Tonight the road to MLS Cup 2012 begins with Chicago hosting Houston in the Eastern Conference 4/5 game. Over the next month ten teams will battle to determine who is the best team in MLS this season (at least, the best playoff team) and based on the regular season all of these games are must-see TV. While match-ups do matter in the playoffs almost as much as talent – playing the right team at the right time really helps – every one of the following teams has a goal they need to achieve to advance to the trophy. If your favorite team achieves the following, you could be high-fiving your buddies as your head coach lifts the cup. Agree or disagree? Leave your thoughts in the comments section:
(Teams arranged by Western Conference first, in order of finish)
San Jose: It would be easy for the best team in the league to assume that they can just do the same things they did in the regular season and be fine for the playoffs. Frank Yallop is a smarter coach than that, especially facing a likely home-and-home with the defending champs. The key for the ‘Quakes to finish their impressive season is have Chris Wondolowski show up for the occasion. The knock on the forward over the past three years is his inconsistency, and while this team can score without him, the threat of Wondo scoring can open up space for his teammates. The ‘Quakes can win if he scores only one playoff goal; all he needs to do is work hard off the ball and be a constant threat in front of the net.
Seattle: It’s the MLS Cup or bust for the Sounders, as trophy-less seasons have become rare in the Northwest. The key for Seattle is to learn from their past mistakes. Again they face Real Salt Lake in the playoffs, but they cannot allow RSL (or any future opponent) to jump on them early and force them to play from behind. Their back line has to be stout and play as well as they possibly can; a leaky backline will lead to another early exit.
Real Salt Lake: Another team “backing” into the playoffs and having unanswered questions, Real Salt Lake needs to turn around their recent form to move past Seattle for a second year in a row. The key for them will be their veteran midfield, primarily Kyle Beckerman. Their likely opponents in the West all have stacked midfields that can dictate the run of play; Jason Kreis’ side needs to match their opponents’ midfield play to continue advancing. With the number of playoff veterans in the lineup, this is a doable task.
Los Angeles: For the defending champions, the key to a repeat championship is rediscovering their defensive magic. With the backline healthy enough and Josh Saunders playing well, the Galaxy need to replicate their form from last year’s playoffs. They can score, no doubt about it, but the playoffs is about who can stop the other team from scoring and, beginning with their play-in game, their opponents can match them goal for goal.
Vancouver: Consistency is the key for a team that many see as a “one and done”. Consistency in Martin Rennie’s lineup is the first aspect, as in finding the best XI right now and sticking with it, even if that means bringing your DPs off the bench. The second aspect is defensive consistency; as I stated above, the playoffs are about defense and the ‘Caps need to show they can play a decent enough D against some very good O.
Sporting Kansas City: Kansas City’s path to the MLS Cup is a tough one, especially if San Jose ends up coming out of the West. This is the time for C.J. Sapong to take his game another step. Becoming the center forward in the 4-3-3 after the injury to Teal Bunbury, Sapong has played well and scored some big goals. But for KC to hoist the cup, they need him to be a consistent threat in the playoffs, which is sometimes not an easy task for a first-time starter.
DC United: After an up-and-down season, the Black and Red are in a great position to advance in the playoffs if they play their style. It is amazing considering they may only start one of their designated players! The key to their success lies in one of the team’s youngest players – Bill Hamid. The keeper came under criticism for his play early in the season but turned in some of his best performances down the stretch when the team needed him most. If he can marshal the defense in front of him correctly, and on occasion make the incredible type of saves he did in Chicago, DC will go far in these playoffs.
New York: Hurricane Sandy added to the turmoil going on in the Red Bulls’ front office, but this team probably has the strongest offense in the East. The key to their success will be overall consistency. Teams can flame out quickly in the playoffs after a strong beginning, and New York over the past few years has struggled to put together consistent games in the postseason. Consistency, especially from their back five, will be a key to this team surviving the I-95 derby and advancing through the playoffs.
Chicago: For Chicago, it’s all about potential. Their players need to play as well as they have shown they can play, and they will be fine. That means their front line needs to finish their chances consistently (I’m looking at you Dominic Oduro), their midfield needs to be strong and create chances, and their back five needs to not commit dumb mistakes. If this team clicks like it did during their last major winning streak, they will be tough to beat.
Houston: Like their MLS Cup 2011 opponents, Houston will need to repeat their success from last year to advance in the playoffs, especially since their play-in game is on the road. The key to a tough run to the finals is the play of their forwards. Brad Davis and co. can get them the ball; what they do with it in front of net will determine how long this team will play.