HOUSTON vs. SEATTLE (agg: 0-0), 3 p.m. ET, TeleFutura, Direct Kick
Well, what did you expect from teams that finished a point apart in the standings and tied for the league lead in fewest goals allowed?
Can Houston get past the first round for the third time in four years, or are the upstart Sounders destined to play at least one more game?
The Dynamo finished the season 8-1-6 at Robertston Stadium, yet one of those ties (1-1) came against Seattle after Houston had taken the lead.
The flank play of Brian Mullan and Brad Davis threatened only occasionally in the first leg; they must exert continuous pressure to get at Seattle's outside backs and force the midfielders as far back as possible to open up space for Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark. Otherwise, Brian Ching will labor alone up front and the attack will stagnate.
Dominic Oduro and Abe Thompson are breakaway threats but still learning how to link with their rather new teammates. Luis Angel Landin has done almost nothing since signing as Houston's Designated Player in midseason, but his one goal in seven games will be forgiven if he can unlock the tough Sounders defense.
In the first leg, Sounders rookie Steve Zakuani struggled after a good start, though Freddie Ljungberg and Nate Jaqua looked potent and dangerous for most of the match. Fredy Montero, as usual, faded in and out but his teammates can alleviate that tendency by giving him more frequent touches.
Outside backs James Riley and Leo Gonzalez must be cautious in going forward, as both Mullan and Davis will play a bit higher and more aggressively than they did for much of the first game. A late run out of midfield by Brad Evans, who scored the winning goal in Seattle's regular-season finale with just such a play, might catch Houston by surprise.
Both coaches will demand more efficiency during their possessions during the run of play. Especially for Seattle, in the first leg a few promising buildups produced either a half-chance or no chance at all. Set plays produced most of the close calls last week, so the referee will be busier than his WWF counterparts in separating the combatants and watching for cheap shots, and the goalies may wish for helmets and pads to survive the scrums.
Prediction: Houston 2, Seattle 1.
RIDGE MAHONEY Playoff prediction record: 2-3.