The 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs kick off tonight in Chicago as the Fire host the Houston Dynamo in the first knockout round game. Yesterday I previewed each conference for the first two rounds but today I am going to give predictions for the whole kitten-baboodle.
MLS has gone through another makeover of their playoff system this year and have changed the dynamics of how it will play out.
First of all, the home field advantage for the highest seed in the MLS Cup is a huge deal. Either it be San Jose getting to possibly play in tiny little Buck Shaw Stadium, Sporting KC hosting their second final this year at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park (they had the USOC final there too), or even Seattle getting the game at CenturyLink. This addition has made the regular season matter.
But in doing so the league also added a new wrinkle to the conference finals. It didn’t don on me until Monday of this week that the league added a second leg to the conference finals. In years past it was a one-off kind of game where home field really mattered. Now we’ll see two games to decide each conference. That is huge for some teams and probably not great news for others.
Overall the playoff chances are good. No more crazy cross overs like we’ve seen in years past. No more half-empty neutral site MLS Cups like we saw in Toronto back in 2010.The sense of urgency will be there for all 10 teams which will make it great.
Naturally my predictions are sure to go very wrong here, as they typically do during the season. I’ll get some games right and very wrong. Normally I would keep my preseason predictions intact but seeing how I only six of the 10 playoff teams correct, I’m not feeling too confident to keep those predictions going here.
Eastern Conference Knockout Round
Houston Dynamo at Chicago Fire - I don’t think you can say either team backed into the playoffs but neither really wanted to be in this game. Chicago had more to lose last weekend with their game against D.C. United as they fell to this match. Now they must face a solid Dynamo team that has been there before. I see this being a nice back and forth game that could be decided late. Chicago tends to throw in a stinker of a game every now and then but I think they come up for this one and win in front of their home fans.
WVH Prediction: Chicago 2, Houston 1
Western Conference Knockout Round
Vancouver Whitecaps at LA Galaxy: Naturally we know that Vancouver backed into the playoffs and are easily the worst team in the post season. Anything can happen in these games and LA could be over looking Vancouver for a date with rivals San Jose. Count on a feisty game at the start but expect the veterans of this LA squad to step up when it matters most.
WVH Prediction: LA 3, Vancouver 1
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Sporting KC vs. Chicago Fire - KC knows what they must do in this series. Hold on in the Windy City and possible take back a slim lead to KC for the second leg. They know how to get by the Fire here and this will be a good defensive series. Speed will be the decider and both teams have it but the edge has to go to KC who are the fitter team for a series like this.
WVH Prediction: SKC 3, Chicago 1 (on aggregate)
D.C. United vs. New York Red Bulls - The Atlantic Cup in the playoffs has the potential to be a really good series. This is one that could easily go either way. United has done well without Dwayne De Rosario lately and will want to take it to New York as much as they can. This could easily be one of the most open series in the playoffs with more goals than any other. New York has the edge there if that is the case but I like the heart and ability to play through adversity from United more.
WVH Prediction: United 4, Red Bulls 3 (on aggregate)
Western Conference Semifinals
San Jose Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy - The California Classico. I love the idea of this series and how much of a slugfest it will be. I keep saying that San Jose, despite how good of a season they’ve had, will be vulnerable in this series. Had they gotten Seattle or Salt Lake to open up the playoffs I would have felt differently about that. LA is probably the one team that has the ability to score at will on San Jose too. Throw in the experience factor from LA and San Jose could struggle. I think the game at Buck Shaw will decide this one for sure but don’t sleep on LA to do enough.
WVH Prediction: LA 3, San Jose 2 (on aggregate)
Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle Sounders - If there is one series that will be decided on penalty kicks, I think it is this one. Both have strong defenses and both have some determination to get back into the CCL next year. Interestingly enough both teams know how to win in the other’s building too. I think the game will be decided more in Seattle than it will in Salt Lake. If one goes up early, the other will likely struggle to get back in it. I think Seattle finally overcomes their playoff demons here and scores a gritty win.
WVH Prediction: Seattle 2, RSL 1 (on aggregate)
Eastern Conferences Finals
Sporting KC vs. D.C. United - The top two teams battle it out in the East. The two-legged conference finals add a big wrinkle to this series. United is very good at home and will give KC a big run for their money in this one. I think this series will come down to KC’s ability to frustrate teams for 90-plus minutes. United has been good down the stretch but momentum is everything in the playoffs and KC has more of it. I think also believe that United won’t be able to handle Graham Zusi in a two game series as well.
WVH Prediction: Sporting KC 2, United 0 (on aggregate)
Western Conference Finals
LA Galaxy vs. Seattle Sounders - Another LA-Seattle battle. The Sounders will be flying high off their first playoff series win but will have to get by on of the hottest teams in MLS in the Galaxy. I tend to lean towards defense which gives Seattle a slight edge in my mind going into this. But my gut tells me that experience matters most in these playoffs and that is why LA pulls it out here. Saying all of that, I expect a great series between these two.
WVH Prediction: LA 3, Seattle 1 (on aggregate)
Sporting KC vs. LA Galaxy – One for the ages as they would say. Defense against offense. The league would get a great showcase game here in their final if this happened. For one it would showcase one of the best venues in the league and after that it would have two of the better teams. I went with LA in my preseason predictions but I also had SKC as my Supporters’ Shield winner. I’m throwing all of that aside here and am going with the home field advantage in this one. SKC has had a special year and it will culminate with them winning the double (MLS Cup and USOC).
WVH Prediction: SKC 2, LA 1