McCarthy's Musings: MLS Conference Championship Preview: D.C. United – Houston, Seattle – LA Galaxy

The Musings scours the scene ahead of the start of the two-legged ties on Sunday.
#2 D.C. United – #5 Houston (first leg in Houston: Sunday, 4:00p.m., NBC Sports Network; second leg in Washington: next Sunday, 4:00p.m., NBC Sports Network, Univision Deportes)

Previous meetings: Houston 2 @ D.C. United 3 (Apr. 28); D.C. United 0 @ Houston 1 (May 12); D.C. United 0 @ Houston 4 (July 15)

Players entering this series one booking away from suspension: DC: Lionard Pajoy; HOU: Corey Ashe, Calen Carr, Brad Davis, Boniek Garcia, Tally Hall and Kofi Sarkodie

Overview: It isn't a secret why these two teams have reached this stage of the postseason: they make it difficult for other teams to function. Do not expect joga bonito over these two legs. Both teams possess skilled players capable of turning the tie in an instant, but they will ultimately succeed or fail based upon their collective approach and their desire to restrict the opportunities for the other side.

D.C. United (4-5-1): United boss Ben Olsen faces questions about his fullbacks ahead of the first leg in Houston. Lewis Neal deputized for Chris Korb at left back in the 1-0 victory at Red Bull Arena on Thursday night. Neal functioned well enough in that spot in a pinch, but United needs him elsewhere (unless Dwayne De Rosario is fit enough to replace Branko Bošković on the hour mark) and would prefer to field a specialist in that spot. Convalescing former starter Daniel Woolard (concussion-like symptoms) presents another option. Olsen will enjoy rather more straightforward choices when he replaces the suspended Bill Hamid (Joe Willis will start the first match after Hamid's dismissal in Harrison) and Andy Najar (Robbie Russell will likely earn the nod at right back in both games).

They said it: “This organization has been through some tough years and these fans have suffered,” United coach Ben Olsen told after his side somehow emerged victorious at Red Bull Arena on Thursday night. “They were spoiled early and we went through a drought. This gives them hope. This gives them excitement.”

Houston (4-4-2): Calen Carr (hamstring) and Jermaine Taylor (left knee sprain) present the most pressing selection issues for Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear. Carr departed the 1-0 defeat at Sporting Kansas City in midweek and failed to recover in time to train on Friday, according to If he cannot feature alongside Will Bruin, then Mac Kandji may earn the nod over Brian Ching to replace Carr's pace up front. Taylor did practice on Friday, but André Hainault may receive a second straight start to give Taylor some extra time to recover ahead of the second leg. Kinnear will also hope that crucial cogs Davis, Garcia and Hall avoid a caution in the first leg to ensure their availability in the second leg.

They said it: “I think it’s just that attitude that it’s important to give everything you have, not just for yourself but for the team,” Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall told reporters after the match at Sporting Kansas City about the Dynamo's continued postseason success. “I think guys do an excellent job of embodying that mentality. That’s what’s drilled into us and that’s what the Dynamo are about. It’s fun being on a team like that.”

X-factor: Keep an eye on the battle between the fullbacks and the wingers. Both sides rely on their wide players (the two most threatening players for both teams play on the flanks right now) to produce plenty of offense. Both sides also enter this series with some questions about their fullback situations (both Dynamo fullbacks are one caution away from suspension, while United harbors health concerns). If one side can tip the scales in its favor (and Houston is the more likely outfit to do so with Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia in this department), then it may just create some holes in the opposing team's shape and prompt genuine attacking opportunities in a series that won't yield many of them.
Bottom line: The smart money lays with the tried and tested Dynamo in this series. United must somehow escape from the first leg at BBVA Compass Stadium relatively unscathed (think a performance like the first effort there instead of the horrific second outing) to stand a chance in the second leg. By the end of next week, the Dynamo's set piece superiority (United conceded 10 times from dead ball situations during the regular season) and vast postseason experience (five conference finals in seven years, though with a rotating cast of contributors) should separate the sides.

