MLS Features: 2013 playoff predictions: Semifinal round
By Brian Wright, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - We're back for the next installment of TSN's Major League Soccer playoff predictions.
After an outstanding pair of knockout round games which saw Seattle Sounders FC dispatch the Colorado Rapids and Houston handle Montreal, it's time to see which teams will advance to the conference finals.
Conference semifinals are a bit deeper than a simple one-off knockout game. In this round of the postseason, the teams will play a two-legged series and the team that scores the most goals moves on.
Let's get to it.
(1) Portland Timbers vs. (4) Seattle Sounders FC
The Portland Timbers had a remarkable season under first-year head coach Caleb Porter, who made the jump from the college ranks at Akron to MLS.
Under Porter's leadership, young talisman Darlington Nagbe flourished and the ownership gave Porter the means to surround Nagbe with a fantastic supporting cast.
One of Porter's most shrewd signings was picking up Argentine playmaker Diego Valeri, who drove the Timbers attack from the middle of the park all season and finished the year with a league-best 13 assists.
The club also had a stout backline which finished the season with a plus-21 goal difference and was anchored by goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. After arriving in Portland via trade from Montreal, the 36-year-old Ricketts had an outstanding season with 14 clean sheets.
Porter also instilled in his team a grittiness to continue to get results from difficult positions as the club lost just five times all season. Following a 4-2 loss to Real Salt Lake on Aug. 30, Portland closed the regular season on an eight-match unbeaten streak which culminated in a 5-0 thrashing of Chivas USA on the final weekend of the season.
The Timbers are solid all the way through their squad and earned the top seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Seattle comes into the semifinals having exorcised some late-season demons after beating Colorado by a 2-0 score at CenturyLink Field on Wednesday.
The Sounders took it to Colorado for almost the entire first half and were rewarded with Brad Evans' 28th minute goal. Things got dicey late on when goalkeeper Michael Gspurning was sent off three minutes from time, but Eddie Johnson put the result away with a goal in stoppage time.
Seattle's forward corps of Johnson, Clint Dempsey and Lamar Neagle have a slight edge over Portland, but the Timbers have the advantage in midfield with Valeri and in the back, especially with Ricketts in goal.
It's always an event when these two Cascadia rivals clash, and it's sure to be an even bigger spectacle in the postseason.
PORTLAND 3, SEATTLE 2 (AGGREGATE SCORE)
(2) Real Salt Lake vs. (3) Los Angeles Galaxy
Much like Portland, Real Salt Lake had an outstanding regular season, leading the race for the Supporters' Shield for much of the season despite losing franchise pieces Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave.
RSL filled those voids with youngsters in Devon Sandoval, Yordany Alvarez, Olmes Garcia and U.S. Under-20 international Luis Gil and the club didn't skip a beat. Most of the credit for that goes to head coach Jason Kreis, who had his team in position to get a result in just about every match this season.
Despite losing to D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup final on Oct. 1, RSL begins its playoff journey in fine form, closing the regular season on a three-match unbeaten run.
Los Angeles, which has captured the past two MLS Cups, has had its ups and downs this season, but the team begins its quest for a third straight title in decent form after closing the regular season with a 1-1 draw against Seattle and following it up with a 5-0 pasting of Chivas USA the next week.
Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane are almost unstoppable when they are on the field together and the club has a solid backline with U.S. international Omar Gonzalez in the middle and goalkeeper Jaime Penedo between the sticks.
Donovan and Keane are probably the best attack pairing in the league, which gives the Galaxy the edge up top, but with playmaker Javier Morales playing at the top of the diamond and Kyle Beckerman in the holding role, RSL has the edge in the middle of the park.
RSL's back four of Nat Borchers, Tony Beltran, Chris Wingert and Chris Schuler plays extremely well as a unit, while LA's defense has had some ups and downs but can match RSL man for man, especially with Gonzalez's ability to win headers and influence the game on set-pieces.
Penedo and RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando are just about even, but Rimando is a top goalkeeper in the league, while Penedo is approaching that level.
Both teams are outstanding on home soil and it may come down to whether or not RSL can stop Keane and Donovan.
LOS ANGELES 2, REAL SALT LAKE 1 (AGGREGATE SCORE)
(1) Red Bull New York vs. (4) Houston Dynamo
For all their high-priced talent, Red Bull New York finally lived up to all its potential and won the Supporters' Shield for the first time in club history after a 5-2 thrashing of the Chicago Fire last Sunday.
New York started the season slowly, but rookie head coach Mike Petke got everyone on the same page and they began to pick up steam in April as a 4-1 rout of New England on April 20 ignited a seven-game unbeaten run.
They stumbled a bit during the summer, but closed the season with an impressive eight-match unbeaten streak to claim the club's first-ever trophy.
With Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill up top, New York boasts one of the most feared strike partnerships in the league, while Dax McCarty has had an outstanding campaign in the middle and Jamison Olave anchored a stout backline.
Houston will face New York after easing past the Montreal Impact, 3-0, in Thursday's knockout round game. Will Bruin broke out of a scoring slump to record a brace and Boniek Garcia added a third goal.
New York has an edge at every position, with the exception of goalkeeper as Houston's Tally Hall is superior to Luis Robles, but judging by the regular season meetings between the clubs, New York has simply owned Houston.
The clubs played three times this season with New York dominating, earning 2-0, 3-0, and 4-1 victories, two of which came at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Houston has the veteran corps to put all the regular-season struggles against New York in the past, but the Red Bulls simply have too much talent not to advance.
NEW YORK 3, HOUSTON 1 (AGGREGATE SCORE)
(2) Sporting Kansas City vs. (3) New England Revolution
After an extended absence from the postseason, New England finally makes its return for the first time since the 2009 campaign, and the team is young and hungry to prove it belongs.
The Revs started poorly this season, getting off to a 1-3-2 start, but Jay Heaps' club began putting together victories through their stout defense, led by Jose Goncalves and Rookie of the Year candidate Andrew Farrell. The backline finished the season with a plus-11 goal difference. Only two clubs in the East, New York and Kansas City, had a better goal differential this season.
In addition to their standout defenders, Jay Heaps' club is powered by a handful of young, exciting attacking players in homegrown forward Diego Fagundez, Juan Agudelo and midfielder Kelyn Rowe.
Fagundez led the team with 13 goals, while Rowe finished the season with an impressive seven goals and eight assists.
Heaps' young bunch plays an attractive offensive style which makes them easy to watch, but they will have their hands full with a veteran-savy Sporting Kansas City side.
After winning the East regular-season crown each of the past two seasons, Sporting finished second behind New York this time around, but Peter Vermes' club is determined to win MLS Cup for the first time since 2000.
Sporting boasts an outstanding forward corps with C.J Sapong, Claudio Bieler, Teal Bunbury and Dom Dwyer, while U.S. international Graham Zusi pulls the strings in the middle of the park, while at the back, the central defense pairing of Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin may be the best duo in the league.
The teams are fairly even in attack, with Zusi giving Sporting the edge in the middle of the park and Besler and Collin's presence along the backline making the club a bit better there as well. In goal, New England's Matt Reis and Sporting's Jimmy Nielsen are about even.
The teams met twice during the regular season, battling to a scoreless draw at Gillette Stadium in March, and Sporting won the return match 3-0 at Sporting Park in August.
This is sure to be a close affair with both sides having excellent defenses. The difference may come in a moment of brilliance on the attacking end.
SPORTING KANSAS CITY 1, NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION 0 (AGGREGATE SCORE)
11/01 12:37:39 ET