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SB Nation Soccer News | October 27, 2014

MLS Cup Playoffs Guide

Match Tag High seed Low seed game 1 date/time game 1 preview game 1 result game 1 recap game 2 date/time game 2 preview game 2 result game 2 recap winner
Western Conference Knockout FC Dallas Vancouver Whitecaps Oct. 29, 9:00pm ET http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/10/29/7086489/fc-dallas-vs-whitecaps-2014-mls-playoffs-preview 2-1 http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/10/29/7129973/fc-dallas-vancouver-whitecaps-final-score-result-2014-mls-playoffs FC Dallas
Eastern Conference Knockout New York Red Bulls Sporting Kansas City Oct. 30, 8:00pm ET http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/10/30/7130463/new-york-red-bulls-vs-sporting-kc-2014-mls-playoffs-preview 2-1 http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/10/30/7135855/red-bulls-sporting-2014-mls-playoffs-final-score-result New York Red Bulls
Western Conference Semifinal Seattle Sounders FC Dallas Nov. 2, 9:00pm ET http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/2/7144243/fc-dallas-vs-seattle-sounders-2014-mls-playoffs-preview 1-1 http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/2/7148693/fc-dallas-vs-sounders-mls-cup-playoffs-result-fulltime Nov. 10, 10:30pm ET http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/9/7178861/sounders-vs-fc-dallas-mls-playoffs-preview 0-0 http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/11/7192247/sounders-vs-fc-dallas-mls-playoffs-result-fulltime Seattle Sounders
Western Conference Semifinal LA Galaxy Real Salt Lake Nov. 1, 8:00pm ET http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/1/7140435/rsl-galaxy-2014-mls-cup-playoffs-preview/in/6906572 0-0 http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/1/7144431/real-salt-lake-vs-galaxy-2014-mls-cup-playoffs-score-report-recap Nov. 9, 7:30pm ET http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/9/7174545/galaxy-vs-real-salt-lake-2014-mls-cup-playoffs-preview 5-0 http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/9/7184519/galaxy-vs-rsl-2014-mls-playoffs-final-score-report LA Galaxy
Eastern Conference Semifinal New England Revolution Columbus Crew Nov. 1, 4:00pm ET 4-2 http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/1/7143661/crew-vs-revolution-2014-mls-cup-playoffs-score-report-recap Nov. 9, 5:00pm ET http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/9/7175737/revolution-vs-crew-2014-mls-cup-playoffs-preview 3-1 http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/9/7183965/revolution-vs-crew-2014-mls-playoffs-final-score-report New England Revolution
Eastern Conference Semifinal DC United New York Red Bulls Nov. 2, 4:00pm ET http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/1/7141635/red-bulls-vs-dc-united-2014-mls-playoffs-preview/in/6906572 0-2 http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/2/7147339/red-bulls-vs-dc-united-2014-mls-cup-playoffs-recap-final-score Nov. 8, 2:30pm ET http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/7/7169955/dc-united-vs-red-bulls-2014-mls-playoffs-preview/in/6942356 2-1 http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/8/7178341/dc-united-new-york-red-bulls-mls-cup-playoffs-result-fulltime New York Red Bulls
Western Conference Final Seattle Sounders LA Galaxy Nov. 23, 5:00pm ET 0-1 http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/23/7272933/galaxy-sounders-2014-mls-playoffs-final-score-result Nov. 30, 9:00pm ET http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/29/7305355/sounders-vs-galaxy-2014-mls-cup-playoffs-preview 2-1 LA Galaxy
Eastern Conference Final New England Revolution New York Red Bulls Nov. 23, 1:30pm ET 2-1 http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/23/7271801/red-bulls-revs-2014-mls-playoffs-final-score-result/in/7035760 Nov. 29, 3:00pm ET http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/29/7305355/sounders-vs-galaxy-2014-mls-cup-playoffs-preview 2-2 http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/11/29/7307329/revolution-vs-red-bulls-2014-mls-playoffs-recap New England Revolution
MLS Cup Final LA Galaxy New England Revolution Dec. 7, 3:00pm ET
The beginner's guide to the MLS Cup Playoffs http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/10/27/7056149/mls-playoffs-2014-beginners-guide Want to learn about the MLS Cup playoffs? Get started here
The playoffs: no longer a crapshoot http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/10/27/7054739/mls-cup-playoffs-2014-sounders-galaxy-revolution-dc-united
Donovan and Henry get final hurrahs http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/10/27/7049355/landon-donovan-thierry-henry-retire-mls-cup-playoffs
The playoff rootability rankings http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/10/27/7071105/mls-cup-playoffs-2014-sounders-galaxy
Name Record Finish How here How play Who watch Spirit animal Lineup why not why author Blog eliminated
FC Dallas 16-12-6 4th in West

The first season under Oscar Pareja has seen its share of ups and downs. FC Dallas won six out of their first eight matches only to follow that up with an eight-match winless streak in late April through May. The club responded once summer hit to go unbeaten again in 10 games. The fall came with a couple bumps but when the team needed a win the most, they continued to get ones over clubs like LA, Seattle and Salt Lake.

