Major League Soccer wrapped up its regular season with one final weekend that saw teams eliminated from playoff contention and other teams cement their spot in the postseason.
Before the league’s best get to play their first game in the postseason, the MLS Knockout Round must be held to finalize the field. Four teams will battle it out for the final two spots.
In the Western Conference, FC Dallas and Vancouver Whitecaps will meet in Frisco, TX on Wednesday night. Both teams are trying to return to the playoffs as neither qualified last season. FC Dallas qualified in 2011 and Vancouver played their way in in 2012.
FC Dallas finished fourth in the Western Conference in 2014 with 54 points. They won 16 games this year, scoring 55 goals and conceding 45. They currently sit on a +11 home goal differential. Vancouver was good for fifth in the West, winning 12 games in 2014. Their offense struggled for long stretches, scoring only 42 goals in the process. Their success this season rests on the shoulders of the teams stingy defense, which conceded only 40 goals this year, fourth best in the league.
FC Dallas has a fairly simple game plan, stop Pedro Morales. He is the Whitecaps leader in goals scored (10), assists (12), shots and shots on goal. When the teams slim offense does get moving, he is usually the main driving force. Dallas coach Oscar Pareja will rely on MLS veteran Adam Moffat and young gun Victor Ulloa to combat Morales in the midfield and stop the Whitecaps attack.
Carl Robinson and Vancouver have a similar task in trying to stop Blas Perez. He leads Dallas in goals scored (11) and assists (six). Fabian Castillo and Michel are both dangerous in attack and drive the team forward from their midfield positions, but make no mistake, Perez is the man Vancouver needs to stop to have the best chance of winning.
Both teams improved greatly over their 2013 efforts. Dallas finished last season with 10 fewer points, scoring 11 fewer goals and conceding seven more than its 2014 totals. Vancouver improved just slightly over last year, finishing with just two more points.
The winner of Dallas and Vancouver will be given a date with the Supporters’ Shield winning Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference Semi-Finals, and will subsequently host the opening game of the series.
The showdown most fans will be paying attention to in the knockout round is the massive Eastern Conference match between the top two teams from 2013. New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City went from first to worst in terms of playoff seeding in just one season. They meet this Thursday night.
The Red Bulls won the Supporters’ Shield in 2013, winning 17 games and finishing with 59 points. Their form dipped this term, claiming only 50 points, winning 14 contests. Similarly, Sporting dropped nine points from their 2013 form.
New York will hope that home field advantage will be kind to them for this game as it has been most of the year. The team has scored 69% of its goals at Red Bull Arena this season and has the second best home attack in MLS behind the Los Angeles Galaxy. Sporting KC has had consistency in their play away from home this season. They have the leagues best away goal differential (+3) and over the course of 34 games scored only two fewer goals on the road than at home.
The fact that either of these teams is participating in the knockout round is rather amazing. Both teams are stacked with talent on paper. Unfortunately, that meant losing out on numerous players throughout the summer as more than a few first teamers departed their sides to take part in the 2014 World Cup.
The Red Bulls will have a difficult time shutting down Dom Dwyer. He is one of the leagues fastest rising stars, scoring 22 goals this season for a team that was depleted for a long stretch of the summer. Graham Zusi, while not having eye popping numbers, (five goals, eight assists), is a true leader that can inspire his team and pull something amazing out of nowhere to help seal the points for his team. Expect Dax McCarty to be tasked with man-marking Dwyer whenever he is within arms reach. New York coach Mike Petke has been criticized at times for his tactics and he will not take kindly to a poor showing by his team in this match. Expect fireworks on the sidelines if things begin to look bleak for the Red Bulls.
Sporting KC will also have to contend with a young stud trying to put his stamp on the teams biggest game of the year. Bradley Wright-Phillips, who scored two goals in the teams regular season finale to tie the MLS single scoring record (27-Chris Wondolowski), has had a hot hand this season and can score rapidly if given the chance. He is often overlooked because of big name teammates such as Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, but he has put the team on his shoulders and cemented his status as an elite MLS player. Coach Peter Vermes will have to worry about Henry and Wright-Phillips in a New York attack that has shined at home. The center-back pairing of Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin, arguably the leagues best defensive duo, will have to play a near perfect game to keep New York off the board.
The game has an added importance, seeing as it could potentially be the final MLS appearance for Henry. Most within the organization expect him to walk away after this season, and a loss on Thursday night would be his swan song for the Red Bulls. He joined the club in 2009, along with former Barcelona teammate Rafa Marquez. Marquez never fit in with the team and fizzled out after just 44 appearances, whereas Henry has been an out-and-out star.
The winner of New York and Sporting KC match means that it will set up an Eastern Conference Semi-Final series against DC United, and will be on home soil in the first match.
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