McCarthy's Musings: MLS Knockout Round Preview - Chicago-Houston, Los Angeles-Vancouver

The Musings runs the rule over the impending one-off MLS playoff ties on Wednesday and Thursday.
If history has revealed anything about the MLS postseason, it is that any scenario remains in play. Regular season form matters, but it does not dictate the results. Good teams falter. Struggling teams thrive. The only thing that matters is what happens on the day, particularly in the one-off matches in the Knockout Round.

“[Regular season form] doesn’t mean anything,” Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena said during a conference call on Tuesday. “It’s a fresh tournament. We’ve had in recent history in our league, teams that go under the radar, so to speak, and go on to win the cup. 2009 and 2010 are examples where I think Salt Lake and Colorado qualify for the tournament on the last day and then went on to win it. So whatever happened during the regular season for Vancouver or Los Angeles really doesn’t matter at this point.”

With those thoughts in mind, the Musings surveys the scene ahead over the next two days:

Eastern Conference

No. 5 Houston @ No. 4 Chicago (Wednesday, 9:00p.m., ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, TSN2, RDS)

Previous meetings: Houston 1 @ Chicago 1 (April 15); Chicago 0 @ Houston 0 (July 3); Houston 1 @ Chicago 3 (Sept. 2)

Overview: The usual platitudes about a tight, tense affair apply in spades here. Chicago prefers to sit back, soak up pressure with its stingy rearguard and wait for the right time to counter through Chris Rolfe and others. Houston can keep the ball if it chooses, but the Dynamo operates best with a minimum of fuss in possession, an emphasis on playing the ball wide to Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia in space and a steady stream of good service into the penalty area. Those elements usually combine to create the stalemates these two sides enjoyed in their first two meetings.

Houston: Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear rotated his players last week through a meaningful CONCACAF Champions League home draw with Olimpia and a meaningless regular-season finale defeat at Colorado. Kinnear should have a full complement of options available to him to fill out the usual 4-4-2 setup.

They said it: “I think a lot of the offense comes from out wide with Brad [Davis], Boniek [Garcia] and Corey [Ashe],” Kinnear said during a conference call on Tuesday. “As far as the forwards go, it all depends on service. There are not too many guys out there that can take the ball and beat three or four defenders, and I’m referring to the league, not just in this particular game. For us, whenever we have been dangerous is because we have gotten good numbers around the box and the service has been good.”

Chicago: Pável Pardo eased Fire boss Frank Klopas' primary fitness concern when he played all 90 minutes in the 1-1 draw against D.C. United on Saturday. Pardo's probable inclusion in central midfield means the Fire will likely plump for a 4-2-3-1 formation with Rolfe operating somewhat freely behind target man Sherjill MacDonald.

They said it: “He is more mature from a technical standpoint,” Klopas on lynchpin Rolfe after his return from a spell in Denmark earlier this season. “He is better without the ball, with his defending ability and ability to move and create space for others. We knew that his ability to finish around goal was fantastic, but he now can also make that final pass. More than anything, it is a maturity level. He has gotten older, smarter and better.”

X-factor: As with most Dynamo matches, the focus here drifts to set pieces. Davis routinely supplies enticing balls into dangerous areas toward a group of physically imposing players capable of converting those opportunities. Chicago assembled one of the league's better defensive units this season (fourth in goals against), but the Fire did concede six times from corner kicks during the campaign. In order to avoid a similar fate in this game from a Davis set piece, the home side must avoid giving away cheap fouls inside its own half.
Bottom line: The particulars of this match favor the Dynamo, but only by a slim margin and only if the visitors avoid conceding a first minute goal as they did in the September defeat at Toyota Park. Davis and Garcia should locate the somewhat vulnerable pockets of space with the areas in front of (and behind, for that matter) Jalil Anibaba and Gonzalo Segares. The same can't be said for the Fire's primary catalyst. Rolfe will struggle to find space with Ricardo Clark and Adam Moffat inhabiting his preferred areas. If Rolfe can't find another way to influence the proceedings, then the visitors will likely nick the odd goal to set up a tempting reunion with Sporting Kansas City.

