Five writers, representing each of the five Western Conference playoff teams, answer five questions regarding the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs.
1. Which team has the best options off the bench?
Robert Jonas, San Jose Earthquakes: The San Jose Earthquakes roster was built with complementary parts at every position, and head coach Frank Yallop has drawn on the reservoir of talent to overcome injuries and suspensions to his starting line-up and to keep his team at or near the top of the Western Conference standings all season long. With the entire roster at his disposal for the playoffs, Yallop can stock his substitutes’ bench with starter-level quality players like Shea Salinas, Alan Gordon, Khari Stephenson, and Ike Opara. Depending on the game situation, he can ensure that the necessary reinforcements will be at hand to preserve a late lead or to pull off yet another come from behind result.
Matt Montgomery, Real Salt Lake: This certainly depends on the part of the pitch we're considering — in attack, it's hard to look past LA Galaxy for this one, even as they cope with injury concerns. In defense, Real Salt Lake reigns; in the midfield, it's probably safe to point toward Seattle.
Matt Gaschk, Seattle Sounders FC: This question will depend a lot on injuries. If Landon Donovan, David Beckham and AJ DeLaGarza are all unavailable for LA, that thins their bench a lot, but even if Beckham and Donovan can go, that frees up Edson Buddle and Mike Magee to come off the bench and makes them formidable. The idea of one of the trio of Camilo, Dane Richards and Kenny Miller off the bench for Vancouver gives them a really strong scoring option to change a game late. Real Salt Lake is facing some injuries as well and if Ned Grabavoy is available, the option of bringing him or Luis Gil off the bench is important, not to mention their possible center back issues. And while each of those three has some dangerous players outside of the starting XI, I think it comes down to San Jose and Seattle on this one. With Alan Gordon, Mehdi Ballouchy, Khari Stephenson, Ike Opara, Shea Salinas and Ramiro Corrales, the Earthquakes are loaded with starting-caliber players in their 18. As are the Sounders, who regularly started 7 defenders throughout the season and have newcomer Mario Martinez to join the attacking trio of David Estrada, Sammy Ochoa and the ever-threatening Steve Zakuani, along with other young options like Andy Rose and Alex Caskey.
Adam Serrano, LA Galaxy: While each and every team boasts a number of exciting options in reserve, the LA Galaxy boast a number of intriguing players off the bench, who could potentially turn the game at a time, when need be. If their regular season finale lineup is any indication, Bruce Arena may opt to use Mike Magee off the bench in a reserve role as a player to replace the likes of Christian Wilhelmsson or potentially Edson Buddle. Unlike many other talented reserve players around the conference, Magee has an established postseason pedigree, and a knack for scoring timely goals at important moments. However, LA is not the only team with a bench of note as the San Jose Earthquakes boast a talented reserve squad that is laden with players like Alan Gordon and Shea Salinas, among others, who have stepped up at countless times during the regular season as they helped San Jose earn the 2012 Supporters’ Shield.
Brandon Timko, Vancouver Whitecaps FC: This is a tough question. Strong arguments could be made for several of the Western Conference contenders, but I’m going to go with Real Salt Lake. They play so consistently as a team that it hardly seems to matter who’s on the field. Throughout the season we’ve seen players such as Johnny Steele, Sebastien Velasquez and Luis Gil all come off the bench and make an impact.
2. Who has to do the best coaching job to get to MLS Cup?
Robert Jonas, San Jose Earthquakes: Jason Kreis has done a fabulous job of resurrecting Real Salt Lake after a June to August run of 7 losses in 11 league matches and leading them to a second place finish in the West. His veteran crew of starters has logged a tremendous number of minutes together since being assembled a few seasons ago, but they seemed to lack a spark on the field of play during their summer swoon. The team is now moving in the right direction going into the playoffs; however, a disappointing end to their CONCACAF Champions League adventure last week could serve to halt the team’s confidence. Kreis will need to fire up his squad once again — never easy with a veteran group of players — if it is to make a long run in the MLS Cup playoffs.
Matt Montgomery, Real Salt Lake: Over in the Bay Area, Frank Yallop will be tasked with perhaps the most difficult coaching job — there's a huge amount of anticipation and belief around San Jose, but the squad has hardly touched the playoffs. Even the much-vaunted Chris Wondolowski has barely wet his feet in postseason action.
Matt Gaschk, Seattle Sounders FC: For me, this is down to Bruce Arena and Jason Kreis. Both are dealing with injury problems at the absolute worst time in the season and to players that are key to their club’s success. Without AJ DeLaGarza, LA will have to make up for it defensively and if Donovan is not available, they will have to do a lot of shuffling to get through five games to get to the MLS Cup final. As mentioned, Kreis is having center back issues as well with the recent injuries to Olave and Schuler. Their absence could leave a giant hole to fill for one of the league’s top managers.
