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MLS Playoffs: Friday MLS Forecast: Conference Semifinals, First Leg

By Kyle McCarthy

Seattle and Houston opened the MLS postseason in style with an entertaining 0-0 draw in front of 35,807 at Qwest Field last night.

While there weren't any goals in Sounders FC's playoff debut, the match offered just about anything else a spectator could want with intermittent spells of attractive, open play mixed with gritty, diligent playoff football. Houston rode its luck at times – Brian Mullan cleared stand-in centerback Patrick Ianni's header off the line before Ianni subsequently hit the bar with another headed offering – but ultimately emerged with a deserved draw based on its commitment and Seattle's lack of cutting edge in the final third during the run of play.

Given Seattle's strength on the road at the tail end of the campaign, Sounders FC still harbors realistic dreams of a Western Conference final berth. Houston will have to push forward more consistently than it did at Qwest Field, opening up spaces for Freddie Ljungberg and Steve Zakuani to exploit. Houston didn't do a particularly good job of handling either winger on Thursday night, often resorting to mistimed challenges to halt the play rather than finding a more nuanced way to negate the wide threat. Seattle should feel reasonably confident in its ability to obtain the required result at Robertson Stadium, particularly if the Dynamo continues last night's trend of shoddy set-piece marking and a different referee exerts tighter control over the physical tone of the contest.

That isn't to say the tie has swung in Sounders FC's favor ahead of the second leg. Fredy Montero's ineffective night – marred by yet another ineffective attempt to get a player sent off through exaggeration – showed how limited Seattle is in the final third when the Colombian doesn't exert his influence or provide the finishing touch. Houston's Bobby Boswell and Geoff Cameron did particularly well to contain and track Montero on the evening and the Dynamo can expect a similar performance from the steady pair in the second leg. Houston will also surely get more attacking help out of Mullan on the right, Stuart Holden through the middle and Brian Ching up top in its home leg. If Houston can expunge the demons of another speed-filled side entering its home turf and ending its season at this stage last season, the Dynamo could scrape through as well.

While the result of the tie is finely balanced ahead of the second leg, one thing is far more certain than the eventual outcome: next Sunday's second leg is appointment viewing based on the evidence presented by last night's affair.

The Forecast wrapped up the regular season with another mediocre week of prognostication, but it holds high hopes for the playoffs after wiping the slate clean ahead of the second season.

Last week: 3/7 (43%)
Final tally for the season: 88/195 (45%)

Saturday

Columbus @ Real Salt Lake – 6:00p.m. Goal.com Preview


Chad Marshall | Defender of the Year candidate will have little margin for error upon his likely return from injury

This trip to Rio Tinto Stadium could pose significant problems for the Crew. Robert Warzycha's side hasn't played well over the last month or so (one goal and one win in four October matches) and faces a RSL side that doesn't lose often at home (9-1-5 on the campaign). Warzycha faces a selection poser in the form of stalwart defender Chad Marshall. Marshall hasn't played since Sept. 13 after picking up a left MCL sprain in a 2-1 win over Houston, but he is expected to be fit enough to start in Sandy. How will Marshall, presumably short of match fitness, cope with turning around and chasing Robbie Findley and Yura Movsisyan as RSL plays them consistently over the top for 90 minutes? Findley and Movsisyan should get plenty of service with Andy Williams in fine form behind them, so expect RSL to find a way to notch a couple of goals and continue its tendency to score in bunches at home. The final tally won't match RSL's 4-1 home win on April 2 because the Crew simply can't allow it to happen and expect to go through, but RSL's home form may just place them in position to spring a shocking first-round upset if they can bank a two-goal cushion heading back to Crew Stadium.

Prediction: Real Salt Lake win.

Sunday

Chicago @ New England – 2:00p.m. (Fox Soccer Channel) Goal.com Preview

Hide the meek and the vulnerable. This isn't going to be a series for the faint of heart as these two sides meet for the fifth consecutive postseason. New England didn't score or allow a goal from the run of play in the month of October, so expect the Revs to continue to keep it tight at the back and hope for a set piece or a slice of luck to convert in the attacking third. Chicago will have to ride through the distraction of the Cuauhtemoc Blanco-to-Veracruz signing leaking out on Thursday – isn't there a better time for this, Blanco? – and the continuing spate of injuries at the back. Wilman Conde and Gonzalo Segares should return to the lineup and valuable midfielder John Thorrington could join them, but Tim Ward (foot) may still miss out. The two sides played to a drab 0-0 draw two weeks ago, but that's firmly in the rear view mirror. In order to have a viable chance to advance, New England will need a win in this leg. History favors the Revs here – the home team is 12-0-1 in this playoff series all-time – so let's shade it to the home side and the possibility of an open tie heading into next Saturday's second leg.

Prediction: New England win.

Los Angeles @ Chivas USA – 5:00p.m. (ESPN2) Goal.com Preview

MLS enters into uncharted territory as the Home Depot Center groundsharers take the SuperClasico to the postseason for the first time. Will the unique circumstances – no true road matches – render the traditional philosophy of drawing on the road and winning at home meaningless? Then again, the venue doesn't necessarily impact how either of these teams like to play. Both sides set out to frustrate the opponent; the Galaxy prefers to do so with its cohesive shape while Chivas USA exerts relentless pressure. The lingering question in the series is which of the creative players – Los Angeles' Landon Donovan and Chivas USA's Sacha Kljestan – can find enough space to conjure up a bit of magic. The edge certainly goes to Donovan and the Galaxy there. One interesting subplot: can the Red-and-White do a better job of springing Justin Braun or Maykel Galindo in behind the Galaxy defense than it did during the regular season? With the way both teams tend to approach the game, this first leg will probably play out as a dull non-starter to set up the decisive second leg.

Prediction: Draw.

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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