Breaking down the MLS playoffs
Sporting KC hasn't lost in 12 matches, making them a favorite for the MLS Cup
San Jose Earthquakes have the MLS' best record but often trail late in matches
VancouverWhitecaps are the weak link, scoring the third fewest goals in the league
The Major League Soccer postseason kicks off on Wednesday, with the wildcard round beginning a month-long journey to MLS Cup at a site to be determined. The balance and parity in MLS this season led to down-to-the-wire races for seeding and, ultimately, some dream postseason matchups featuring rivals, evenly-matched league powers and a playoff bracket that is quite unpredictable. Here is a team-by-team look at the 10-team playoff field:
SPORTING KANSAS CITY (18-7-9, 63 points, +15 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: The MLS postseason is all about which teams enter in the best form, and Sporting KC has not lost in 12 matches -- the best among all playoff teams. That bodes well for a club whose dominance does not always translate into multiple-goal outputs, but whose performances are typically pretty standard. Everyone in the stadium knows what to expect when Sporting KC takes the field: 10 field players with insanely high work rates and the discipline to carry on from start to finish in front of stable netminder Jimmy Nielsen. Teal Bunbury's season-ending injury paved the way for C.J. Sapong to reclaim his top form, and the attack is no worse off with him, Kei Kamara and MLS assist-leader Graham Zusi typically coming through with timely finishes.
Why they won't: As hard as this team works, Sporting KC has the fewest number of goals scored among the playoff teams in the East, and the second-fewest among all 10 teams in the playoffs. The outcome of a playoff series is determined on the scoreboard, not in the possession percentages, and while Sporting KC is more than comfortable playing in a 1-0 game, the last thing it wants is to be entered into a high-scoring affair. With some crucial injuries potentially altering the club's lineup, it is imperative that the team does not stray from its winning formula.
Key Player: Roger Espinoza, M. Espinoza is the engine behind SKC's dominant midfield, one that pressures all over the field, shields the defense and dictates the tempo and possession battle on a game-to-game basis. With fellow midfielder Paulo Nagamura banged up a bit after suffering a sprained ankle in the season finale, Espinoza's pending return from his sprained ankle is even more of a must for the U.S. Open Cup champions. Manager Peter Vermes told the club's official website that both are expected to be ready for the postseason opener this weekend, but either Chicago or Houston is capable of nicking a home result against a weakened SKC side (in fact, both won their home meetings against SKC this season).
D.C. UNITED (17-10-7, 58 points, +10 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: Like Sporting KC, D.C. also enters the playoffs on an extended unbeaten run (seven games), and the club has a growing sense of confidence with every result. Bill Hamid played like a world-beater in goal in the season finale against Chicago and has appeared to rediscover his top form, and the team has an uncanny ability to respond to falling behind in games, completely changing the mentality of past D.C. teams that have crumbled when facing in-game adversity. On paper, D.C. is far from the most daunting team out there, but coach Ben Olsen has made it work and has a locker room full of players who have bought in and truly believe.
Why they won't: D.C. has managed to stem the tide without the injured Dwayne De Rosario, but the remaining attacking nucleus is quite short on playoff experience and would benefit so much by having De Rosario and his extensive postseason resume available for selection. There may be a bit of a transition shock from regular-season mode to playoff mode for Olsen's much-improved side, and stumbling in the opener at Red Bull Arena on Saturday night would pave the way for a quick and disappointing exit for a club making its return to the playoffs after a five-year hiatus.
Key Player: Chris Pontius, M/F. Pontius' game tends to rise another notch when he faces the Red Bulls, especially in 2012, when he scored five of his career-high 12 goals this season in the three meetings with United's chief rival. He notched a hat trick against them at RFK Stadium earlier this season and had a two-goal game at Red Bull Arena as well. With De Rosario out, Pontius, the longest-tenured player on the team and a U.S. national-team candidate, has taken hold of the leadership role but has to deliver on the scoreboard, whether he's playing up top or out on the left wing.
