MLS Playoffs: Previewing Timbers vs. Sounders and Sporting KC vs. Revolution
The MLS Playoffs continue on Saturday as the Conference semifinals get underway. Here's a quick look at what to expect from Saturday's first-leg games.
Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders
Leg 1 | At Seattle | Saturday, November 2, 10 p.m. (NBCSN)
Leg 2 | At Portland | Thursday, November 7, 11 p.m. (NBCSN, Univision Deportes, TSN)
Playoff history (if any): None. This is the first time the rivals have met in the playoffs. The season series between the sides finished even, with each side getting 1-0 victories on their respective home fields, plus a 1-1 draw in Seattle.
Intriguing storyline: In a rivalry this heated, there are so, so many to choose from. But Seattle's goalkeeping situation might take the cake in terms of straight-up intrigue. Though Seattle might have snapped a seven-match winless run with their 2-0 victory over Colorado in the playoffs' opening round, the erratic play of regular starter Michael Gspurning continued. The Austrian was sent off for a deliberate handball outside of the box when he caught the ball a full two yards outside the penalty area with the Rapids' Edson Buddle bearing down (see below). As a result, he is suspended for this playoff series' first leg, and Marcus Hahnemann will step in between the pipes.
This isn't the first time Gspurning has been dropped. Hahnemann took over for two games in the middle of Seattle's October swoon, after a series of problematic performances by Gspurning. If Hahnemann does well in the playoffs' first leg, head coach Sigi Schmid might have a big decision to make when the series heads to Portland.
X-factor: Will Johnson. The feisty Portland captain has been one of the unsung heroes of the Timbers' best-in-the-West standings, controlling the flow of play from his spot in central midfield. Seattle has their own tough midfield dynamo in Osvaldo Alonso, who was sent off in the teams' last meeting for elbowing Johnson away from the ball. Look for Johnson to try to get under Alonso's skin like that again, making it a little easier for playmaker Diego Valeri to work his magic in the Seattle half.
Three Predictions: 1) At least one red card will be handed out in each leg. 2) The Timbers and Sounders supporters clubs will be target="_blank">on-point target="_blank">with their target="_blank">tifo target="_blank">game. 3) Clint Dempsey will score his second goal in a Sounders uniform.
Sporting Kansas City vs. New England Revolution
Leg 1 | At New England | Saturday, November 2nd, 8 p.m. (NBCSN)
Leg 2 | At Kansas City | Wednesday, November 6, 9 p.m. (No national TV yet)
Playoff history: None. Amazingly enough, this is the first time Kansas City and New England have met in the playoffs, despite both clubs being MLS originals. Kansas City won the season series between the teams, drawing 0-0 at Gillette Stadium in March and hammering the Revs 3-0 at Sporting Park in August.
Intriguing storyline: How will the upstart Revolution handle playoff pressure? Jay Heaps' side earned the third seed in a crowded Eastern Conference by playing some of the silkiest attacking soccer in the league. It worked well enough against most teams , but not Sporting Kansas City's stout defense -- the Revs were shut out in both regular season meetings between the teams.
Now New England will hope to break their scores streak against the league's best defense in the playoffs, which the club hasn't qualified for since 2009. Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez, and Kelyn Rowe have scored 27 goals between them, but their average age is a shade under 20 years old. How much does experience really matter in the MLS playoffs? This series could hold the answer.
Here's an example of New England's fluid attack at its best:
X-Factor: Graham Zusi. As I pointed out in the Planet Fútbol playoff roundtable earlier this week, Kansas City's forwards need to step up their game if the team hopes to avoid a third consecutive early-round exit from the playoffs. But in order to do that, they'll be reliant on setups from playmaker Graham Zusi. The U.S. national team midfielder led his team with eight assists in the regular season, at least twice more than any other member of the team. He is also the team's second-leading active goal scorer now that Kei Kamara has been shipped off to Middlesbrough. One way or another, if Zusi can't add to those numbers, Sporting won't stand much of a chance of making it to the second round. Three predictions: 1) Sporting Kansas City defender Aurelien Collin will be issued a yellow card at some point in the first half of Leg 1 or 2 (#CollinCard. It's a thing. Tell your friends.). 2) Kelyn Rowe will have at least one goal or assist that makes you say "ooooooh." target="_blank">Like this one. 3) At least one half will turn into a back-and-forth save-fest between goalkeepers Jimmy Nielsen and Matt Reis. Both can stand on their head to keep their teams in games as well as any keepers in MLS.