MLS Playoff Preview (continued)
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES (19-6-9, 66 points, +29 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: When the Supporters' Shield winner hits on all cylinders, there is not a better team in the league. By any metric, San Jose was the top dog from start to finish. The Earthquakes' 72 goals were 23 more than the Los Angeles Galaxy scored, and they were the closest team in the league with 59. The club's +29 goal differential dwarfs the competition, with Seattle being next in line with +18. San Jose's 19 wins were the most in MLS. Simply put, San Jose is a balanced juggernaut, with a stable defense to go along with a spread-out attack.
Why they won't: The team's propensity for trailing late in games and needing to come from behind is ultimately its undoing, and the Goonies finally say die. It is one thing to have the belief that the club can constantly come back and win or tie, but constantly being in that position is a dangerous prospect, especially when going up against the more veteran, disciplined units in the league that are capable of seeing out a match. San Jose also had the penchant to churn out some head-scratching results over the course of the season, which included two losses to potential conference semifinal foe Vancouver and losses to non-playoff teams Montreal and Portland. The Earthquakes were undoubtedly the top squad in the league, but they are not one without faults.
Key Player: Victor Bernardez, D. MVP-in-waiting, Golden Boot winner and single-season goal record-holder Chris Wondolowski remains locked in as the premiere scoring threat in the league, but for San Jose to reach its peak, it needs its defense to shoulder some of the load. Bernardez is a candidate to be the league's Newcomer of the Year and Defender of the Year and can make the Earthquakes' job infinitely easier by dominating in the back. San Jose did not post a clean sheet on a team that was not Chivas USA after a 5-0 rout of Real Salt Lake on July 14, which is a glaring red flag for playoff time, when goal-scoring tends to be down.
REAL SALT LAKE (17-11-6, 57 points, +11 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: It is easy to sleep on RSL as a contender, because not a whole lot has changed with this stable club since it lifted the MLS Cup trophy in 2009. The veteran nucleus has been there and done that and is motivated to do it again, and as long a Jason Kreis' first-choice XI is healthy -- which has been the grand condition over the last three years -- RSL can take down all comers.
Why they won't: RSL's magic touch has waned a bit, and the sting of failing to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals is still pretty fresh. Seattle also poses a heck of a threat for a conference semifinal, with individual matchups being relatively even all over the field. Whether it's captain Kyle Beckerman trying to outshine Osvaldo Alonso as the defensive midfield boss or central defenders Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers going straight-up against forwards Freddy Montero and Eddie Johnson, the opening series is a genuine toss-up.
Key Player: Alvaro Saborio, F. As Saborio goes, so often does RSL. Olave's health is probably more of a key factor given the fact that his backup, Chris Schuler, is also dealing with a fresh injury, but when the streaky Saborio is finishing with precision and is in a rhythm, he completely transforms RSL from a quality team to a potentially explosive one. RSL won't find itself on the winner's podium without Saborio, who had MLS career-high 17 goals this season, having a major say.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS (15-8-11, 56 points, +18 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: This is Seattle's most dynamic, multi-faceted team of all of the four that have made the postseason in Sounders' MLS history, and there might not be a team in the league with more capable attacking threats on the field and on the bench. The fact that David Estrada, Sammy Ochoa, Mario Martinez and Steve Zakuani, who all started the club's CONCACAF Champions League game this past week, are attacking options 6-9 on this roster is a frightening proposition. As solid as the team was during the regular season, postseason success is ultimately how this team will be remembered, and the club is locked in on turning the page from past postseason failures.
Why they won't: Seattle has to tangle with Real Salt Lake, and while falling to the third seed may have given the Sounders a break by getting to host the opening game of the conference semifinals, RSL is just a brutal early-round matchup on any field. Fresh knocks to vital forward Eddie Johnson and stalwart center back Jeff Parke could leave Sigi Schmid shorthanded depending on the outcome of fitness and medical tests this week, providing another hurdle for the Sounders to overcome in trying to get over the hump of never winning a playoff series.
