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MLS PLAYOFFS: Team to beat? A repeat

10/29/2010

Major League Soccer's playoffs kicked off Thursday night, and it went just the way so many of us expected, with Omar Cummings running riot over the Columbus Crew.

Cummings' Colorado Rapids are a popular pick to reach the Eastern Conference final, even go further. That would fit nicely into an enduring (and somewhat aggravating) theme: The rise of the minnow.

The past two MLS Cup finals featured “crossover” clubs -- teams that were shuttled over to the other conference's postseason bracket after finishing outside the top four in its conference, then, somehow, pulled off two upsets to get through.

New York was fifth in the East in 2008, but it was the “Western” champ after stunning defending champ Houston and beating Real Salt Lake before falling to Eastern rival Columbus in the title game at Home Depot Center. Real Salt Lake's championship run last year started in the East -- the Utahns were fifth in the West -- with upsets of the Crew and Chicago before the penalty-kicks triumph over the Galaxy in Seattle.

This year it's Colorado's and San Jose's turn. Six Western teams reached the final eight, and the bottom two were placed in the Eastern bracket -- and the result is one very tough quartet (the Galaxy, RSL, FC Dallas and Seattle in the West) and one far weaker foursome (New York, Columbus, the Rapids and Earthquakes).

Nobody's really all that happy about it.

“We did our best to get in the East. No one wanted to help us,” joked Seattle coach Sigi Schmid, whose team's loss at Houston in its finale would have meant fifth place -- and an Eastern berth -- had RSL not rallied to tie Colorado in stoppage of their last game. “Seriously, the playoff structure needs to be looked at, how they seed teams.”

Schmid's solution, which makes perfect sense, is to make the Western and Eastern titlists top seeds in their conference, then seed everyone else three through eight, based on record. Under that format, his team would be opening against Real Salt Lake, not the Galaxy, the Sounders' foe Sunday night in Seattle and next week at Home Depot Center. The other pairings would be Galaxy vs. San Jose, New York vs. Colorado and FC Dallas vs. Columbus. The Galaxy, with a win, would face FCD or the Crew in the semis.

Instead, we've got what we've got: a Western bracket with four teams capable of winning a championship and an Eastern bracket that's one team's to lose.

Our take on the matchups:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Galaxy vs. Seattle Sounders:
The Galaxy had the best record the first half of the season (11-1-3) and the Sounders had the best the second half (10-2-3). An intriguing matchup that will be determined by how well the Galaxy deals with Seattle's multipronged attack, especially Steve Zakuani -- MLS's best winger -- on the right flank and Fredy Montero ghosting through the middle. Prediction: Seattle will be the better team, but the Galaxy will win.

Real Salt Lake vs. FC Dallas: RSL has it all, and -- no matter Seattle's record since July -- no team in MLS is better. Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio are sensational in attack, but it's the defense, with goalkeeper Nick Rimando (Montclair/Montclair HS and UCLA) and center backs Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, that gives the Utahns so great an edge. FCD's superb campaign wilted at the end, and the Hoops' health might be returning two weeks too late. Prediction: Real Salt Lake, no problem.

Conference final: Home field favors the Galaxy, but the matchup favors RSL in a rematch of last year's MLS Cup title game. This one could go either way, but we're taking the defending champs.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

New York Red Bulls vs. San Jose Earthquakes:
The Red Bulls ought to roll, but their starting XI -- maybe the league's best -- isn't intact, and Thierry Henry's (and Tony Tchani's) absences and Rafa Marquez's fitness struggles knock them down a notch. As Chris Wondolowski goes, so goes the Quakes, and Wondolowski has been unstoppable the past month or so. Prediction: New York should be an overwhelming favorite in the East. The Bulls will get through the first round, but it will be tougher than they'd like.

Columbus Crew vs. Colorado Rapids: The Crew were well off their form to close the campaign, and injuries to goalkeeper Will Hesmer, defender Danny O'Rourke and forward Emilio Renteria saps their depth. Cummings' speed gives Colorado another dimension -- we saw that in Thursday's 1-0 victory -- and strike partner Conor Casey and central midfielders Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz provide a fine spine. The weak link is ailing goalkeeper Matt Pickens. Prediction: Cummings and Colorado pull this one out.

Conference final: How deep New York's injury report goes determines this one. If Henry and Marquez are on the field, the Red Bulls have the edge. If not, the Rapids move on.

MLS Cup: The Western winner prevails. That's probably Real Salt Lake.