FC Dallas originally started out in a 4-2-3-1 formation this season with Mauro Diaz rocking the point behind Blas Perez in the attack. But as injuries and trades happened through the season, the shift to a 4-4-2 made the most sense for Pareja. Now they use two holding midfielders and rely on speed on the outside.

While the offense may rely more on Blas Perez, a deep playoff run may really come down to how much Andres Escobar and Fabian Castillo step up. Both Colombians on the outside have been a major threat for FCD in their recent run at the playoffs. Castillo's 10 goals on the season is a career high for him while Escobar has added in all of his four assists in the last month.

Toro. Given the logo of the club, a toro or bull makes perfect sense. The bull is aggressive by nature and quick when they need to attack, much like how this club acts on the field.

Raul Fernandez; Je-Vaughn Watson, Zach Loyd, Matt Hedges, Moises Hernandez; Andres Escobar, Victor Ulloa, Adam Moffat, Fabian Castillo; Blas Perez, David Texeira

Any team that struggles for stretches in the way FCD has this year makes fans question really how far they can go. FCD tends to have days in the midfield where they give up a ton of turnovers and have shown an awful penchant for picking up red cards at inopportune times. Good teams know they can frustrate them into bad fouls, which leads to more red cards. Currently FCD has 10 red cards on the season, one less than the all-time MLS record. Just one in the playoffs can ruin an otherwise good run.

Even with the inconsistency that they tend to show in the midfield, this group has the ability to rise to the occasion, especially when they are at home. FCD has really taken on Pareja's persona this season to fighting for every point, every goal and play similar to how he acted as a player. Set pieces have been a big deal with this club in 2014, as Michel has proven to be one of the league's best set-piece takers. Michel is a danger to score himself anywhere from inside 25 yards, but what really makes Dallas scary on set pieces is their size. Give them enough opportunities and Dallas will beat you on a dead-ball opportunity. And lastly, no club in MLS is as quick as FCD is on the outside. The days where FCD are at their best are when they attack on the wings with Castillo and Escobar.

Drew Epperley Big D Soccer y
Vancouver Whitecaps 12-8-14 5th in West

You could call it an up-and-down season, if you're interested in understatements. Before the 2014 season could even begin, the Whitecaps lost reigning MLS Golden Boot winner Camilo, as he bolted to Mexico. That left a young roster with plenty of holes needing to be filled, and yet, here we are. A late-season surge saw the 'Caps forge ahead into the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history.

The Whitecaps’ late run of success saw Carl Robinson mostly utilize the 4-2-3-1 formation, usually with either Erik Hurtado or Darren Mattocks as the lone striker. The Whitecaps defensive midfield is the envy of the league with Russell Teibert and Matias Laba, while the attacking midfield isn't half bad either, with the 'Caps best player, Pedro Morales, joined by MLS veteran Mauro Rosales.

The lightning quick, exciting youngsters up top like Kekuta Manneh, Hurtado and Mattocks are always easy picks. Manneh’s quickness and the moves he can make with the ball at his feet are simply superb. In midfield, Morales has established himself as easily the best offensive player on the club, not only for his gaudy first-year MLS stats (10 goals, 12 assists), but for his jaw dropping creativity and did-he-just-do-that crosses.

Finally, on the backline, Kendall Waston was a late addition to the club, but has been a magnet for attention in every match he's played. A 6-foot-5 frame that he's not afraid to throw around, Waston is a candidate for a yellow every time he takes a step, but damn if he isn't fun to watch.

A big lumbering black bear. We may fall asleep and seem unresponsive for large stretches of the season, but wake us up and we will rip your face off.

