Four teams. Four MVP candidates. Four dreams of an MLS Cup trophy.
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For all the talk of underdogs, and a surprising playoff script that now features a return MLS Cup participant and three teams that didn’t even make the playoffs in 2009, the real story is that arguably the four most influential players in MLS this season stand ready to face off in a Final Four that may not be as lopsided as it seems.
The Los Angeles Galaxy will wear the heavy burden of being favorites, the only higher seed to survive a first round of upsets. Landon Donovan is the creator, and David Beckham has arrived just in time to give an added boost to an already strong team, but Edson Buddle will be called on to provide the goals as he has done all season, including his two strikes to vanquish Seattle.
FC Dallas is fresh off eliminating defending champion Real Salt Lake, so the underdog label doesn’t seem quite as appropriate as it does for others, not least of all with the league’s best playmaker pulling the strings. David Ferreira is an MVP finalist, and has the daunting task of trying to unlock a stingy Galaxy defense.
For the Colorado Rapids, their foundation is built on strong defending and the solid work of Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz in the middle of the field, but the team’s spark and heartbeat comes from the speedy runs and shifty moves of Jamaican striker Omar Cummings.
The San Jose Earthquakes don’t boast the big names of some of the other teams, but Chris Wondolowski emerged as the league’s leading goal scorer by becoming a deadly finisher. He scored the final ten goals of the regular season for San Jose, and delivered the series-clinching goal that eliminated the New York Red Bulls in the first round.
As important as the play of their teammates will be, it will be the performances of these four standouts that are the most likely to tip each conference final one way or the other.
They won’t be alone in their exploits. Buddle has Donovan and Beckham to provide him with service, while also displaying tireless effort on the wings. Wondolowski will have Convey, who is enjoying a renaissance after years of being tormented by injuries. Ferreira will have, among others, team captain Daniel Hernandez, a no-nonsense defensive midfielder who gives Dallas toughness and an imposing presence in central midfield. Cummings has his partner in goals, Conor Casey, with the tandem scoring more goals together than any forward tandem in MLS history.
In the L.A.-FC Dallas final, the Galaxy will be determined to try and contain Ferreira, with tenacious destroyer Dema Kovalenko assigned the task of pestering the Colombian playmaker while the Galaxy defense cuts off his passing options. L.A. had success in stopping Ferreira in the regular season, and their effort in neutralizing a normally potent Seattle Sounders attack show a team that is defending better than anybody in the playoffs.
For Dallas, trying to keep bodies on Buddle will be key. Schellas Hyndman knows his defenders can’t give Buddle any space, so George John and Ugo Ihemelu will need to try and smother Buddle in a way Seattle simply couldn’t.
That may not be enough to stop the Galaxy, which is the MLS Cup favorite because while Buddle has been the team’s unstoppable goal scorer, Donovan and Beckham give Los Angeles two other game-changers who can produce goals even if Buddle falters.
San Jose doesn’t have that luxury. The Earthquakes have an in-form Convey, and a red-hot Wondolowski, who will find chances tough to come by as Mastroeni and Larentowicz look to neutralize the San Jose midfield. What the Rapids know, however, is that Wondolowski doesn’t need many looks to do his damage. Against New York, he floated almost invisibly before emerging to head home the winning goal.
Cummings hasn’t been nearly as successful this postseason. In fact, if a stat were being kept for most missed chances, Cummings would be lapping the field. He is no stranger to inconsistency, but to see his shots mis-fire at this time of year has to be worrisome for a Rapids attack that relies so much on him.
The Rapids can take heart in the fact that even when Cummings isn’t shooting straight, he can still deliver assists, as he did in the series victory against Columbus. His series-equalizing assist on a Casey goal helped salvage a series that appeared in serious jeopardy of slipping away from the Rapids.
Colorado will need more from Cummings though, not just against the Earthquakes in Saturday’s Western Conference final, but in the MLS Cup Final if the Rapids make it that far. If Cummings is series about making a major move away from MLS, which has been rumored, he will need to show that he can deliver when the most is on the line.
Buddle, Ferreira, Wondolowski and Cummings all delivered in the first round, but all four need to step up this weekend if their teams are going to book places in the MLS Cup Final. Those who step up will only bolster their claims to the title of Major League Soccer’s most valuable player, while those who fade when the spotlight is brightest will doom their teams to fall short one step away from the championship.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Colorado has the home-field advantage, and San Jose will be faced with the altitude in Colorado as well as the Rapids ability to defend very well at home. The Earthquakes are a very good road team though, and will surely be confident after eliminating the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena.
If Colorado can keep Mastroeni and Larentowicz around Geovanni, the next step will be to make sure Bobby Convey doesn’t have his way with Kisuke Kimura on the left flank.
Cummings’ mobility will cause problems for San Jose’s defense, but his finishing has been off in recent weeks, so it may be up to Conor Casey to punish Brandon McDonald in what should be a very physical battle.
It’s tough to bet against the Rapids at home, but the Earthquakes have the look of being this year’s Cinderella story. Convey has another strong outing and Wondolowski finds the net again.
Prediction: Earthquakes 2, Rapids 1
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
The Galaxy defense is better suited to stopping strong wing play than central midfield attacking forays so David Ferreira should be able to find room to operate against Los Angeles. That may not be enough though because his top target, Jeff Cunningham, will have his hands full dealing with Omar Gonzalez.
Look for Los Angeles to attack on the wings much more than it did against Seattle, with Landon Donovan getting forward much more. With starting right back Heath Pearce sidelined, Dallas is going to have a hard time keeping Donovan from terrorizingthe right side of the Dallas defense.
Dallas will rely on its speed and quick counter offensively, but the Galaxy’s defense is so organized it won’t be as easy to find gaps like there were against Real Salt Lake, which couldn’t cope with FC Dallas’ midfield movement. Brek Shea will need to outplay Sean Franklin, which won’t come easy. Cunningham has the speed to turn Gonzalez, if he gets enough passes his way, but A.J. De La Garza should be around to help contain the MLS career scoring leader.
The Galaxy simply has too many weapons for FC Dallas to cope with, and while goalkeeper Kevin Hartman could have another standout performance like he did to eliminate Real Salt Lake, look for the Galaxy to break down the Dallas D.
Prediction: Galaxy 2, FC Dallas 0
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.