MLS Cup playoff preview: Western Conference

Steve Dykes

The Earthquakes head into the playoffs with one of the best regular seasons in history, but there's reason to think this could be wide open. Here's what the optimist, pessimist and realist had to say about each team. For a look at the East, check this out.

1. San Jose Earthquakes (19-6-9)

The optimist says: The Earthquakes have outslugged opponents to the tune of 72 goals scored - the third most in a single season in MLS history - and a +29 goal differential in securing the top seed in the Western Conference. Looking at the offensive line, 50 of those 72 goals came from the Quakes forward trio of Chris Wondolowski (27), Alan Gordon (13), and Steven Lenhart (10). The offensive explosions meted out over the 34 game regular season schedule, which earned the Earthquakes 1.94 points per game, at no time seemed in danger of stopping. They'll use that same strategy to win their first MLS Cup since 2003 and their third ever.

The pessimist says: The cliché that "defense wins championships" is accepted through professional sports in America, and in MLS that has often been realized over the league's history. After a stingy start to the season back in March, when the team didn't allow a goal from the run of play in four matches, the Earthquakes completed the season with a not so impressive 43 goals allowed. Of the 10 teams in the MLS playoffs, San Jose's goals allowed mark puts them in a tie for seventh. Pressing to create offense, the Earthquakes often leave their core defenders exposed on the counterattack, and goalkeeper Jon Busch has had to make numerous big saves. With the margin for error exaggerated in the postseason, the Earthquakes could struggle in the Conference semifinal round if they don't tighten up their defensive effort.

The realist says: Don't expect the Earthquakes to change what they did to in their run to the Supporters' Shield. Against the other 4 Western Conference playoff teams, San Jose was 9-2-1 during the season - with both losses coming against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Run the West again, and a trip to the MLS Cup Final, which would be held in the Bay Area, site to be determined, falls well within expectations.

Ideal starting XI (4-4-2): GK: Jon Busch; DF: Steven Beitashour, Victor Bernardez, Jason Hernandez, Justin Morrow; MD: Marvin Chavez, Sam Cronin, Rafael Baca, Simon Dawkins. FW: Chris Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart .

Wildcard: Earning the #1 seed and getting to play the second leg of the Conference semifinal round at Buck Shaw Stadium should provide a huge advantage. Unbeaten at The Buck this season, the Quakes amassed a +21 goal differential in their cozy stadium, in no small part due to their "never say die" attitude at home.

- Robert Jonas, Quake, Rattle and Goal

2. Real Salt Lake (17-11-6)

The optimist says: With a defensive outlay better than Real Salt Lake has displayed since the hallowed days of 2010, the theme going into the playoffs is scoring, not how to stop the defensive bleeding. With three goals conceded in the last 990 minutes across all competitions, there's a lot to be confident about. Jason Kreis is a strong believer that form is all-important moving into the postseason, and this is certainly fine form from RSL.

The pessimist says: At times during the run-in, it seems Real Salt Lake has forgotten how to score. Against playoff sides that are sometimes scoring with ease, that's a distinct disadvantage. There's also an injury-prone quality to some players that gives the whole thing a bit more of an up-in-the-air quality. The biggest question: Will Jamison Olave return and stay free of injury?

The realist says: RSL's form against conference semifinal foe Seattle is encouraging, but looking beyond that - specifically to San Jose - the task seems daunting at best. Again, with a stronger defensive mindset than the rest of the season, RSL could find success - even if that does come down to penalties.

Ideal starting XI (4-4-2): GK: Nick Rimando; DF: Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave, Chris Wingert; MF: Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy, Will Johnson, Javier Morales; FW: Fabian Espindola, Alvaro Saborio.

Wildcard: Game-changing substitutes. There are a few weapons in RSL's lineup that aren't used entirely frequently, and Sebastian Velasquez is the most notable of those. But with Paulo Jr. showing well up front, and newcomer David Viana looking a bright spot, RSL just may be able to start breaking down strong defenses again.

- Matt Montgomery, RSL Soapbox

3. Seattle Sounders (15-8-11)

The optimist says: Second best defense, fifth best offense, second best goal differential and third best at earning points in games via win or draw is an indication of a good team. The keeper is great, the strike force nearly ideal. There are two playmakers in the midfielder and two amazing defenders there as well. Their coach even has the most wins in league history and a couple MLS Cups to his name. This is the time for the first MLS Cup in Seattle.

