MLS: 3 Games Left

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Or, They’re Showing That on Television?

I know, I know.  You want to talk about the amazing World Cup play-off between Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or France’s triumphant comeback against Ukraine; or about the Liverpool derby (man, aren’t ties just a bore?) or Mario Götze opening Bayern Munich’s late run to beat Borussia Dortmund.  But that’s all just preview: tonight kicks off the final three games of the most exciting league in the world, am I right?

If parity really were equivalent to excitement, as those who complain about a lack of it often suggest, you’d be hard pressed to dispute Major League Soccer’s claim to a “most exciting” label.  This is a league where any team really can win it, and the lack of anyone you’ve ever heard of in the final four playoffs teams is both proof and a logical outcome of that parity.  The World Cup may have lost the mighty Zlatan, but just try naming anyone playing in tonight and tomorrow night’s MLS Eastern and Western Conference finals.  Landon Donovan’s back-up, Graham Zusi, is probably the biggest star remaining by a country mile.  If you’re into the US Men’s Team depth chart, you may know Brad Jones.  After that, we’re talking about who?  Everyone’s favorite former Atlético Lanús star, Diego Valeri?  Costa Rican international Álvaro Saborío–oh wait, sorry, he’s injured.  So maybe Robbie Findley?  (Didn’t he used to play with the Dallas Mavericks?)

At least Portand, America’s favorites (after losing Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle), are still in with an outside chance after former Hammer Frédéric Piquionne headed in a goal in the last minute of extra time to salvage a 4-2 loss against Real Salt Lake.  Away goals don’t count, so Portland fans will be hoping that Weld-Jen Arena will prove a fortress and then some.  It will be a tough ask against a Salt Lake side that is looking strong despite injuries to starting striker Saborío and left back Chris Wingert.  Rookie Devon Sandoval is working tirelessly up top, and his strike partnership with Findley will be even more dangerous with Portland needing to push on.  Above all, Portland will have to figure out how to manage Javier Morales, who was probably Salt Lake’s best player in the first leg.

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On the upside, Portland can hope that on Sunday Futty Danso will return to form and not give away two goals in the first half.  If Diego Chara or Will Johnson can come to grips with Morales, perhaps Portland can break up Salt Lake’s domination of possession and turn things around.  They will need Valeri’s adductor to hold out for at least one more game.  For neutrals, this game will probably be better for RSL’s lead, as it will force Portland to challenge for possession and produce a more exciting game.  My money is still on Real Salt Lake, but I’m sure the league would love for Portland’s run to continue, as they are probably the closest thing left to a big draw for the finals.

The opening tie between Sporting KC and the Houston Dynamo was a truly dull affair, and I say that as a fan of cagey 0-0 chess matches.  Both teams were recovering from extra-time elimination games earlier in the week and they looked it.  We can at least hope that two weeks off will produce a more lively game, but it should still be a low-scoring battle, with errors proving critical.  History is with the Houston Dynamo, but not the injury sheet.  Although they have bounced Sporting KC from the playoffs at this point for the past two years, Houston are hoping that striker Will Bruin and especially midfielder Ricardo Clark can recover from injuries picked up in the opening leg.  Clark in particular is critical to Houston’s chances; in the first leg he and Warren Creaville were able to control the midfield despite Kansas City’s man advantage in that area.  Sporting KC, for their part, will be building from their league-leading defense and hoping to nip a goal.  If they can do so, they could finally reach the MLS finals.  I’d prepare yourself, though, for a game decided by penalties.

If Alexi Lalas is right that MLS playoff success is more skill than chance, you would expect Houston and Real Salt Lake to make it to the finals.  He isn’t right, but this is still the outcome I’d expect.  If that happens, I’ll take RSL 2-1 Houston Dynamo in a final decided in regular time.

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