With the wild-card round over, it’s time for conference play to start. First up is the West, stay tuned for part two that will preview the East.
Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake
Forwards: After a slow start, the Sonders' Fredy Montero has absolutely been on fire the second half of the season and comes into the playoffs with nine goals in 10 games. The second forward spot has been filled through a rotation of Mike Fucito, Roger Levesque and occasionally Pat Noonan. Although all hard working, the trio has failed to produce goals, leading the Sounders to sign former US U-23 striker Sammy Ochoa. Ochoa looks like he may be the answer, having already netted two fantastic goals in his first four games. But Real Salt Lake boasts arguably the best forward tandem in the league – both Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola posted double-digit goal tallies (11 and 10 respectively) – against a Sounders defense that has been shaky down the stretch. Advantage: Real Salt Lake
Midfield: Real gets midfield anchor Kyle Beckerman back from suspension and All-Star playmaker Javier Morales back form injury, while Nat Borchers can be a difference maker off the bench. Morales is one of the league’s premier playmakers, but there’s no guarantee he’s completely healthy and back to speed. He’ll also be contending with MVP candidate Osvaldo Alonso, Seattle’s exceptional midfield destroyer. On the wings the Sounders have the clear advantage with Alvaro Fernandez and Mauro Rosales. Rosales is another MVP candidate who has been ruled out for the first leg because of a nagging hamstring issue, but should be able to return for the game in Seattle. In the meantime, Lamar Neagle should be able to slide into Rosales’ spot. Neagle has shown numerous bright spots during the season and scored a potential goal of the year when the Sounders and Real met in Utah. Even without Rosales, Fernandez's ability to provide offense and Alonso’s solid defense give Seattle the edge. Advantage: Sounders
Defense: Despite conceding under 40 goals (37 for Seattle, 36 for Salt Lake) and ranking in the top 5 in goals allowed, both defenses have looked shaky during the year. Jamison Olave anchors the Real Salt Lake defense while James Riley has been Seattle’s most consistent defender and is excellent at making overlapping runs down the right side. Jhon Kennedy Hurtado has been solid in the middle, but the Sounders have yet to find a reliable partner for him. In a matchup between two teams who favor an attacking style, it could fall on the goalkeepers to decide the outcome. Advantage: Push
Goalkeeping: Nick Rimando had an excellent year for Real Salt Lake and his play earned him a well-deserved call-up to the US national team. However, Kasey Keller is a legend and at the age of 41, posted one of his best seasons ever. Ironically the one blemish was a perplexing own-goal against Real when the two teams met in Seattle, but don’t expect a repeat, especially if Keller’s performance against San Jose is any indication of the form he’s currently in. Advantage: Sounders
Winner: Seattle Sounders
This is a disappointing matchup considering the 2nd and 3rd best teams in the league will meet in only the second round and expect it to be decided by no more than a goal. Real Salt Lake was everyone’s preseason favorite after their impressive run in the CONCACAF Champions League, but Seattle has been the more impressive team over the course of the year. Mauro Rosales may not play for the Sounders, but head coach Sigi Schimid has more than enough firepower off the bench to get Seattle their first ever playoff victory.
LA Galaxy vs. New York Red Bulls
Forwards: People seem to forget who Thierry Henry is. The former Arsenal and Barcelona striker is one of the best players of our generation and he’s only 34 years old. After a disappointing first MLS season, Herny returned with a vengeance to score 15 goals in 27 games for New York in 2011. Partnered with high energy forward Luke Rodgers, the Red Bulls’ attack tied for third in the league in goals scored and is always dangerous. LA parted ways with Juan Pablo Angel midway through the season, making room to sign Irish legend Robbie Keane, who is still a dangerous attacker. Chad Barrett works hard, but struggles to consistently find the net. Advantage: Red Bulls
Midfield: Throughout his 5 – year contract, David Beckham has seen his share of ups and downs including a dispute over the captaincy with Landon Donovan and repeated injury issues. This year however, Beckham has been absolutely masterful, reminding everyone why the Galaxy paid through the nose to acquire him. Coupled with the always dangerous Donovan and breakout star Juninho the Galaxy arguably have the best midfield in the MLS. The Red Bulls midfield could be something special, but they are constantly undermined by the play of Rafa Marquez. Once a world class talent, Marquez’s ability has dropped off so much he is essentially playing on name alone – a problem that coach Hans Backe has to correct. In their wild-card matchup with Dallas Wednesday night, New York went with Marquez and Teemu Tainio as the starters, but Mehdi Ballouchy made a bigger impact as a sub, assisting on the Red Bulls’ first (and eventual game-winning) goal. Don’t be surprised if Backe benches Marquez for the matchup with LA. Even if Marquez is out of the lineup the Red Bulls can’t match LA’s talent in the middle of pitch. Advantage: Galaxy
Defense: As mentioned earlier, New York was tied for third in the MLS with 50 goals scored, but they won only 10 games. The reason for this is simple: the defense let in a ridiculous amount of goals. Tim Ream was supposed to be the future of the US backline, but he’s failed to build on last year’s breakout campaign. Rafa Marquez was replaced by Steven Keel who’s a serviceable backup, but nothing more. Adding to New York’s defensive woes will be the absence of right back Jan Gunnar Solli who’s serving a red card suspension for his reckless tackle against Dallas on Wednesday. Although Solli wasn’t the best defender in the world, he did start 31 games for the Red Bulls and was a threat on overlapping runs down the right flank. LA’s backline, meanwhile, was unquestionably the best in the MLS as they allowed only 28 goals, by far the fewest in the league. Towering center back Omar Gonzalez is a rising star who controls the air and Todd Dunivant is probably the best left back in the league. Center back Gregg Berhalter is a tested veteran and AJ DeLaGarza is just coming into his own. Advantage: Galaxy
Goalkeeping: The defense wasn’t great, but much of the Red Bulls early season struggles can be blamed solely on the goalkeeping. Bouna Coundoul was yanked after conceding 13 goals in only 11 games and German veteran Frank Rost was brought in. Rost has stabilized the position somewhat, but he can’t match LA’s combination of Donovan Rickets and Josh Saunders. Rickets will start the playoff games, but Saunders showed his ability to be a top-tier keeper when he started 18 games due to a Rickets injury. Advantage: Galaxy
Winner: LA Galaxy
When these two teams met on May 7th it was arguably the best match of the year. The game finished in a 1-1 tie, but the play was wide open and David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan provided the star power with all three having a part in the scoring (goals for Henry and Donovan, an assist for Beckham). Both teams looked dangerous and both goalkeepers made fantastic saves to keep the game level. Obviously, much has changed since that fixture (including a 2-0 win for New York later in the year), but the Galaxy have established themselves as the best and most consistent team in the MLS while New York struggled to make the playoffs. I picked New York to beat Dallas, but that was due to Dallas being worn out in addition to having no scoring threat up front. LA is a much better team, Beckham is having the best year of his MLS career and Robbie Keane should be back from injury. There’s a reason LA had the best record in the league and although there’s always a chance that New York finally plays to the level of their talent, I see the Galaxy in the conference finals.