New script ready to be written in MLS playoffs

The second legs of the MLS playoffs kick off Thursday night as the Columbus Crew try to dispatch Real Salt Lake in their bid to repeat as MLS Cup winners.

The games continue Saturday as New England travel to face Chicago and wrap up Sunday as Seattle visits Houston and Chivas USA and the L.A. Galaxy clash again in Carson.

The two-leg playoff matchups are total-goals series, meaning that if the games end drawn after the second leg, a half-hour ‘minigame’ will be played, followed by penalty kicks if needed to break any deadlocks.

Let’s review the matchups and what needs to happen for each team to progress to the semifinals …

Columbus vs. Real Salt Lake (Thu., 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Last time: Salt Lake stunned the Crew, 1-0 in Sandy, behind an 88th minute goal from Robbie Findley. It’s worth noting that only 11,499 showed up to see the game, which put a damper on things.

The big number: 7. It’s worn by Columbus’ Guillermo Barros Schelotto. In a much-criticized decision, the Argentine playmaker was held out last game by his coach, Robert Warzycha.

What they need: RSL can advance with a win or a draw. The Crew needs to win by two goals.

Let’s be honest — the first meeting between these two was flat. For reasons that remain unclear, the Crew played for a draw from the start, bunkering down and keeping Schelotto and Alejandro Moreno on the bench. Part of this was probably due to Warzycha’s calculation that RSL’s road record is so poor that Columbus will be able to open up the game at Crew Stadium. Part of this could have been the memory of getting whipped, 4-1, in Sandy earlier this season.

It should be conceded that, until the end, the Crew’s strategy did work. Salt Lake’s attack was anemic, forcing Crew ‘keeper Will Hesmer to make only one save. But playing not to lose has its own risks, as Columbus found out, in yet another loss. Findley’s late goal stunned the reigning champs and now the Crew head home having lost four of their last five. They’ve only scored one goal in that spell and desperately need to get something out of their slumping offense.

On the other side of the coin, Salt Lake — which of course last year shocked Chivas USA to make the conference finals — needs to do something it has rarely done this season — avoid losing on the road. They are pitiful at 2-11-2 and have to avoid the temptation to go into a shell themselves.

Bottom line: The Crew need to get something — anything — out of Moreno, Schelotto and Robbie Rogers. Salt Lake’s defense cannot concede soft goals, and will need sparkling form from Jamison Olave and Nick Rimando.

Winner: By rights, the Crew should win this. But Warzycha’s inexplicable decision to sit his best player has put the Cup holders behind the eight-ball. All RSL needs to do is play 90 of sullen defense to win out.

Chicago vs. New England (Sat., 8:30 p.m. ET, FSC/FSE)

Last time: New England gutted out a 2-1 win thanks to Shalrie Joseph’s 75th minute strike.

The big number: 10. Cuauhtemoc Blanco needs to have a big game for the Fire to have any chance.

What they need: The Revs can advance with a win or a draw. The Fire need to win by two goals.

This was a great game that unfortunately only a few witnessed. Only 7,416 showed up at Gillette to see what was arguably the best playoff match of the week. That shows how far off the radar the Revs are — despite the fact that Steve Nicol (and the departed Paul Mariner) have turned this team into winners. Too few people make the trek to Foxborough to see it in person.

That’s a shame. The Revs, like the Fire, haven’t lit it up this season, but these are not bad teams — game in and game out in MLS, you sure can do a lot worse. And head to head, these two always manage to create sparks. Last week saw the Revs claw their way back after an early Chris Rolfe goal seemed to signal that this was once again the Fire’s year. But a goal deep in first half stoppage by defender Emmanuel Osei sent them to the lockers level. After the break, Joseph, unquestionably the franchise’s lifetime MVP, once again shouldered the load and delivered the win after having to take over for an ailing Edgaras Jankauskas.

Now that the Revs have broken a two-year winless drought against the Fire, can they carry the load at Toyota Park? The Fire, despite getting a great game out of Blanco, have looked out of sorts since September. There are rumblings that coach Denis Hamlett is on the way out the door and that a shakeup is coming on the field as well (speaking of which, if the Fire lose, this might well be Blanco’s last game as he will transfer to second-tier Veracruz at season’s end).

For his part, Hamlett was incensed by the result, claiming the Revs pushed his guys around at will. If that was indeed the case, then his lads had better find some backbone, stat, because the likes of Matt Reis, Joseph and Jay Heaps have never backed down from anyone.

Bottom line: The Fire need to have great games from ‘keeper Jon Busch (blameless on both goals last week), Brian McBride and Blanco. C.J. Brown needs to shake off his inertia and have a big game in back. Marco Pappa and Logan Pause must stop wasting chances and start playing.

And the Revs? They just need to play the same kind of gutsy soccer.

