MLS Playoff Preview: Colorado Rapids at Seattle Sounders

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  • Seattle winless in seven ahead of Wednesday’s match.
  • Colorado won last meeting, 5-1 on October 5.
  • Winner meets Portland in Western Conference semifinals.

Speculation Seattle had won MLS Cup with the purchase of Clint Dempsey was rash, but with the Sounders closing their campaign winless in seven, those prognostications look downright foolhardy. History (particularly MLS’s) is littered with examples of teams overcoming financial disadvantages. Seattle’s purchases of Dempsey and Obafemi Martins have shown: There’s no guarantee talent alone can deliver an MLS title.

Colorado’s in a position to prove that point on Wednesday, when the meet at CenturyLink Field in the Western Conference’s winner-take-all opening round (10:30 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN). While not the most hamstrung team in the league, the Rapids just signed their first Designated Player this season (Panamanian international Gaby Torres). Compare that to Seattle, who have had nine (NINE!) Designated Players in their four-year history.1 Not all Designated Players are created equal, but in the case of Seattle and Colorado, the contrast helps illustrate the divide between an MLS have and an one of the league’s have nots.

To counter that, Colorado’s built with youth. They added Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown in this year’s draft. Chris Klute was purchased from NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks last year. Clint Irwin’s emerged after an injury to Matt Pickens, and Shane O’Neill has held down a place next to Drew Moor in central defense. All five, completing their first seasons as MLS regulars, helped the Rapids transcend their predicted also-ran status. Unexpectedly, the team kept a regular place in the West’s top five.

In that sense, Colorado may have already accomplished what they set out to do, but matched up against a Seattle squad they routed at the beginning of the month, the Rapids have a chance to do much more. Win at CenturyLink on Wednesday, and Colorado not only secures a 36th and 37th game of the season, they also make Malcolm Gladwell’s precepts come to life, becoming the MLS David that toppled the well-funded Goliath.

Given the problems they gave Seattle on Oct. 5 (the 5-1 shellacking at Dick’s Sporting Goods part), there’s not reason this David might be Wednesday’s Goliath. All of the Sounder problems that were exposed in Commerce may still exist. Seattle’s defense is still a collection of average (at best) defenders that rely on a strong midfield and good goalkeeping. If Michael Gspurning isn’t his 2012 self and the opposition finds a way around Osvaldo Alonso, the Sounders’ backs are sitting ducks. The Rapids proved it on the fifth, and three days later (before the midfield and goalkeeping improved), Vancouver reiterated the point.

It highlights the obvious. Seattle just needs to play better. They did so in Portland (losing 1-0). They did so on Sunday against LA. But when a home draw is all you can get from your month’s best performance, your team’s in big trouble.

If Seattle somehow finds their former selves before Wednesday’s kickoff, everything we learned on October 5 becomes irrelevant. The seven-match unbeaten run becomes extraneous, and the turmoil and speculation that’s accompanied this unexpected collapse is rendered moot. The focus shifts to Portland.

But given we have no idea what this team’s “former self” is, what’s Seattle trying to return to? An abstract idea we’ve inferred from their individual talents – something that’s never been allowed to come together on the field. Ahead of Wednesday’s winner-take-all, injuries, call ups, and suspensions have left us no proof Seattle can become that juggernaut, let alone reverse the momentum the Rapids carry from Colorado.

Either Seattle paints a new picture for themselves or starts their offseason a month earlier than expected. Who would have thought do-or-die would come this soon?

1- Those nine Designated Players: Dempsey, Martins, Mauro Rosales, Shalrie Joseph, Christian Tiffert, Fredy Montero, Alvaro Fernandez, Blaise Nkufo, Freddie Ljundberg.

MLS’s Western Conference playoff picture is set

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Even though all five of the West’s playoff teams were decided before Sunday’s games, matches in Seattle and Vancouver left some doubt. Even though the Timbers and Real Salt Lake had claimed the conference’s top two spots, nobody knew where the Galaxy, Sounders and Rapids would end up.

Yet despite eventful games at BC Place and CenturyLink, the teams finished as they started. LA will go straight into the conference semifinals after claiming the third seed, while the Sounders are set welcome Colorado to Seattle mid-week. That four-five match will decide who meets the conference champion Timbers in the West’s semifinals.