#3 Seattle – #4 Los Angeles (first leg in Carson, Calif.: Sunday, 9:00p.m., ESPN/ESPN Deportes/TSN 2/RDS 2; second leg in Seattle: next Sunday, 9:00p.m., ESPN/ESPN Deportes/TSN 2/RDS 2)

Previous meetings: Los Angeles 0 @ Seattle 2 (May 2); Los Angeles 0 @ Seattle 4 (Aug. 5); Seattle 0 @ Los Angeles 1 (Oct. 28)

Players entering this series one booking away from suspension: SEA: Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans and Jeff Parke; LA: David Beckham, Omar Gonzalez, Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas

Overview: Seattle overcame one playoff nemesis by dispatching Real Salt Lake on Thursday. Sounders FC now faces another bogey side in the Galaxy. Recent results obscure the fact that the Rave Green entered this season with a poor overall record against the Galaxy (1-5-2 in league and playoff matches). Seattle possesses all of the tools to dethrone the defending champions and vanquish yet another tricky adversary, but the in-form Galaxy will not give up its quest for a second straight title without a significant fight.

Seattle (4-4-2): Mauro Rosales' continued battle with a hamstring complaint presents the most significant blow to Seattle's chances in this series. Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said his influential right winger could return in time for the second leg, though who knows what powers of recovery could occur before Sunday. Christian Tiffert slid over to the right side to allow Mario Martínez – the same man who thumped home a brilliant winner in Utah to send Seattle through – to feature on the left on Thursday night. Tiffert, in particular, must shoulder more of the creative burden from his new perch if Rosales isn't at full strength and he takes up a spot on the right yet again. Schmid and Sounders FC also face a nervous wait to see whether Marc Burch will receive a suspension for the foul epithet he directed at Will Johnson on Thursday night. If Burch is banned, then Brad Evans or Zach Scott may have to fill the vacancy with Leo González still hampered by a right hamstring strain.

They said it: “We've got to lick our wounds,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid told the Seattle Times after defeating RSL. “We have one day less rest, but LA's also played a number of games. Our team will be ready to play. They know what's at stake. We're in the next round. We have to go into LA and do a good job.”

Los Angeles (4-4-2): Tommy Meyer eased the concerns over A.J. DeLaGarza's recovery from a left knee sprain with an assured pair of displays in the semifinal series against San Jose. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena could insert DeLaGarza if he is back to full health, but the urgency to do so has dissipated somewhat over the past week. Arena will also have to assess the energy levels in his veteran squad and tinker accordingly as the Galaxy prepares to complete a stretch of five games in 18 days.

They said it: “Everyone did a really good job of concentrating at the end,” Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant told the Los Angeles Times about ousting San Jose on Wednesday night. “That's what it's all about. It's concentrating on every single play. It's not letting your guard down. The second you let your guard down is when they capitalize and punish you. We accomplished a really big thing. It was awesome.”

X-factor: Watch the work in transition from both outfits. Los Angeles thrives in the open field with Landon Donovan leading the counter and Robbie Keane running into dangerous areas. Seattle usually prefers to push its attacking forays down the flanks, but it also doesn't mind sending numbers forward on the break with Fredy Montero often in charge of playing Eddie Johnson into dangerous spaces. Both teams will have to find a way to limit the opportunities in transition (perhaps by moderating the attacking intent of the fullbacks) in order to maintain the necessary defensive shape.

Bottom line: Seattle can win this series by dictating the tempo and forcing the Galaxy to run with them for 90 minutes. Look for the Galaxy to try to reduce its exposure on the counter and slow the match down to a more reasonable pace. The battle of wills should extend through both legs in a series that should go right to the wire. In the end, this postseason battle may come just a touch too soon for Sounders FC to reach its first MLS Cup.
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