MLS Cup Playoffs preview: Sounders favorites; Galaxy, RSL dead even ahead of Western Conference second legs

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While the Eastern Conference’s 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs semifinals second leg matchups feature decidedly less intrigue, the Western Conference has everything up for grabs heading into the weekend after a pair of first-leg draws.

Little or nothing separates the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake (Sunday, 7:30 pm ET) after a 0-0 draw in the first leg, while the Seattle Sounders hope to put their all important away goal to good use in Monday’s conference semifinals finale against FC Dallas (Watch live on NBCSN at 10:30 pm ET and online via Live Extra).

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LA Galaxy 0-0 Real Salt Lake

These two teams have been here before, with one another no less, and they both know how to win in the playoffs. The pedigree in this conference semifinals matchup is vast — RSL were runners-up in the playoffs just last year, while the Galaxy lifted the Cup in 2011 and 2012. Trouble is, only one will still be alive come Sunday night.

Key matchup: Robbie Keane/Landon Donovan vs. Kyle Beckerman — No player in MLS is more schooled than Beckerman in the art of killing counter-attacks by committing cheap fouls and not picking up a yellow card. Against the Galaxy, who do the brunt of their work on the counter thanks to the pace of Donovan and Gyasi Zardes and exemplary through-ball service from Keane, Beckerman will be breaking up Galaxy run-outs all night long.

If the rest of the diamond midfield doesn’t pinch in and drop to help out — the RSL midfield always does — the World Cup star will be simply overrun and unable to cope. Keane’s ability to drop into the midfield — Beckerman’s territory — and find runners as Donovan and Zardes pull defenders all over the place is option No. 2 for the Galaxy.

Prediction: Extra time. Penalties, perhaps. Both teams understand that defense wins in the playoffs, and in leg one, they played like it. Not much will change from that in the second leg, except the roles will be reversed. RSL’s midfield and defense is more than enough to stifle the Galaxy’s potent attack for 90 — or 120 — minutes. Galaxy advance, by the slimmest of margins.

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Seattle Sounders 1-1 FC Dallas

While the No. 1 vs. No. 4 series finished even on the scoreboard, the 1-1 score heavily favors the top-seeded Sounders thanks to MLS’s new away-goals rule, which was implemented for the first time this year. FCD have plenty of work to do in the second leg — namely, not conceding a goal and scoring one of their own.

Key matchup: DeAndre Yedlin/Lamar Neagle vs. Moises Hernandez/FCD’s left-sided midfielder — The Sounders’ attack is simple: Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins need service, just like any quality attacking player in the world. Their best service comes from the right side when Yedlin overlaps and overloads the opposing left back.

And it gets worse for Hernandez when Marco Pappa switches wings with Neagle. At that point, Pappa tucks inside and Hernandez has a choice to make: respect Pappa’s fantastic left foot, or stay in front of Yedlin all the way out on the sideline. Tesho Akindele and/or Andres Escobar have to provide help, or golf season comes early for FCD.

Prediction: Only the Galaxy scored more goals (69) than the Sounders (65) during the regular season, which included six in three games against FCD, and we see more of the same on Monday. Sounders stretch the field too much for FCD to handle, giving Dempsey, Martins, Pappa and Neagle far too much space to operate. Sounders advance, comfortably.