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The final eight battle begins
by Ridge Mahoney, October 28th, 2011 1:54AM

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[MLS PLAYOFF PREVIEWS] The meaty portion of the MLS playoffs gets underway this weekend, with the first games in the four conference semifinal series that will determine the final four vying for MLS Cup 2011. The second legs will be played on Wednesday and Thursday of next week, with the winners decided on total goals in the two-game series.

(Regular-season records in parentheses; home team listed first.)
SATURDAY
* REAL SALT LAKE (15-11-8) vs. SEATTLE (18-7-9), 10 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer

If the Sounders are “aggrieved,” as RSL coach Jason Kreis suggested they might be for being placed in a showdown of the No. 2 and No. 3 finishers in total points, Seattle coach Sigi Schmid can use it as an extra dose of motivation. They are already well-steeped in confidence.

Seattle ended RSL’s 29-game unbeaten run at Rio Tinto Stadium with a 2-1 decision in late May, and are in much sharper form with four wins in its last five league games. RSL – winless in the last six -- couldn’t be going much worse, yet Kreis is unconcerned.

“For a lot of teams to not get a win in their last six matches heading into the playoffs would spell doom and gloom,” says Kreis. "For other teams, they can look at those six matches and take a little bit more of a realistic approach.”

Both teams will rely on their midfield linchpins, though the head-to-head duels of RSL’s Kyle Beckerman and Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso won’t necessarily as important as how well the control the center of the field and how shrewdly they use the ball.

According to Schmid, Sounders playmaker Mauro Rosales is “iffy” for the first leg, yet the Sounders attack can also turn to Fredy Montero and Alvaro Fernandez, as well as the late runs out of midfield by Brad Evans. For RSL, Javier Morales has returned after a long injury layoff, but forwards Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola have both sputtered this season.

SUNDAY
* NEW YORK (10-8-16) vs. LOS ANGELES (19-5-10), 3 p.m., ESPN2/ESPN Deportes/ESPN3.com

The glamour matchup of huge markets and big budgets may or may not yield a healthy – by MLS standards – TV rating, but will be a good test of how severely will be affected a wild-card team playing a rested foe.

The Red Bulls do get the first game at home, and played one of their smartest games of the past few months while denying FC Dallas much penetration while conceding a fair share of possession. Yet they were occasionally breached by the speed of Jackson, who broke clear into shooting positions but failed to finish.

A fully fit Landon Donovan and/or Robbie Keane could slice up the Red Bulls’ back line but there are injury doubts regarding both of them. The Red Bulls were able to beat FCD, 2-0, without Luke Rodgers, and his return could give New York enough potency to punch out a win at home. During the regular season they beat a worn-out Galaxy, 2-0, with goals by Rodgers and Thierry Henry; the other meeting finished, 1-1, the goals from Donovan and Henry.

The absence of suspended Jan Gunnar Solli -- red-carded against Dallas -- opens a big hole at right back. Carlos Mendes came on as a sub against Dallas and is likely to take that spot.

* PHILADELPHIA
(11-8-15) vs. HOUSTON (12-9-13), 5 p.m., ESPN2/ESPN Deportes/ESPN3.com

The Dynamo jumped past the Union into second place in the Eastern Conference by beating the Galaxy, at much less than full strength, 3-1 in the season finale on Sunday.

Both teams finished the season strongly. The Galaxy win extended Houston’s unbeaten run to six games. Prior to losing its finale, 1-0, to New York, Philly had surged into its first playoff appearance by reeling off an eight-game unbeaten run.

Though it is just one season removed from its expansion year, the Union has players with big-game experience. Midfielder Brian Carroll anchored the Crew during its 2008 MLS Cup title season, and defender Danny Califf lifted the trophy in 2002 with the Galaxy. Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon and defender Carlos Valdes are veterans of many pressure games in their native Colombia.

The serves of Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis, who led the league with 16 assists, can hurt the Union where it has been vulnerable this season. Fifteen of 36 goals conceded by Philly have come from crosses, free kicks, and corners. Houston’s scoring has been spread out: Brian Ching and Will Bruin are two of the four leaders with five goals apiece.

The Union’s attack this season had been heavily dependent Sebastien Le Toux, who leads the Union with 11 goals and nine assists. Danny Mwanga is next on the team with five. The Dynamo’s centerback pairing of Bobby Boswell and Geoff Cameron has been a primary reason Houston finished the season with a 7-2-4 run.

Philly has won both of its games at Houston's Robertson Stadium, including a 1-0 win in the season opener back in March.

* COLORADO (12-9-13) vs. SPORTING KANSAS CITY (13-9-12), 7:30 p.m., Fox Soccer

SKC has lost only three games since the opening of Livestrong Sporting Park in early June yet accumulated only two more points than the Rapids in the regular season.

Like the Red Bulls, the Rapids advanced via the wild-card route, beating Columbus, 1-0, on a goal by Omar Cummings Thursday. Unlike New York, Colorado stays at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park for the first leg, where it lost only twice but won just six matches. It tied Philadelphia for the most ties at home (9).



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