Sizing up MLS playoff teams (cont.)
Why they could lift the MLS Cup: Around this team, it's all about David Ferreira and his ability to keep possession, to draw fouls (he leads the league in that), to make three or four killer passes a half, and to dart into the penalty area at crucial moments. Elsewhere, coach Schellas Hyndman has personnel options once again as first-choice center backs Ugo Ihemelu and George John are healthy now. The current striker rotation is working like a charm; Milton Rodriguez starts, Jeff Cunningham comes in late to bother defenses with his speed. Most of Cunningham's team-leading 11 goals have been off the bench.
Why they probably won't: Midfielder Daniel Hernandez and goalkeeper Kevin Hartman mean so much, not just in ability and role management but in leadership and experience. Though they each missed about a month at the worst time. Both are back on the field now, but it's tough to regain the edge in just a couple of meaningless matches. Plus, if teams can plot a way to shut down service into Ferreira, the Red Stripes offense will find itself severely hamstrung.
Why they could lift the MLS Cup: It seems counterintuitive, but the evidence looks clear now: this is a better side without Freddie Ljungberg. Fredy Montero has been free to run the offense and the midfield now has more bite. Steve Zakuani is enjoying a fantastic sophomore season on the left, while raw product Sanna Nyassi's evolving game is making people fear the right side, too. Blaise Nkufo is scoring lately in addition to his contribution through smart holdup play. So there's more variety in the attack at Qwest Field now, and the Sounders are wearing it well.
Why they probably won't: Montero certainly dragged the Sounders out of the ditch with a fabulous July and August, but he has slumped noticeably since. And while the attack has proper pep, the defense isn't nearly as strong. Center backs Patrick Ianni and Jeff Parke (third and fourth choices going into 2010) have heroically done their part, but they do have limitations. (Especially alongside fullbacks who are sometimes stretched, and behind wingers who aren't great defenders.) Hence, Seattle's 33 goals allowed matches Columbus as most allowed so far by a playoff team.
Why they could lift the MLS Cup: Chris Wondolowski! What a story. This guy wouldn't have been the 20th forward picked on a fantasy team as far back as June. Now he's got a great chance to lead the league in goals and he's making a stubborn argument for league MVP. You know what else? Because of Wondolowski, no one is talking about the splendid Geovanni and everything he's done to spice up the Earthquakes attack.
Why they probably won't: Injuries along the back line have created instability at Buck Shaw this year. Ramiro Corrales has returned to left back but could still be rusty. Coach Frank Yallop has Brandon McDonald, Bobby Burling and Jason Hernandez to choose from at center back; all are adequate options although none have been playoff-tested. And while rescuing goalkeeper Jon Busch from the scrap heap has proven such a master stroke (because of Joe Cannon's subsequent injury), the Earthquakes' current No. 1 will give up a stinker here and there.
Why they could lift the MLS Cup: The Man may tell you the best MLS strike duo is in New York. Be wary of The Man. Because the league's best strike duo is at the edge of the American high planes, just outside Denver, where Omar Cummings and Conor Casey roam. They have 25 goals between them. And now they have Brian Mullan serving them, as coach Gary Smith has assembled a midfield balance that rivals RSL, Dallas and New York. In the back, Drew Moor has been one of the top underrated men of MLS this year, while Marvell Wynne has repurposed a set of skills that had seemed to hit a plateau.
Why they probably won't: Pablo Mastroeni has two World Cups on his resume and Mullan has four MLS Cup rings. But the Rapids are pretty shy on big-game experience from there. There has never been an MLS playoff game at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, in fact, as Colorado hasn't been involved in postseason play since the grounds in Commerce City opened in 2007. That doesn't mean Smith's men will sink beneath the playoff weight -- it just means we don't know.