David Ousted; Steven Beitashour, Andy O’Brien, Kendall Waston, Jordan Harvey; Matias Laba, Russell Teibert, Mauro Rosales, Pedro Morales, Sebastian Fernandez; Erik Hurtado

No consistent scoring. The Whitecaps stocked their pantry with a serviceable backline, a superstar-in-the-making pairing in the defensive midfield, and a superstar pairing in the attacking midfield, yet skimped big time on their strikers. Tons of young talent, but absolutely no consistency. The Whitecaps almost didn't make the playoffs because for large stretches of the season, they had an anemic, embarrassing popgun offense. In the post-season, when it's that much harder to score, do the 'Caps really have enough firepower? Not likely.

If the Whitecaps did manage to get some more confidence and a better ebb and flow between the strikers and the midfield, they could be one of the most dangerous teams in the league. They proved that much against the Seattle Sounders a few weeks ago, when they put together a very good, if imperfect 1-0 victory on the road.

The 'Caps took advantage of their limited opportunities, Matias Laba was an absolute beast in the holding midfield spot, and the Sounders couldn't find a way to get one past David Ousted, who's established himself in the upper echelon of MLS goalkeepers this year. Bottom line, the 'Caps can play with the best teams in MLS when they want to. The ingredients for a championship team are here, and while the team could use a little more seasoning, any given Sunday, right?

Jon Szekeres 86 Forever y
Seattle Sounders 20-10-4 1st in West

It hasn’t been without drama, but the Sounders put together a spectacular season. Starting with a Week 5 tie against the Portland Timbers, the Sounders went on a 8-1-2 run that put them in the Supporters’ Shield lead and they were right there for the entire season until putting it away with a tie and win against the LA Galaxy in the season’s final two games. The defense has looked shaky at times but this offense is really something to behold, especially when their top players are fully fit.

The Sounders don’t do anything crazy from a formation standpoint, but there’s a lot of freedom in that 4-4-2. Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey will take turns dropping off, one serving as playmaker and the other the deadly finisher. Meanwhile, the wide midfielders will swap sides and cut in with impunity, firing off long-range shots and crashing the goal. Most of their width comes from their fullbacks where DeAndre Yedlin is the feature attraction. Osvaldo Alonso has license to basically run around the midfield causing havoc while Chad Marshall is a classic stay-at-home center back.

The offense runs through Martins and Dempsey, there’s no disputing that. But if you want a sense of how well the team is actually playing, check out Lamar Neagle and Marco Pappa on the wings. When they are getting quality touches, the Sounders are near unstoppable. Both have rocket shots and aren’t afraid to let fly, but they’ve also served as capable set-up men, combining for 14 assists between them to go along with their 15 combined goals.

Hydra, of course. No, not the villains from the Marvel Universe, we’re talking about the mythical multi-headed beast. What makes the Sounders so dangerous is their ability to beat you with so many different players. They’ve got six players with at least five goals across all competitions and a couple of those players regularly come off the bench.

Stefan Frei; DeAndre Yedlin, Chad Marshall, Zach Scott, Leo Gonzalez; Brad Evans, Osvaldo Alonso, Gonzalo Pineda, Marco Pappa; Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins

The Sounders were not the best team in MLS this year. No matter what the standings say, that honor goes to the LA Galaxy. For all the offensive firepower they possess, they’ve struggled against playoff teams and that defense is scary, and not in a good way. As good as Marshall and Alonso have been -- and all the numbers suggest they’ve been elite -- the defense is only as good as the guys around them. Frei is only OK in goal and that Zach Scott has been by far Marshall’s best partner speaks to lack of depth at that position.

Let’s not overhype the Sounders’ defensive struggles. While it’s fair to point out that no team has ever won MLS Cup while giving up so many goals, it’s also true that only a handful of teams in the post-shootout era scored more. In Dempsey and Martins they have two of the best forwards to ever play in the league and almost surely the best tandem. Martins and Dempsey seem to bring the best out of one another and at times it’s as if they are playing a game of pickup soccer, rather than in a highly competitive league. And that shaky defense has played well when it needed to: In the U.S. Open Cup final, they only gave up one goal in 120 minutes and they pitched a shutout against the high-flying Galaxy to clinch the Supporters’ Shield. This is a team that has already won two trophies and now has its sights set on becoming the first MLS treble winner. Don’t bet against them.

Jeremiah Oshan Sounder at Heart y
LA Galaxy 17-7-10 2nd in West

The CONCACAF Champions League put them on the back foot to start, but once they moved past that rough eight-game stretch to begin the season (which contained three of their seven losses for the season) it’s been relatively smooth sailing. Twice they’ve had unbeaten streaks of eight or better, but they also ended on a three-game winless run to fall just short of the fifth Supporters’ Shield in franchise history.

