FOX Soccer Exclusive
LA-New York not playoffs' best series
As we prepare for eight teams to battle in the conference semifinals this weekend, two things are clear about the 2011 MLS playoffs. First, the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls will garner much of the attention as they do battle in what is easily the most star-studded playoff series in MLS history.
The second? New York-LA isn’t the best series of the round. Not even close.
The Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake are preparing to face off in what is arguably the best early-round matchup in league history: Two loaded teams who finished the year with the second and third best records in MLS, led by two of the most respected coaches in American soccer, anchored by two of the best midfielders in the league.
So why isn’t Seattle-RSL pairing getting more hype? An uncharacteristic late-season slump by RSL which saw the club go winless in its last six-matches (an 0-4-2 stretch during that time) cooled off the hype around a team that entered the year as title favorites.
That slump wasn’t ideal, but it also didn’t paint an accurate picture of just what state in which RSL enters the playoffs. The slump began with an ugly loss to DC United that saw Jason Kreis rest most of his starters. Then came two games marred by early red cards that sandwiched a hard-fought loss at Los Angeles. Kyle Beckerman drew one of those red cards for a head butt, which forced RSL to play its final four matches without its captain.
The funny thing is that the slump managed to overshadow one very important development for RSL during that time: The return of playmaker Javier Morales from a broken ankle. The Argentine star worked his way back into the starting lineup and will be partnered with Beckerman for the first time since April when RSL takes the field at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday night against Seattle (live, 9:30 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer).
Despite Morales' return, Real Salt Lake is seen as a serious underdog against a Seattle side enjoying a dream year. The Sounders lifted their third straight US Open Cup, and most years they would have won the Supporters Shield with their impressive 63-point final tally.
Seattle deserves consideration as a championship favorite, with an offense playing as well as any in MLS and a defense that has rounded into form at the right time. While RSL boasts Morales and Beckerman, the Sounders counter with Osvaldo Alonso and the red-hot Fredy Montero, who finished the year as one of the most in-form attackers in the league.
The Sounders will have to cope with the absence of playmaker Mauro Rosales, who will miss Saturday’s opener with a knee injury. Seattle has managed without Rosales before, defeatinf RSL without him during the season (another RSL loss involving a red card), but the playoffs will be a different proposition, particularly against a team as well-balanced as Real Salt Lake.
Even without Rosales, Seattle has enough firepower to win the series, but who wins this match-up will come down to which Real Salt Lake side shows up. If it is the team that played well enough to reach the CONCACAF Champions League Final and start the 2011 season 5-1 before losing Morales to a broken ankle, then Real Salt Lake will win. If it is the RSL side that struggled down the stretch, then Seattle should cruise to the first MLS playoff victory in club history, with or without Rosales.
MLS PLAYOFF PREVIEW
WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
Thierry Henry and New York have found their stride ahead of the Western Conference semifinals. (Photo: Andy Marlin/Getty Images)
LA GALAXY vs. NEW YORK RED BULLS
Season Series: A 1-1 tie on May 7 at Home Depot Center, a 1-0 Red Bulls win at Red Bull Arena on Oct. 4.
Players to Watch: LA GALAXY - Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Omar Gonzalez, Robbie Keane. RED BULLS - Thierry Henry, Joel Lindpere, Rafa Marquez, Tim Ream.
Match-up to Watch: Omar Gonzalez vs. Thierry Henry
Gonzalez has been the best defender in MLS this season, but he will have his hands full against Henry, who looks to be primed for a big post-season. Henry also scored a goal the last time he and Gonzalez faced each other.
LA Galaxy wins if: Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan are healthy and dangerous. With those two clicking, the Galaxy will have too much for the Red Bulls to handle. David Beckham’s set pieces will also pose a problem for a Red Bulls defense that struggles to defend set pieces at times.
New York wins if: Luke Rodgers is healthy and effective and Dane Richards is dangerous on the wing. Todd Dunivant has enjoyed a Best XI season, but he will have his hands full with the speedy Richards.
Outlook: The Red Bulls have to win at home in game one to have a legitimate chance to advance, and doing so will be tough without the suspended Jan Gunnar Solli at right back. If Keane and Donovan are healthy enough to start, the Galaxy will have too many weapons for New York’s defense to handle, and LA should cruise to a series victory. However, if Thierry Henry gets going and can beat the normally impregnable Galaxy defense, the Red Bulls could defend well enough to pull the upset.