Western Conference

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No. 5 Vancouver @ No. 4 Los Angeles (Thursday, 10:30p.m., NBC Sports Network/Univision Deportes/TSN/RDS 2)

Previous meetings: Vancouver 0 @ Los Angeles 3 (June 23); Los Angeles 2 @ Vancouver 2 (July 18); Vancouver 0 @ Los Angeles 2 (Sept. 1)

Overview: These sides enter the playoffs in considerably different states of form. Los Angeles secured 34 points in its final 17 games to brush aside those early concerns and claim a playoff place without too much trouble. Vancouver won once in its final 10 regular season matches and that win came against Chivas USA. Throw in the Galaxy's plethora of weapons going forward and the Whitecaps' selection issues in the middle and final third, and the odds tilt heavily in favor of the home side.

Vancouver: Whitecaps boss Martin Rennie tweaked his lineup during the latter stages of the season to try to drag his players out of their funk. The shape (4-2-3-1) is likely to stay the same from Saturday's 0-0 draw at Real Salt Lake, but Rennie must decide whether to restore Kenny Miller and Barry Robson to the side ahead of this match. The veteran Scotland internationals dropped to the bench for the trip to Sandy, but they could return for a match that may require their experience. Darren Mattocks, Dane Richards and Camilo Sanvezzo are also vying for a place.

They said it: “I can see them starting together,” Rennie said during a conference call about the prospect of partnering Mattocks and Miller together up front. “We’ve been unfortunate in the sense that with international call-ups and injuries and even a couple of suspensions, we’ve not been able to get them both playing together at the same time. They’re both available for Thursday, and we do think they can complement each other. We think they’re both fantastic players. Darren’s got so much potential, Kenny’s got so much quality in terms of his movement and understanding of the game and he’s been able to help Darren a lot in training and in the games they have played, so hopefully it’s a partnership that we can use more in the future.”

Los Angeles: The return of David Beckham and Landon Donovan in Sunday's 1-0 victory over Seattle increases Arena's options considerably. The 4-4-2 setup is just about a given at this stage, but Arena must choose where to deploy Donovan (up front with Robbie Keane or on the wing with Edson Buddle up top) and whether to select Mike Magee, Marcelo Sarvas or Christian Wilhelmsson from the start. It isn't all good news: Tommy Meyer will likely partner Omar Gonzalez in central defense after Arena ruled out A.J. DeLaGarza (left knee sprain) after the victory over Sounders FC.

They said it: “We haven’t made any decisions on how we’re going to pair our guys in the playoffs,” Arena said on a conference call about his selection issues in the attacking third. “There’s only one game, the last game, where you saw that. Landon’s been out for a while so we haven’t had that opportunity. We had the opportunity to play Edson with Robbie a little bit so we took advantage of that, but certainly as we attempt to move forward in this tournament there’s going to be plenty of times that we’ll see Landon and Robbie together and Edson and Robbie together.”

X-factor: In order to have a chance to pull the upset, Vancouver must attempt to control the tempo by either slowing the game down or speeding it up. Rennie opted for the former approach by deploying a conservative outlook at the weekend. He may try the same tack at the Home Depot Center because his back four (back six, really, with Gershon Koffie and Alain Rochat as holding midfielders) is a pretty solid group. It won't be easy to hold out, but it isn't out of the realm of possibility, either. The other option involves playing the match at a high tempo and setting loose Mattocks, Richards and probably Sanvezzo to run at a Galaxy team that doesn't possess a surplus of team pace and isn't sure how Meyer will react in the biggest match of his professional career. If the Galaxy locates its rhythm on the ball at a tempo somewhere between those two poles, the Whitecaps are probably in for a long night.

Bottom line: As Arena noted during his conference call, upsets happen in the postseason with little regard to form. But in this particular instance, it's hard to see the Whitecaps turning matters around enough to enter the home of the vastly experienced MLS Cup holders and leave with a berth in the Western Conference semifinals.
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