MLS Cup Playoffs: Previewing the Conference finals

November 9th, 2013

imageAfter squeaking past New England, a date with the Dynamo beckons for Sporting KC (Images: USA Today)

The achievement of advancing to the MLS conference championship comes with a significant caveat: there isn’t any time to relish it.

MLS found itself bound by an awkwardly placed FIFA date in the middle of November when it compiled its playoff schedule. Those strictures – complete with potential international duties for for some players next weekend – forced the league to compress the schedule to play the second leg of the conference semifinals in midweek and the first leg of the conference championships at the weekend.

The rather peculiar nature of this tie – compressed time frame at the start, yet two weeks between the first leg and the second leg – could naturally prompt some caution by all four sides still involved. Three of these four sides enter this fray after playing 120 minutes just a few days ago. Houston, in particular, must figure out a way to manage its fifth match in two weeks against a Sporting side capable of exerting high pressure from the start.

At this stage, the fundamental objective involves keeping the tie in play after the first leg to benefit from the fortnight off to recover. Other priorities – including the key questions outlined below and the prospect of taking a commanding first leg lead – fall a bit lower in the pecking order with a MLS Cup berth on the line during the third weekend in November.

Houston – Sporting Kansas City (Saturday, 2:30p.m. ET)

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Is there a way for Sporting to exploit Corey Ashe’s absence?: Ashe received a one-match ban for caution accumulation when he picked up his second yellow card of the postseason at New York on Wednesday. His absence leaves Houston short on the left side (Mike Chabala offers the most likely replacement in a straight swap) and offers Sporting with a potential avenue to exploit. Sporting prefers to focus on its defensive duties away from home (and Ashe’s missing influence on the overlap with Brad Davis certainly helps here), but Ashe’s omission could entice some adjustments in Sporting’s midfield. Look for the industrious Graham Zusi to drift over to that side of the field to probe for space and use that channel to create room through the middle and provide service into the penalty area.

One other point worth noting with Ashe out: the onus will fall on Boniek Garcia and Kofi Sarkodie to bear most of the attacking burden on the right side. Garcia’s ability to tuck inside with Sarkodie on the overlap – plus Davis’ willingness to pinch on the far side when he does so – creates structural issues for Sporting defensively. If the Honduran international can locate the ball on a regular basis without suffering the inevitable foul in the middle third, then he could present significant problems for the normally resolute Sporting rearguard.

Real Salt Lake – Portland (Sunday, 9:00p.m. ET)

imageCan Robbie Findley pull apart the Timbers’ defensive shape?: Findley must fill the role once inhabited by former RSL forward Fabián Espíndola and use his time on the field to create operating room for others. Findley’s ability to dart behind the line and peel off into wider areas poses matchup problems for a Timbers side with a dearth of pace and tactical discipline in central defense and a desire to push its fullbacks forward to support the attack. Javier Morales will do his part by sliding out to the left to avoid Diego Chara and Will Johnson, but Findley must provide similar runs on the right to break apart the Timbers’ rearguard. It is then down to the supporting cast to deliver service into the penalty area with the Timbers stretched and Álvaro Saborío (if recovered from the hip flexor knock aggravated on Thursday night) or a midfield runner or two (see: Sebastián Velásquez’s opener against LA Galaxy) to benefit from the chaos created.

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