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MLS playoff preview

Firepower aplenty in 1st-round clash

Chicago-D.C. is marquee matchup

Major League Soccer could be on the way to finding a successful playoff format. The lack of playoff tradition in soccer, plus a lack of lead-up time to promote games, contributed to uneven success in the league's first 11 years.

This time, the playoffs will start with a Chicago-D.C. United series, a strong rivalry that features the Fire's Cuauhtemoc Blanco, an icon of Mexican soccer, and the team with the best record in the league. Extra promotion will come from ESPN2's Thursday night broadcast of the match at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill., and the second leg the following Thursday at RFK Stadium.

Though Chicago will be an underdog - the Fire clinched a playoff berth in the final game of the season Sunday - the presence of Blanco will make it a center of attention for soccer in North America for the next week-plus.

D.C. United was the league's dominant team for most of the season and could have home-field advantage through to the MLS Cup, scheduled at RFK Stadium Nov. 18. But the Houston Dynamo should be favored to repeat as champions. The Dynamo have improved since defeating the Revolution on penalty kicks in last year's MLS Cup and won two of three matches against D.C. United (one regular-season win, one SuperLiga win) this season.

Chivas USA, which edged the Dynamo for first place in the Western Conference, and the Revolution could be playoff factors.

The playoffs are supposed to be a showcase for the league and, from a competitive standpoint, they could fulfill that purpose.

The first round will be a home-and-away aggregate goals series, the team with the better record playing Game 2 at home. Surviving teams with better records will host one-game conference championships. Ties will be decided by 30-minute extra time sessions, then penalty kicks.

The downside of these playoffs include two stadiums with artificial turf (Giants and Gillette), a stadium built for the NFL (Arrowhead), and the wrong Los Angeles team (Chivas USA instead of the David Beckham-led Galaxy).

D.C. United (16-7-7, 55 points) vs. Chicago Fire (10-10-10, 40)
Chicago has dominated this playoff series, with a 4-0-1 record and 10-0 goal differential. The last time D.C. won the Supporters Shield (MLS' best regular-season record) it was humbled by the Fire, 4-0, in the second game of the series.

Past playoff performances could be negated by United's revamped attack, led by MLS scoring leader Luciano Emilio.

United, which won the Supporters' Shield this season after an 0-3-1 start, has a chance to play three successive playoff games at home.

Emilio, a Brazilian who had an undistinguished stint in Germany and was discovered by United while playing in Honduras, has provided polished forward play. Emilio (20 goals) adds the finishing touch, with Jaime Moreno, Brazilian right winger Fred, and Christian Gomez setting up. Ben Olsen has had a strong season and Clyde Simms has developed into a threat in midfield. Former US national team defender Greg Vanney has upgraded the back line. United recently lost Joshua Gros (wrist), and Emilio and Moreno sustained mild ankle sprains in the final regular-season match, a 3-2 loss to Columbus.

The Fire has rallied around Blanco, going 6-2-6 since July 29. Blanco, named after the last Aztec emperor, provides inspiration and vision in the midfield. Blanco is supported by Colombian Wilman Conde, who is best at anchoring the defense, but moved into an attacking midfield role in a 1-0 win over Los Angeles in the final regular-season match. Chad Barrett (seven goals) and Chris Rolfe (six) have been the Fire's top scorers. Captain Chris Armas and left back Gonzalo Segares are key two-way players, and C.J. Brown has been a driving force on defense since playing for the Fire's 1998 MLS Cup winning team.
Prediction: D.C. United

Chivas USA (15-7-8, 53) vs. Kansas City Wizards (11-12-7, 40)
The teams split the season series, the Wizards winning, 3-2, in Kansas City July 29, and Chivas winning, 2-1, in Carson, Calif., Sept. 22.

Chivas went on an 11-game (7-0-4) unbeaten run after falling to the Wizards, overtaking Houston for first place in the Western Conference and holding on with a 0-0 tie with the Dynamo in the final game.

Preki succeeded Bob Bradley as Chivas coach, taking the team up a notch by emphasizing aggressive, physical defending away from home and a more open approach at home.

