Nat Borchers, Alvaro Saborio, and Javier Morales are three very good reasons to pick Real Salt Lake to go far in the MLS Cup playoffs.
As was discussed in our Eastern Conference preview, MLS's powerful clubs were mostly out west. Whereas the Eastern Conference could only produce two playoff teams, the Western Conference provides six, which is a first in MLS history. Among those six clubs are the Supporters Shield-winning Los Angeles Galaxy, a Real Salt Lake club that both set an MLS record for allowing the fewest goals in a season and has drawn near-universal praise as the best club to watch in the league, and an FC Dallas team that went on a 19 game unbeaten streak in league play.
What do these elite clubs get for their hard work over an arduous regular season? RSL and Dallas end up against each other in the first round (best first-round playoff match up in MLS history?), and LA gets the Seattle Sounders, who a) are on a 10-2-2 run in league play, b) very recently won the 2010 US Open Cup, and c) have one of MLS's real home-field advantages (by far the largest crowds in MLS, and they play on turf). Insert your typical complaints about MLS's ludicrous playoff structure here.
No matter how silly it is that these four teams are on the same side of the bracket, someone still needs to win these games. Read on for the B&RU perspective on their formations, tactics, and other notable topics of discussion, and what all that info adds up to.#1 Los Angeles Galaxy vs. #4 Seattle Sounders
First Leg (at Seattle) - Sunday 10/31, 8pm (ESPN2/ESPN Deportes)
Second Leg - (at Los Angeles) - Sunday 11/7, 9pm (ESPN/ESPN Deportes)
The Galaxy seized control of MLS from the very beginning of the season and other than a one-week span a couple of weeks ago, they topped the table for virtually the entire season. If that isn't impressive enough, don't forget that they did that with Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle departing for World Cup duty for six weeks, and also had David Beckham and Gregg Berhalter miss big chunks of the season injured. LA's 2010 season, except for their shocking flop in CONCACAF Champions League qualifying, stands equal with any other regular season in MLS history.
Standing across the field from them in the first round will be the other MLS club to have won some silverware this season. The Sounders have been red hot since mid-July; that aforementioned 10-2-2 record means they picked up 32 of the last 42 points available to them in the regular season. They're playing so well at the moment that Alvaro Fernandez, who was making regular appearances for Uruguay in their march to the World Cup semifinals, has to be content with a substitute's role at the moment.
Let's take a look at the likely starting lineups for both sides:
Bruce Arena's squad is not set in stone by any means, as there are injuries to contend with as well as the potential to use a 4312 instead of this very traditional 442. On the injury front, the big one is to Berhalter, who has barely played since mid-season. Arena will likely leave his selection at that spot until the last moment, since his alternatives all have some form of red flag attached to them (AJ DeLaGarza is only 5'9", Leonardo has been shaky all year, and Yohance Marshall has barely played). If Arena can't call on Berhalter, my guess is that he'll go for DeLaGarza, who won an NCAA championship partnering Omar Gonzalez at Maryland.
In the midfield, there is a chance that Arena could go with Dema Kovalenko over Chris Birchall, particularly away from home. Birchall is the better player, but Kovalenko's intensity, commitment, and ability to cover more ground may be an interesting option to use on the road. On the left, quality rookie Michael Stephens appears to have recovered after hitting the "rookie wall" and spending a lengthy amount of time on the bench. However, Arena may choose to test Sanna Nyassi's defensive abilities by playing Donovan on the left wing, which in turn would open the door for Mike Magee or Jovan Kirovski to play underneath Buddle.
Arena could also opt for a narrow 4312, which would see Beckham play between the midfield and the forwards. In that set up, Birchall (right) and Stephens (left) would pinch in to play very close to Juninho, who would take up a more defensive position than we're used to seeing. That's apparently the position he was being groomed for at Sao Paulo, so it's not an unfamiliar role for the underrated young Brazilian, who should have been on MLS's shortlist for Newcomer of the Year over the likes of Thierry Henry.
Sigi Schmid's Sounders, by comparison, are quite settled. With no injury concerns, Schmid can call on his hottest eleven just when he needs them. Much has been made of Fredy Montero's recent lack of goals, but Seattle hasn't suffered because other players are stepping up. Steve Zakuani, Blaise Nkufo, and Nyassi have all stepped up, and Montero's ability to orchestrate Seattle's play means he's still making a big impact without getting on the scoresheet.
