MLS Playoff Preview: Portland-Seattle headlines conference semifinals

The Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers boast a rivalry with decades of tradition, and tons of animosity. They face off in the headlining series of the MLS conference semifinals
The Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers already boasted the best rivalry in Major League Soccer before this weekend, but Western Conference playoff semifinal series they are about to play is only going to serve to kick the hatred up a few notches.

In one corner, you have the big-spending Sounders, who have won three U.S. Open Cups since arriving in MLS five years ago, but have yet to really taste true playoff success. On the other corner you have the Timbers, who endured a forgettable first two years in the league before Caleb Porter showed up this year to help transform Portland into a legitimate title contender.

Both teams have visions of an MLS Cup on the brain, but more important than that trophy right now is ensuring the securing of bragging rights in a rivalry with four decades of history, spread across multiple leagues.

These clubs have faced off in the playoffs before, with both teams tasting post-season Cascadia glory. The Timbers held the advantage when the clubs met in the 1975 NASL playoffs. A decade later, in the USL, Seattle defeated Portland in the playoffs in consecutive seasons (2004 and 2005) to secure some bragging rights.

Most recently, in the 2009 U.S. Open Cup, the MLS Sounders took on the USL Timbers and posted a 2-1 victory on the Timbers' home field, known then as PGE Park and now as Jeld-Wen Field.

The Timbers will be looking to recapture control of bragging rights between the clubs in the 2013 MLS playoffs, but to do so they will likely need a result in the first leg of their two leg series. On Saturday night, the Sounders are expected to draw a near-capacity crowd to CenturyLink Field for the first leg, which should help present a daunting challenge for a Timbers side that finished the regular season with the best road record in the league.

Here is a closer look at all four MLS conference semifinal match-ups, starting with Sounders-Timbers, the most highly-anticipated of the four:



Schedule: First leg: Saturday at CenturyLink Field (10pm ET, NBC Sports). Second leg: Thursday at Jeld-Wen Field (11pm, NBC Sports).

Players to Watch: Sounders- Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, Osvaldo Alonso, Mauro Rosales. Timbers- Will Johnson, Diego Valeri, Donovan Ricketts, Darlington Nage.

Match-up to Watch: Alonso vs. Valeri. The tenacious Cuban midfield destroyer versus the creative Argentine magician. Alonso will be expected to do some heavy lifting deep in Seattle’s midfield while the Sounders devote numbers try and breaking down Portland’s stingy defense. That means Valeri will have a chance to run Alonso ragged in a clash that will be key to determining who wins the series.

Outlook: The Sounders have the attacking weapons to test Portland’s tough defensive shell, but the Timbers enter the series in better form, and with more rest as Seattle looks to shake off the fatigue of Wednesday’s playoff win versus Colorado. If Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson can combine well, the Sounders have a chance to take this series, but we see Porter devising a plan to neutralize Dempsey, while also unleashing Valeri and Nagbe on a vulnerable Sounders defense. If Max Urruti can do enough to unsettle Seattle’s centerbacks, look for Rodney Wallace and Nagbe to find gaps and help the Timbers create enough offense to take this series.


Schedule: First leg: Sunday at StubHub Center (9pm ET, ESPN). Second leg: Thursday at Rio Tinto Stadium (9pm, ESPN2).

Players to Watch: Real Salt Lake: Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Alvaro Saborio. Galaxy: Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, Jaime Penedo.

Match-up to Watch: Chris Schuler vs. Landon Donovan. With veteran centerback Nat Borchers likely to be assigned to try and deal with Robbie Keane, it will be up to Schuler to continue his recent solid form against the speedy and always dangerous Donovan. Donovan’s movement can make him tough for big centerbacks to handle, but Schuler is athletic enough to pull it off. If he can’t, RSL could be in for a long series.

