6 Bold Predictions for MLS Conference Championship Games
Major League Soccer kicks back into action this weekend with the first legs of the conference finals.
Plenty of stars will take the pitch at the Red Bull Arena and the StubHub Center Sunday, but only a select few will be able to put their name in the spotlight.
In our six bold predictions for the conference finals, we take a look at a few individuals on both sides of the ball who could have big games for their respective clubs.
Gyasi Zardes Will Finally Break out of His Scoring Slump
What made the Los Angeles Galaxy attack the most feared in the league this summer was the emergence of 23-year-old forward Gyasi Zardes.
The American had an incredible summer, but he has cooled off significantly over the last few months. Since September 14, Zardes has scored once in nine league games.
In the 5-0 blowout of Real Salt Lake in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinal, Zardes was one of the few LA players not involved in creating a goal. In the two games against RSL, he only put one shot on target.
For the Galaxy to keep the center back pairing of Chad Marshall and Zach Scott occupied at all times, Zardes must have a breakout performance.
With everyone else around him heating up, Zardes will finally wake up from his slump and deliver a key goal at the StubHub Center.
A.J. DeLaGarza Will Struggle with Lamar Neagle
One of the best tactical moves of the season was made by Bruce Arena in the 5-0 win over Real Salt Lake, as he positioned A.J. DeLaGarza at right back.
Since the switch brought a ton of success to the Galaxy, expect Arena to keep the 27-year-old on the right flank. After shutting down Joao Plata two weeks ago, DeLaGarza will be asked to contain either Lamar Neagle or Marco Pappa.
Neagle is the better candidate to start on the left wing because of Pappa's recent defensive struggles. By starting Neagle, Seattle will attempt to wreak havoc in search of a crucial away goal.
In the final two months of the regular season, Neagle contributed to eight goals scored by the Sounders. During that span, he had four goals and four assists.
Neagle has scored one goal from one shot on target in 221 minutes of play against the Galaxy this season. Although he may not score again Sunday, Neagle will be a menace on the left wing all day, which may occupy whomever Arena starts on the right side of midfield as well.
Clint Dempsey Will Shine the Brightest at the StubHub Center
Fueled by a lackluster Western Conference Semifinal series against FC Dallas, and a week off to rest, Clint Dempsey will be the top attacking star Sunday night at the StubHub Center.
Dempsey contributed a goal and an assist in the home-and-home series with the Galaxy to finish the regular season. He also brought an impressive streak into the playoffs, as he played a role in at least one Sounders goal in 10 of the last 11 regular-season matches.
He did not extend that streak into the first round of the playoffs, but he will start a new one Sunday night against his former United States teammate Landon Donovan.
Dempsey has a knack for scoring in big games, dating back to his time at Fulham, when he scored the game-winning goal in the Europa League round of 16 against Juventus during the 2009-10 season.
Expect another big moment out of the 31-year-old, who is chasing the treble with the Sounders this season.
Lloyd Sam Will Be the Impact Winger for New York
Since New York shifted to the 4-2-3-1 formation, Thierry Henry has been employed on the left wing with Lloyd Sam on the right.
Sam has not received as much credit for his performance this season as he deserves, but he will have everyone talking about him once the match ends at Red Bull Arena.
The dynamic 30-year-old winger is capable of changing the game with one sprint forward in attack. With all the attention being paid to Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips, he will get a chance to find space on the right throughout the match.
If New England looks to shut down Henry on the left, Sam could benefit from the distribution skills of Peguy Luyindula to spring a few moves down the right.
When the opportunity presents itself, Sam will strike and challenge the New England defense with a few dangerous crosses sent in toward his attacking teammates.
Jermaine Jones Will Come Up with a Big Away Goal for New England
Scoring away goals won't be as easy as it was for New England in its first-leg match against the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference Semifinal.
While four goals on their travels might be out of reach, the Revolution could easily snag one or two thanks to the powerful boot of Jermaine Jones.
As we saw at the World Cup and throughout his short time with New England, Jones can hit one heck of a shot from distance. All it takes for Jones to fire away from outside the box is a small bit of space. At some point in the match, he will get a chance to rifle a shot on goal.
On some of his recent strikes, Jones has shown pinpoint accuracy as well, which is something that will concern New York 'keeper Luis Robles.
All 3 of the Most Valuable Player Candidates Will Be Shut out
The race for MLS Most Valuable Player is down to three players, per MLSSoccer.com, and while postseason performance may not play a role in determining the award, all three candidates will be looking to prove why they are worthy of the award this weekend.
Robbie Keane, Obafemi Martins and Lee Nguyen will all attempt to score a meaningful goal this weekend, but all three will come up short.
The good news for the trio of players is they have teammates like Dempsey, Jones and Donovan who are capable of finding the back of the net as well.
Even if their teammates find the back of the net, the trio of MVP candidates will be shut out in the assist column, too.
Keane will be shut down once again by Marshall and Scott, while Omar Gonzalez will have a great game marking Martins. Nguyen will also struggle to score his first goal against the Red Bulls this season when he faces the defensive midfield duo of Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.
All statistics obtained from MLSSoccer.com.