Ultimate Guide to MLS Weekend: Who Is the Favorite to Win MLS Cup?

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistOctober 30, 2015

Seattle Sounders' Clint Dempsey reacts to a play in the second half of an MLS soccer western conference knockout round playoff match against the Los Angeles Galaxy, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Seattle. The Sounders beat the Galaxy 3-2. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

After eight months of regular-season play and four knockout-round matches that narrowed the playoff field down to eight, we still have no idea who will hoist the MLS Cup on December 6.

In a league that prides itself on parity, very few teams have looked like the squad to beat for the entire season. The LA Galaxy were handed the trophy by many, including this scribe, when Giovani Dos Santos joined the 2014 MLS Cup champions in July, but the Galaxy couldn't find a way to play effective defense and fell out of the postseason at the hands of longtime rival Seattle on Wednesday. 

If there are any clear-cut favorites to come out on top when the postseason ends, it's easy to look at the two No. 1 seeds. The New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas impressed during the stretch run of the regular season, but both have flaws waiting to be exploited by their conference semifinal opponents. 

For the umpteenth time in the history of the league, the Red Bulls will square off with D.C. United in the conference semifinals. The rivals will face each other for the sixth time in a playoff series starting on Sunday at RFK Stadium.

The Red Bulls downed D.C. in the conference semifinals last year thanks to an away goal scored by Peguy Luyindula in the 57th minute of the second leg at RFK Stadium. Two years prior, D.C. advanced to the Eastern Conference Final a day after an infamous snowstorm postponed the second leg at Red Bull Arena.

Nov 8, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; New York Red Bulls forward Peguy Luyindula (8) reacts after scoring a goal against the D.C. United during the second half at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Red Bulls look like the better side entering the first leg, you can never fully predict what will happen in a rivalry showdown. However, if Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella can exploit the gaps on the wings in the D.C. defense like others have in recent weeks, the semifinal could be over quickly. 

FC Dallas earned the top seed in the Western Conference thanks to some strong play at the end of the regular season, but they will have to deal with the in-form Seattle Sounders in the conference semifinals. Facing the dynamic pair of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins inside the raucous CenturyLink Field in the first leg doesn't seem like a proper reward for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. 

Oct 25, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; FC Dallas forward Mauro Diaz (10) celebrates scoring a goal with midfielder Fabian Castillo (11) in the first half against the San Jose Earthquakes at Toyota Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Add in the fact Seattle eliminated FC Dallas from the 2014 playoffs and you have storylines galore in the marquee playoff series in the West. FC Dallas also have a strong attacking duo in Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo, and they will give Chad Marshall and his partner at center back a tough 90 minutes. If FC Dallas score on the road, they will be in good shape heading into the second leg, but there is always a possibility the Sounders will bury them in the first leg. 

The other matchup in the West pits Vancouver and Portland against each other in a Cascadia Cup showdown. Both of these teams could advance to MLS Cup, but they are seen as underdogs compared to the winner of the Seattle-FC Dallas semifinal.

Vancouver is led by powerful center back Kendall Waston, but its young attack can't fully be trusted to make noise in the postseason. The same can be said for Portland, who should have put away Sporting Kansas City long before penalty kicks in the knockout round on Thursday

Mar 28, 2015; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Whitecaps FC defender Kendall Waston (4) and midfielder Robert Earnshaw (88) and defender Steven Beitashour (33) and midfielder Pedro Morales (77) and midfielder Kianz Froese (38) celebrate Earnsha
Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

We know both defenses are capable of putting together a few strong performances in the postseason, but if Kekuta Manneh and Darlington Nagbe can't finish clear-cut chances for their respective sides, both the Vancouver and Portland fanbases will end up disappointed at some point.

Then there's the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the Eastern Conference, who both enter November in impressive form. Columbus earned the No. 2 seed with a statement win over D.C. United on Decision Day, while Montreal swept Toronto FC to earn a home match with the Crew on Sunday. Both teams have the quality at every position to lift the MLS Cup in December, but unfortunately for neutral observers, only one will live past the international break and make the conference final.

