The business of crowning Major League Soccer’s 15th champion gets under way tonight, and the Backpost World HQ, along with all satellite offices, could not be more pumped.
All four first-round matchups are intriguing—especially the Western-bracket pairings—and have the potential to produce some of the best soccer the league has ever seen.
Let’s break it down, and if you haven’t gotten your pool picks in, give this a read, then send ’em in!:
• Columbus (14-8-8) vs Colorado (12-8-10)
Tonight, at Colorado 9:00 EST, ESPN2
Nov 6, at Columbus, 4:00, TeleFutura
Season series: Split. Rapids won at home in June, 1-0; Crew won 3-1 in Columbus in August.
Shot-from-the-Hip Analysis: The Crew slumped under a heavy late-season travel schedule, but finished the season with two straight wins (one in the CCL) and appear to have their legs back. They also have a genuine game-changer in Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
We think people—including the Rapids—are underestimating Columbus. Colorado keeper Matt Pickens told the Denver Post the other day, “I like our draw; I’ll put it that way.”
The Rapids’ strikeforce of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey combined for 27 goals and their midfield duo of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni is as rugged as they come in MLS. The battles on the wings, between Columbus’s sometime U.S. internationals Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers, and Colorado’s Jamie Smith and Brian Mullan, will be something to see.
Late-breaking 411: Crew forward Emilio Renteria is out for the first game with a bruised knee. Columbus keeper Will Hesmer is out for the playoffs with a broken shoulder.
Prediction: We’re going against the grain and picking the 2008 MLS champs, Columbus.
• New York (15-9-6) vs San Jose (13-10-7)
Oct 30, at San Jose, 10:00 pm, TeleFutura, MSG+, MSG (joined in progress)
Nov 4, at New York, 8:00 pm, ESPN2
Season series: Split. Quakes beat a red-card depleted New York at home in May, 4-0; Red Bulls won 2-0 in New York in August.
Shot-from-the-Hip Analysis: This is a series the Red Bulls should win, but that doesn’t mean they will win. Thierry Henry will not take part in the first game, which is obviously a big loss, and Rafa Marquez, who’ll be asked to orchestrate things in midfield, has battled an ankle injury for most of his time in New York. Bouna Coundoul, while a great shot stopper, can be a liability on crosses and goal kicks (that’s right, he occasionally struggles with goal kicks)—flaws that could be exposed in the playoff pressure cooker. Dane Richards’s ability to run at people on the wing will be key in this series.
San Jose was spotty down the stretch, losing games to non-playoff teams Houston and Kansas City (a 4-1 blowout), but the Quakes clinched a playoff berth with three games to play, and Chris Wondolowski, of course, is about 4,000 degrees Kelvin right now. They also welcome back veteran Ramiro Corrales, and boast three legit offensive weapons in Geovanni, Bobby Convey, and Ryan Johnson.
Key Stat: San Jose is 1-10-1 this year when conceding the first goal.
Late-breaking 411: New York’s Joel Lindpere (groin) and Salou Ibrahim (knee) both missed Tuesday’s practice. Here’s Lindpere on his injury: “I’m a man. I most likely am tough enough to play with this small injury. I can play through the pain.” Most likely, Joel?
Prediction: New York.
• Real Salt Lake (15-4-11) vs Dallas (12-4-14)
Oct 30 at Dallas, 5:00 pm, Fox Soccer Channel
Nov 6, at Real Salt Lake, 10:00 pm, Fox Soccer Channel
Season series: Split. Dallas won at home in July, 2-0, handing RSL its last loss in MLS play; RSL won 2-0 at Rio Tinto two weeks ago.
Shot-from-the-Hip Analysis: Dallas has been hard-hit by the losses of holding midfielder Daniel Hernandez (hamstring) and first-choice keeper Kevin Hartman (knee; Merci, M. Henry). Hernandez is a stabilizing presence in front of the backline and incredibly poised on the ball. Hartman was having an MVP-like season before his injury. Dallas is simply not the same team without those two, but MVP-candidate midfielder David Ferreira is always a threat to turn a game.
Real Salt Lake has been the most consistent and probably the best team all year. But Colorado did something interesting against them before collapsing in stoppage time in the regular-season finale: they pressured RSL way up the field—we’re talking Rick Pitino–esque high pressure—and it worked. RSL was on its heels and Colorado took a 2-0 lead before the bizarre closing sequence resulted in a 2-2 draw. Don’t think Dallas, which has great team speed for tactics like that, didn’t notice.
From the Department of Disingenuousness: Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers on the playoffs:
“I’m on the Internet all day long and I still read a lot of pundits counting us out. That’s good for us. I don’t think we’re expected to win, but we in this group believe we can.”
Really Nat? Did you mean pundits like the ones writing here, here, and here?
Hey, anything to generate that us-against-the-world spirit, we suppose.
Late-breaking 411: RSL midfielder Will Johnson is questionable after limping off with a hamstring tweak during Tuesday’s practice.
Prediction: Real Salt Lake.
• Los Angeles (18-7-5) vs Seattle (14-10-6)
Oct 31, at Seattle, 8:00 pm, ESPN2
Nov 7, at Los Angeles, 9:00 pm, ESPN
Season series: Los Angeles. The Galaxy won 4-0 at Qwest Field in May, and 3-1 at the HDC in July. But those results were before Seattle caught fire in the second half of the season—and LA cooled.
Shot-from-the-Hip Analysis: The Galaxy has a matchup problem with Seattle: The Sounders are fast, and Los Angeles … isn’t, particularly. Seattle’s four-pronged attack of Blaise Nkufo, Fredy Montero, Steve Zakuani, and Sanna Nyassi—with Nkufo holding the ball up and the other three, speedsters all, running off of him—would trouble any team in the playoffs.
Key Matchup: Seattle winger Zakuani vs LA wingback Sean Franklin. Franklin is one Galaxy player with lots of speed, and he’ll need it to shut down the greased-lightning trickery of Zakuani, who had 10 goals and six assists this year.
Key Stat, followed by Question that May Ultimately Decide the Series: Landon Donovan has a staggering 17 goals and eight assists in 22 career playoff games. But is Landon Donovan tired? He’s played pretty much non-stop for two years now, including loan stints at Bayern Munich and Everton and a pressure-packed World Cup, and he hasn’t been his vintage self in the second half of the season. Can he rise to the occasion this year as he always has in the MLS postseason?
Prediction: Despite Seattle’s form, the Qwest Field crowd, and Sigi Schmid’s playoff pedigree (MLS Cups in 2002, 2008), we’re betting on Bruce Arena to have his boys, especially LD, ready to go. Los Angeles.