McCarthy's Musings: MLS Western Conference Semifinals Preview

The Musings discusses the Western Conference semifinals ahead of the first kickoff on Friday night.
The folks in Chicago and Houston may disagree, but the results of the Knockout Round in midweek arranged an enthralling set of pairings for the Conference Semifinals slated to start on Friday night.

Few could have argued about the exciting affairs already booked between Real Salt Lake and Seattle (a replay of perhaps the best semifinal from last year) and New York and D.C. United (two I-95 rivals renewing acquaintances under difficult circumstances).

The prospect of adding San Jose and Los Angeles (a California Clasico with added bite this year and a notable playoff history in tow) and Sporting Kansas City and Houston (a chance for Sporting to extract revenge for that painful home defeat in the Eastern Conference final last year) to the mix completes a quartet of intriguing encounters and increases the anticipation for the eight games poised to unfold over the next few days.

With the matchups now confirmed, the Musings kicks off a two-part look at the semifinal round by examining the Western Conference slate:

Western Conference

#2 Real Salt Lake – #3 Seattle (first leg in Seattle: Friday, 10:00p.m., NBC Sports Network; second leg in Sandy, Utah: Thursday, 9:30p.m., TSN 2)

Previous meetings: Real Salt Lake 1 @ Seattle 0 (May 12); Seattle 0 @ Real Salt Lake 0 (July 4); Real Salt Lake 0 @ Seattle 0 (Oct. 17)

Overview: Perhaps the pick of the four semifinals commences on Friday night. These two sides met at this same stage last year with Real Salt Lake doggedly holding out in Seattle to secure a spot in the Western Conference final. The seeds are reversed this time around and a few of the faces have changed, but the small margin between the two clubs remains. This is a series that should come down to the final minutes of the second leg (and perhaps drag into extra time).

Real Salt Lake: RSL's persistent injury concerns have dissipated at the right time. A few players are carrying knocks – including the crucial center back pairing of Nat Borchers (left quad strain) and Jamison Olave (left hamstring strain) and veteran midfielder Ned Grabavoy (right quad strain) – heading into the postseason, but all of the key figures should feature. RSL coach Jason Kreis employs a 4-4-2 diamond formation and expects his players to maintain possession and repel the opposition despite a fairly narrow shape.

They said it: “I think all the games have been pretty attack-oriented — pretty exciting — with lots of chances,” Kreis told the Salt Lake Tribune about the three meetings between the sides this season. “But, for whatever reason, the ball hasn’t ended up in the back of the net very much.”

Seattle: Sounders FC boss Sigi Schmid has already ruled out defenders Leo Gonzalez (right hamstring strain) and Patrick Ianni (right calf strain) for the first leg. Eddie Johnson could join his teammates on the sidelines after sustaining a left adductor strain in the 1-0 defeat to Los Angeles on Sunday. Schmid faces decisions in midfield (a host of options) and up front (likely David Estrada, Sammy Ochoa or Mauro Rosales pushed up from midfield if Johnson isn't fit enough to start) as he fills out his straight 4-4-2 setup.

They said it: “We don't try and change our style too much,” Schmid told the Seattle Times about potentially adjusting for Johnson's absence.

“Every time you play, you try to take advantage of the talents and the abilities that the players on the field have. If you're playing with Sammy Ochoa instead of Eddie, Sammy's good with his back to goal, he's good at connecting back again and running off. He doesn't have that breakaway speed to get in behind, so you try and get the ball a little more to Sammy's feet.

"If you're playing with (David) Estrada, he's busy, he's active, he's trying to stretch a defense, so you play him a little more into spaces. If it's a (Steve) Zakuani, you want to get the ball to his feet and isolate him against guys. It's the same 4-4-2, but it's the ability of the individual, and you try to take advantage of his skill set.”

X-factor: Real Salt Lake relies on Álvaro Saborío to provide most of its cutting thrust up front. The MVP candidate (realistically, one of the prime contenders in the non-Chris Wondolowski category) scored 17 of his side's 46 goals on the season and shouldered much of the load in the second half as Fabián Espíndola failed to score for the better part of four months (a stretch spanning from June 20 to Sept. 6).

