The chase for the MLS Cup begins in earnest
The 14th Major League Soccer playoff season begins Thursday. Here's a quick look at each team's prospects for arrival Nov. 22 at Seattle's Qwest Field in the MLS Cup final.
Los Angeles Galaxy (West No. 1 seed, 48 points, +5 goal difference)
Why they might win it: Coach Bruce Arena's influence has created the league's most organized side. A tight and tidy midfield toils for David Beckham, who plays centrally but likes to roam right. He's found the sweet spot as a playmaker in MLS -- and having Landon Donovan as a slashing target doesn't hurt one bit.
Why they probably won't: The Galaxy stand a good chance of getting past Chivas USA in the first round and hosting the conference final. But how bruised and beat up will they be from the double SuperClasico exercise? All that lenient officiating and Chivas' physical ways easily could sideline a Galaxy starter or two due to injury or suspension, as it's sure to get heated.
X factor: Teams occasionally found ways to exploit the Galaxy's weak link, defensive speed. Gregg Berhalter is particularly vulnerable.
Houston Dynamo (West No. 2 seed, 48 points, +10 GD)
Why they might win it: No MLS side has played in more big matches over the past three years. Geoff Cameron's emergence as a center back force and Pat Onstad's ageless ways -- he's the league's oldest starter at age 41 -- mean things remain sound in the rear.
Why they probably won't: The Dynamo went a little dull around the edges sometime late in the summer in terms of form. Meanwhile, Dominic Kinnear's men were killing themselves with needless cards. The margin for error is drastically reduced now, and they probably can't survive further thoughtless indiscretion.
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Houston vs. Seattle
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X factor: Stuart Holden took the playmaking reins this year at Robertson Stadium from Dwayne De Rosario. He produced adequately throughout the year; now he'll have to find the next level when it really counts.
Seattle Sounders (West No. 3 seed, 47 points, +9 GD)
Why they might win it: You know when they say, "So-and-so is feeling it." Yeah, well, watch Freddie Ljungberg these days. Much of his season in the Emerald City was fodder for debate about DP-worthiness. He was good, but perhaps not a "DP Dandy." Lately, however, he's seriously kicked it up a notch.
Why they probably won't: Who could explain why a team with such offensive muscle was blanked in five of its last six home games? That's just wacky. And alarming. Meanwhile, holding midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, such a force early this year, just hasn't been the same since a midseason injury.
X factor: Livewire rookie winger Steve Zakuani gives serious beat-downs to opposition fullbacks. But he's young, which means he's inconsistent. If Zakuani can dig up his best, this expansion team's compelling tale might live a little longer still.
Chivas USA (West No. 4 seed, 45 points, +3 GD)
Why they might win it: Preki's team long has done the most with the least. It grinds out results like no other MLS club this side of New England. It's rarely pretty, but Sacha Kljestan has the capacity, at least, to produce something special.
Why they probably won't: Anybody remember when the Goats were 8-2-3, sitting pretty and ruling the West? (Even if there was some suspicion that it was smoke and mirrors even then.) Well, Preki's team is 5-9-3 since then, scoring at a drip rate and only occasionally wearing the look of a championship-caliber side.
X factor: Zach Thornton was the MLS version of "The Biggest Loser," channeling enough of the skinny man inside to resurrect his career at age 36. He really was something else this year, and he'll need to be truly sensational for Chivas USA to advance.
Columbus Crew (East No. 1 seed, 49 points, +11 GD)
Why they might win it: Can Guillermo Barros Schelotto really be 36? Well, you can't tell it -- not by the way he's hopping around Crew Stadium at the moment. Otherwise, the Crew have all the boxes checked, with quality all over the field, the league's deepest bench and confidence to spare.
Why they probably won't: Chad Marshall's slow recovery is concerning. Manager Robert Warzycha surely would have liked to see the big center back -- the league's best defender? -- play in Sunday's regular-season finale. Understudy center back Andy Iro will do something silly once a match. Suffice to say, he's no Chad Marshall.
X factor: Emmanuel Ekpo is young, doesn't always pay enough attention to defense and, strangely, still hasn't built the requisite stamina. Regardless, his big, bold attacks can turn a match.
Chicago Fire (East No. 2 seed, 45 points, +5 GD)
Why they might win it: The men of Toyota Park have two things going for them: First, they face New England right away, and historical edges lean toward Chicago. Second, Cuauhtemoc Blanco is still a difference-maker when healthy. Plus, they are better on the road than at home. Why? Who knows? But a potential conference final at Columbus won't be intimidating.
Why they probably won't: Things went kind of "blah" around Bridgeview after the All-Star break, as suggestions of "underachievement" were supported by a meek 4-4-4 record. Too many injuries have depleted the back line's former effectiveness.
X factor: Blanco's tenuous health is the key. When he's in, Chicago has a decent offense and above-average counter-attack. When he's not, the whole thing is reduced to a sorry succession of aimless long balls from the back. It's really hard on the eyes.
New England Revolution (East No. 3 seed, 42 points, minus-4 GD)
Why they might win it: Revs manager Steve Nicol picks players, first and foremost, based on stores of desire. So, loaded with stubborn types who abhor losing and backed by the indomitable Shalrie Joseph, the Revs always have a chance.
Why they probably won't: This injury-depleted side is in the playoffs due to sheer will. But seriously, who's gonna score a goal? Joseph could get forward to bundle one in, perhaps. At the other end, Matt Reis hasn't had his best year, and that young back line will face pressure unknown previously. Emmanuel Osei is particularly mistake prone.
X factor: Nicol knows how to win playoff matches. But even if they don't go any further, the Revs' Round 32 win rescued us from seeing Colorado in the field; the Rapids nearly made it despite not winning one of their last seven matches.
Real Salt Lake (East No. 4 seed*, 40 points, +8 GD)
Why they might win it: The back line and midfield are as balanced and talented as any in MLS. Kyle Beckerman's drive and Javier Morales' creativity can make a lot of good things happen.
Why they probably won't: The finishing was sharper than usual in a season-ending 3-0 win over Colorado. But there's no reason to believe the imprecision and inaccuracy near goal -- the biggest reason RSL was still fighting desperately for its spot on Match Day 32 -- will magically improve over a longer period around Rio Tinto.
X factor: Jamison Olave can be a central defensive force -- but he's prone to boneheaded mistakes and lapses of concentration. Chances improve significantly if he can keep it together.
* Real Salt Lake is a Western Conference team but is seeded in the East for playoff purposes.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.