Chivas has abandoned the emphasis on Mexican players (the only Mexicans with key roles are Francisco Mendoza and Claudio Suarez) that marked the team's entrance in the league two years ago, going to Cuban Maykel Galindo (12 goals) and Ante Razov (11) for offense, and Sacha Kljestan, Jesse Marsch, and Paulo Nagamura to control the midfield. Suarez and Jamaican Shavar Thomas (Hotchkiss School, University of Connecticut) are strong in central defense.

Razov, who injured his left knee Oct. 16, is expected to miss the playoffs.

Physical teams with set piece threats can upset Chivas, which lost away to the Wizards, Houston (4-0), and to the Seattle Sounders (3-1) in the US Open Cup.

The Wizards edged into the playoffs with a final-game 2-0 win over FC Dallas on goals by Scott Sealy. Jimmy Conrad provides defensive security and leadership and Sasha Victorine and Kerry Zavagnin are dependable holding midfielders. Kansas City's playoff success could depend on Eddie Johnson (15 goals) and attacking midfielder Carlos Marinelli.
Prediction: Kansas City

Houston Dynamo (15-8-7, 52) vs. FC Dallas (13-12-5, 44)
The Dynamo closed the season with a 5-1-3 run that began Aug. 19 with a 1-0 victory over FC Dallas. Houston had a 3-0-1 record against Dallas this season, including a 3-0 victory in Frisco Sept. 30.

Houston coach Dominic Kinnear devised a winning formula in capturing the MLS Cup last year. The Dynamo emphasize ultra-strong defending, backed by goalkeeper Pat Onstad, and play for set pieces on the road, then unleash Dwayne De Rosario and Joseph Ngwenya at home. De Rosario's free kicks and the strength in the air of Brian Ching (seven goals) can be effective. Ryan Cochrane and Eddie Robinson key a hard-charging defense - they totaled 17 cautions (two ejections) and committed 125 fouls this season. Richard Mulrooney will be the key to holding the Dynamo midfield steady, since Ricardo Clark is suspended. Part-time starters Stuart Holden (five goals) and Nate Jaqua (six goals) are potential threats.

FC Dallas continues to solidify its identity as underachievers. Dallas has had excellent setup situations; the last two MLS Cups took place in its new Pizza Hut Park home. But the Hoops (nicknamed for the red horizontal stripes on their uniforms) were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, and also lost a US Open Cup final to the Revolution (3-2) at home earlier this month.

Dallas has been built around Carlos Ruiz (seven goals) and newcomer Denilson, who played in the 1998 and '02 World Cups for Brazil; but Abe Thompson (five goals) is providing greater production per minute and Colombian Juan Carlos Toja (six goals) adds midfield guidance. The key for Dallas could be forward Kenny Cooper, who played for Manchester United's youth teams and recently returned to action after missing 16 games with a knee injury. The Dallas defense has been undependable and Ray Burse recently replaced Dario Sala in goal.
Prediction: Houston

Revolution (14-8-8, 50) vs. New York Red Bulls (12-11-7, 43)
This will definitely be a turf battle, both games to be played on artificial surfaces lined and stained for NFL games. The synthetic stuff discourages attempts to play flowing soccer, so these are expected to be an aesthetically unpleasing encounters.

The Revolution have a 2-1-1 record (6-3 goal differential) against New York in the playoffs. Two years ago, New York won the opener, 1-0, and had a two-goal aggregate lead in the second half of the second game before the Revolution scored three times in 15 minutes.

The Revolution have gained experience since then, losing twice in the MLS Cup and winning the US Open Cup. But they faltered toward end of the regular season, going 2-3-2 in MLS play since Aug. 25, thrice surrendering deciding goals late in the game, including an 84th-minute tying score by Juan Pablo Angel in a 2-2 tie with the Red Bulls at Giants Stadium Sept. 22.

Angel (19 goals, 24 games) gives the Red Bulls a strong weapon for what is expected to be a lot of direct play in this series. Angel was clearly frustrated against the Revolution. He was red-carded in the closing minutes of a 1-0 home loss July 14, but recovered to score the tying goal in the teams' final regular-season meeting. Jozy Altidore (nine goals) and Clint Mathis (six goals) complement Angel. Right wing Dane Richards will be expected to duel with the Revolution's Khano Smith. Claudio Reyna, who missed nine games with injury this season, could be a key to the Red Bulls' fate.
Prediction: Revolution

Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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