By ADAM SERRANO
This year's Eastern Conference final is set to take place in the heart of the Rockies.
The two bottom seeds in the bracket, the Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes square off in an Eastern final that has a distinctly Western flavor. Both teams dispatched Eastern Conference leaders in order to get to the final, with the Rapids defeating the Columbus Crew in penalties while the Earthquakes battled back to topple the New York Red Bulls. Few expected the pair to make it this far, and the lack of respect has fueled each club's respective run.
"It's a game between two teams that have the mentality that they're the underdog and all the pressure on the world was on teams like Columbus and New York," Earthquakes defender Jason Hernandez said. "For teams like us, we're just lower seeds who are going to play our game and let the chips fall where they may."
COLORADO RAPIDS vs. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
HEAD TO HEAD
Teams split season series (May 1: Earthquakes 1, Rapids 0; Aug. 7: Rapids 1, Earthquakes 0)
Saturday, 9:30 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel
KEY MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Geovanni vs. Pablo Mastroeni
Despite the Earthquakes' victory, the Brazilian Designated Player was mostly ineffective against the Red Bulls. Against Mastroeni, Geovanni will have to be effective in connecting passes forward for the Earthquakes to reach Final. Providing the steel in the midfield, Mastroeni will be intensely motivated to reach the MLS Cup final for the first time in his illustrious career. One aspect that could work in the Rapids captain's favor is that Saturday's match represents Geovanni's first match in the Colorado altitude.
Conor Casey and Omar Cummings vs. Brandon McDonald and Jason Hernandez
The burly Casey and omnipresent Cummings were both effective in the Rapids' victory over Columbus, getting the better of centerbacks Chad Marshall, Andy Iro and Eric Brunner. As has been the case all season, they will be called on to perform well again for the Rapids to reach MLS Cup. Casey's physicality up top and his ability to score in the air will be tested by McDonald, while Cummings' speed and movement will have to be checked by Hernandez, whose fitness is not at 100 percent. Hernandez is listed as questionable for the match with a calf strain, but San Jose coach Frank Yallop was adamant all week that the defender would start in Colorado.
Brian Mullan vs. Bobby Convey
Another key battle in the series, veterans Mullan and Convey will both be expected to contribute a great deal to their respective team's attacks from the wings while checking each other in the midfield. Mullan was superb at times against Columbus, and his veteran presence and championship pedigree bring quality intangibles to the table. Tim Ward may switch to left back due to Ramiro Corrales' injury, which would relieve Convey of his some defensive duties and allow him to facilitate the attack with crosses into Chris Wondolowski from the flank. Convey, the 2010 MLS Comeback Player of the Year, was the catalyst in the victory over New York, and should he find that form against Colorado, the Earthquakes could be the latest 8-seed to reach MLS Cup.
For Colorado, Jeff Larentowicz will play the role of distributor and be expected to lead the Rapids attack. Alongside Mastroeni, Larentowicz patrolled the midfield that shut down Columbus in the first round of the playoffs. Playing in an attack that is heavily reliant on the goal scoring abilities of Cummings and Casey — 27 of the Rapids' 37 goals have been scored by the strike tandem — the midfielder will need to work with Mastroeni to create their chances. Larentowicz is also a threat to score — especially from set pieces — adding four goals for the Rapids this season, which was good for third highest on the team.
On the Earthquakes side, Ryan Johnson was a key aspect of the victory over the Red Bulls with a tireless work rate and a willingness to hold up the ball and take contact from a stout New York back line. Against Colorado, the Earthquakes need Johnson to use his physicality to create space for Wondolowski and Eduardo to finish. Confident up top or on the flanks, Johnson may not be a constant threat to score, but should the forward create chances for others, the Earthquakes will have a chance to win.
Expect a chilly and potentially snowy Saturday night at Dick's Sporting Goods Park with temperatures in the low 30s for the match. The Rapids enjoy an 8-5-2 record at home, including their 1-0 victory against Columbus, while San Jose is fierce on the road with a record of 6-4-5 to go with their victory over New York last week. The play of Wondolowski and Convey for San Jose and that of Cummings and Casey for the Rapids that will decide who travels to Toronto. Rapids head coach Gary Smith is confident that his club's home field advantage will be the true deciding factor.
"Given the environment they are coming into, they will feel pretty decent about the way things have gone for them, but I'm sure they will also realize this isn't an easy place to come," Smith said. "We will be doing our absolute utmost to make the game as tough as possible."
Who do you see winning and advancing to MLS Cup? What do you think will make the difference?
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