NEW YORK RED BULLS (16-9-9, 57 points, +11 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: The class on this roster, when it performs at its peak, can be unstoppable. Thierry Henry is healthy, motivated and becoming the poster child for what it means to be a Designated Player. Unlike rival D.C., on paper, this team has the making of a champion, and if Kenny Cooper can carry his scoring form from the season finale over into the playoffs and act as a battering ram while going up against D.C.'s vulnerable central defenders in the conference semifinals, then that will open up a world of possibilities for Henry, Tim Cahill & Co.
Why they won't: Because something always goes drastically wrong for the Red Bulls, doesn't it? The timing of the front-office overhaul and word of Hans Backe's pending departure could prove to be the distraction that derails another promising campaign for a team still in search of its first trophy. More tangibly and pertinent to on-field happenings, the Red Bulls constantly find themselves playing from behind early, a problem that has become less of an epidemic in the club's most recent games but is a recipe for disaster against playoff-caliber competition.
Key Player: Dax McCarty, M. Henry is the greatest game-changer in MLS and can single-handedly carry his squad in a way that no other player in the league can. But it's been McCarty's tenacity, work rate and tackling ability that often goes under-noticed and can help New York dominate the ball while covering up the imperfections across the back line. How sweet would it be for McCarty, who was misused in his brief, forgettable time in D.C., to emerge as a playoff hero against New York's nemesis? He was a key factor in FC Dallas' run to the MLS Cup final in 2010 and can is more than capable of replicating that role yet again.
CHICAGO FIRE (17-11-6, 57 points, +5 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: The Fire can attack from all angles, with Chris Rolfe being a second-tier MVP candidate upon his comeback to MLS. The returning Fire star took no time at all to re-acclimate to the league after getting over an injury, emerging as a true-difference maker in a withdrawn forward role behind Sherjill MacDonald and acting as the catalyst for a team that had loads of in-season overhaul. Defensively, Chicago is stable, with Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Berry and German veteran Arne Freidrich churning out consistent results.
Why they won't: As well as the Fire can play, they had a tendency to drop a stinker at the most questionable of times, evidenced by a loss at New England in the penultimate game of the season. It was a match the Fire should have won with relative ease to keep them out of the wildcard round, but instead, they find themselves with a more treacherous path. The Fire have the fatal flaw of being their own worst enemy.
Key Player: Sean Johnson, GK. When Johnson is on his game and things are going right, the young goalkeeper is one of the best at his craft in the league. He has shown, however, that he is prone to making grand errors on some pretty major stages (the Olympic qualifying gaffe will forever taint his resume), and all it takes to be eliminated from the MLS playoffs is one catastrophic, poorly timed blunder. This is his long-awaited chance to prove his doubters wrong, but it also another instance in which Johnson may come under some serious heat if he cannot come through unscathed.
HOUSTON DYNAMO (14-9-11, 53 points, +7 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: Dom Kinnear has a full complement of healthy charges from which to select, and the experience from last year's run to MLS Cup is littered all over the roster. If the good side of the sometimes-enigmatic Mac Kandji comes out for the postseason, then the Dynamo can score with the best of them. Houston was at its best this summer when Calen Carr and Kandji were in form, giving Brad Davis more capable options to find in the attack and not just trying to zone in on second-year standout Will Bruin.
Why they won't: The Dynamo limped into the postseason a bit, going 3-4-4 down the stretch after a five-game winning streak seemingly had them headed to the top of the table. The club went unbeaten at BBVA Compass Stadium and has one of the best home-field edges in the league, but the problem is, they need to go on the road just to earn a place in the conference semifinals. Houston's last foray to Toyota Park to face the Chicago Fire ended in a decisive 3-1 defeat.
Key Player: Oscar Boniek Garcia, M. Houston's set-piece proficiency is its calling card, and Davis, the service maestro is healthy and in fine form, but the Dynamo have a run-of-play threat in Garcia that differentiates this team from the one that advanced to last year's final. Arguably the best in-season DP acquisition in the league, Garcia adds a completely different element to Kinnear's attack and can unlock defenses with his wise runs and stealth passing.