Something has clearly gone wrong here on Planet Fútbol. After whiffing on a multitude of predictions over the years, I've somehow turned into Nostradamus so far during the 2011 MLS season, causing me to wonder if I should have visited Vegas and placed a few wagers. (Then again, does anyone know any Vegas sports books that take bets on MLS?)
In any case, both my picks to win this week's MLS wild-card games came through (New York and Colorado), and way back in March I predicted a Los Angeles-Kansas City matchup in the MLS Cup final. Lo and behold, LA and KC are the top seeds in the MLS Cup playoffs, which kick off in earnest Saturday with Salt Lake hosting Seattle (10 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer), perhaps the best on-paper showdown we've ever seen in a conference semifinal.
Let's break down the four two-leg showdowns starting this weekend:
One of the cardinal rules in analyzing sports is that you have to give explanations for why things happen the way they do. But in the MLS playoffs there are always surprises that defy explanation. Based on form you'd have to pick Seattle: the Sounders have won five of their last six league games, while Salt Lake has gone six straight without a win. But the more I hear people picking Seattle, the more I think it would be smart to pick Salt Lake in what should be an extremely close pair of semifinal games.
Why? I can give you reasons. The last time these two teams played (on Sept. 10), Salt Lake won 2-1 in Seattle. Salt Lake has captain Kyle Beckerman back after a three-game suspension, and playmaker Javier Morales is finding his form again after a long injury layoff. Salt Lake's veteran lineup has played in (and won) more big games than Seattle's has over the last three years. As for Seattle, winger Mauro Rosales may not play, and for all the Sounders' success in the U.S. Open Cup they have been big disappointments the last two years in the MLS playoffs, scoring just once in four games. But the honest truth is I think very little separates these excellent teams, and the arbitrary nature of the MLS playoffs has me thinking we'll see at least one surprise that goes against form, expectations and perhaps even rational explanation. Bottom line: It's unfortunate that one of these teams will go out at this early stage.
The league's two biggest payrolls meet in a playoff loaded with star power, and yet I fear this could be the biggest snooze-fest of all the opening legs this weekend, not least because both coaches have incentives to keep things tight and head back to California on scoreless terms -- L.A. because Bruce Arena will be confident his team can get a goal at home and protect that lead, and NY because Hans Backe will think his guys (especially Thierry Henry and Joel Lindpere) are capable of producing the one moment of quality they need late in the return leg to spring the upset.
New York will be without suspended right back Jan Gunnar Solli, and midfielder Dax McCarty is another potential injury doubt. As for the Galaxy, forward Robbie Keane may be back from his adductor injury earlier than expected (he trained with the first team on Thursday), while Landon Donovan should be recovered after his quad strain. My sense is that while New York has gotten the results it needed to reach this point, the Red Bulls defense is still giving up lots of chances and can't be relied upon to go 180 minutes without any big screw-ups against an L.A. attack that will take advantage of those chances better than Dallas did on Wednesday. L.A.'s defense, by contrast, looks airtight these days. One potential concern might be in goal, where Donovan Ricketts is just now getting back up to speed after a long injury layoff.
Philadelphia has done a lot of things right in its second season, and coach Peter Nowak has a knack for getting the most out of his teams in the postseason. But I'm concerned about the Union's youth and playoff inexperience, as well as the fact that Sebastién Le Toux is just about Philly's only scoring threat these days. Houston showed big-game *cojones* with its late-season win at Portland, and Brad Davis has become a true menace on the left wing and on set pieces; I can't wait to see his duel with Union right back Sheanon Williams. When it comes down to it, I think Philadelphia is still a year away, and Houston does a lot of the little things right all over the field.
Is freewheeling KC capable of playing a contained game on the road to start this series? Maybe, but Sporting may not have to. Injuries to Pablo Mastroeni and Jamie Smith are going to put pressure on Jeff Larentowicz in the Rapids midfield, and I have a suspicion we might see the continued season-long breakout of KC's Graham Zusi here. Colorado's Omar Cummings is finally showing signs of life after a disappointing year, while Sanna Nyassi continues to be an active threat coming out of the midfield. That said, I just don't see enough quality in this Colorado team to go on another playoff run like last year's. Look for Kansas City's Kei Kamara or Omar Bravo to be difference-makers up top.
Western Conference Final: Los Angeles over Salt Lake.
Eastern Conference Final: Kansas City over Houston.