[MLS PLAYOFFS: Eastern Conference Previews]The four conference semifinal second legs are split between the two conferences. By the end of play Wednesday, the two Eastern finalists will be known. Ditto the West on Thursday. The survivors will have only two days of turnaround time before they square off in the first legs of the conference finals Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
(The FIFA international break will delay the second legs for two weeks, until Nov. 23 and 24.)
For Wednesday's Eastern Conference showdowns, neither home team is in the lead. Sporting Kansas City hosts New England (8 p.m. ET) trailing, 2-1, from the first leg. New York and Houston are tied, 2-2, heading into the second leg at Red Bull Arena (9 p.m.). Away goals are not used to decide the total-goal series, so if teams are tied in results and goals at the end of regulation, 30 minutes of overtime will be played, followed by penalty kicks if necessary.
Here’s are elements to look for on Wednesday during the decisive Eastern Conference matches:
OLAVE ABSENT.The Red Bulls faltered and surrendered a second goal to Houston in the first leg after defender Jamison Olave was sent off with a straight red card for a reckless midfield tackle on Omar Cummings.
Head coach Mike Petke is expected to move Swedish defender Markus Holgersson, who is normally a centerback but has played right back for the past month, into the middle alongside Ibrahim Sekagya. Holgersson will also have to take over Olave’s leadership role and help direct the defense.
“We’re looking forward for Wednesday,” Holgersson told MLSSoccer.com. “You saw against Seattle [a 1-1 tie in September] when me and Ibra played centerback, we did it really well. We hope to get back to that.”
Who does Petke pick to play right back? Brandon Barklage entered the first leg as a sub midway through the second half and has experience in the back line as well as in midfield. Kosuke Kimura, a member of Colorado’s 2010 MLS Cup-winning team, has started 15 of his 24 appearances this season but has been an unused sub the past two games.
ROBLES MUST RAMP IT UP. In addition to replacing Olave, Petke also needs something more from keeper Luis Robles, not so much for his weak parry that fell right for Omar Cummings to tap in the last-gasp equalizer, but rather for his penchant for getting stuck in traffic -- as occurred when defender Eric Brunnerheaded just wide -- during set plays.
Dead balls are a Houston strength, and without Olave to repel them and Robles unable to reach them if there are bodies in his way, the Red Bulls could again fall victim. They need to mark toughly and prevent Houston’s cast of strong aerial threats – Brunner, Bobby Boswell, Cummings, Will Bruin -- from getting on the end of good serves as typically provided by Brad Davis.
PLAYOFF DEMONS.As the higher seed, SKC has fallen to Houston in the playoffs the past two seasons. Last year, it lost the conference semifinals, 2-1, on aggregate despite winning its home leg, 1-0, and in 2011 was beaten, 2-0, at home in the one-game conference final.
In the first leg at New England, SKC won the possession battle 62.1 percent to 37.9 percent and generated 13 shots, four of which were on target. But its only goal came from defender Aurelien Collinduring a scramble, and since the departure to England by Kei Kamara -- who scored twice in a 3-0 SKC defeat of the Revs Aug. 10 -- SKC has lacked his unpredictable, unorthodox approach that draws attention away from Graham Zusiand the other attackers.
Head coach Peter Vermeshas used Dom Dwyer, Soony Saad, C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunburyto limited success. (Top scorer Diego Bielerdidn't even dress Saturday.) Someone must provide impetus on the forward line to open up the field for Zusi and the other midfielders. Outside backs Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers can get forward effectively in the right situations.
Once again, all the pressure is on SKC. The Revs, who have won four straight, are playing with house money. When Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen and Juan Agudeloare in the mood, as they were Saturday night, even an experienced back line that includes Collin and U.S. international Matt Besler must be in lockdown mode.
REVS TO THE RESCUE.A game of 90 minutes can be decided by a few big plays, and in the first leg New England made them.
Nguyen chested a shot off the goal line with keeper Matt Reis beaten. Rowe scored the decisive second goal sublimely with the outside of his right foot. Reis preserved the victory with a flying save on Dwyer in the final seconds.
SKC protested vehemently that the first Revs’ goal, tapped in by Andy Dorman after a saved shot had rebounded off Agudelo, should have been disallowed for offside. Replays indicated a very close situation where Dorman was either level or just ahead of Agudelo, and thus the ball, when it came off Agudelo’s chest. The goal stood, and 13 minutes later, Rowe glided through the goalmouth to steer home Nguyen’s pass for the goal SKC couldn’t match.
Backed in the second leg by its rowdy fans at Sporting Park, SKC can hope to get the benefit of close refereeing decisions. It his certainly a good enough team to win by the two-goal margin it needs to prevail. Yet it must make plays at critical moments to reverse two seasons of playoff disappointments.