LA's big concern will be down the wings. While Sean Franklin may be the toughest match up in MLS for Zakuani, Todd Dunivant on the other side may struggle with Nyassi's speed. The defense contains no big name players, but they're very organized and end up playing better than the sum of their parts. Plenty of credit for that goes to Kasey Keller's leadership and the stellar play of Osvaldo Alonso, who at this point has to be considered the best player at his position in MLS. If LA wants to play through the middle, they'll probably find it tough going.
Why Los Angeles will win: The Galaxy has shown that they can win in pretty much every fashion you can imagine. They've jumped out to early leads, they've made slender leads stand up, they've ground out ugly results, and they've repeatedly come from behind to win games (even if both recent comebacks, over DC United and FC Dallas, involved Donovan getting away with a foul on the goal that turned the momentum their way; when you're playing well, things like that go your way).
Winning the Supporters Shield was very important for LA; to have lead this long and lost it would have been a tough blow to their psyche. Instead, they can enter the playoffs at full confidence. Their role players would be among the best players on most other teams, and in Donovan, Buddle, and Beckham, they have three of the very best players in the entire league. If they do find themselves being outplayed, they can usually rely on Donovan Ricketts to bail them out with a big save. These guys didn't take 59 points this season on accident.
Why Seattle will win: Entering the MLS playoffs on a hot streak is a time-honored method to go deep into the postseason, and no one's hotter than Seattle. Schmid has his team firing on all cylinders, and at the moment they probably believe they can beat anyone, anywhere. Couple that with by far MLS's largest home crowd behind them, and there's reason to believe Seattle could more or less book their place in the Western Conference final after the first leg.
Seattle's strength at the moment is their offense; the Montero-Nkufo combination is an ideal example of the "little man/big man" forward combination, and LA's issues at center back open the door for those two to dominate this series. If they are contained, however, Seattle can quickly shift gears and rely on their flying wingers. If that's not enough, they have players like Fernandez and Nate Jaqua available off the bench to offer a change of pace without losing much in the way of quality.
What's going to happen: This should be an extremely fascinating series. Between the star power on the field and the potential for MLS's two best head coaches to match wits tactically, this should be a very close-run match up. However, I keep coming back to the Galaxy's question marks at center back; that's pretty much the worst place to have an unsettled situation going into the playoffs, and against Seattle it will definitely be found out. As good as this LA team has been all year, I think they've run into a rave green buzz saw. I'm taking Seattle, 3-1 on aggregate.
#2 Real Salt Lake vs. #3 FC Dallas
First Leg (at Dallas) - Saturday 10/30, 5pm (Fox Soccer Channel/Fox Sports Espanol)
Second Leg (at Salt Lake) - Saturday 11/6, 10pm (Fox Soccer Channel/Fox Sports Espanol)
Real Salt Lake won last year's MLS Cup, but the fact that they only scraped into the playoffs on goal differential left many people questioning their merits. Jason Kreis and co. responded in the best way possible: Winning games in style. RSL was the Galaxy's real competition for the Supporters Shield, amassing 56 points despite having to gut their way through the congested schedule that comes with participation in the CCL. They set MLS records for fewest goals allowed in a season (just 20 over the course of 30 league matches) and for consecutive matches without a loss at home, while also becoming the first MLS side to win their CCL group. In short, these guys can play a little bit.
While all that was going on, Schellas Hyndman's FC Dallas only managed to go 19 games without a loss. They did this despite having one of MLS's least intimidating home venues and losing numerous players to injury. The play of MVP candidate David Ferreira, along with the speed and technical skills found throughout their team, left Dallas as the one team that could compete aesthetically with RSL.
It's a real shame that one of these clubs will be out after the first round, but that's where we find ourselves. Let's take a look at the probable lineups:
Kreis fields his team in what is often called a diamond 442, but in my mind it's a 4312 due to how narrow that midfield is. The narrow midfield not only aids a stellar back four by clogging up the middle, but it also gets players closer together, emphasizing the short-passing style RSL excels at. Most MLS coaches would have taken a look at Javier Morales and immediately figured out their best 4231 or 4411; Kreis deserves a lot of credit for giving Morales two forwards and committing to an attacking style of play.
