MLS knockout round: Looking ahead to the first round

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With a successful inaugural Decision Day in the books, Major League Soccer launches straight into the playoffs with the four Wild Card games on Wednesday and Thursday night. Here is a preview of each contest.

New England Revolution at DC United

Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern at RFK Stadium (TV: UniMas).

The Prognosis: Any confidence anyone had in DC United was shot when Ben Olsen’s team went to Columbus with the number two seed and a first round bye on the line on Sunday and got stomped 5-0 by the Crew.

With the Revs, the story this season is the same as it was last season: They’re either fantastic or awful. There’s very little in-between. What they are now is healthy, and their record is still superb with Jermaine Jones in the lineup.

What I’m Watching For: DC has to keep this game close early. They were undone last year in the playoffs against the Red Bulls and plenty of times this season by giving up first half goals. United isn’t built to play from behind. They need to make the game physical, keep it tight, and lean on the likes of Bill Hamid, Bobby Boswell, and Perry Kitchen.

We should get a pretty good idea of New England’s state of mind early on, but if forward trio of Teal Bunbury, Charlie Davies, and Juan Agueldo is in form, it could be a good night. DC defender Steve Birnbaum hasn’t been at the races all season, and the Revs could be licking their chops to get at him.

SEE MORE: Univision posts strong ratings numbers in first year of MLS deal.

The Stakes: DC United is a throwback. They play a 4-4-2, they’ve constructed a roster with plenty of experience but no high-profile players, and they mostly rely on cohesion and effort to pick up points during the regular season. That method worked wonders to take DC from last place to first in the East last year, but it fizzled in the playoffs. If this year ends with another quick postseason exit, United will be a clear referendum that winning in the regular season and winning in the playoffs are much different tasks.

DC’s path from here isn’t particularly clear, but if they lose, Ben Olsen and Co. could be looking at a long offseason of soul-searching and rebuilding.

The Pick: New England

Toronto FC @ Montreal Impact

Thursday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern at Stade Saputo (TV:UniMas and TSN1).

The Prognosis: These two teams met in Canada’s premier derby on Decision Day, and the Impact walked away with a 2-1 victory thanks to their messiah, Didier Drogba.

It’s impossible to overstate Drogba’s influence in Montreal. Sebastian Giovinco has been fantastic this year, but he hasn’t been able to lift Toronto in the same way. Stade Saputo went from empty to packed, Montreal went from one of the league’s worst teams to one of its best, and anything seems possible.

This Impact team feels like the 2013 Timbers or the 2014 Red Bulls. They might not have the most talented team in the league – especially outside of the front four – but they are full of belief and spirit. Considering that this league’s winner is simply the hottest team in the winter, they have to be amongst the favorites.

Since their schedule in the run-in was ludicrously soft, and since they played almost all their games in the last month at home, Toronto continues to be hard to gauge. Giovinco is obviously tremendous, but the stars around him – notably Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore – have underperformed.

SEE MORE: Philadelphia hiring Earnie Stewart will make the rest of MLS take notice.

What I’m Watching For: Drogba’s health. He went down hurt against Toronto and appeared to be in bad shape, but was up and bounding around the field just minutes later. But how long can the 37-year-old Drogba, with games coming thick and fast, keep up his superhuman form?

Toronto’s defense, which has been underwhelming all year, was absolutely bludgeoned on Sunday. Can the likes of Ahmed Kantari step up, or will they be at sixes and sevens again?

The Stakes: Toronto’s first playoff appearance should be a cause for celebration, but the mood around TFC is hardly optimistic. Had MLS not expanded the playoffs again, they would have missed out.

Greg Vanney is under pressure with former Real Salt Lake executive Bill Manning coming in as president and Jason Kreis potentially available. Mauro Biello, on the other hand, is a Quebec legend who is finally getting a shot at the top job and is coming good. Toronto has plenty of talent – and dominated the first half on Sunday – but all the mojo is Montreal’s as both sides look for their first ever playoff win.

The Pick: Montreal

LA Galaxy @ Seattle Sounders

Wednesday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern at CenturyLink Field (TV: UniMas).

The Prognosis: The two preseason favorites to win MLS Cup have had a horrid time of late, limping into the playoffs with the fourth and fifth seeds, respectively, after pushing each other all the way for the Supporters’ Shield last year.

Bruce Arena’s Galaxy have entered postseasons in shabby shape before, but they’ve truly got a mountain to climb this time. Still, betting against Arena is never smart, and LA has dominated this series in 2015, coming within a Chad Barrett stoppage time equalizer a few weeks ago of a clean three-game sweep against Seattle.

The Sounders beat a demoralized and shorthanded Real Salt Lake 3-1 on the final day to clinch their spot and get a home game, but their results since late-June have mostly been terrible. This game will boast an incredible atmosphere and plenty of stars, but neither side wants to consider the implications of losing.

What I’m Watching For: The central midfield balance. The Galaxy simply haven’t gotten Steven Gerrard and Juninho on the same page, and the result is that they’ve been far too easy to break down through the middle in the second half of the season.

Seattle has had almost as much trouble, though, trying to integrate Erik Friberg into the midfielder while Brad Evans and Gonzalo Pineda have been in and out.

Whichever team can get the ball to their forwards and dictate play will most likely win. It’ll also be interesting to watch if Omar Gonzalez can step up and stop his slide against Martins and a player he knows very well in Clint Dempsey.

SEE MORE: MLS average attendance increases by 13% in 2015.

The Stakes: This feels like a game that both teams are scared out of their minds to lose. Winning would be nice, sure, but just the fact that LA and Seattle are playing so early in the playoffs constitutes a failure for both.

Seattle’s LA playoff demons are well documented. Another loss could be crippling to the Sigi Schmid regime, especially considering that this Sounders side is starting to look very old, very fast.

For the Galaxy, getting knocked out early would be an almost unconscionable failure for a team that has won three of the last four cups and boasts the most talented and accomplished roster in the league.

There’s little gain and everything to lose for both teams, but Seattle’s history of choking under pressure is well documented, and LA’s barely exists.

The Pick: Los Angeles

Sporting Kansas City @ Portland Timbers

Thursday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern at Providence Park (TV: UniMas).

The Prognosis: Portland is flying. On the outside looking in at the playoffs just two weeks ago, the Timbers took nine points from their last three games and scored nine times in their last two, the highlight being that sensational 5-2 win at LA last weekend.

The Timbers took care of business at home against Colorado on Decision Day, and are playing their best soccer of the year. Sporting Kansas City, on the other hand, comes into the playoffs beleaguered and battered, having failed to win consecutive MLS games in either September or October.

But this matchup bodes well for Kansas City. Twice in the last month and a half, SKC shut out Portland at Providence Park, and the headline going into this one is that the Timbers can’t figure out Sporting’s defense. Portland hasn’t scored against SKC since 2013 and hasn’t scored against them at home since 2012. That was an own goal – the last goal scored by a Timbers player at home against Sporting was Darlington Nagbe’s MLS goal of the year in 2011.

SEE MORE: If Jason Kreis is in trouble, so is NYCFC.

What I’m Watching For: Does Benny Feilhaber start? Peter Vermes benched the playmaker – who has a history attitude problems – for the crunch weekend meeting with LA but was full of praise for him after Feilhaber came on and provided the game-winning assist to Dom Dwyer. Does Vermes dare leave him out again?

On Portland’s side, Caleb Porter has received plenty of deserved credit for his switch to an inverted 4-3-3 that spearheaded wins over RSL and LA last week, but he went away from that formation with Diego Valeri suspended on Sunday and went back to the Timbers’ usual 4-2-3-1.

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