The streaky Espíndola will need to continue his recent production (three goals in the final three games) to relieve some of the burden and strengthen his side's chances of progressing. He should have ample opportunity to do so if he alters his runs (maybe float out to the right a bit more instead of his preferred left to run at Seattle left back Marc Burch) and attacks a Sounders FC rearguard that could yield a goal or two in its currently tattered state.
Bottom line: In a tight and tense series, the odds usually favor the better defensive side. If Saborío receives any sort of support (whether from Espindola or someone popping up on a set piece), then RSL should extend Sounders FC's puzzling playoff drought for another year and prolong perhaps its last shot at a MLS Cup with this current core of players.

#1 San Jose – #4 Los Angeles (first leg in Carson, Calif.: Sunday, 9:00p.m., ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN 2, RDS 2; second leg in Santa Clara, Calif.: Wednesday, 11:00p.m., ESPN 2, ESPN Deportes, TSN 2, RDS 2)

Previous meetings: San Jose 3 @ Los Angeles 2 (May 23); Los Angeles 3 @ San Jose 4 (June 30); Los Angeles 2 @ San Jose 2 (Oct. 21)

Overview: Los Angeles somehow managed to dispatch Vancouver on Thursday night to ensure this expected semifinal would proceed as planned. These two sides don't like each other very much – just take a look at Omar Gonzalez's recent comments about the Earthquakes' robust style of play – and should relish the opportunity to once again bring this derby onto the postseason stage. Expect plenty of goals and plenty of drama between two sides that are better suited to pushing forward rather than sitting back defensively.

San Jose: Earthquakes boss Frank Yallop expects to have Simon Dawkins and Alan Gordon available for the first leg after both players battled ankle complaints over the past few weeks. If both players are healthy enough to feature in the usual 4-4-2 formation, then Yallop should name his first-choice starting XI for the opener. He will likely have a selection decision to make up front with Gordon, Steven Lenhart and Chris Wondolowski all available.

They said it: “Anything can happen in the playoffs,” Yallop said in a phone interview earlier this week. “We know the Supporters' Shield champions have only won it twice [in the past nine years]. We hope we can make it a third time. But, for us, it's about getting into the playoffs and really going after every team we play against and try our best.”

Los Angeles: Galaxy boss Bruce Arena faces fitness questions about A.J. DeLaGarza (left knee sprain), Sean Franklin (omitted from the 2-1 victory over Vancouver on Thursday with a calf complaint), Juninho (Achilles injury suffered against the Whitecaps) and Christian Wilhelmsson (dropped on Thursday due to a calf complaint) ahead of the first leg on Sunday. All four players could feature against the Earthquakes after Arena promised to ring the changes to keep his squad fresh after defeating the Whitecaps. Even if Arena shuffles his personnel, the usual 4-4-2 setup won't change much.

They said it: “He’s a type of player that shines in moments like this,” Galaxy forward Landon Donovan told after Mike Magee once again popped up to score a critical postseason goal. “There’s something special about players like that. A lot of guys do it when games don’t matter, or they’ll score the third goal in a 3-0 win that doesn’t matter, but Mike scores goals that matter. He’s done it consistently since he’s been here.”

X-factor: The outcome of this series likely hinges on the Galaxy's ability to cobble together a pair of competent defensive performances. Arena fielded a makeshift back four against the Whitecaps and watched the unit concede a fairly soft opener to Darren Mattocks (finished with aplomb, though) and somehow escape from giving away a second goal during the second half.

San Jose poses a more significant challenge for the rearguard. The return of DeLaGarza (if he is indeed available) and Franklin would help matters considerably, but the Earthquakes' mix of brute force, clever movement in the box (look at how Mattocks pulled back on the first goal and just think about Wondolowski could do with that sort of space) and deft wide play may simply present too many problems for the Galaxy to adequately handle.

Bottom line: Thursday's victory should give the Galaxy cause for concern. San Jose can't match the Whitecaps' defensive performance, but it does boast the best attack in the league (72 goals during the regular season) by quite some distance. Los Angeles must attempt to dictate the terms and subdue the match in midfield in order to stay alive over the two legs. Even with those measures and several potential matchwinners in the starting XI (and off the bench), the champions may see their title defense falter at this stage.
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