Photo by ISI Photos.com
Ten teams, one month and one special trophy. The 2012 MLS Cup playoffs begin tonight and the race to crown a champion is a wide-open one.
The San Jose Earthquakes are the favorites to lift the MLS Cup trophy after their dream regular season, but a loaded Western Conference playoff field and a strong contender in East leader Sporting Kansas City have other ideas.
How do the ten teams in the MLS playoffs stack up? Here is a closer look at how we see the field measuring up heading into the post-season (factoring not only form and quality, but also the degree of difficulty in the path to to the final).
1. SPORTING KANSAS CITY
They’ll win MLS Cup if– Aurelien Collin plays at a high level and C.J. Sapong can be their go-to goal-scorer.
They won’t win MLS Cup if– Their offense struggles to score goals, which has been a problem at times this year.
X-Factor– Roger Espinoza. The relentless Honduran midfielder is one of the most underrated players in MLS, though that has changed since the Olympics. If he is healthy, it will be tough to keep KC out of the MLS Cup Final.
Outlook– Their stingy defense, and high-pressure style makes things difficult for anybody they face. Getting Espinoza back healthy is key to that stifling approach working. With an easier road to the final than the San Jose Earthquakes, we give Sporting the edge
2. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
They’ll win MLS Cup if– they can keep on scoring goals in bunches and if their defense can shut teams down in the second half of matches the way they have most of the season. They will also win if Chris Wondolowski maintains his record-setting form.
They won’t win MLS Cup if– their defense doesn’t tighten up and if their late-game magic runs out. It is no secret that San Jose has been vulnerable early in games, and that sort of weakness could cost them dearly in the post-season against stronger teams.
X-Factor– Steven Lenhart. Wondolowski and Gordon are also vital what the Earthquakes do offensively, but Lenhart’s physical presence is such a disruptive element that it helps makes things easier for his teammates. He better be careful though. Officials have surely been prepped on his antics.
Outlook– They may be second on this list, but only because they have the tougher road to get to the final. That being said, if San Jose can continue to generate chances and score goals seemingly at will, even the stacked Western Conference won’t be enough to keep them from what feels like an inevitable MLS Cup title.
3. REAL SALT LAKE
They’ll win MLS Cup if– Jamison Olave can stay healthy, and if forwards Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola can hit their stride.
They won’t win MLS Cup if– The forwards don’t finish chances, or worse yet, the normally reliable midfield isn’t capable of generating chances.
X-Factor– Ned Grabavoy. He has missed a large part of the season injured, but will be a key player in the playoffs because of his ability to step up in big games and the spark he brings to the midfield.
Outlook– RSL has had the same strong nucleus for a while now and this could be their last best chance to lift another MLS Cup title. They are good enough to beat any team in the field, but they must have their forwards produce or that could be what costs them, much as it did in the CONCACAF Champions League.
4. LOS ANGELES GALAXY
They’ll win MLS Cup if– Omar Gonzalez can stay healthy and dominate, Landon Donovan plays with passion and if Robbie Keane keeps up his outstanding form.
They won’t win MLS Cup if– A.J. De La Garza doesn’t come back, David Beckham looks rusty or if Donovan is anything less than at his best.
X-Factor– Edson Buddle. Sidelined by injury most of the season, Buddle is back now and could wind up being the goal-scorer the team needs to knock off the strong field in the West.
Outlook– The Galaxy have all the pieces to repeat as champion, but their road will be a difficult one. If Beckham, Donovan and De La Garza can be healthy for the semifinal series against San Jose, the Galaxy could definitely knock off the top seed, and if they do that, it could be tough to keep them from repeating.
5. D.C. UNITED
They’ll win MLS Cup if– Chris Pontius can get on a roll, the back-line keeps playing well and Bill Hamid keeps on playing like a young Tim Howard.
They won’t win MLS Cup if– The offense stalls against tougher competition, young players like Nick DeLeon and Andy Najar show their age in the high-pressure environment of the playoffs, or if the team’s forwards waste chances.
X-Factor– Nick DeLeon. The Rookie of the Year finalist was a driving force in D.C. United’s late-season surge with his combination of tireless energy and attacking quality. He can be a dangerous threat on the wing and heads into the playoffs on good form.
Outlook– D.C. put on an amazing late-season run to become the No. 2 seed in the East, but it should be noted that they didn’t exactly beat strong teams during that stretch. That being said, D.C. enters the playoffs riding a wave of confidence that just might help them make a dream run to the final.