Prediction: Los Angeles Galaxy
Kyle Beckerman gets his center midfield partner back for RSL's semifinal against Seattle. (Photo: Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)
SEATTLE SOUNDERS vs. REAL SALT LAKE
Season Series: Seattle won, 2-1, at Rio Tinto Stadium on May 28; Real Salt Lake won, 2-1, on Sept. 10 at CenturyLink Field.
Players to Watch: SEATTLE - Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso, Mauro Rosales, Alvaro Fernandez. REAL SALT LAKE - Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Jamison Olave, Nick Rimando.
Match-up to Watch: Osvaldo Alonso vs. Javier Morales.
If Alonso can neutralize Morales, RSL could struggle to create chances and force RSL to commit more to their attack, which could then lead to more chances for Seattle.
Seattle wins if: Fredy Montero keeps up his stellar form and the Sounders defense can shut down RSL’s forwards.
Real Salt Lake wins if: Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman find their rhythm and the normally stingy RSL defense gets back to its stifling ways.
Outlook: We are in for an intense and closely-fought series that will likely come down to one great play or mistake as these teams are both strong and evenly-matched. The Mauro Rosales injury tips the caps toward RSL though, as the 2009 MLS Cup champions pull a step closer to regaining the title.
Prediction: Real Salt Lake
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
MVP candidate Brad Davis will be key to Houston's playoff hopes. (Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON DYNAMO vs. PHILADELPHIA UNION
Season Series: Philadelphia won on Mar. 19 at Robertson Stadium, 1-0, but were drawn at home on Aug. 6, 1-1.
Players to Watch: HOUSTON - Brad Davis, Geoff Cameron, Bobby Boswell, Tally Hall. PHILADELPHIA - Sebastien LeToux, Faryd Mondragon, Freddy Adu, Carlos Valdes
Match-ups to Watch: Brad Davis vs. Sheanon Williams
Everyone knows Davis is the key to the Houston attack, and Williams will be needed to try and contain the MVP candidate. If Williams can slow Davis down, the Union will have every chance of winning this match-up.
Houston wins if: The Dynamo forwards can trouble Philly’s back-line, and more importantly, Davis can provide a steady stream of his usually reliable service. That, coupled with another strong defensive effort, will give Houston the victory.
Philadelphia wins if: Freddy Adu can get going as a playmaker and the Union defense can cut down on defensive mistakes. That, along with a strong showing from LeToux, will help the Union win.
Outlook: Right now Houston looks to have the momentum heading into the playoffs and boast a more experienced side than Philadelphia. The Dynamo’s edge in experience will provide the difference in what should be a very close series.
Graham Zusi has had a breakout season for the East's top seed. (Photo: G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)
SPORTING KANSAS CITY vs. COLORADO RAPIDS
Season Series: Tied 1-1, on May 28 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Tied 1-1 at Livestrong Sporting Park on July 6.
Players to Watch: SPORTING KANSAS CITY - Omar Bravo, Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Kei Kamara. COLORADO - Omar Cummings, Jeff Larentowicz, Drew Moor, Sanna Nyassi
Match-ups to Watch: Matt Besler vs. Omar Cummings
Colorado relies heavily on Cummings to move around and disrupt opposing defenses. If Besler can’t keep tabs on Cummings, Sporting KC could leave itself exposed defensively. It will be a team effort though, and KC can keep the ball from Cummings by controlling play on the wings.
Sporting Kansas City wins if: Their forwards overpower Colorado’s back-line, which is solid but definitely beatable. Teal Bunbury and Omar Bravo should work well to find gaps, while Kei Kamara works the right flank and looks to challenge left back Miguel Comminges.
Colorado wins if: Omar Cummings can work some more magic and the defense can play mistake-free soccer. A healthy dose of midfield domination by Jeff Larentowicz and (if he’s healthy) Pablo Mastroeni will also be needed.
Outlook: Sporting Kansas City was in some of the best form in MLS over the final three months of the season and will enter this series as the deserved heavy favorite. With too much firepower for Colorado to contain, Sporting KC should create enough chances to burn the Rapids, while playing well enough defensively to contain a predictable Colorado offense.
The Rapids have a chance, especially if Cummings and Sanna Nyassi can trouble KC’s centerbacks with their speed, but all signs point to Sporting KC winning this one.
Prediction: Sporting Kansas City
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.