The pessimist says: There are injuries again. The team has never won a playoff series. This year they couldn't even win the US Open Cup. They are prone to lay eggs against the best teams in the West (San Jose, Salt Lake and LA). It isn't that they lack competitive fire, it's just that when their backs are against the wall they lock onto a particular facet of their game and ignore the variety which helps them succeed. Another first round loss is all to be expected.

The realist says: Only one team is clearly better than Seattle. The Earthquakes dominated them. Outside of that team, no others can look at their regular season and think "we got this." In the Open Cup final, Kansas City at home managed a draw over 120 minutes. Salt Lake and Seattle met three times with only a single goal scored. LA has been outscored by five goals in their three played. This is as strong a Sounders team as ever and they make the first round competitive, likely advancing to the Conference Semis.

Ideal starting XI: GK: Michael Gspurning; DF: Leo Gonzalez, Jhon-Kennedy Hurtado, Jeff Parke, Adam Johansson; MF: Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Christian Tiffert, Mauro Rosales; FW: Fredy Montero, Eddie Johnson.

Wildcard: Brad Evans is easily forgotten. He's decent at a lot of things, but not great at any flashy skill. If he makes threatening runs down the left flank, pops up for a far post header or slots home a PK he will change Seattle's Playoff history.

- Dave Clark, Sounder at Heart

4. LA Galaxy (16-12-6)

The optimist says: Vancouver shouldn't stand any sort of threat, so it's more about how the Galaxy match up with San Jose. LA managed a 2-2 draw against San Jose just two weeks ago without Landon Donovan, David Beckham or A.J. DeLaGarza. So a full strength version of the club has to get through the Quakes, right? San Jose just needs one bad game and they're toast. The team from up north can't play defense, so keep them from scoring and things are golden.

The pessimist says: The idea that San Jose's goal well will suddenly run dry is certainly stretching it a bit. Not only do they have one of MLS's best goal scorers ever in Chris Wondolowski, but if Alan Gordon is available to Berzerker his was around the pitch no lead is safe. The Galaxy have shown the ability to score more goals than last year, but the Keane-Buddle partnership is still fresh and the player around Buddle make him look like a JV player.

The realist says: Three points separate Salt Lake from LA. Any argument that there is a favorite between RSL, Seattle, and LA is foolish. The only point of debate is whether or not one of those three clubs can take down San Jose. Given that the Quakes managed to ride through these three clubs undefeated, they're either a team of destiny or due for a stumble.

Ideal starting XI (4-4-2): GK: Josh Saunders; DF: Todd Dunivant, AJ DeLaGarza, Omar Gonzalez, Sean Franklin; MF: Juninho, David Beckham, Marcelo Sarvas, Christian Wilhelmsson; FW: Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane.

Wildcard: Mike Magee. He is a role player's role player. Look no further than the goal he was able to scratch in Sunday night against Seattle, or all the playoff goals he's scored over the years. Magee can get the job one when no one expects him to.

- Josie Becker, LAG Confidential

5. Vancouver Whitecaps (11W-10D-13L)

The optimist says: The Whitecaps are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 USSF D2 season, ending what was tied for the franchise record of consecutive seasons without playoff soccer (one). All else is irrelevant. In 2010 the Whitecaps were also in the playoffs without much of a chance (as the team's offense was so incompetent you wouldn't believe me if I told you) and they won a playoff round! Against Portland, who were actually really good! So anything is possible.

The pessimist says: Yes, the Whitecaps are playing their first MLS playoff game. When they lose it 5-0 FC Edmonton-style that'll seem a lot less impressive.

The realist says: The realist and the pessimist are living together, except the realist would probably dial that prediction down to 3-0. Who are we kidding, we're not in those guys' league. But all we wanna do is go the distance. The Whitecaps have never gone the distance with the Galaxy at Home Depot Center, and if we can go that distance, and the whistle blows and we're still standing, we're gonna know for the first time in our MLS life, y'know, that we weren't just more bums from Cascadia.

Ideal starting 11 (4-3-1-2): GK: Knighton; DF: Jordan Harvey; Andy O'Brien; Jay DeMerit; Y.P. Lee; MF: Alain Rochat; Dane Richards; Gershon Koffie; Barry Robson; FW: Darren Mattocks; Kenny Miller.

Wildcard: Kenny Miller is having a rough start to his Whitecaps career, no question. He's been ineffective and deserves the heat he's been feeling. At the same time, he's had a few good games and his record of career production just can't be written off. Now, he may never be worth what the Whitecaps are paying him; I was against the signing at the time and it's hard to feel better about it now. But if Galaxy fans (and players) take him for granted then he might just have that good game to balance out the bad ones.

- Benjamin Massey, 86 Forever

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