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Look through the San Jose Earthquakes roster and one theme becomes pretty obvious: This is a group of players who were getting pretty close to exhausting their last chance.
Whether that was Bobby Convey getting pulled at halftime of the season opener after a disappointing first season back in MLS or Chris Wondolowski entering his age 27 season with no established identity or Jon Busch accepting a backup job just two seasons after being named Goalkeeper of the Year this was a team that needed to start proving it could produce or start considering a new line of work.
Entering its third year of rebirth with two last-place finishes under its belt, a similar narrative was developing for the franchise as a whole.
In all cases, there is no longer much cause for concern. Convey has already won the league's Comeback Player of the Year, Wondolowski is a MVP finalist and the Golden Boot winner, Busch posted numbers as good or better than his 2008 stats and the Quakes are one step from their fourth MLS Cup finals appearances.
The Rapids are a different case, almost entirely. Although success has eluded the franchise for the bulk of its existence, the recent struggles have been particularly curious because of the obvious talent the team possessed.
Conor Casey and Omar Cummings are enjoying their best combined success this season, but that has taken four seasons together in order to develop. Talent evaluators have long been drooling over Marvell Wynne, but it is only now that he's started to harness some of that potential. Pablo Mastroeni is finally giving people something to talk about other than that red card he received in the 2006 World Cup.
When they are clicking, the Rapids are as talented and fun to watch as any in MLS. The Earthquakes play with more of a reckless abandon that can be entertaining if not beautiful.
This could get very interesting.
Colorado Rapids (4-4-2): GK-Matt Pickens; DF-Anthony Wallace, Drew Moor, Marvell Wynne, Kosuke Kimura; MF-Wells Thompson, Pablo Mastroeni, Jeff Larentowicz, Brian Mullan; FW-Conor Casey, Omar Cummings.
History you should know
The Rapids have been to one MLS Cup final in their history, and that was back in 1997. Since then, they have won four playoff rounds and the last three have all been in penalty shootouts. The Quakes have won two MLS Cups, but this is their first appearance in the playoffs since the franchise returned to MLS in 2008. Combined, the two teams entered this season with no playoff victories since 2006.
Head to Head
Each team won 1-0 at home during the regular season. The last game they played was Aug. 7 at Colorado with Busch scoring an own-goal for the game's only score.
The Earthquakes will advance if: For all of Convey and Wondolowski's heroics in the first round, the Quakes would not have advanced if not for the play of Busch. With an ailing defense, Busch will likely need to come up big again.
The Rapids will advance if: Casey and Cummings get all the headlines, but the play of Larentowicz and Mastroeni is often the thing that gives the forwards the space to operate. A game like they had at home against the Crew will likely open the floodgates.
Pick: On paper there's not a lot to like about the Quakes, even their Designated Player is overshadowed. If we've learned anything this season, it's don't count out the Quakes who will win this game 2-1.
Matchcard, projected lineups, formation and statistics: Rapids-Quakes Preview
It's too bad that the Los Angeles Galaxy didn't have the foot speed to deal with the Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas had no chance against Major League Soccer's best team, Real Salt Lake. Oh, wait, both of them won? Yeah, despite Seattle and Salt Lake being the picks by most people to win their first round series and play each other in the Western Conference Final it was Los Angeles and Dallas who came through and now are one win away from a spot in MLS Cup.
Los Angeles was struggling down the stretch after a red hot start to the season, but despite going up against Seattle, who was on fire down the stretch, the Galaxy were far superior to the Sounders. AJ DeLaGarza stepped in to play central defense next to the towering Omar Gonzalez and put the shackles on a dangerous Seattle attack. The two played off of each other impeccably and when the Galaxy gave away a chance, Donovan Ricketts was thee for the big save. Both David Beckham and Landon Donovan looked spry and tracked back to help defend more than usual, but both managed to make an attack impact, Beckham with dangerous balls from deep that stretched the Seattle defense and Donovan with penetrating runs and simple balls in the final third that caused some confusion for the Sounders.All of that was on top of Edson Buddle wonder goal in the first leg, Beckham with pinpoint dead balls well finished in the second leg and Eddie Lewis arising from the dead to play a fantastic left back en route to a 3-1 aggregate series win.
On the flip side, Dallas rode through some lows early in their series with Salt Lake, but some fortune and help late in the first leg allowed them to take control of their series. Despite a 20-match unbeaten streak during the regular season, few gave Dallas a chance to topple mighty Salt Lake, but David Ferreira continued his wonderful play to set the tempo in the midfield, Kevin Hartman showed why he should have won Goalkeeper of the Year, Jeff Cunningham popped up when needed and some unexpected goals from Dax McCarty and Eric Avila is all it took to put Dallas through after a 2-1 first leg win at home and 1-1 draw in Salt Lake City. With a maestro in the middle like Ferreira, some experienced guys at the back like Heath Pearce and Ugo Ihemelu and one of MLS' most opportunistic finishers ever in Cunningham, Dallas has all the ingredients to go to Los Angeles and come away winners, especially when Hartman is behind them all to come up huge each and every time he is asked to.
History you should know
FC Dallas' triumph over Real Salt Lake last weekend marked the first time since 1999 that the franchise had won a playoff series, a year in which they were knocked out in Western Conference Finals by the Galaxy.
Head to Head
Los Angeles got the best of Dallas in the regular season, winning both of the match-ups between the two. A Mike Magee goal in Dallas was all it took for LA to win the first match, 1-0, and the two teams met again in the regular season finale when David Beckham and Juninho countered an early Atiba Harris goal to secure the Supporters' Shield.
Los Angeles will advance if: Both Landon Donovan and David Beckham are free to push forward some and pressure the Dallas back line instead of tracking back and helping defensively too much.
FC Dallas will advance if: David Ferreira is able to get himself free from the hacking Dema Kovalenko and grab the back line's attention, freeing up Jeff Cunningham.
Pick: A goal from Edson Buddle puts Los Angeles ahead on a David Beckham set piece and despite an equalizer from David Ferreira, Juninho sneaks in to score the winner.
Match card with projected lineups, formations, broadcast info and statistics: Galaxy vs. FC Dallas Preview
There aren't too many analysts who saw this set of conference finals coming, either at the start of the playoffs and certainly not at the start of the season.
Aside from the Los Angeles Galaxy, who lost last year's MLS Cup final in a penalty shootout, none of the remaining teams even made the playoffs last year. The Colorado Rapids and the San Jose Earthquakes were the last two teams to qualify for the playoffs and FC Dallas was the last MLS team to win a game this year.
Suffice it to say, MLS head honchos will have a clear preference of who they want to see in Toronto and it rhymes with Balaxy.
The reason is simple, three of these teams lack the big names and large fanbases that MLS is hoping will help sell tickets and draw eyeballs.
But we aren't big on conspiracy theories here. There's really no reason to expect these games to be decided in any other way than who plays the best over the weekend.
The Galaxy will need to solve FC Dallas' Kevin Hartman, the Hoops will have to figure out how to shut down the newly resurgent David Beckham; the Earthquakes will need to find a way to contain Conor Casey and Omar Cummings, while the Rapids have to keep Chris Wondolowski in check.
In the next couple days we'll have complete previews and lineup projections for both matches.
Eastern Conference Finals: San Jose Earthquakes at Colorado Rapids, Saturday, 9:30 p.m. Eastern, FSC/FSE
Western Conference Finals: FC Dallas at Los Angeles Galaxy, Sunday, 9 p.m., ESPN2/ESPN3/ESPN Deportes
MLS Cup Final: at Toronto, Nov. 21, 8:30 p.m., ESPN/Telefutura