Colorado’s fate was sealed by Camilo Sanvezzo, whose hat trick claimed the Golden Boot and relegated the Rapids to the five-seed. While Colorado certainly didn’t want to end their season with a 3-0 loss, they can content themselves with a 35th game few predicted they’d see.

[MORE: Hat trick allow Camilo to claim the Golden Boot.]

In the regular season’s last game, Seattle needed a win to claim the West’s third spot, a result they were 12 minutes away from after Clint Dempsey’s first Sounders goal. But Robbie Keane’s volley off an attempted clearance kissed the turf before flying past Michael Gspurning, giving LA the result they needed (1-1) to skip this year’s four-five game.

[MORE: Seattle ends losing streak, but not without controversy.]

That leaves us with these postseason matchups:

Who: Seattle Sounders vs. Colorado Rapids
What: First Round (Four-Five game)
How: One-game, winner take all
When: Wednesday or Thursday

The teams split their three regular season meetings, leaving the series’ most dramatic result for last. Seattle won the season’s first match 1-0 in Colorado before the teams drew 1-1 at CenturyLink. On October 5, Colorado handed Seattle the loss that pushed them into this free fall, beating them 5-1 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Either Seattle avenges that loss or Colorado exploits the vulnerability they exposed.

Who: Real Salt Lake vs. LA Galaxy
What: Conference Semifinal
How: Two-legged series, RSL hosting game two
When: Saturday or Sunday; then Nov. 6 or 7

A huge matchup between teams that haven’t met since August. Los Angeles has won two of three meetings, outscoring RSL 7-5 along the way. With Jason Kreis likely to approach leg one looking to limit damage on the road, scores are unlikely to be that high. Still, this is an MLS Cup final-caliber matchup in the conference semifinal round – the cost of living life in the Western Conference.

Who: Portland Timbers vs. Seattle/Colorado
What: Conference Semifinal
How: Two-legged series, Portland hosting game two
When: Saturday or Sunday; then Nov. 6 or 7

A Portland-Seattle semifinal would produce the atmosphere MLS has tried to showcase since Pacific Northwest soccer came to the league.  That matchup would feature two teams who split their season series, Portland winning the last derby at JELD-WEN after taking one point from two games in Seattle. If Colorado comes through, the Timbers will meet a team who’s only taken one point from the teams’ three-game series.

Seattle Sounders will close the season with another huge crowd

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We’re still 10 days out from their season finale, and Seattle’s sold more than 64,000 tickets to their Oct. 27 match with the LA Galaxy. Not only is there a chance the game will break the Sounders’ attendance record, but they may not need Portland’s fans to do it.

That last bit’s important because the two largest crowds in Seattle’s history have been for Timbers games, the extra fans Portland brings north giving CenturyLink’s attendance a significant boost. The largest crowd for a non-Timbers home game was 64,140 against San Jose in 2011. For a Timbers game? Seattle drew 67,385 last August. With 10 days to get the word out, perhaps next week’s crowd can overtake that Portland number.

Seattle and Los Angeles have developed a minor rivalry, but next Sunday’s battle will be about the playoff implications. After last night’s win over Montréal, Los Angeles sits third in the West, with the Sounders’ three-game losing streak seeing the former Supporters’ Shield contenders slide to fourth.1 If the standings stay the same, next week’s match will decide which teamgoes into the four-five playoff, though both sides have a game to manage in the interim (Seattle visits Dallas this weekend; LA hosts San Jose).

Regardless, if you look at the numbers in Joshua Mayers’ post at The Seattle Times, you see that 64,000 appears to be a type of threshold. All the non-Timbers highs end up around that mark, while the current tickets sold number for the LA game is hovering at around the same level. Between the casual fans drawn to the rivalry and the army that drives north for the match, maybe there are 3,000 people who’ll go to a Seattle-Portland match who wouldn’t otherwise show up.

With so many tickets already sold for LA, Seattle has a chance to raise that bar, if not toss it aside entirely.

1 – Seattle can still win the Shield, but they’ll have to out-perform five teams to do so. The odds have suddenly become very long.

Late Cahill equalizer gives New York result in Seattle (Video)

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This a good result for both sides, once you zoom out and see in the big picture. For New York, playing without their two best players, this draw will only look better on closer examination. For Seattle, while a late equalizer leaves the feeling of points lost, they’re still in-control of their Supporters’ Shield fate, a position which would have been slightly more precarious had they contrived to lose on Sunday.

