It isn't easy picking a winner in the MLS playoffs.
As evidenced this past week, three one-time favorites for the MLS Cup were eliminated in the semifinals as the New York Red Bulls, Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders all bowed out.
Thanks to a restrictive salary cap, even the most talented teams have weaknesses that can be exploited, and the top nine teams in the league in salary are all on vacation as a result.
So, in trying to decide the likely favorites to head to the MLS Cup, ESPN FC reached to the folks behind soccer simulation game Football Manager 14 to get accurate picks for the conference finals.
Here are FM's picks:
Eastern Conference: Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting Kansas City
First leg: Nov. 9, Sporting @ Dynamo:
Houston will win the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final, 1-0, as Omar Cummings continues his remarkable playoff form with an injury-time winner. The result is anchored by an impressive Dynamo defensive effort, which results in Bobby Boswell being named man of the match.
However, Dom Kinnear's playoff magic will end when the Dynamo travel to Kansas City in the second leg.
Second leg: Nov. 23, Dynamo @ Sporting:
Similar to its match against the New England Revolution, Sporting KC comes alive at home, winning 2-0. Goals from Matt Besler and Benny Feilhaber push SKC ahead, and the team's designated player, Claudio Bieler, wins man of the match thanks to having a hand in both goals.
Winner: Sporting KC
Western Conference: Portland Timbers vs. Real Salt Lake
First leg: Nov. 10, Timbers @ Real:
Real Salt Lake will win the first leg of the Western Conference Final in a tight 1-0 victory. The Timbers' Pa Modou Kah is the culprit for the away loss as he gives away a penalty to Alvaro Saborio and Cole Grossman scored the game winner.
Unfortunately for the Timbers, their shaky back line will have a hand in the second leg of the Western Conference title series, as well.
Second leg: Nov. 24, Real @ Timbers:
The deciding match at Jeld-Wen Field is a nail-biter. RSL's Nick Rimando is a brick wall blocking away a few dangerous shots from Portland's attack, but Timbers' Darlington Nagbe finally gets the best of the U.S. international. The striker beats a few RSL defenders and slots a shot in the bottom right corner to put Portland up 1-0 and force extra time with 10 minutes remaining.
However, the joy in Portland is short-lived.
The Timbers' Mamadou Danso tries to clear a ball away for clearance using his head, and Saborio takes advantage of the defender’s mistake, volleying from the edge of the penalty area to give RSL the winner and pushing the club through to the MLS Cup finals. Jason Kreis and RSL have another chance at MLS glory.
MLS Cup: RSL vs. Sporting KC