For most of the season the Galaxy have used a pretty traditional 4-4-2, save a brief flirtation with a midfield diamond. Bruce Arena always says he’s less concerned with tactics than he is about getting the best 11 on the field and he’s stayed true to that ethos, which most notably led to former winger Robbie Rogers becoming his full-time left back.

Gyasi Zardes has stepped into big shoes as the Galaxy's No. 2 forward, a 16-goal scorer in his second season. As is expected of a mercurial youngster, the goals come and go. There was a great four-game goal streak, but there have also been droughts, such as his current seven-match run in which he’s scored just once. Rogers will also have much to do with the success and failure of the club. When he’s healthy and on his game, he provides security that gives Landon Donovan the confidence to push forward. But pushing forward is where Rogers has really shown his worth and he’s still got a knack for that final pass.

Grizzly Bear. Fun fact about grizzlies, they need large areas of land on which to hunt. Because they don't prosper in confined spaces, human expansion has pushed them further and further into the wilderness. Given that space, there are few animals which can top the grizzly on the food chain. So, too, the Galaxy need space to stretch a team and create room to work in the middle.

Jaime Penedo; Dan Gargan, AJ DeLaGarza, Omar Gonzalez, Robbie Rogers; Baggio Husidic, Juninho, Marcelo Sarvas, Landon Donovan; Gyasi Zardes, Robbie Keane

The Galaxy have lived a charmed life since Robbie Keane came over and completed the triforce of Designated Players in 2012. However, it’s an era that’s nearing an end and, with that, the team's future is in doubt.

The one thing that does give the Galaxy problems is athletic midfields. LA has depth through the center and are plenty good enough, but they're an older group and don't have anyone with remarkable range. If teams can put a super athletic midfield in front of them, it could leave the Galaxy chasing the match and completely take them out of their game.

Robbie Keane’s presence alone means smooth sailing on all things scoring related, and when Donovan and Marcelo Sarvas are working the passing lanes there are few teams with defenses that can stop them. They get contributions from Zardes too, and it's that combination of depth and skill that led them to the most goals in the league this year.

Omar Gonzalez and AJ DeLaGarza are the best center back pairing in Major League Soccer, as they perfectly complement each other’s weaknesses. Gonzalez is a great emergency guy and an aerial threat, while DeLaGarza has the speed to fill in the gaps Gonzalez will leave in his wake. This is a back line that has made Dan Gargan look really good. It’s a back line with a historic level goal differential even with Leonardo getting as many starts as he has.

Plus it’s Donovan’s last year. MLS observers would like nothing better to send their crown prince out with another shiny for his treasure room. The narrative must prevail and Donovan must get his sixth title

Jocelyn Becker LAG Confidential
Real Salt Lake 15-8-11 3rd in West

After a long and luxurious unbeaten streak to start the season, Real Salt Lake fluctuated between relative mediocrity and utter excellence, with a general inability to maintain a consistent approach, a sticking point for the season. Jeff Cassar’s first season hasn’t been smooth, but making the playoffs was seen as a favorable finish at the start and that’s just where they are now.

In a word: diamond. RSL plays a narrow diamond midfield; a classic 4-4-2 in name, but more Argentine than European in its machinations. If you remember how RSL has played at any point over the previous seven seasons, you know how they play now. Their advantage is not in catching anyone by surprise, but by how well they execute.

Goalkeeper extraordinaire Nick Rimando, defensive standout Chris Schuler (face mask and all), consistently clockwork Kyle Beckerman, the aging but ever-creative and active Javier Morales, the returned-from-injury Alvaro Saborio, and the hot, young rising star Joao Plata. Additionally, several other players. It may skirt the spirit of the section, but while individuals have come and gone, results have stayed relatively consistent. Saborio is an excellent example: Without their all-time leading goalscorer, RSL still managed their second-highest goal total in their ten-year history. That “The Team is the Star” motto might seem ripped from a PBS special on its face, but it’s an apt descriptor of the defining factors of Real Salt Lake.

An aging but active house cat. With play that belies the years racked up by the team, RSL is old, wise and seems to have nine lives. Seven of them are perhaps gone — one for each year in which the club’s made the playoffs consecutively.

Nick Rimando; Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert; Kyle Beckerman, Luke Mulholland, Ned Grabavoy, Javier Morales; Alvaro Saborio, Joao Plata

The reasons are numerous, and a quick glance makes it like the deck is stacked against them. Two teams firing on all cylinders, Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy, lead the pack, and others zipping around the standings has led RSL into a bit of a confusing time. RSL are neither an offensive juggernaut nor a defensive dynamo, and Rio Tinto is not nearly the fortress it once was.