But with the 1-1 result, the Sounders remain one point behind East-leading New York in the Supporters’ Shield chase, and with two games in hand, the Western Conference co-leaders remain  favorites to claim their first regular season title. This weekend’s results did see Real Salt Lake pull even with them in the West, but still holding two games in hand on their Rocky Mountain foes, Seattle can only be so disappointed with the weekend’s results.

Against New York, Sigi Schmid’s team took the lead just before intermission, finally coming good on a slew of late-half chances when Brad Evans converted from the spot. But Seattle lost their edge in the second, allowing New York to hit the woodwork twice before Tim Cahill, lost in the left of the penalty area, buried a late equalizer. The right-footed curler inside Michael Gspurning’s far post gave Red Bull a well-earned point from a match few saw them winning.

That’s because Thierry Henry, with a chronic Achilles condition, was a no-go. Jamison Olave was scratched, too, his knee costing him the battle of conference leaders on Seattle’s FieldTurf surface. Though highly-debated during the week, the decision proved prescient as a unexpectedly heavy storm saw Sunday’s match played beneath a downpour. In those conditions, without their two best players, New York have to be happy with the point, even if they failed to deal a blow to Seattle.

For the Sounders, the result may be disappointing, but they didn’t lose any ground. Against a backline that had not played together before this season, the team may not be satisfied with a draw, but now seven unbeaten and with only one loss in their last 11, the Sounders continue to position themselves for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

‘Turf’ in the Pacific Northwest: The spectrum of MLS’s three Cascadia venues

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Thierry Henry isn’t going to play this weekend against Seattle. Jamison Olave’s hamstrings are likely to take a pass, too, but that’s no big surprise. While it’s easy to say this weekend’s is a huge game and Henry should suck it up, he’s never played in Seattle. And ultimately, this is just a regular season game. You can’t both have a playoff system and claim the regular season matches are huge. If Henry and his doctors are concerned certain chronic issues are more likely to flare up at CenturyLink, then he shouldn’t risk his health for a regular season match. It’s just one of 34.

Where this issue becomes particularly interesting is when you compare Seattle’s FieldTurf surface to that of their rivals. Portland brags about their turf, perhaps rightly so, as there’s an obvious difference between it and CenturyLink’s. Timbers owner Merritt Paulson enjoys telling the anecdote about how notorious turf critic David Beckham eventually conceded JELD-WEN’s surface is not bad; both he and Henry choose (chose) to play in Portland.

[MORE: Thierry Henry likely to miss New York’s big clash at Seattle.]

Contrast that with Vancouver, which may compete with New England as the league’s worst. But whereas the Revolution’s is FieldTurf struggles with issues distinct from other FieldTurf instances, BC Place uses LigaTurf, a product of the German company PolyTan. In previous posts, I’ve equated it to felt on a pool table, a distortion intended to convey how slick the surface is (and how hard the slab is underneath). No field in Major League Soccer sees balls roll or bounce as much as Vancouver’s, a potentially huge advantage based on familiarity alone.

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The Portland Timbers announced in May that JELD-WEN Field’s surface has received FIFA recommended 2-Star status for the third straight year, one of two fields in the U.S. to earn that distinction.

If you were to put them on a spectrum of worst to best (or, to use the Arena range, “disasters” to ‘whatever, I guess’), Vancouver would lie at the far left. You don’t have to go very far to hear complaints. Seattle’s is less criticized but still draws Henry-esque caution, while Portland’s main criticism’s along the lines of “well, it’s still turf.”

[MORE: Bruce Arena calls artificial turf “disasters”]

Across all venues, recovery time’s going to be an issue, a reason why you’ll see any number of veterans skip Cascadia calls (even in Portland). Late in the season, when players are worn down, it’s not worth the risk.

And the games obviously play different, as Mikael Silvestre found out when a high bounce on JELD-WEN’s surface saw him caught out in his MLS debut. And as anybody who even rolls a ball at B.C. Place finds out, games are going play much faster in Vancouver.

But not all turf is the same. Across Cascadia even, there are drastic, important differences – distinctions so pronounced, the blanket term “turf” has almost no value.