RSL's biggest concern is left midfielder Will Johnson, who is questionable with a hamstring strain. RSL's depth is as good as you'll find in MLS, but Johnson's prodigious work rate is irreplaceable. If the Canadian can't go, look for Ned Grabavoy to move to the left side of midfield, with Andy Williams slotting in on the right. If Johnson is fit, Grabavoy and Williams have more or less rotated at right midfield all season long. With Kreis allegedly favoring a cagey approach to the first leg, I think we'll see Grabavoy, who is slightly better defensively, get the start.
Up front, RSL's best pairing is Alvaro Saborio and the feisty Fabian Espindola. Robbie Findley will see time in every game, however, because his speed is a change of pace Kreis loves to use. If they're down, Findley changes the dynamics of RSL's attack. If they're winning, Findley can function as a one-man counterattack.
Unfortunately for Dallas, many of the above players are merely penciled in due to injuries or form. Starting in the back, central defender Ugo Ihemelu missed most of the last third of the season due to a concussion. Compounding that was a tweaked hamstring likely brought on by the lack of training that goes with overcoming a serious concussion. Ihemelu rates himself as ready to play, but Hyndman has indicated that he will play whoever is in the best form. If he sees Ihemelu as rusty, look for quality rookie Zach Loyd to partner George John.
There are also questions in goal, where Kevin Hartman may or may not be ready to return from the MCL sprain caused by Thierry Henry's "patented" (side note: It was utterly ridiculous that a) Henry claimed that this was some kind of trademarked celebration for him and b) that so many people ran with it as if it were true) goal celebration. Shaky veteran Dario Sala would step in if Hartman isn't fit, but surely Hyndman will choose Hartman if he's anywhere close to 100%.
The issues continue at right back, where Heath Pearce is questionable with a hamstring strain. Hyndman's first choice to replace him, versatile Brazilian newcomer Jackson, is also questionable with a similar muscle problem. If neither is fit enough to go 90 minutes, Hyndman will probably opt to play Loyd at right back (where he featured earlier in the season). Given how aggressively Dallas pushes their outside backs into the attack, this could be something that causes them real issues.
The linking midfield role is also a question mark. Dax McCarty missed a decent chunk of the middle of the season with a quadriceps injury, and rookie Eric Alexander impressed while filling in. McCarty has not been in the best form since he came back, and Hyndman's preference for form over names leaves me thinking McCarty will only feature as a sub. Speaking of subs, the form of Honduran winger Marvin Chavez means that Hyndman will have Brek Shea available off the bench. That's the kind of wild card that can turn a series.
Why RSL will win: In my opinion at least, RSL is the best team in MLS. Their defense set a record for stinginess and features both my goalkeeper of the year (Nick Rimando) and my defender of the year (Nat Borchers). Their midfield is the best at keeping possession in the league, and Morales is a true match-winner. Saborio has been a revelation up front, and yet they don't rely on any one player to do all their scoring or create all their chances. They also have the advantage of playing at altitude (and potentially in snowy weather), something that pairs beautifully with their possession game. There's also a never-say-die attitude about this team, which has been on display several times (notably against the Colorado Rapids, and also against Arabe Unido in the CCL).
Why Dallas will win: Dallas is the only team in MLS that can realistically say that they can hold a candle to RSL's ability to dominate games through possession. Assuming everyone is fit, they also possess a fast, athletic back four that can keep up with the speed and strength of RSL's strikers. Speed also comes up when you look at their wide play, where Chavez and Atiba Harris will put Robbie Russell and Chris Wingert under plenty of pressure. They also will need to get the best out of David Ferreira, whose mobility will be key. The little Colombian will have to break out of what will be a crowded central midfield often if Dallas is going to generate scoring chances.
What's going to happen: With all due respect to Dallas, they are simply unlucky to have drawn RSL this early. A more sensible playoff system would have rewarded both teams with lower quality opponents, but there's nothing that can be done about that now. While Dallas has the ability to play RSL without backing into a defensive shell, I just can't see the defending champs go out this early. They're simply too good all over the field. I'm going with a 1-1 draw in the first leg and a 2-0 RSL win at Rio Tinto Stadium next week.