2012 MLS Playoffs: Preview and Prediction for Each Conference Semifinal Matchup
With the conclusion of the knockout rounds of the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs, it's now time for the Conference Semifinals to get started. In case you missed it, here's what happened in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Houston Dynamo were able to defeat the Chicago Fire 2-1, which earned them a spot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
In the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Galaxy pulled off a 2-1 victory against the Vancouver Whitecaps FC to advance.
The Conference Semifinals are formatted as a two-game series that has the lower-seeded team playing at home first.
The league and its fans couldn't have asked for better matchups this round, as three of the four are true rivalries, and all have great history behind them.
Here's a preview and prediction for each Conference Semifinal series.
Western Conference: Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle Sounders FC
First Leg: Nov. 2, 10 p.m. EDT (NBC Sports Network)
Second Leg: Nov. 8, 9:30 p.m. EDT (MLS Live/Direct Kick)
Seattle Sounders FC and Real Salt Lake face off once again in the playoffs. In last year's postseason, these two teams met in the Western Conference Semifinals, where RSL advanced with an aggregate score of 3-2.
The key matchup to watch here is the battle in the midfield. Both teams have great defenses and potent offenses, so controlling the midfield may ultimately decide the winner.
Real Salt Lake's Kyle Beckerman and Seattle's Osvaldo Alonso are two very important players to keep an eye on. Both are veteran midfielders who must lead their respective teams and dominate the midfield.
Injuries may also have a significant impact on this series. The Sounders' leading goal scorer, Eddie Johnson, is listed as questionable with an adductor strain. If Sigi Schmid decides to sit him out for the first leg, we'll likely see Sammy Ochoa or David Estrada get the start.
For Real Salt Lake, defender Jamison Olave, who plays a key role in the defense, is listed as probable. Without him, RSL has a few other options, but Olave's size and speed will sorely be missed if he sits out.
In addition, Seattle has not beaten RSL in three tries this season. Also, Real Salt Lake has not lost a game since Sept. 7 against the Houston Dynamo.
I believe that Sigi Schmid will opt to rest Eddie Johnson so that he's ready and fit for the second leg of the series. This will likely affect Seattle's offense and hurt them in the first game.
I think RSL will defeat Seattle 1-0, despite being on the road. In the second leg, I predict a 2-2 draw.
Real Salt Lake advances 3-2.
Western Conference: San Jose Earthquakes vs. Los Angeles Galaxy
First Leg: Nov. 4, 9 p.m. EDT (ESPN)
Second Leg: Nov. 7, 11 p.m. EDT (ESPN2)
In what I expect to be one of the best matchups of the entire postseason, the San Jose Earthquakes will face the Los Angeles Galaxy to determine who advances to the Western Conference Semifinals.
The San Jose Earthquakes were the best team in the regular season and won the Supporters' Shield, but will they be able to carry over that success to the playoffs?
Chris Wondolowski, who led the league in scoring this season and tied the record for most goals in a season, will be San Jose's key player. Forwards Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon are also players to watch during this series.
The Galaxy are coming off a nerve-racking win against Vancouver Whitecaps FC, but after coming back from being down 1-0 to win 2-1, L.A. has a lot of momentum heading into this series.
Injuries may be a pretty big problem for the Galaxy, though. Right-back Sean Franklin sat out the game against Vancouver but may be ready to play against San Jose. Hector Jimenez, naturally a midfielder, started in place of him, and it didn't look pretty at all. In fact, Vancouver's goal was a result of Jimenez's defensive blunder.
In addition, A.J. DeLaGarza is still out, and rookie Tommy Meyer will fill in for him. All of a sudden, L.A.'s defense seems to be easily exploitable for a San Jose offense that loves to play physical.
Midfielders Juninho and Christian Wilhelmsson also have small injuries. The Galaxy's injury woes may well be their downfall. Combine that with short rest because of the knockout round, and San Jose looks to be in prime position to take out the Galaxy.
In three games against each other this season, L.A. has lost twice and most recently drew 2-2.
I think Bruce Arena will send out his best squad possible on Sunday, even if some of his players have minor injuries. L.A.'s momentum will help them win the first leg 3-2.
In the second game, the Galaxy will look tired but will manage to draw 2-2.
Even though San Jose has had the better season, I think the Galaxy will step up against their rivals and end the Earthquakes' season.
Los Angeles Galaxy advance 5-4.
Eastern Conference: D.C. United vs. New York Red Bulls
First Leg: Nov. 3, 8 p.m. EDT (NBC Sports Network)
Second Leg: Nov. 7, 8 p.m. EDT (NBC Sports Network)
Despite the New York Red Bulls being seeded lower, the first game of the series will be played at D.C. United's RFK Stadium due to Hurricane Sandy.
Here we have another great rivalry matchup. Neither D.C. United nor the New York Red Bulls won the season series. They drew 2-2, and each also won one match.
However, D.C. did have a dominant 4-1 win at home, while N.Y. managed to win 3-2 in Red Bull Arena.
For the Red Bulls, Tim Cahill may sit out the series opener with a calf injury. If he does, Dax McCarty will fill in, which isn't too bad for N.Y.
Thierry Henry will surely look to lead his team to victory after many seasons of failing to meet expectations. He's still striving to win his first MLS Cup since his arrival.
D.C. United's strong defense and great goalkeeping will have to contain Henry. Kenny Cooper and Sebastien Le Toux will also be dangerous threats that D.C. will have to deal with.
As for the attack, Chris Pontius will have to be the leader, as Dwayne De Rosario is listed as questionable. Also, midfielder Nick DeLeon has emerged as one of MLS' best young wingers, so the Red Bulls have to respect him as well.
The first leg will be a high-scoring affair. I predict that the two teams will draw 3-3.
In the second leg, the Red Bulls will be at home and narrowly win with a score of 2-1.
New York Red Bulls advance 5-4.
Eastern Conference: Sporting Kansas City vs. Houston Dynamo
First Leg: Nov. 3, 3:30 p.m. EDT (NBC)
Second Leg: Nov. 7, 9 p.m. EDT (NBC Sports Network)
The Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City meet once again in the playoffs. Last season, Houston ended Kansas City's Cup run with a 2-0 win in the Eastern Conference Final.
Houston has some momentum from winning their knockout-round match against the Chicago Fire. Young forward Will Bruin was instrumental in their win, scoring both of the Dynamo's goals.
Brad Davis assisted on one of those goals and will be very important for Houston as they look to continue their success. Midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia is another player to keep an eye on.
As for Sporting Kansas City, they have so many dangerous players that it's hard for defenses to shut them down. Kei Kamara, C.J. Sapong and Graham Zusi are all players that have been huge for SKC this season.
The Dynamo won the season series, winning 2-1 and drawing twice. They are undefeated at home this season, and their success against SKC goes even further back. Combine these two statistics, and you get the fact that Kansas City hasn't beaten Houston on the road in their last seven meetings.
The big question on my mind is whether or not the Dynamo will have heavy legs during the second leg after playing both the knockout-round match and the first leg.
The Houston Dynamo will continue their success at home and defeat Sporting Kansas City 2-1.
The second game of the series will then end in favor of SKC, 1-0.
Since MLS does not count away goals as a tiebreaker, the match will go into extra time and still be tied. Houston will then edge out SKC in penalties.
Houston Dynamo advance on penalties 2-2 (5-4).