Rapids are the Western Conference's surprise package
Exactly when is it appropriate to show a party crasher to the door? It's a question that might stump Miss Manners, but if you're the Houston Dynamo, you're hoping that the answer is this Sunday around 8 p.m. local time. If you're the Colorado Rapids, the response is whenever they like, preferably with the Western Conference trophy safely in tow.
At this point in the MLS postseason, the Rapids have certainly done their utmost to assume the role of the uninvited guest. After sleepwalking through most of the year, Colorado managed to qualify for the playoffs courtesy of a late equalizer with just two minutes remaining in the regular season. In the process, they managed to achieve some rather dubious distinctions. Their goal difference of minus-13 was the worst in the league, aided in no small part by a defense that tied for the most goals conceded. Their total of 10 points earned on the road also tied a league worst.
The Rapids have been raising some hackles with their postmatch behavior as well. Following a 1-0 road win over Real Salt Lake in August, Pablo Mastroeni taunted the home fans to such a degree that RSL general manager Dave Checketts was compelled to confront the Rapids' captain.
Now fast forward to Saturday's conference semifinal tilt with Dallas. At the conclusion of their triumphant penalty kick shootout, the Rapids once again couldn't contain themselves, engaging in some boorish behavior in front of the Dallas fans, sparking a brawl between several Rapids players and Dallas goalkeeper Dario Sala. It's to the point where the old Millwall F.C. standard, "No one likes us, we don't care," could double as Colorado's rallying cry.
The bottom line is that despite their roller-coaster season, the Rapids have played some entertaining soccer along the way, and now find themselves one game away from making a return trip to Pizza Hut Park.
Yet in their path stands a Houston side whose playoff route has been a bit more conventional, if no less dramatic. A solid regular season was nearly undone by a tenacious Chivas USA squad, but Brian Ching's stoppage-time goal in the second leg pushed the Dynamo through to the next round, putting to rest the playoff disappointments of the past two years, when the team was located in San Jose, Calif.
As both teams look ahead to Saturday's game, it's clear that there are interesting matchups all over the field. After struggling for much of the season, the Rapids' attack has been in overdrive, mostly due to its unpredictability. The likes of Nico Hernandez, Clint Mathis, and Thiago Martins all possess match-winning skill, and the midfield tandem of Mastroeni and Kyle Beckerman has a near-perfect blend of attacking verve and defensive bite. The result is a side that can attack from either wing, or combine through the middle.
But the Rapids will be going up against a Dynamo defense that is more solid than the Dallas unit that was torched Saturday, not only in terms of its back line, but in the amount of effort put in by its midfield. In particular, the work of holding midfielder Ricardo Clark is vital to Houston's defensive strength. If Colorado is to break down the Dynamo defense, then the likes of Mastroeni and Beckerman will need to blunt Clark's influence.
Things seem a little more one-sided in the other direction, where Houston's attack would appear to have an advantage over Colorado's defense. Of particular interest will be out wide, where Dynamo flank players Brad Davis and Brian Mullan will look to play a more substantial role than they did in the first round. In the second leg of that series, Chivas took the unusual step of using five fullbacks, something that Rapids coach Fernando Clavijo is unlikely to replicate. For that reason, the Houston duo should see more of the ball.
With several players coming back from injury, Clavijo has some interesting lineup decisions to make. Does he revert to the front line of Hernandez and Martins, or does he stick with the winning formula that worked in Dallas? Clavijo stated that he wants to keep it the same, but will likely make a change or two. League-leading assist man Terry Cooke returned to training on Wednesday, but a more likely candidate to be in the lineup is Martins, who was suspended last weekend. The Brazilian scored twice in the Rapids' 3-3 tie with Houston on Oct. 14, and was especially dynamic in Colorado's first-leg match with Dallas.
Houston coach Dominic Kinnear has no such concerns. His lineup is likely to be the same he fielded against Chivas.
Key matchup: Houston midfielder Dwayne De Rosario vs. Colorado midfielder Pablo Mastroeni
Clavijo is a big admirer of Clark's work rate, but if Houston's series with Chivas proved anything, it's how dependant it is on De Rosario's creative influence to spark its attack. This is especially true when the Dynamo receive poor flank play, as they did in the conference semis.
Mastroeni certainly has the ability to shut down a player such as De Rosario, but given his demands in the offensive half, the contributions of Beckerman will come into play as well. Shadowed by Chivas midfielder Jesse Marsch, De Rosario found space hard to come by during the first round. Without a dedicated player to defend him, the Canadian international may find a bit more freedom this weekend.
Both Mastroeni and De Rosario can be volatile at times, so staying disciplined will be paramount for each player.
Players to watch: For Colorado, goalkeeper Joe Cannon, midfielders Nico Hernandez and Kyle Beckerman; for Houston, forward Brian Ching, midfielders Brad Davis and Brian Mullan
Cannon was surprisingly quiet in the series against Dallas, but still has the ability to win a match on his own. Hernandez, on the other hand, made plenty of noise, delivering two goals and making a nuisance of himself, whether positioned out wide or up top. Beckerman's defense is first-rate, but he also has the ability to pop up in the attack.
Ching has tormented the Rapids in the past, notching four goals in a 5-2 opening-day rout. But he'll need to improve his hold-up play, which was well below average against the Goats, and remains a vital part of the Dynamo attack. Also short of peak form were Mullan and Davis. Ching is very dependent on the service he gets from both players, and it will need to be better than it was against Chivas for Houston to be successful. In particular, the quality of Davis' set piece deliveries will need to be turned up a notch.
X factors: For Colorado, forward Clint Mathis; for Houston, forward Alejandro Moreno
Mathis emerged from his season-long slumber to deliver a spectacular equalizer Saturday that took the series to penalties. But his more consistent impact on the attack is what really brought a smile to Clavijo's face. The question here is: Was this a one-off or a sign of things to come?
Moreno has struggled this season, and has found himself the second choice lately behind Paul Dalglish. But the Venezuelan is the kind of late-game sub who can turn a game around. Despite being only 5-foot-9, the Dynamo forward is surprisingly effective on set pieces, which remain a huge part of Houston's attack.
Outcome: Expect this match to be another wild affair. The two teams played to a 3-3 tie in the regular season's final weekend, and a similar score line isn't out of the question. Colorado's weakest link would appear to be at fullback, which may allow Houston to get more width in its attack.
With the likes of Martins, Hernandez and Mathis in good form, the Rapids should get some goals, but it won't be enough. Houston should prevail 3-2.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.