RSL is a team stacked with veterans. Every year since that MLS Cup win in 2009, they’ve been there or thereabouts, and there’s a seven-year playoff streak to show for it. There are still eight players from that Cup winning team and none of them look particularly close to falling off. After last year -- when they fell on the 10th kick of the Cup final penalty shootout to Sporting Kansas City -- it’s hard to look past a motivated, experienced team. That defeat will sting more than one marked by profligacy. There’s a sense that for some of these players, it’ll be their last chance to make a lasting mark at Real Salt Lake. The team is on the verge of toppling over under the weight of the salary cap, and one final hurrah would seem in order.

Matt Montgomery RSL Soapbox y
New England Revolution 17-13-4 2nd in East

It’s been a typically streaky season for the Revs. After opening the season 1-3-1, including a 4-0 thrashing by Houston in the season opener, New England went on a stellar seven-match unbeaten streak, including a five-match winning run where they outscored opponents 16-5. Then, disaster, as the summer months featured an eight-match losing streak, and a 1-9-0 stretch that nearly destroyed their playoff chances. Since then, however, New England has gone 9-1-2 and looks as hot as any playoff team.

The Revs spent most of 2013 and 2014 playing a 4-1-4-1 that relied on a strong, smart defensive midfielder, twin playmakers in the middle, and slashing wing play. More recently, with the acquisition of Jermaine Jones, the Revs have been playing more of a 4-2-3-1 that allows Jones to take a very free box-to-box role. They still rely on dynamic wing play, and Lee Nguyen has the freedom to play as an advanced playmaker and attacker. Width is generally provided by fullbacks.

Lee Nguyen is the alpha and omega on this squad. If he’s finding space and pockets, pulling strings and getting shots off, the Revs are clicking. Jermaine Jones is also an obvious dangerman who brings both aggression and finesse to the midfield. Really, though, it’s when the next-tier players are clicking -- guys like Kelyn Rowe and Charlie Davies -- that the Revs take off. If Davies is making dangerous runs and Rowe is involved all over the attacking third, New England is dangerous.

Wolf. Specifically, a wolfpack. The Revs have the most diverse attack in MLS. Sure, Lee Nguyen leads the team with 18 goals, but New England has 14 different scorers on the roster. The way it works is reminiscent of a pack of wolves. There is an alpha (Nguyen) who directs the pack, and leads, along with the most experienced and dangerous wolves (Jones, Rowe). Then, there is the rest of the pack, working in beautiful unison, all harassing and wounding their prey. Alone or out of sync, they are unsuccessful, but when they work together, the pack can take down anything they set their sights on, and it is both electrifying and terrifying to behold.

Bobby Shuttleworth; Chris Tierney, AJ Soares, Jose Goncalves, Andrew Farrell; Jermaine Jones, Daigo Kobayashi; Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen, Teal Bunbury; Charlie Davies

This is not the best team in MLS. On their day, they can beat anybody, but that’s the thing: it has to be their day. This is a team, after all, that lost 4-0 to the Houston Dynamo and 5-1 to the LA Galaxy. They are still streaky, inconsistent, and prone to lack of focus and mental errors. The defense has not been anywhere near as reliable as it was in 2013, and teams have had success in the past at neutralizing Nguyen. That tends to make everything fall apart. As good as the Revs can be when everything goes right, it’s just too easy to knock them off their game.

When things are going right, there’s no one who can stop them, evidenced by their 5-0 thrashing of the Seattle Sounders. The defense, while never looking totally in control, seems to do just enough, and the offense has a wonderful affinity for sandbagging opposing defenses. Nguyen can win matches on his own, and now with Jones running the midfield with him, there is enough veteran leadership in the XI to often pull the Revs out of any funk they get themselves into during a match. It’s a team that can score at will from almost anywhere and any situation, and at any time. Plus, with all the youth still in this squad, there has to be an element of fearlessness that comes with the lack of big-time experience. The Revs are a wild card, and wild cards have won plenty of MLS Cups.

Steve Stoehr The Bent Musket
Sporting Kansas City 14-13-7 5th in East

Sporting KC stayed in the hunt for the top of the East until early September when their customary stingy defense let them down giving up 11 goals in four games. Season-ending injuries, regular wear and tear and national team call-ups took a heavy toll on Peter Vermes’ roster, which limped to the finish line by losing their final two and winning just two of their last 10.

