eddie Lewis (while still contributing to the attack). Meanwhile, David Beckham hits fantastic corner kicks and free kicks. Or maybe you've heard about that.

Center back Omar Gonzalez was a Defender of the Year finalist and 17-goal scorer Edson Buddle (have you seen his terrific playoff goal against Seattle?) is one of three league MVP finalists.

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).

On the bench: There really is no comparison here. L.A.'s Bruce Arena has much more experience on big stages than any American soccer coach in history. He has two MLS championships and he's making his fifth appearance in a conference final. Oh, there were also a couple of World Cups along the way, too. Meanwhile, Dallas' Schellas Hyndman can hang his hat on two appearances in college soccer's final four. He is in his third year with Dallas, his first pro assignment after 34 years in college coaching.

X's and O's: Los Angeles hits hard on the counter, utilizing Beckham's ability to find Donovan in space. They tend to move the ball quickly and move forward without a lot of dillydallying. And when they lose the ball, they really are the league's gold standard at collective defending, retreating as a unit or pressing as one to look for the telling takeaway.

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.

Relevant stats: Los Angeles was the league's best this year, front to back, claiming the Supporters Shield with 59 points and a plus-18 goal difference (second best in MLS).

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.

Drilling down: The wacky MLS playoff structure really does reward performance over the entire season; teams just have to stick around long enough to enjoy it. Los Angeles survived the opening round and now gets the match at home.

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.

Prediction: Dallas will have a hard time matching Los Angeles' collective drive, experience and the home-field advantage. Expect L.A., with its two world-class athletes playing with a purpose and on such high-rev, to appear at MLS Cup in Toronto next week.