Outlook: The Galaxy enter the series with all of their top weapons available, and with Keane and Donovan healthy, LA will cause problems for an RSL defense that has relied more on Nick Rimando heroics than any recent year. If Keane and Donovan can click, and if rookie Gyasi Zardes can continue his strong late-season form, the Galaxy attack will be too much for RSL to handle.

Ned Grabavoy’s recent stellar play has helped ease some of the burden off Javier Morales in the playmaking department, but RSL will need both at their best against a Galaxy defense that has shown improvement late in the season. Rookie Kofi Opare has impressed for LA late in the regular season, but it will be up to Jason Kreis to test the young defender, whether with the speed of a Joao Plata, or technique of an Olmes Garcia.

RSL should push LA to the brink, but ultimately Keane and Donovan will provide the difference, and the Galaxy will take a step closer to a three-peat.


Schedule: First leg: Sunday at BBVA Compass Stadium (3:30pm ET, NBC). Second leg: Wednesday at Red Bull Arena (8pm, Univision Deportes).

Players to Watch: Red Bulls: Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Dax McCarty, Jamison Olave. Dynamo: Brad Davis, Oscar Boniek Garcia, Will Bruin, Ricardo Clark.

Match-up to Watch: Jamison Olave vs. Will Bruin. The Dynamo need Bruin to get going to help drive the attack, and it will be up to Olave to use his freakish combination of size, speed and strength to neutralize the big Houston forward. Bruin had been struggling before his two-goal effort in Thursday’s win against Montreal, but he should head into this series with confidence, and the knowledge he has scored in the playoffs before.

Outlook: The Red Bulls roll in unbeaten in eight and playing some of the best soccer in the league, while Houston come off short rest after a confidence-boosting play-in round win against Montreal. The Dynamo save the best for the playoffs, but it may be too much to ask Dom Kinnear’s squad to stop a Red Bulls team playing with so much confidence and quality lately.

Thierry Henry is the difference maker. Even if Houston can contain wingers Lloyd Sam and Jonny Steele, and keep Cahill from doing damage in the penalty area, Henry has shown some strong signs late in the year that he is ready for a playoff run to remember. Houston will need its own playmakers to match Henry’s impact. Oscar Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis need to go after the Red Bulls fullbacks and test New York on the wings, where they appear to be vulnerable.

The series could boil down to whether Olave can neutralize Bruin. If he does, Houston won’t have enough offense to win the series. If he can’t, the Dynamo can definitely pull the upset. We see Olave getting the job done, and Henry and Cahill leading the Red Bulls to the series victory.


Schedule: First leg: Saturday at Gillette Stadium (8pm ET, NBC Sports). Second leg: Wednesday at Sporting Park (9pm ET, MLS Live).

Players to Watch: Sporting KC: Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, Jimmy Nielsen. Revolution: Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez, Kelyn Rowe, Jose Goncalves.

Match-up to Watch: Juan Agudelo vs. Aurelien Collin. Whether it is Collin or Ike Opara, Sporting KC will look to put it’s bigger centerback on Agudelo, while allowing Besler to deal with Fagundez and other threats. Agudelo has been in top form in recent weeks and he will need to have a big series if the Revs are to have any chance of pulling off the upset.

Outlook: The biggest mismatch of the semifinal round, Sporting KC has frustrated New England every time the teams met this year, with the Revs failing to score a goal against KC this season. New England won’t be able to score in bunches against KC’s stingy defense, but the Revs can make it a tightly-contested affair that can swing on a key play.

New England’s defense is no pushover, so Sporting KC won’t be able to just toy with the Revs, but Jay Heaps has to be concerned about dealing with Graham Zusi. The Revs don’t have a defensive midfielder with the bite to contain the USA midfielder, and that will ultimately be New England’s undoing.

Look for Sporting KC’s defense to stand firm, and for one of KC’s forwards (be it Dom Dwyer, Claudio Bieler or Soony Saad) to enjoy a breakout series as Sporting KC rolls to the Eastern Conference final.