SKC plays a 4-3-3 that varies depending on the situation, sometimes more of a 4-5-1, but always focused on pressuring the opposing defense both with the ball and without. Vermes’ wants his squad to play high pressure and interrupt the play to direct trouble away before a quality chance can develop and throw numbers forward when the ball turns over.

Once considered so raw that he spent almost an entire season on loan to the USL Pro, Dominic Dwyer has become an elite goal scorer. Now in his third season, Dwyer finished second in the MLS scoring table and can be a great pest to opposing defenders and keepers. Also keep an eye on the length of the disabled list. With so many injured players this season, who to watch for Sporting KC may be determined by who, exactly, is available.

Sure, bulls sometimes just hang out in a pasture scaring kids, but there are also those bread for bullfighting. Sporting KC has evaded the charge of other teams, managed injuries, dealt with missing players and just when you think they can't take any more, they rise again to charge the opponent.

Eric Kronberg; Igor Juliao, Aurilien Collin, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic; Lawrence Olum, Benny Feilhaber, Paulo Nagamura; Graham Zusi, Dominic Dwyer, Antonio Dovale

Sporting KC has suffered from an incredible amount of missed games this year. Career-ending (Peterson Joseph) season-ending (Ike Opara, Chance Myers, Erik Palmer-Brown) week or longer injuries (Paulo Nagamura, Jacob Peterson, Eric Kronberg, Andy Gruenebaum, Aurelien Collin, Sal Zizzo), player being sold (Uri Rosell) and national team duty (Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Lawrence Olum, Soony Saad) have left the defending MLS Cup Champions shorthanded, limping and with not a lot of options.

Sporting KC’s bodies are worn out and without many backups at this point, so Vermes does not have to look too hard at who he put on the field, he just puts out the 11 healthiest bodies and shuffles them where they fit best that day. It is hard to see how there is enough energy left for Sporting KC to play the high-pressure style they know best and no other styles seem to work for them.

Despite all the injuries and tired bodies, they are still a good team -- and these are mostly the same players who carried KC to the title a year ago -- and have played better lately. If they can click into form they will be a dangerous challenge for any team they face. Dwyer can score, Feilhaber, Zusi and Dovale can create and Nagamura and Collin can frustrate opponents. As Captain Matt Besler said recently, “we have to write a new script and we will.“

Thad Bell The Blue Testament y
DC United 17-9-8 1st in East

It hasn't always been pretty for United, but the Black-and-Red's worst spells of the season are two three-game winless streaks (one of which was an 0-2-1 start to the season). Over the last 24 league matches, United has gone 13-6-5, including surviving a farcically packed August and September. Team defending has been key -- D.C. United was tied for the league lead in goals allowed -- as has a dogged, unshakeable mentality.

Ben Olsen isn't thought of as a keen tactical mind, but his 4-4-2 has often featured arguably MLS's least-conventional forward pairing. Fabian Espindola drifts into wide areas while Luis Silva comes from underneath, leaving defenses confused by the lack of a traditional center forward. Silva’s injured hamstring will keep him out through the Eastern Conference semifinals at a minimum, however, which means a more straightforward pairing up top: Espindola will continue to roam freely, but he’ll now have a target man in the form of Eddie Johnson to play off of. Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud are often outnumbered in central midfield, but between their relentless running and assists from Nick DeLeon playing narrow from the right and Bobby Boswell stepping up ahead of the back four, it's not often an issue.

Espindola deserves cult-hero status at RFK Stadium for his blend of creativity, efficiency -- he averages a goal or assist for every 106 minutes he plays -- and a warrior spirit that (usually) doesn't boil over. At the other end, Bill Hamid is a very strong candidate for MLS's Goalkeeper of the Year award and has even garnered a bit of MVP discussion. Starting games with Hamid in goal this season is a bit like kicking off with your opponent's score at -1, because he will rob someone of a sure goal at some point.

With all due respect to RFK’s population of raccoons, I’m going away from the animal kingdom and choosing Frankenstein’s monster. Put together from MLS’s spare-parts bin and brought to life via some sort of alchemy, United is an experiment that ended in ways no one expected. While the locals are fearful, United just wants acceptance (in the form of a stadium).

Bill Hamid; Taylor Kemp, Steven Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, Sean Franklin; Chris Rolfe, Perry Kitchen, Davy Arnaud, Nick DeLeon; Fabian Espindola, Eddie Johnson

United has only played one game against MLS’s other elite teams without essentially punting due to congestion, and that was a 3-0 loss at Real Salt Lake. United also lost 1-0 at home to the equally short-handed Seattle Sounders, and sent an Open Cup 3rd round-caliber squad to LA -- in order to be at 100 percent for a match against the Red Bulls three days later -- to be slaughtered 4-1 by the Galaxy. This indicates a lack of depth, and with Silva and his 11 goals unavailable until the Eastern Conference Final (at best), it seems fair to say that Ben Olsen has taken this squad about as far as it can realistically go. It’s no accident that pundits are starting to make eyes at New England and Columbus to come out of the East.