Key Player: Freddie Johntero, F. OK, so that's cheating a bit. But the fact remains that Freddy Montero and Eddie Johnson have awful postseason track records in their respective MLS careers. Montero has no goals and one assist in six postseason games over the last three seasons, and Seattle has stumbled to a grand total of no playoff series wins as a result. Johnson has the same stat line as Montero, with his postseason experience coming years ago with both the Dallas Burn in 2002 and Kansas City Wizards in 2007. In order to crack RSL's resolute defense, Montero and Johnson (if fit) have to come through, plain and simple.
LOS ANGELES GALAXY (16-12-6, 54 points, +12 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: The defending champions know what it takes to get it done in the postseason, and they are playing with a stated confidence and swagger to the point that they won't be beating themselves like they were in the opening months of the season. Remember when the Galaxy started out 3-8-2 and were trending toward most disappointing team in MLS history? Those days are long gone, and the club finished the season with just two losses in the last 16 games. And even though it seems that most can't wait to write the post-mortem on Donovan's career (perhaps fueled by Donovan's own recent comments to ESPN that are those of a player whose career may be winding down), the fact remains that Donovan had a very good season when he was on the field, and he is still as talented and dynamic of an attacking player as there is in the league. The Donovan-Robbie Keane-David Beckham DP trio led the Galaxy to MLS Cup last season and is more than capable of rising to the challenge again.
Why they won't: Getting past the wildcard round means a date awaits with the California Clasico rival San Jose Earthquakes, a team that has no fear for the Galaxy's star-studded roster and championship pedigree. San Jose took the season series 2-0-1 (although all three games were tightly contested and quite entertaining at that), and former Galaxy coach Frank Yallop has a team with a strong enough mentality to go toe-to-toe with the defending champions. Also, with A.J. DeLaGarza still on the mend, some questions linger about the viability of the back line. All eyes are on rookie center back Tommy Meyer.
Key Player: Omar Gonzalez, D. The Galaxy's turnaround can be attributed to many factors, but Gonzalez's incredibly quick return from a torn ACL transformed the Galaxy's central defense from a glaring weakness to its restored state of stability, and as long as he is roaming across the back, there's a sense of calm and composure that extends across the field. Gonzalez has the ability to neutralize the top forwards in the league, and the Western Conference is littered with them. Simply put, a stellar showing from Gonzalez along the lines of his Defender of the Year campaign from 2011, will go a long way in determining the Galaxy's fate.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (11-13-10, 43 points, -6 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: Defense wins championships, and the Whitecaps have a unit that is capable of competing at a high level, with American veteran Jay DeMerit anchoring the line that allowed just one goal in the last four games of the regular season. The Whitecaps underwent a roster overhaul during the season, but the defense remained intact in front of goalkeepers Joe Cannon and Brad Knighton. The lower scoring the match, the better chance for the flawed Whitecaps to nick a result and carry on.
Why they won't: Honestly the Whitecaps just are not that good when compared to the rest of the stacked Western Conference field and are the clear weak link in the playoff field. They had fewer wins this season than the expansion Montreal Impact, had just one win in their last 10 games and managed to come out flat when the stakes were at their highest down the stretch. They scored the third-fewest goals in the entire league, besting only lowly Portland and Chivas USA. More specific to their wildcard matchup, they have an awful track record in their brief time in the league of playing at Los Angeles, who swept the two meetings between them at the Home Depot Center this season by a combined 5-0 scoreline. The Whitecaps are the longest shot in the field to lift MLS Cup.
Key Player: Kenny Miller, F. It would certainly be pretty nice timing for Miller to earn his DP dollars, no? The Scottish forward has been a considerable bust since joining MLS with just two goals in 13 games and has hardly been the solution that coach Martin Rennie was hoping for when reconstructing his attack in the middle of the season. That said, Miller has the pedigree of a top scorer and is someone who has played on some massive stages. All it takes is one virtuoso performance to turn his foray into MLS from underwhelming to worthwhile.