TORONTO - Four remain in the march to Toronto. Major League Soccerís Eastern and Western Conference finals go this weekend, determining whoíll battle for the MLS Cup at BMO Field next Sunday night, the first MLS championship match to be played on Canadian soil.
Eastern Conference Final
San Jose Earthquakes at Colorado Rapids (Saturday, 9:30 p.m.)
If thereís a cloud of disdain over the Eastern Conference final, itís because itís the game no attached fan or casual observer wanted to see. San Jose is MLS least supported side, and Coloradoís home fan support is fleeting at best.
Thank Major League Soccerís imperfect cross-over playoff format leaving two teams from the Western Conference, and the playoffs two lowest seeds battling it out for Eastern Conference supremacy.
San Jose pulled off the bigger first-round upset, winning 3-1 at New York, eliminating the highly touted Reds Bulls and their three designated players, 3-2 on aggregate. Former Canadian menís national team head coach, Frank Yallop will approach Saturdayís match with the same kind of game plan: Stay disciplined, remain organized and attack down the wings on the counter.
The outside midfield positions are San Joseís strength. MLS Comeback of the Year award winner, Bobby Convey has been terrific down the left-hand side, scoring twice against the Red Bulls. And no player had a greater impact on their teamsí game-sheet than Chris Wondolowski down the right-hand side. The MLS Golden Boot winner scored a whopping 18 of his teamís 34 goals on the year.
Yet, itís mid-season acquisition, designated player Geovanni whoís the X factor. Yallop uses Geovanni in a floating, recess striker role, allowing his prized asset to get more involved and apply his creativity in what otherwise is a relatively rigid 4-4-2 system. Also of note, playing behind Geovanni in the midfield is Toronto FC cast-off, Sam Cronin, who has shined out west, finally getting the chance to play in a defensive central midfield role.
San Jose is an unpredictable team; often boom or bust. The Earthquakes 8-2-7 record from August onwards is evidence of such. But they are very good on the road (second most away points in MLS) and should be up for the occasion.
Despite their spotty fan support, the Rapids were very good at home again this past season. Credit the Rocky Mountain air ó playing at altitude is no easy task for the visitors ó Colorado was 8-5-2 at home with 26 goals for and only 11 against on the year.
The Rapids are paced by the strike-force of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey ó 27 goals between the pair made them the most prolific attacking duo in MLS. The C&C Goal-Scoring Factory is physically dominant with pace and finish to match. It will challenge San Joseís unheralded back-line.
The Rapids are balanced across the park, with many pundits giving Colorado the edge in the midfield. Brian Mullan and Pablo Mastroeni have superior resumes, but the wing play of San Jose, particularly on the counter could cause the Rapids fits.
Another Toronto FC cast-off, Marvell Wynne has been used effectively in the back and has speed to kill. But Coloradoís backline, like Wynne is susceptible to mistakes.
Prediction: Everyone and their uncle are predicting a Colorado victory. It simply doesnít lose at home ó until now. If San Jose can match its form in New York, there is no reason it canít win and become the second eighth seed in as many years to make the MLS Cup final. San Jose wins 2-1.
Western Conference Final
FC Dallas at L.A. Galaxy (Sunday, 9 p.m.)
From start to finish, the Galaxy has been MLSís top side of 2010. Beckham and Co. showed their worth eliminating the Seattle Sounders soundly. It was a professional dismantling in every sense of the word. This doesnít just speak to their man power, but the leadership of head coach Bruce Arena. His counterpart, Schellas Hyndman may have won Coach of the Year, but Arena is the master tactician.
Attacking players Landon Donovan, Edson Buddle and David Beckham deservedly get the headlines. Donovanís industry, Buddleís advantageous demeanour, and Beckhamís quality of service are special. However, itís the role players on the Galaxy that have come to define the squad.
Centre-back Omar Gonzalez had no drop in form his sophomore year and leads an unspectacular, yet solid defensive unit in front of MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Donovan Ricketts. Physical central midfielder Dema Kovalenko contributions are worth their weight in gold, especially in a game like Sundayís, where heíll be entrusted to nullify the influence of the talented David Ferreira.
Ferreira, the favourite to be named MLS Player of the year, pulls the strings for FCD and is the player Donovan calls the best playmaker in MLS. As Ferreira goes, so does FCD.
FCD was likewise impressive on the year, and proved their season was no fluke coming away from Salt Lake City with a hard-fought draw to advance to the Conference final. The team has speed everywhere across the park. Unfortunately for FCD, injuries have ruled out defender Heath Pearce (hamstring) and Milton Rodriguez (groin), but neither made the trip to Salt Lake either
FCDís record-setting 19-game unbeaten stretch during the season is a testament to the strength and development of the side. But itís unreasonable to think 36-year old goalkeeper, Kevin Hartman can stand on his head again as he did in Salt Lake to give the underdogs a chance at victory. The Galaxy is simply a better and deeper side.
Prediction: Donovan didnít steal the headlines in the first round of the playoffs but should here. Heís the type of player that can expose weakness in FCDís backline. Beckham will finally play a game in Toronto wearing a Galaxy uniform. Galaxy wins 2-0.