Both sides will take significant cushions into the decisive second legs of the Conference Championships on Sunday, but D.C. United and Seattle retain a puncher's chance.There is a fairly simple reason why Houston and Los Angeles are favored to book a MLS Cup rematch on Sunday: comebacks of the magnitude required this weekend aren't a common occurrence at this stage of the season.
More often than not, a heavy first-leg victory leads to a triumph at the end of a two-legged tie. Eight teams have secured victories by two or more goals in the opening game of a home-and-home series since the format first appeared at the conference semifinal stage in 2003. Only two sides – the 2003 San Jose Earthquakes and the 2004 Kansas City Wizards – have managed to overturn the deficit.
D.C. United and Seattle enter this weekend hoping to replicate those feats (both revivals occurred on home soil) and seal a place in the final against the stacked odds. The Friday Five assesses their chances and previews the decisive fixtures:
1. Is D.C. United healthy enough to mount a charge at RFK Stadium?: United coach Ben Olsen faces questions over the fitness of three players removed from Sunday's 3-1 defeat at BBVA Compass Stadium. Brandon McDonald (calf) and Marcelo Saragosa (hamstring) may feature from the start, but Chris Pontius (groin) might not recover in time for this affair. His absence would deprive United of its best attacking option in the non-De Rosario category (more on him in a moment). Throw in the complications posed by the final game of Andy Najar's ban and this gritty United group might not have enough healthy bodies to send the Dynamo home with a heavy defeat.
2. Will Dwayne De Rosario's potential return spur his teammates?: Motivation isn't in short supply with a berth in the final on the line, but United might receive an additional boost if Dwayne De Rosario makes the squad as expected. The former Dynamo man could offer the necessary inspiration and quality to drive the home side to a famous victory. As discussed in Wednesday's Musings, De Rosario probably won't emerge until the second half. But if he is healthy enough to play for any length of time, he will likely find some way to make it count.
3. Setting out the right stall: Houston and Los Angeles must adopt the right approach – prudent, but not too conservative – in order to navigate through these tricky ties. Houston sat back a bit too deeply when it nursed a lead at Sporting Kansas City during the Eastern Conference semifinals, but the Dynamo will likely push out a bit more on Sunday to avoid a bombardment by the home side. Galaxy forward Robbie Keane summed up the ideal tactics for both frontrunners during a conference call yesterday.
“We’re not going there to pack the box and keep everyone behind the ball and letting them bombard us for the whole game,” Keane said during the call, according to MLSsoccer.com. “As much as we can, we need to try to catch them in the way that we play, which is quick counterattacks.”
4. Where will Seattle find three goals?: Firepower usually does not pose much of a problem for Sounders FC with the number of enticing options available to Seattle coach Sigi Schmid. It does right now because the usual choices aren't in the right type of fitness or form to spark a massive comeback. At the moment, the potential matchwinners are either ineffective in general (Christian Tiffert), ineffective in the playoffs (Fredy Montero, scoreless in nine career postseason matches), injured (Mauro Rosales might not even make the squad due to a lingering hamstring knock) or recovering from injury (Eddie Johnson). A comeback isn't on the cards unless those players suddenly spring to life in Seattle's time of need.
5. Is this the time when the Galaxy's rearguard cracks?: Los Angeles has cobbled together three good defensive performances in a row to reach the cusp of a second consecutive MLS Cup berth. This situation – holding onto a three-goal lead in front of a raucous crowd at CenturyLink Field against a side with plenty of variety in its approach play – could provide the most stringent test to date. As the holdovers from last year would suggest, the Galaxy thrives when its defense provides a solid foundation. If the rearguard holds firm yet again, then Bruce Arena's side will advance to the final.
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