Saturday, October 23, 2004

Previewing the First Round of the MLS Playoffs

This weekend the Major League Soccer playoffs begin. Here are my less than expert predictions:

The East: (two game total goal series)

DC United (2nd, 4th overall) v. Metrostars (3rd, 6th overall)

For only the second time, these two bitter rivals meet in the playoffs. The first meeting in 1996, won by United in three games, was one of the greatest series in MLS's brief history and did more than anything else to fuel the DC-Metros rivalry. As a United fan I'm obviously biased, but I see DC winning this one handily. They ended the year in terrific form, winning their last three and five of their last six. The late season acquisition of Argentinean Christian Gomez helped spark the offense. Gomez tallied four goals, while a revitalized Jaime Moreno had an MVP caliber season. Alecko Eskandarian led the team with 11 goals.

Unlike DC, the Metrostars struggled down the stretch, going 2-6-2 in their last 10 games. While the Metros have a number of good players, as a DC fan the only ones who actually worry me are Honduran Amado Guevara and Eddie Gaven. Jonny Walker is an excellent goalkeeper, and US international Eddie Pope is a steadying influence in the back. Still, for all their talent, the team as a whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Prediction: DC dominated the regular season matchups, winning three of four. Look for that to continue. United wins the series 3-1 (First Leg: 0-0; Second Leg 3-1).

Columbus Crew (1st, 1st overall) v. New England Revolution (4th, 9th overall)

This series is the biggest mismatch of the first round. Columbus won the Supporters' Shield as Regular Season Champions, going undefeated in their last 18 matches. The Crew are not a great team, even by past MLS standards, but they have quality and depth at every position, and play a system that lets them get the most out of their abilities. Edson Buddle and Jeff Cunningham are the main scoring threats, while Kyle Martino adds the creative spark. New Zealand international Simon Elliott is dangerous on set pieces. Veteran sweeper Robin Fraser has done a superb job of marshalling the Crew defense, while Jon Busch is both undersized and underrated in goal.

The Revolution staggered into the playoffs, not qualifying until the last game of the season. The Revs do have some talent, especially up front with Taylor Twellman and Pat Noonan, but have rarely put everything together. Don't expect them to do so now.

Prediction: Crew 5-2 (First Leg: 2-0; Second 3-2)

The West: (two game total goal series)

Kansas City Wizards (1st, 2nd overall) v. San Jose Earthquakes (4th, 7th overall

This series pits an overachieving team against an underachieving one. The Wizards have overcome key injuries to have an excellent season. They won the West and tied for the overall lead with Columbus, losing the Supporters' Shield on the "goals for" tiebreaker. Perhaps more importantly, Kansas City captured their first-ever US Open Cup. The Wizards, like Columbus, are a solid if unspectacular team that gets the most out of its abilities. Josh Wolff and Davy Arnaud have formed a quality strike tandem. Journeyman goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi has been brilliant while filling in for the injured Tony Meola. Nick Garcia and Jimmy Conrad have anchored MLS's stingiest defense, giving up only 30 goals. The pride of Plymouth Michigan, Kerry Zavagnin has been solid in the midfield, even playing his way onto the US national team.

The Earthquakes, reigning MLS Cup champions, have been one of this year's biggest disappointments. Injuries, national team callups, bad breaks, and poor form have all resulted in a substandard campaign for the league's most talented team. Still, if the Earthquakes can pull things together, there's no reason they can't repeat. Brian Ching led the way with 11 goals. Canadian international Pat Onstad is solid in goal, with veteran Jeff Agoos the leader on the backline. The key to the Earthquakes, of course, is Landon Donovan. Last year, he finally showed the ability to take his team to the next level. He will need to do it again.

Prediction: Kansas City 2-2 (First Leg: 1-1; Second 1-1, KC wins on penalty kicks)

Los Angeles Galaxy (2nd, 3rd overall) v. Colorado Rapids (3rd, 5th overall)

The Galaxy got off to a great start, then faltered a bit. Still, LA has the talent to make it to MLS Cup, with the added incentive that it will be on their home field at the Home Depot Center. Guatemalan Carlos Ruiz needs to emerge from his funk and start finding the back of the net. Fortunately for the Galaxy, Kevin Hartman can be counted on to keep them in almost any game.

I will mince few words regarding the Colorado Rapids: They are the most boring team in league history. The Rapids scored a pathetic 29 goals, and became the first team in MLS to ever average less than one goal per game. If not for the magnificent goalkeeping of Joe Cannon, Colorado would deservedly be at the bottom of the table.

Prediction: Colorado won the first leg at home last night, 1-0. Look for LA to bounce back and win the series at home, 2-0.

For more on the MLS playoffs, visit the official league Web site.


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