Despite having probably the 3rd or 4th most talented roster in the East, Olsen has coached his squad up to the point that they believe they can beat anyone. It’s not at all a stretch to expect United to get to MLS Cup given their dominance of games at RFK Stadium, where the last 15 visitors have collectively managed a mere 7 goals. After that? Well, Olsen won the 2013 US Open Cup with a far, far worse squad on the road at RSL. No one wants to play a team that is this hard to score on and this opportunistic at the other end of the field. United makes for an awkward opponent to defend against, particularly if Silva and Chris Rolfe are back from injury. History could repeat itself given how similar this team is to the 2004 MLS Cup-winning side Olsen played in.

Jason Anderson Black & Red United y
Columbus Crew 14-10-10 3rd in East

It was a rollercoaster ride for the Crew, beginning with the best start in team history. From there things took a turn and the team searched for wins throughout the early portion of the summer. Finally things came together and the Black and Gold have played some great soccer since the beginning of August which has pushed them into the playoffs.

It is not a conventional formation for the Black and Gold. Columbus likes to dominate possession and does so with their outside midfielders tucked in while the outside backs provide width for the team. Federico Higuian roams the pitch in order to get the ball and create, while others fill in around him. Committing so many players forward can often lead to harried games, but it sure is fun to watch.

Higuain has always made this team run offensively, but this year he has offensive help in the form of Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram. The two midfielders have combined for 18 goals and nine assists on the year, providing a spark in the second half of the season. The addition of some real attacking ability to supplement Higuain has completely transformed the Crew from one of the league’s more boring teams into one that is actually fun and exciting. First-year MLS goalkeeper Steve Clark has also been a revelation in the nets.

A phoenix. After two years away from the postseason, an ownership and coaching change, and a midseason stumble that looked to doom the Crew again, the Black and Gold have risen from the ashes like the legendary bird to get into the playoffs.

Steve Clark; Waylon Francis, Tyson Wahl, Michael Parkhurst, Eric Gehrig; Justin Meram, Wil Trapp, Tony Tchani, Ethan Finlay; Federico Higuain; Aaron Schoenfeld

The Crew were one of the youngest teams in the league this season, yet managed to finish in third in the Eastern Conference. Now, come playoff time, that inexperience might be tested as the majority of their veterans have no playoff experience. Among the starters, Parkhurst is the only player who has experienced anything like MLS playoff success and that was under a considerably different format. While they say ignorance is bliss, the lack of understanding of the MLS playoffs could hurt this team.

Columbus comes in on one of the hottest streaks in MLS to end the season, losing just two of their last 11 games and winning three on the run up to secure third place. Even if they aren’t playoff tested, this team has dealt with adversity and come out even better for it. It’s never good to bet against anyone playing with house money. The Black and Gold shouldn’t fear anyone in the playoffs, as they have at least demonstrated they can play with any team they may face, with at least one win over every playoff-bound Eastern team aside from Sporting Kansas City. The team truly believes they can make a deep run in the post season.

Pat Murphy Massive Report y
New York Red Bulls 13-10-11 4th in East

After claiming their first trophy in the Supporters’ Shield last year, the Red Bulls tried something new: having a consistent roster. The only issue is that the play on the field hasn’t matched the previous version. The Red Bulls went 0-4-2 in their first 6; they won 3 out of 4 then lost 3 straight. It’s been an up and down season for the Red Bulls. Somehow they’ve managed to scrape together enough points with a late season push to make the playoffs, going 7-4-1 (25 out of 36 pts) in their last 12.

After giving up a ton of goals early in the year, head coach Mike Petke was looking for answers to solidify the defense. He eventually turned to a 4-2-3-1 where two midfielders would be used to provide defensive cover for the back line. For the majority of the time it’s been employed, it has worked, because the Red Bulls have Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander, two defensive-minded players to fill those roles. Going forward, a lot of their offense is based on the ability of Thierry Henry to work magic either for himself or setting up the likes of the league’s leading goal-scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips.

