The Musings evaluates the state of the Eastern Conference semifinals ahead of the first match between D.C. United and New York on Saturday night.
Previous meetings: New York 1 @ D.C. United 4 (April 22); D.C. United 2 @ New York 3 (June 24); New York 2 @ D.C. United 2 (Aug. 29)
Overview: Controversy swirled around this series from the moment MLS decided to move the first leg to RFK Stadium after Hurricane Sandy swept through the region earlier this week. The league had little choice in the matter given the state of affairs in New Jersey at the moment, but United still lost home-field advantage despite finishing one point higher in the table during the regular season. The impact of that decision will come up frequently in the District if United ends its first playoff appearance in five years after this series.
D.C. United: United coach Ben Olsen can name an unchanged side and retain the 4-5-1 setup from the 1-1 draw at Chicago last Saturday if he so chooses. Dwayne De Rosario (left knee sprain) returned to training on Friday, but this series may arrive too early to use him extensively. Lewis Neal (left calf strain) is also available to offer a different look off the bench if Olsen decides to switch things up in the second stanza.
They said it: “If we are relying on playoff experience, we are in trouble,” United coach Ben Olsen told the Washington Post about his side's lack of playoff experience. “If we are relying on World Cup experience, we are in trouble. But we’re not. We’re relying on our team being a group and a team that is really looking out for each other and finding ways to win.”
New York: Red Bulls boss Hans Backe will hope Tim Cahill recovers from a calf injury in time to feature in the first leg. If Cahill is unable to play at RFK Stadium, then former United captain Dax McCarty may slide into central midfield (his best spot this season) to fill the void. Backe faces no other pressing injury concerns and few selection quandaries (Roy Miller or Jan Gunnar Solli would vie to fill any vacancy on the right flank if McCarty slides inside) as he prepares to deploy his usual 4-4-2 formation against United.
They said it: “In most of the other leagues I've been involved in you would say home is an advantage, but that's also of course with goals counting double in Europe and perhaps other leagues, too,” Backe told MLSsoccer.com about the potential impact of flipping the home legs. “As I've said many times, this league is so even, I wonder, but it's probably a small advantage.”
X-factor: De Rosario's potential return looms large over this series. United adjusted well to his absence and forged a more modest identity and a more rigid shape without him in the side. Those tenets may not apply as readily if he is indeed fit enough to start at some point during this series. De Rosario, as he has so often said, operates best in a free role. The tactical adjustments required to accommodate his return may not mesh neatly with how United has produced results over the few weeks and what measures are required to subdue the potent Red Bulls attack.
Bottom line: The flipped home matches may affect the outcome of this series. United scored at will on the Red Bulls this season (eight goals in three games), but this unit isn't aligned to replicate such feats right now. Playing the first leg at home will force United to commit numbers forward and open up that rigid shape to Kenny Cooper, Thierry Henry and the rest of the Red Bulls. That formula could spell trouble for United even though the Red Bulls remain vulnerable defensively. Unless De Rosario returns to weave his usual playoff magic, New York looks like the slight favorite to progress.
#1 Sporting Kansas City – #5 Houston (first leg in Houston: Sunday, 3:30p.m. ET, NBC; second leg in Kansas City, Kan.: Wednesday, 8:30p.m. ET)
Previous meetings: Houston 0 @ Sporting Kansas City 0 (July 7); Sporting Kansas City 1 @ Houston 2 (July 18); Houston 1 @ Sporting Kansas City 1 (Sept. 14)
Overview: Sporting must do in two legs what it could not do in three regular-season matches this year and one painful conference final defeat last year: find a way to defeat the Dynamo. Houston enters this series after a 2-1 victory over Chicago in midweek and with a justified level of confidence given its playoff track record and its recent performances against Sporting. It is now up to the favorites to address the situation and devise a way to get through.
Sporting Kansas City: Sporting coach Peter Vermes cleared influential midfielder Roger Espinoza (ankle) to start on Sunday. His absence would have left a gaping hole in the middle of the 4-3-3 setup Vermes prefers. Paulo Nagamura (left ankle sprain) will probably miss out on the first leg with Peterson Joseph one potential option to fill the vacancy in the midfield three.
They said it: “You don't know until you play the game, you know? But I haven't played in a month, and I think I'm ready,” Espinoza told MLSsoccer.com. “It's not like I've been off all year, either. This is the time when your adrenaline goes very high in this type of game. It's going to be a very, very good game, and I think I'm ready for it.”
Houston: Houston coach Dominic Kinnear could name an unchanged side from the group that defeated the Fire on Wednesday night. André Hainault presents a potential alternative at right back in the usual 4-4-2 setup if Kinnear opts to replace Kofi Sarkodie with a more defensive option to cope with Sporting's suffocating pressure.
They said it: “Everything that is coming this weekend is what we have been playing for,” Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall told HoustonDynamo.com about hosting the first playoff game at BBVA Compass Stadium. “There is something special about playing regular season games in a brand new stadium in its inaugural season. Now, we are playing a playoff game in our new home that has been very good to us.”
X-factor: The first leg in Houston could decide the series, particularly if Espinoza isn't fit enough to allow Sporting to function optimally. No team has emerged from the Dynamo's gleaming new venue with a victory this season. Sporting doesn't have to become the first side to secure a win at The Oven, but it also doesn't want to dig a significant hole ahead of the second leg and encourage the Dynamo to defend deeply at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. As the previous meetings between the teams this year show, that scenario doesn't favor Sporting – a side that shoots often (first in shots toward goal) and hits the target intermittently (last in the league in shooting accuracy) – in a do-or-die situation.
Bottom line: Houston is one of the few teams in the league to achieve some form of comfort level against Sporting's high-pressure approach. This seasoned Dynamo side will make this series hard on the Eastern Conference favorites. If Sporting can somehow eke out a decent result at BBVA Compass Stadium and limit the influence of Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia on the proceedings, then it may concoct some way to escape in the second leg at home and obtain some measure of revenge for that hurtful setback a year ago.
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