[MLS PLAYOFFS: Saturday Preview] The 18th postseason in MLS history presents several intriguing storylines. Two of the league’s best teams in recent years, Seattle and Sporting Kansas City, are out to exorcise demons of failures in the playoffs that continue Saturday.
Instead of barely squeezing into the playoffs for its postseason debut, Portland instead won the Western Conference title and gets a dream draw against its nearest neighbors and fiercest rivals, the Sounders.
Sporting Kansas City takes the burden of two straight playoff eliminations by Houston into this year’s tournament, which matches it against New England, one of four teams – Montreal, Colorado and Portland being the others -- to reach the postseason after missing out last year.
The Impact and Rapids finished fifth and both lost their play-in games on the road without scoring a goal, which should lend credence to the league’s stance that while finishing fifth does get you into the playoffs, it also presents a tough challenge.
Now the fourth-place winners take on the conference champions, with the first leg coming just three days after the wild-card games. Because NFL games will be played Sunday at the stadiums used by Seattle and New England, they host their games Saturday, so be prepared for stark football markings cluttering up the artificial surfaces.
Here are the Saturday games:
NEW ENGLAND-SPORTING KANSAS CITY (8 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN).Revs defender Jose Goncalves, a top candidate for Defender of the Year honors in his first MLS season, is bothered by a hamstring strain suffered in the regular-season finale against Columbus.
Teammate A.J. Soares isn’t bothered by injuries that could also affect the availability of Kevin Alston(hamstring) and Chris Tierney (ankle). “It's all about the system here,” Soares told mlssoccer.com. “It's not about any individual player. Any player can step in and do a job.”
With that system, CoachJay Heapsguided the Revs to a third-place finish in his second season at the helm. In must-win situations its last three games, New England did just that, but it has failed to score in two games against SKC. The teams played a 0-0 tie at Gillette Stadium March 23, and SKC won, 3-0, at home Aug. 10.
There’s no question the Revs are quick and skillful up front. Diego Fagundez led New England with 13 goals, and when he and Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe start buzzing around, defenses can be stretched. But the injury (broken ankle and dislocated leg) suffered by Saer Senedeprives them of a focal point, and an experienced SKC back line led byMatt Besler and Aurelien Collin -- who dressed up as Besler for Halloween -- won’t be easy to crack.
SKC finished seven points ahead of New England in the standings and a conceded league-low 30 goals and has much more experience, so it’s the clear favorite. Yet the underdog role suits the Revs, and it’s SKC that is burdened by playoff failures the past two seasons.
SEATTLE-PORTLAND (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN).By beating Colorado, 2-0, the Sounders snapped a seven-game winless streak, and while tactically Seattle did a good job neutralizing the attacks of left back Chris Kluteand throwing a net over rookie forward Deshorn Brown, several of the young Rapids players showed their nerves and inexperience. The game drew a relatively smallish crowd of 32,000 to CenturyLink Field, but those fans who did show up brought their loudest voices and seldom did the Rapids test the Seattle back line.
That lack of pressure didn’t prevent keeper Michael Gspurning from lurching outside his penalty area to catch the ball and thus be red-carded. Veteran Marcus Hahnemann, who has played well in his few appearances this season, will get the start. How he handles the potent Timbers attack and marshals his supporting cast will determine how this first leg plays out.
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid started Osvaldo Alonso and Adam Moffat in midfield against Colorado, and both might be needed to contain Timbers’ playmaker Diego Valeri, who led the team in goals with 10 and the league in assists with 13. The Timbers lack in firepower compared to Seattle, which has Obafemi Martins, Eddie Johnson, Lamar Neagle, Clint Dempsey and Mauro Rosales from which Schmid can choose.
Both teams have speed up front; Darlington Neagle and Ryan Johnson are legit burners, and Nagbe was one of three Timbers -- Ryan Johnson and Will Johnson being the others -- to notch nine goals during the regular season.
Schmid must also make a decision on right back DeAndre Yedlin, who came off at halftime against Colorado with a sprained right ankle. Brad Evans, who started the game in midfield, took over for the second half.
Whatever the result, this game will be especially fierce and great fun to watch.