In Wright-Phillips and Henry, the Red Bulls have two of the top offensive players in the league. Henry is in the twilight of his career and this may be his last shot at MLS Cup. He’s having arguably his best season for the Red Bulls, and has found a fantastic partner in Wright-Phillips, who tied the MLS single-season scoring record with an incredible 27 goals. If they are clicking, there really isn’t anyone who has shown an ability to stop them.

They aren't really animals, but the mythical Sirens of ancient Greece perfectly fits for the Red Bulls. They lure you in with stretches of good play but let you crash on the rocks by dashing your hopes every year.

Luis Robles; Roy Miller, Ibrahim Sekagya, Jamison Olave, Richard Eckersley; Dax McCarty, Eric Alexander; Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Lloyd Sam; Bradley Wright-Phillips

Four straight appearances in the playoffs, four straight exits at the conference semi-finals is a tough history to overcome. It’s not helped by the fact that the Red Bulls are the worst road team in the playoff field, and they have a -12 goal difference in those games (versus +17 at home). That alone may be too much to overcome.

The road is not going to be easy, but this Red Bulls squad is as talented as any in the league. Just the fact that we got all the way to this point without even prominently mentioning Tim Cahill (who’s had a pretty disappointing season, it should be said) shows just how much ability is stashed away on this roster. If Cahill can revive some of that World Cup magic, Henry can hold it together for another month and Wright-Phillips can continue his torrid scoring streak, there’s really no reason to think the Red Bulls aren’t as capable of lifting their first-ever MLS Cup in December.

Jason Iapicco Once A Metro y

Intro+

The MLS Cup Playoffs are quite unlike anything else in the world of club soccer. While it’s not the case that every other soccer league decides their champion by virtue of a single table, the format MLS uses is unique. Ten teams -- more than half the league -- are whittled down to eight, then four, then two, who play in a one-game, winner-take-all MLS Cup.

It’s not exactly perfect and it’s certainly not fair, but it’s what we have. And it’s better than what we used to have. And it works. So we deal.

But putting aside any complaints we may have over the format, it’s hard to argue that this year’s field is anything if not compelling.

At the top we have big teams with big budgets and legitimately big stars. The Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey-led Seattle Sounders seem to be on a collision course with the Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane-led LA Galaxy. The league would only be so lucky to be treated to a reprisal of their two-game, end-of-season showdown with a rematch in the Western Conference finals. Whichever of the Galaxy or Sounders emerge from the West will be heavy favorites to win MLS Cup, at least in part because they’ll also host the championship game.

But to get there, they’ll need to navigate a field of less-star-studded but still dangerous sides like Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas and the Vancouver Whitecaps. The West was brutal this season, arguably the toughest conference that MLS has ever seen, so simply qualifying for the playoffs is an indication of a team’s quality, and the likes of RSL’s Javier Morales, FC Dallas’ Fabian Castillo and the Whitecaps’ Pedro Morales will not go quietly.

Over in the Eastern Conference, the field appears to be more wide open, but no less interesting.

D.C. United has put together the greatest single-season turnaround in MLS history, going from historically awful to just a few points short of the Supporters’ Shield thanks in no small part to MVP contending goalkeeper Bill Hamid. In front of him sits a tough-as-nails defense, then an attack cobbled together from other teams’ spare parts.

Impressive as they’ve been, no one will be surprised if they aren’t the Eastern Conference’s representative. The Columbus Crew and New England Revolution have both rebounded well from rocky middles to their seasons, both riding offenses that have turned these once-boring afterthoughts into legitimately interesting squads.

And let’s not forget about last year’s MLS silverware winners, Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls.

Neither have played anything approaching consistent soccer over the past couple months, but their rosters aren’t all that dissimilar from the ones that were so successful in 2013. Sporting KC’s 4-3-3 can still pressure anyone into submission, even if their ability to do so has been severely hampered by injury and absences. The Red Bulls, meanwhile, still have arguably the most talented player ever to suit up for a MLS team in Thierry Henry and a goalscorer in Bradley Wright-Phillips who stands tall among the league’s greats.

All of these teams have a fatal flaw … or two … or three. But that’s what makes the playoffs so interesting. By all rights the Sounders or Galaxy should win. But you never know. That’s part of the fun.

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Hint: click on teams in bracket to expand

Bracket

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Schedule+

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This schedule will be updated throughout the playoffs

Teams+

  • West
  • East
  • Seattle Sounders
  • DC United
  • LA Galaxy
  • NE Revolution
  • Real Salt Lake
  • Columbus Crew
  • FC Dallas
  • New York Red Bulls
  • Vancouver Whitecaps
  • Sporting KC

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