Our reward for enduring through 32 weeks of regular season matches is a fascinating final four in the Western Conference playoffs. While the Chivas USA versus Galaxy doubleheader in Los Angeles stacks up to be a tough defensive struggle for both squads, expect fireworks from the Houston Dynamo and the Seattle Sounders FC. The Sounders won twice against Houston in Seattle this season – once in the regular season and once in the US Open Cup playoffs – and will hope to repeat that result when the two teams face off in game one of their MLS Cup playoff matchup tonight at Qwest Field. Houston will have their full squad available this time around, and hope the phrase “third time’s a charm” holds true. Over 33,000 fans are expected to attend the expansion team’s first foray into postseason soccer, creating what will be a formidable home field advantage for the Sounders. Game time is 10pm on the east coast, 7pm out west – this is beyond a doubt Thursday night “Must See TV!”
Does Seattle have what it takes to win tonight? Home and home playoff series have historically been toss-ups for the #2 seed versus #3 seed pairing in MLS. The key in this aggregate goals format is a strong start in game one. After a lull during the middle of the season, Seattle has recaptured their confidence with a string of strong performances both away from home and on the artificial turf of Qwest Field. However, can this team adjust to the pressures of the MLS playoffs? The experience will be new for many of those wearing the Green and Blue, but not for two of their key players – Freddie Ljungberg and Kasey Keller. Ljungberg, from his central midfielder position, has orchestrated the last two Seattle wins, tallying four assists from their 5 goals. The Swede international should relish the chance to prove himself on the big stage that defines the American sports playoffs. On the defensive side of the ball, Keller and his defensive four finished the MLS season allowing a league low 10 goals at home. The veteran goalkeeper provides the confidence and leadership that will make it tough for Houston to break through tonight.
The key for Seattle is the play of their strikers – Freddy Montero and Nate Jaqua. The two combined for 21 goals and 14 assists this season, eye-popping numbers for an expansion team. They face a Houston Dynamo defense that should be at full strength, not the makeshift lineup they faced in their two victories earlier this season. With Ljungberg providing the service, Montero and Jaqua will need to convert on their scoring chances in order to gain the victory tonight. The Seattle defense is ready to do their part, getting a result beyond a draw will be up to the forwards.
Will Houston regain their playoff swagger after last season’s early exit? Seattle says all the right things, but they must be happy just to get to the playoffs in their inaugural season. Houston expects to be in the postseason every year, and believes they will triumph in the MLS Cup Final. The devastating loss to New York Red Bulls in 2008 – the biggest playoffs upset in MLS history – should provide ample motivation this time around. Dom Kinnear’s veteran squad was criticized for playing on cruise control during stretches of the regular season, often displaying a lack in discipline along the way. Still, the Dynamo finished the season with the second best record in the Western Conference. Players like Brian Ching, Ricardo Clark, Pat Onstad, and Brad Davis have extensive playoff experience – they can help lead their team past the overconfidence of last season toward redemption in 2009.
Let’s not forget the emerging stars on the Dynamo, midfielder Stuart Holden and defender Geoff Cameron. Look for both players to make a difference in these playoffs beyond just tonight. Confidence never seems to be missing from Holden’s game, and along with Davis, he will provide plenty of spark and energy to the Dynamo offense. Against a Seattle defense that gives up very little at home, Holden and Davis could prove to be the difference makers in stealing a result ahead of their return match in Houston.
What is the key for Seattle? Simply, Freddie Ljungberg needs to play the role of creator for the offense. Before their come from behind victory against FC Dallas in the closing game of the 2009 season, the Sounders had been held scoreless over four games. The packed house at Qwest Field should be all the motivation Seattle needs to find the back of the net. Ljungberg has the experience and verve to make that happen.
What is Houston looking for in this match? Getting off to a fast start will help immeasurably in this match. Not only will the confidence of their less experienced opponent be damaged, but an early goal would help quiet the huge sellout crowd. If Ricardo Clark can limit Ljungberg’s effectiveness, the Dynamo will be poised to leave Seattle with nothing less than a draw.
What can we expect? Seattle will want to bank as many goals as possible before the second game in Houston – no easy task given their paucity of scoring at home and the resoluteness of the Dynamo defense. Their fan base already dreams of filling up Qwest Field for the Western Conference Championship and the MLS Cup Finals, and will be loud from the opening whistle. The Houston Dynamo, not shackled with the “playoff favorite” label that weighed them down in 2008, look to survive their trip to Seattle with at least a draw, setting up momentum for the return leg in Houston next week. Expect both teams to find their scoring touch tonight, with the game ending in a pulsating 1-1 draw.