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Rating the final eight
by Ridge Mahoney, October 26th, 2009 7AM
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[MLS] The playoffs start Thursday when Seattle hosts Houston, and continue Saturday with Columbus traveling to Real Salt Lake and Chicago heading to New England. Chivas USA and Los Angeles kick off their two-game Home Depot Center derby Sunday. Forget the final standings. Here's an initial, gut-reactive ranking of the eight MLS playoff qualifiers and their relative chances of winning the title. ...

1. COLUMBUS (49 regular-season points)
Stumbled to 1-0 losses against D.C. United and New England in its last two league games while rotating players between MLS and Concacaf Champions' League duties, yet its last two wins were over the Galaxy (at home) and New England (away). Game-breaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto and a great cast of role players have the defending champ in excellent shape to repeat.
Record in last five games (win-loss-tie): 2-3-0.

2. SEATTLE (47)
Scintillating performance to down Dallas, 2-1, in season finale may be misleading but Qwest Field gives Sounders an enormous edge, and in recent weeks their road presence has improved by victories at Columbus and Los Angeles (Galaxy) and D.C. United (twice). The attacking trident of Nate Jaqua and the two Freddies (Montero and Ljungberg) is backed by a dynamic midfield, solid back line, and excellent goalkeeper.
Last five: 3-1-1.

After a 6-3 thumping by Dallas Sept. 12, the Galaxy shut out four of its last five opponents, including NorCal rival San Jose, 2-0, Saturday. It can reach MLS Cup without leaving Home Depot Center, as it holds the west's top seed and drew co-tenant Chivas USA for the conference semifinals. And one more note: these guys are way, way, way better than the 2005 Landon Donovan-led upstarts who went all the way.
Last five: 3-1-1.

4. HOUSTON (48)
Finished the season by drilling Chivas USA, 3-2, at Home Depot Center, but in three previous home games had only managed one win. Brad Davis earned two assists; he has four assists and one goal in the past three games; on the negative side, Stuart Holden is pointless since he converted a PK more than two months ago. The vaunted defense has posted only two shutouts in the last 14 games.
Last five: 2-1-2.

The Revs staved off the Crew, 1-0, Sunday to end a four-game winless streak as well as get into the playoffs for the eighth straight time. The previous seven appearances failed to win a title, but so ravaged by injuries are they this year that the pressure is off and if nothing else, they know their frequent playoff partners in Chicago very well. The Fire won last year, but New England prevailed in '05, '06, and '07.
Last five: 1-2-2.

6. CHICAGO (45)
Indifferent home form this season (5-4-6) may render the homefield advantage meaningless, yet an excellent road mark (6-3-6) includes a tie in New England. Of course, the teams also tied, 1-1, at Toyota Park, and finished just three points apart in the standings. The health of Cuauhtemoc Blanco is a concern, but so too is the loss of midfield dynamo John Thorrington, whose absence puts more pressure on Blanco, co-playmaker Chris Rolfe, holding midfielder Logan Pause, and a backline that sorely needs Wilman Conde and Gonzalo Segares healthy.
Last five: 1-1-3.

7. CHIVAS USA (45)
Gets to stay home at Home Depot Center for the conference semifinals against the Galaxy, against which it has scored zero goals this season in a 0-0 tie and a pair of 1-0 defeats. Led the league in fouls (412) and was third in cautions (63), so self-control and discipline - as well as getting goals -- may be problem areas in the playoffs. A good team got a tough draw, and would have to play at either Houston or Seattle if it advances.
Last five: 2-2-1.

Of its nine home wins this year, one was a 4-1 pounding of No. 1 seed and playoff foe Columbus, which gives RSL a smidgen of hope that it can be a reverse version of the Red Bulls, which crossed over to the Western Conference in last year's playoffs and knocked off Houston en route to MLS Cup. It will have trouble containing the Crew but can cause its own problems with dangerous goalscorers Yura Movsisyan and Robbie Findley, though someone must get them the ball.
Last five: 2-3-0.


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