Western Conference teams suffering from a dip in form
Editor's note: Ives Galarcep will preview the Eastern Conference playoffs on Wednesday for ESPNsoccernet.
For those who believe that end-of-season momentum means playoff success, it's worth noting that right now most Western Conference playoff teams have little of that commodity. Over the last month, conference champions Chivas USA have looked nothing like the well-oiled machine from earlier this summer, and they're dinged up to boot. Houston has looked the sharpest, but a fickle offense makes the Dynamo far from a sure thing. And both Dallas and Kansas City have borne a closer resemblance to playoff spectators rather than potential champions.
The reality of course is that regular-season form means little. One only has to remember Los Angeles' run to the 2005 title to realize that regular-season success (or struggle) is not necessarily an omen for the playoffs. And despite any recent loss of form in play, one of these teams will find enough consistency to contest the MLS Cup final on Nov. 18.
Chivas USA vs. Kansas City Wizards
Given the recent performances of both teams, and Chivas' injury bug, this series has more potential for an upset than one might think. While the Goats boast one of the best defenses in the league, their offense has looked out of sync over the past few weeks, and the loss of forward Ante Razov to a season-ending knee injury is a potentially devastating blow.
The issue is whether Kansas City has enough game to take advantage. The Wizards have plenty of firepower in attack, but their defense is suspect, ranking the lowest (along with New York) among all playoff teams. For the Wizards to have any hope of springing a surprise, they will need to find some defensive resilience.
Key matchup: Chivas USA defender Claudio Suarez vs. Kansas City forward Eddie Johnson
The Wizards' chances for success also rest on the form of Johnson, who tore up the league during the first half of the season, but scored only three goals in his last 13 games. Kansas City has other weapons, but if Johnson can recreate his early-season magic, the team's chances improve markedly.
The task for stopping Johnson will fall primarily to Suarez, who is short on foot speed but long on experience. If Suarez can summon enough guile to neutralize Johnson, then advantage Chivas.
Players to watch: For Chivas -- forward Maykel Galindo, midfielders Jesse Marsch and Sacha Kljestan. For Kansas City -- defenders Jimmy Conrad and Jose Burciaga Jr., midfielder Davy Arnaud.
With Razov out, the offensive burden falls squarely on Galindo, who has been coping with an abdominal injury, but should still be able to trouble the Wizards' defense with his pace. Marsch is the glue that keeps the team together, not only with his tackling, but also with his leadership. Kljestan enjoyed one of the quietest breakout seasons in memory, finishing tied for second in the league with 13 assists.
Conrad is the leader in the back for Kansas City, and he'll need to conjure up an improved defensive performance from his teammates. Burciaga is nominally a left back, but his marauding runs forward add a wrinkle to the Wizards' attack. The versatile Arnaud does a lot of dirty work, but has also chipped in with a team-high nine assists.
X factors: Chivas midfielder Francisco Mendoza and Kansas City forward Scott Sealy.
Mendoza provides some left-sided balance to the Chivas midfield, and gives the Goats another speed option besides Galindo. Sealy endured an injury-plagued season, but scored twice in last week's victory over Dallas, and his return to form could take some pressure off Johnson.
Given the defensive strength shown by Chivas this year, expect the Goats to prevail, especially if an attacking threat besides Galindo emerges. The Wizards will provide a good test, but not enough to make their first playoff appearance in three years a memorable one. Chivas will advance.
Houston vs. F.C. Dallas
Based purely on this season's results between the two teams, this series has a Houston win written all over it. But the aftermath of the Sept. 30 fracas between the Dynamo's Ricardo Clark and Dallas' Carlos Ruiz, in which Clark kicked Ruiz while the latter was on the ground, has only added to the intensity that already existed between the in-state rivals.
The biggest challenge for Dallas will be finding its defense, which went missing almost the entire year. Houston's up-and-down attack may provide the tonic for Dallas' defensive woes, although Houston found enough offense to go 3-0-1 against the Hoops this season.
Key matchup: Dallas forward Carlos Ruiz vs. Houston defender Eddie Robinson
With the Clark/Ruiz incident still fresh in everyone's mind, the longtime battle involving Ruiz and Robinson -- one that always operates just below the boiling point -- will take center stage and could decide the series. Ruiz's impressive playoff haul of 15 goals in 15 games demands attention, and it will be up to Robinson to keep Ruiz in check. Robinson has had disciplinary issues in the past, so staying on the field will be vital to Houston's hopes.
Players to watch: For Dallas -- midfielders Juan Toja and Adrian Serioux, forward Abe Thompson. For Houston -- midfielders Richard Mulrooney and Dwayne De Rosario, forward Brian Ching.
Toja's two-way game is one of Dallas' strengths, and with Clark suspended, the Colombian may find more room to maneuver. Serioux provides defensive steel regardless of where he lines up, and will be a key to slowing Houston's attack. Thompson's hold-up play is an underrated component of FCD's offense.
Mulrooney will be counted on to fill the holding midfield role in Clark's absence, and it's hoped his experience will compensate for the loss of Clark's range. De Rosario and Ching have each endured up-and-down seasons, but both remain focal points of the Dynamo's offense.
X factors: Dallas midfielder Arturo Alvarez and Houston midfielder Brian Mullan.
With his slashing runs from the flank, Alvarez has emerged as a viable attacking threat from either wing, and a matchup against Dynamo right back Craig Waibel favors Dallas. Ching feasts on service from out wide, and Mullan is one of his prime suppliers.
Dallas will be plenty motivated following the Clark/Ruiz encounter, but championship sides are built in the back, and the Hoops have been far too shaky defensively to emerge from this encounter. This is especially true given that Houston was the stingiest team in the league this season. The Dynamo should win.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.