If Sunday's contests and the ones that follow in future weeks produce as much madness as the four knockout-round matches, we could be in for a memorable postseason. 

As for an MLS Cup prediction, this writer has the New York Red Bulls beating the Seattle Sounders in extra time at Red Bull Arena.

 

Conference Semifinal Schedule 

New York Red Bulls at D.C. United (3 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Vancouver Whitecaps at Portland Timbers (5 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Columbus Crew at Montreal Impact (7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1) 

FC Dallas at Seattle Sounders (9:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1) 

 

Key Battles to Watch

Sacha Kljestan vs. Perry Kitchen 

Throughout the regular season, the Red Bulls' Sacha Kljestan turned himself into one of the best playmaking midfielders in MLS. Lined up in front of midfield duo of Dax McCarty and Felipe, Kljestan thrived in his advanced role with 14 assists in regular-season play.

John Minchillo/Associated Press

The experienced United States international will face off against one of the blossoming prospects in the USMNT talent pool in Perry Kitchen on Sunday at RFK Stadium. 

In the last regular-season meeting between the two sides on August 30, Kljestan and his teammates thoroughly dominated the Black and Red in a 3-0 victory. With that performance still fresh in the minds of the D.C. players, expect Kitchen to put up more of a fight against Kljestan as United look to go into the second leg with an advantage in the goals column. 

 

Kekuta Manneh vs. Alvas Powell

There are very few high-quality full backs in MLS, but Kekuta Manneh will go up against one of the best at Providence Park on Sunday.

Don Ryan/Associated Press

Alvas Powell has turned in plenty of consistent showings at right back for the Timbers in 2015, and at just 21, he still has plenty of quality seasons ahead of him.

Powell will be tasked with silencing one of Vancouver's best young players in the Cascadia Cup clash in Portland. If Manneh fails to break free on the wing, the Timbers will be able to send extra protection in the direction of Cristian Techera to take away the Whitecaps' threat on the wings. 

 

Didier Drogba vs. Gaston Sauro

There will be plenty of intriguing matchups littered across the Stade Saputo pitch on Sunday, but the top battle should come between the hottest forward in the league and a vital cog in the Columbus defense. 

We all know about the form Didier Drogba has been in since joining the Impact. In case you've been living under a rock, Drogba has 12 goals in 12 matches for the resurgent Impact, who trounced Toronto twice in four days to earn the No. 3 seed and advance to the conference semifinals. 

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The man tasked with silencing the powerful Ivorian will be Gaston Sauro, who has had a solid start to his MLS career for the Crew. Sauro's best game of the season came in Week 33, as the Crew shut down Toronto FC at BMO Field to start their own impressive run toward the start of the postseason. 

If Sauro contains Drogba for most of the contest, he will force Ignacio Piatti to work more than he usually does in the Montreal attack. Although Piatti is capable of driving Montreal forward for 90 minutes, it may be rough going against a confident Crew side without any contributions from Drogba. 

 

Mauro Diaz vs. Andy Rose

We would highlight Brad Evans as Seattle's player to watch in the first leg at CenturyLink, but we're not sure where the versatile United States international will line up. 

Based off his performance on Wednesday against the Galaxy, Andy Rose should receive another start from Sounders boss Sigi Schmid.

Oct 28, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC midfielder Andy Rose (5) passes the ball against the Los Angeles Galaxy during the first half at CenturyLink Field. Seattle defeated Los Angeles 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Rose outplayed the LA midfield duo of Steven Gerrard and Juninho in the wild 3-2 victory that saw both Galaxy midfielders contribute little moving forward. 

Mauro Diaz will present a different task to Rose because of his crafty ability on the ball, but Rose can employ the same blueprint he used on Wednesday. If Rose can clog Diaz's passing lanes and turn tackles and interceptions into counters, Seattle should come out on top. 

 

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90

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