6. SEATTLE SOUNDERS
They’ll win MLS Cup if– Eddie Johnson’s hamstring heals, their defense steps it up a notch and if Fredy Montero plays his best.
They won’t win MLS Cup if– Johnson can’t play, playmakers Mauro Rosales and Christian Tiffert don’t generate chances or if Montero disappears.
X-Factor– Osvaldo Alonso. The most reliable player on the Sounders, Alonso will be key to Seattle’s chances of knocking off Real Salt Lake, and if he succeeds in making that happen, the Sounders will stand a solid chance in the conference final.
Outlook– The path to a title is a tough one for Seattle, especially now with Eddie Johnson hampered. They face a veteran Real Salt Lake side that knows how to win in the playoffs, something Seattle has yet to do in MLS. The Sounders need their fast-paced attack to overwhelm RSL, because if they don’t, and RSL is given time to settle in, Seattle could be doomed to another early playoff exit.
7. NEW YORK RED BULLS
They’ll win MLS Cup if– Thierry Henry goes into beast mode, Dax McCarty moves back into central midfield and if the centerback tandem of Markus Holgersson and Rafa Marquez can avoid mistakes.
They won’t win MLS Cup if– Kenny Cooper gets cold, speedy forwards expose their centerbacks or if the midfield fails to generate enough chances.
X-Factor– Luis Robles/Bill Gaudette. It remains unclear just which goalkeeper Hans Backe plans to turn to in the playoffs, but whether it is Robles or Gaudette (and Robles seems the safer bet), they will need to play very well because the Red Bulls defense is a safe bet to surrender plenty of scoring chances.
Outlook– The Red Bulls have the pieces in place to make a deep playoff run, and their regular season-ending results definitely gave the team confidence. That said, the Red Bulls have struggled against good teams all year so it’s tough to picture them plowing through a field full of them on their way to a title. A conference final trip might be about as far as they can realistically go.
8. HOUSTON DYNAMO
They’ll win MLS Cup if– Brian Ching finds the fountain of youth, the defense plays at its highest level and if Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia hit their stride.
They won’t win MLS Cup if– the forwards can’t finish the chances that are sure to come, if the back-line struggles to stay consistent or if anything happens to Brad Davis.
X-Factor– Will Bruin. He’s only in his second year, but if the Dynamo have any chance of a deep run, Bruin has to be the catalyst up top.
Outlook– Dom Kinnear is one of the best in the business, and he always gives his teams a chance to win, but the task may be too tall an order this time around. Particularly having to go through the wild card. Beating Chicago at Toyota Park in the wild card match is definitely possible, but getting past Sporting Kansas City is probably too much to ask for this team.
9. CHICAGO FIRE
They’ll win MLS Cup if– Sean Johnson plays like he did in the middle of the season, Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald find their scoring touch and if Pavel Pardo can channel his Bundesliga-winning form of half a decade ago.
They won’t win MLS Cup if– the midfield struggles to generate chances, Johnson plays shaky or if older players like Arne Friedrich and Pavel Pardo start slowing down.
X-Factor– Patrick Nyarko. His speed and shiftiness should cause problems for the Houston Dynamo, and if the Fire can get into the semifinal, Nyarko will be crucial to any chance Chicago has of upsetting Sporting Kansas City.
Outlook– The road to an MLS Cup is a tough one for the Fire, especially with a very tricky wild card match against Houston serving as the first step. Chicago’s offense is good enough to score goals against anybody, but consistency has been an issue. If the Fire are to have any chance in the playoffs, they will need the attack to find a rhythm and the defense to play its very best.
10. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS
They’ll win MLS Cup if– Kenny Miller finds career-best form, Brad Knighton turns into 2000 Tony Meola and the rest of the Western Conference comes down with a nasty flu.
They won’t win MLS Cup if– they play like they’ve played the past two months of the season.
X-Factor– Darren Mattocks. The speedy rookie is the type of disruptive force who can cause problems for defenses and give the Whitecaps attack a real boost.
Outlook– The Whitecaps already made history by simply making the playoffs. Beating the Galaxy in the wild card match would be epic, but about as far as they can expect to go this season.
What do you think of the playoff field? Who do you see as the favorite? Which team do you think is ranked too low? How about too high?
Share your thoughts below.