MLS Cup Playoffs 2013: Key to Victory for Each Team in Conference Championships

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistNovember 23, 2013

Nov 9, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Sporting KC midfielder/forward Graham Zusi (8) and Houston Dynamo midfielder Andrew Driver (20) run towards the ball during the MLS Eastern Conference Championship soccer game at BBVA Compass Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After a two-week break, the MLS Cup Playoffs get back underway this weekend.

In the Eastern Conference, Sporting Kansas City host the Houston Dynamo. After a 0-0 first leg, the second leg should provide plenty of entertainment. And with no away goals rule, Sporting KC won't have to worry about a major uphill battle if they concede an early goal.

On the other side, Real Salt Lake carry with them a 4-2 lead from the first leg when they travel to Portland to take on the Timbers for the Western Conference title. Even a two-goal lead isn't safe when you consider how raucous and boisterous the crowd will be at Jeld-Wen Field.

In order for each team to get through to the final, they'll have to make sure they follow through on these keys to the game.

Eastern Conference Final

Sporting Kansas City: Free Graham Zusi and Let Him Create

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Nov 9, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Sporting KC midfielder/forward Graham Zusi (8) kicks the ball against the Houston Dynamo during the MLS Eastern Conference Championship soccer game at BBVA Compass Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most enjoyable teams to watch in MLS over the past couple of seasons has been Sporting KC. Peter Vermes uses a very positive attacking style that's not only been a pleasure on the eyes, it's also been very successful on the pitch.

One of the biggest reasons for that success has been Graham Zusi.

The 27-year-old midfielder was third in the league during the regular season in key passes per game (3.1), according to WhoScored.com. His seven assists also lead Sporting KC.

However, in the first leg, Zusi was a non-factor. He completed only 65 percent of his passes, down from his season average of 76.6 percent, and he made one key pass.

Not coincidentally, Kansas City failed to score.

In the second leg, Zusi must have more room to roam and be the creative engine. Otherwise, his club will once again find that goals are hard to come by.

Houston Dynamo: Use Width to Hit Quickly on the Counter

Oct 27, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Houston Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis (11) brings the ball forward against D.C. United midfielder Nick DeLeon (18) during the second half at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial. Mandatory Credit: Paul Frederiksen-USA TODAY Sports
Paul Frederiksen-USA TODAY Sport

Sporting Kansas City generally do most of their damage through the center of the pitch. In addition, the home team is likely to get the majority of possession. There's no sense in trying to fight fire with fire.

Dominic Kinnear should keep his defense organized and then hit on the counter using his wide players. The Dynamo got a huge boost with Boniek Garcia returning to the team from international duty earlier in the week, via Darren Lovell of MLSSoccer.com:

Having him on the right flank adds that needed dimension to the Houston attack. Brad Davis down the left remains a key player, but without Garcia, the Dynamo could have been too imbalanced to one side. Now Eric Brunner and Bobby Boswell can hit it out to either side and start the quick counterattack.

Western Conference Final

Portland Timbers: Make Most of Possession

Nov 10, 2013; Sandy, UT, USA; Portland Timbers midfielder Will Johnson (4) between plays during the second half of a Western Conference Championship match against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium. Real Salt Lake won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Although Portland had 50 percent of possession in the first leg, it could only get three chances on target, according to WhoScored.com. It just goes to show you that controlling possession doesn't always mean you control the game.

What the Timbers need to do in the second leg is become more efficient with their possession. Use killer passes to get the ball into the 18-yard box so you don't have to rely on launching long balls and crosses in order to create scoring opportunities.

Will Johnson and Diego Chara will be the guys necessary to make this happen. While Johnson had a goal in the first leg, both he and Chara were unable to pass the ball with much success. According to WhoScored.com, Johnson completed just 68 percent of his passes and made one key pass, while Chara didn't have a key pass despite completing 78 percent of his passes.

If Johnson and Chara are successful, then the Timbers can play the short-passing, possession-based style that has gotten them to this point.

Real Salt Lake: Force Portland into a Direct Game

Nov 10, 2013; Sandy, UT, USA; Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman (5) and Portland Timbers defender Michael Harrington (5) battle for the ball during the first half of a Western Conference Championship match at Rio Tinto Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ru
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It's pretty simple for Real Salt Lake: Bully the Portland midfield, and cut off the support up top.

In the first leg, Salt Lake did a great job of breaking up the Timbers' attacks in midfield and limiting their chances in the final third. With its supply line through midfield broken, Portland was forced to try and go over the top to beat the RSL defense.

Johnson attempted 13 long balls in that first leg, up from his average of 7.3. Chara was also forced into making six long balls, almost four more than his per-game average (2.1).

A lot of the onus will be on Kyle Beckerman to be the defensive muscle in midfield. Unlike many defensive midfielders, Beckerman doesn't act as a box-to-box option or a deep-lying playmaker. His express purpose is to defend, and he does it very well.

Should Portland be forced into a direct game, Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler will be there to head away any danger.

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