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Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Updated: November 22, 12:47 AM ET
Who will win the East?

By Leander Schaerlaeckens
ESPN.com

Chris Wondolowski
The Quakes, led by to Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski, are the Cinderella story of the MLS playoffs. But can they stop the Colorado Rapids in Denver?

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Colorado Rapids

DSG Park, Sat., 9:30 p.m. ET, FSC

Even in a postseason in which three of the four lower-seeded wild-card teams have survived, the plucky San Jose Earthquakes have become the undisputed Cinderella story of this MLS campaign.

The club plays in the league's worst facilities, drawing a paltry four-digit home attendance average this season. Its market is disinterested and the team has arguably the least amount of star-power of any in the league. The Quakes were the last club to qualify for the playoffs, and they're led by the consummate underdog overachiever in MVP-frontrunner Chris Wondolowski.

In the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Quakes rocked the much favored New York Red Bulls, whose $15.7 million payroll dwarfs San Jose's $3.4 million expenditure in guaranteed salaries this year.

Yet, despite all this, the Quakes are in the Eastern Conference finals, where they'll face the league's most potent pair of strikers, Conor Casey and Omar Cummings.

For its part, the Colorado Rapids have been a work in progress for several years, shrewdly adding useful pieces and perfecting their fluid and speedy style, which puts visiting teams at a disadvantage in the high altitude of Denver. Since last qualifying for the playoffs in 2006 and hiring head coach Gary Smith in 2008, the Rapids have made huge strides.

"It's played out like you would write it up on the board in preseason and has run through like a movie script," said captain Pablo Mastroeni, the longest-tenured player on the team.

Key matchup: San Jose's defense against Colorado's speedy attacks

Pablo Mastroeni
Rapids captain Pablo Mastroeni said the team's run has been "like a movie script."

In its victorious 3-1 second leg against the New York Red Bulls, San Jose sealed off its defense, leaving no space at all between its lines for New York to exploit. That said, the Red Bulls play in a sort of half-court offense, premised on precise and clever passing. The Quakes will face a different challenge against the Rapids, who boast a fierce attack spearheaded by Casey and Cunnings. Their speed will force the Quakes to take a different approach.

"You've got to be sure you're going to be tactically alert," San Jose head coach Frank Yallop said. "We've got to make sure we're clued in and aware of Omar [Cummings] and [Conor] Casey the whole game. [The Rapids] move the ball quickly, they're good soccer players, they're good in possession. We have to try to stop their fluent game. It's a big field, they move the ball well and they break quickly."

For San Jose to keep its streak going of winning decisive away games, it will have to turn in another titanic defensive effort, the way it did against New York in the second half.

Players to watch: San Jose: Chris Wondolowski; Colorado: Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni

Wondolowski has produced 18 goals on a team that scored just 34 during the regular season. You can bet he'll be the focus of the Rapids' defense, even if Smith won't admit it.

"He's just one player and I would think that if we can, as we have done on a number of occasions, we can get on the front foot it would negate a lot of what an opposing team can bring against us," Smith said. "We have a very strong and disciplined outfit."

Smith did concede that "the supply into Chris [Wondolowski] will be a feature of the game we'll definitely stop at [the] source."

Stymieing that supply to Wondo, who scored the series-winner against New York, means Colorado will have to control the center of the park the way it did against Columbus. When Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni hold the central midfield, it allows the Rapids to set the game's pace in its preferred high gear.

X-factors: Altitude

At more than 5,000 feet in elevation, Dick's Sporting Goods Park is quite the departure from the Earthquakes' home near sea level. "It's going to be difficult in Colorado with the altitude," said Bobby Convey, the Quakes' captain who scored of two goals and was the architect of a third against New York. But San Jose will be arriving in Colorado on Thursday with the hopes that the team can get acclimated to the conditions.

Outlook:

During the regular season, both teams won 1-0 at home. San Jose was the second-best away team in the league, garnering 22 points on the road (trailing Los Angeles Galaxy's 27).

Although the Rapids and Quakes finished the regular season with the same amount of points, Colorado would have to be the favorite for this game, given its superior manpower.

"They're home, they're kind of expected to win, if you like," Yallop said. "I like Colorado's team. I think they're very well balanced. They're difficult to contain, especially at their place. We have our hands full, that's for sure."

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com.