Winner: The Revs discovered how to score last week. This week, they’re likely to bunker and blunt. Not sure the Fire has the tools to get the job done.

Houston vs. Seattle (Sun., 3 p.m. ET, Telefutura)

Last time: A foul-ridden, poorly-refereed game ended up a 0-0 stalemate.

The big number: 35,807. That’s how many showed up at Qwest Field, turning this playoff tie into a rocking spectacle. Pity the action on the field didn’t match the enthusiasm in the stands.

What they need: Both teams need to win the game to advance.

This game was supposed to be the highlight of the playoffs, with two of the league’s best teams playing on national television in front of a packed house. As a spectacle, there’s no denying MLS hit a home run here. But as a soccer match? This one left a lot to be desired. Judging from the comments and mail we got, a lot of folks tuned in to this one expecting something different, and then tuned out.

First, there was the refereeing — it was atrocious. Ricardo Salazar lost control of the match early on when he failed to eject Houston’s Pat Onstad after he decked Fredy Montero in the box. Salazar and his crew would go on to preside over a game filled with rash, frustrated tackles, handing out six cards in total. And let’s not overlook the fact that Seattle had a perfectly decent goal scored by Nate Jacqua called back for a ‘foul’ on Brian Mullan. C’mon.

Then, there’s the turf. It made crisp passing impossible, and more than one attempt to play flowing football fell flat. There were the nerves, too. Both teams looked a bit stunned to actually play in front of a crowd that passionate.

But the big thing missing on the night? Offense. Yes, both teams are decent in the back, but how on earth do you go an hour deep into a match with only two legit chances on goal?

Bottom line: These two teams have to actually play soccer, not rugby or hockey. Seattle needs a big game out of Jaqua, Montero and Freddie Ljungberg, who may be playing his final games in the PacNorthWest. Kasey Keller is likely to be challenged a bit more by Brian Ching and Dominic Oduro, and will also have to be on top form. Houston’s X-factor remains Stuart Holden, who had a quiet game last time. He needs to step it up at home if his team is to win.

Winner: Houston has the edge, and they’ve already sold out the lower bowl at Robertson Stadium, so a betting man would take the Dynamo. That said, I’m pulling for Seattle for purely selfish reasons — I’d like to see the hosts of the MLS Cup get to the finals and sell Qwest Field out.

Los Angeles vs. Chivas USA (Sun., 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Last time: Four defensive howlers led to four goals, and a 2-2 draw between the bitter California rivals.

The big number: 34. That’s Beckham’s age, not his number. He’s got a brutal year ahead of him, but the question MLS is now asking is can he lead his team to the finals?

What they need: Both teams need to win the game to advance.

Okay, this one was just flat-out weird. Four bad gaffes, four bad goals. A two-all draw.

Yes, at the top level, mistakes are usually the way big games are decided … but the mistakes last time out were so amateurish it’s hard to say this was ‘top-level.’

After all, how many times do you see bad passes from the likes of Landon Donovan? Or see a forward — Maicon Santos, who scored Chivas’ first goal in the 3rd minute — send a hospital ball back to his ‘keeper? And then see a defender, Omar Gonzalez, do the same thing on the other end to allow Maykel Galindo to tie it up?

One of my colleagues joked that if anyone bet on MLS games, this one could have been investigated for possible fixing. He’s right.

The positives? Well, the finishes were nice.

Bottom line: When the two sides meet again, they have to stop the rot that infects both team’s defenses. We all knew both were sloppy, but the last game became comedic. This time, MLS’ newly-minted Keeper of the Year Zach Thornton needs to settle his back line, and get guys like Yamith Cuesta to clear the ball. At the other end of the field, Donovan Ricketts (edged by Big Zach for the award) has to pray that Gregg Berhalter and Gonzalez can get through the game without falling over the ball.

The main men remain the same — it’s LD and Becks for the Galaxy and Sacha Kljestan and, uh, well, himself for Chivas.

Winner: Both teams are good up front and lousy in the back. This one’s a toss-up, but the coin came up for L.A. the last time, so I’m sticking with ’em.

Around the league: D.C. United have parted ways with coach Tom Soehn after three seasons. And Chivas USA’s Preki is widely said to be close to departing the franchise for other pastures. There are opportunities for both men elsewhere. New York and Toronto have openings and other teams — Colorado and Chicago come to mind — may make off-season changes as well.

Jamie Trecker’s newest book, “Love and Blood: At the World Cup with the Footballers, Fans and Freaks” is out now from Harcourt. Jamie is assisted by Jerry and Janice Trecker. Contact Jamie at jamie.trecker@gmail.com and visit his blog and website at www.jamietrecker.com.

The views and opinions expressed by Jamie Trecker do not necessarily reflect those of the Fox Soccer Channel or FoxSoccer.com.