[MLS PLAYOFFS: Western Conference]As if it was scripted, the Western Conference’s fiercest rivals wound up facing each other in the first phase that concludes Thursday. The fifth and final Cascadia Cup clash of the season pairs conference champion Portland against bitter rival Seattle, which trails from the first leg, 2-1, and must somehow prevail at Jeld-Wen Field to advance. The winner faces either Real Salt Lake or the Los Angeles Galaxy, which takes the field at Rio Tinto Stadium leading, 1-0.
Both games are nationally televised and will overlap if the RSL-Galaxy game (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2), which kicks off two hours earlier, goes into overtime and thus runs into the Timbers-Sounders contest (11 p.m., NBCSN). However, there will be no NFL lines or other distracting markings to blight the landscape. Just good old MLS playoff soccer set in two of the league's best venues.
Here are some subplots to ponder for what promises to be several hours of grand theater.
WILL DEUCE RUN LOOSE?The Sounders didn’t score in their home leg until Osvaldo Alonso drilled a low, first-time shot in the 90th minute, but they did have their chances before then. Clint Dempsey hit the crossbar twice – once with a header, once on a free kick -- and was denied by an excellent flying save by Timbers keeper Donovan Ricketts. Eddie Johnsonheaded a Dempsey free kick wide.
Much pre-game speculation has centered on whether head coach Sigi Schmid will give a start to Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins, who has missed six of the last seven games because of a nagging groin injury. His possible inclusion is heightened by the absence of Lamar Neagle, who received his second caution of the playoffs in the first leg and is suspended. Martins' stats are good, too: eight goals and four assists in 1,466 minutes.
Seattle generated 20 shots in the first leg and even though the Timbers are notoriously stingy at home -- they conceded just 11 goals -- the Sounders are potent enough to get the opportunities. Yet while attention will be centered on Dempsey and Martins, if he plays, the key figure is probably going to be Johnson.
Though he can certainly create on his own, Dempsey is also adept at exploiting space carved out by others. If Johnson can drag defenders and get into threatening positions on and off the ball, Deuce will capitalize.
STARS VS. TEAM. The Galaxy’s stars, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, were below-par in the first leg at StubHub Center; instead, right back Sean Franklin stepped up to nail his first career playoff goal from more than 30 yards out.
David Beckham has left, yet still the appropriately named Galaxy features two superstars, i.e., Keane and Donovan. They were the most productive one-two punch in the league, compiling a combined 26 goals and 20 assists, and their uncanny knack for reading each other’s movements while linking with other teammates gives them a decided edge regardless of the opponent. It’s a much different dynamic than that usually faced by defenders.
“In the world of football, it’s usually a big man and a small man just playing off him,” said Keane Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. “Me and Landon are a similar size – obviously I’m a little bit bigger – but I think the way we play together, our movement, the way we play I think we’re on the same wavelength, so we kind of understand each other, where we’re going to go.
“So if I come short, he goes long, and vice versa. I think our understanding’s been very, very good and that’s been obviously the way we’ve combined with each other and set each other up for goals. It’s been good, so long may that continue.”
For Real Salt Lake, since head coach Jason Kreis took over in 2007 he’s preached “the team is the star,” and that camaraderie and cohesion is what captain Kyle Beckerman is counting on to overturn the 1-0 deficit imposed on RSL by Franklin’s long-distance laser. Some sloppy passing plagued RSL in the first leg and while that element must improve, Beckerman cited concentration as a vital factor.
“We just need to stay focused a bit more,” he said in the conference call. “The effort’s got to be there from every single one of us. We’ve just got to fight, we’ve got to push through it. That’s all it is. We’ve got to focus more on the passing, but if it doesn’t happen, you’ve got to be willing to get in there and roll up your sleeves and find a way.”
REVAMPED RSL. The offseason departures of forwardFabian Espindola and defender Jamison Olave (both to New York) and midfielder Will Johnson (Portland) left some gaping holes in one of the league’s best teams during the past five seasons, but Kreis re-assembled a team good enough to finish second behind the Timbers in the Western Conference.
Chris Schuler has provided the muscular presence once supplied by Olave and his return to the lineup in the first leg was cited by Kreis as a crucial improvement. As for Espindola, the return to MLS of Robbie Findley(eight goals), and the signings of Olmes Garcia (five goals) and Joao Plata(eight assists) helped RSL boost its goalscoring total to 57 from 46 last year, even though injuries and national-team duties with Costa Rica limited striker Alvaro Saborio to just 16 games. He still managed to score 12 goals. Teenager Luis Gil(he turns 20 next week) set career highs for minutes played (2060), starts (24), goals (5), and assists (3) in the wake of Johnson’s departure.
Yet the midfield and the attack flagged for long periods against the Galaxy. Veteran midfielder Ned Grabavoywas replaced by Sebastian Velasquez in the 61st minute, and Saborio came off in the 79th for Devon Sandoval.
For the second leg, Kreis might choose to start Findley, who in the first leg entered in the 57th minute for midfielder Yordany Alvarez. The move took RSL out of the 4-2-3-1 formation it started with and into its familiar 4-4-2 shaped around a midfield diamond.