Adam Serrano, LA Galaxy: The answer is clearly Rennie. Unlike every other Western Conference clubs, Rennie’s Vancouver Whitecaps FC does not boast a league-leading goal scorer or players with extensive MLS Cup Playoffs experience. Vancouver—which was remade in Rennie’s image numerous times this season—finished the regular season with just one win in their last 10 matches and only 11 wins overall, a smaller mark than two of the clubs that missed the postseason. For Vancouver to advance from the Knockout Round, the young coach must marshal his group of youngsters and veterans together, in hopes that the Whitecaps can make a Cinderella postseason run.
Brandon Timko, Vancouver Whitecaps FC: Sigi Schmid. The knee-jerk reaction would probably be Martin Rennie, but no one expects Vancouver to beat LA, so there really isn’t much pressure. Seattle, on the other hand, have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Getting that team over the mental hurdle of being eliminated in the first round each of the past three years will be the ultimate test for Sigi Schmid and the Sounders.
3. Who will be the unsung hero of the Western Conference playoffs?
Robert Jonas, San Jose Earthquakes: The Seattle Sounders enter the playoffs with uncertainty surrounding the availability of their breakout forward Eddie Johnson, so they likely will need strike partner Fredy Montero to shoulder much of the scoring load. Still, it will not be all up to the Colombian, as midfield maestro Mauro Rosales will be in support of the Seattle offense. Rosales, who had a near-MVP caliber 2011 season, had a statistically similar 2012 campaign, and the Argentine playmaker should make all the difference for a Sounders side that is looking to advance in the MLS Cup playoffs bracket for the first time in the franchise’s fourth attempt.
Matt Montgomery, Real Salt Lake: Obviously, it depends on how things move along — it's truly up for grabs, isn't it? It's not likely to be a Wondolowski or a Saborio, who, if their clubs succeed, would likely be on the end of goals. I'd wager it'll be some sort of midfield enforcer — a Kyle Beckerman or an Osvaldo Alonso, perhaps.
Matt Gaschk, Seattle Sounders FC: For all of the press for the scoring trio of Wondolowski, Gordon and Lenhart in San Jose, not much seems to be said of Marvin Chavez as the speedy Honduran has amassed 13 assists setting up all those Earthquake goals. Another to watch for is Juninho. The LA midfielder is a definite difference maker for the Galaxy. He’s a threat to shoot from just about anywhere on the field and he capitalized with seven goals and four assists this year. Finally, in Seattle, Jeff Parke has been the most consistent defender on the Western Conference’s best defensive team and if Seattle can keep their current defensive form, Parke will be a large factor in that.
Adam Serrano, LA Galaxy: Perhaps no player has fallen into the shuffle this season than San Jose’s fleet-footed midfielder Marvin Chavez. Service from the Honduran, who tallied 13 assists as well as two goals, was integral in Chris Wondolowski, Alan Gordon, and Steven Lenhart earning double-digital goal totals this season. One of the most dynamic wide players in all of MLS, Chavez’s ability to strike a ball provide San Jose with a great dimension than the physical play that has become their hallmark. Also deserving of recognition are the Galaxy’s “other” Brazilian midfielder Marcelo Sarvas, whose passing ability is considered by some around the league to be equal that of one of his more renown midfield partners and Seattle’s talented midfield playmaker Mauro Rosales.
Brandon Timko, Vancouver Whitecaps FC: Marvin Chavez. While most of the attention is drawn on San Jose’s three double-digit goalscorers, midfielder Marvin Chavez has very quietly had himself a fantastic season with three goals and 13 assists (good for third in the league). He may not get the headlines, but if San Jose make it out of the West, it will likely be in no small part to the play of their Honduran winger. Honorable mention goes to Galaxy midfielder Mike Magee – perhaps the most underrated player in the league.
4. What player is most important to his club’s success in this year’s MLS Cup Playoffs?
Robert Jonas, San Jose Earthquakes: At only 30 years of age, Landon Donovan already has a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments in MLS, but for the LA Galaxy captain, the MLS Cup playoffs are know time to rest on his laurels. Coming off a frustratingly uneven season, for himself and the team, Donovan will want to show that he can still be the leader of a championship team. Sure, the Galaxy are already a star-studded squad, but a healthy and motivated Donovan is crucial, as he provides a perfect complement to fellow forward Robbie Keane behind target man Edson Buddle. Donovan, after all, scored the winning goal in the Galaxy’s 2011 MLS Cup championship, and he’ll want to make sure he and his team are in a position to do it for a second successive year.
Matt Montgomery, Real Salt Lake: Wondolowski, by a country mile. He's been the man on the end of so much of what San Jose's produced, and if he's not at his best, San Jose is likely to struggle. But the same might be said about Alvaro Saborio or, perhaps, Eddie Johnson. Looking away from the goals, we might point toward Javier Morales at Real Salt Lake — when he's doing well, the team tends to do well.
Matt Gaschk, Seattle Sounders FC: Omar Gonzalez played just one half in the Galaxy’s first 21 matches and, not surprisingly, LA struggled defensively, allowing 34 goals while going 8-10-3. Since his return, they are 7-2-3 and have allowed 13 goals. The difference is clear and with DeLaGarza possibly out of action, the importance of Gonzalez will grow to new heights. LA has all of the tools to produce on offense and while many may point to his partner in the back line, Tommy Meyer, for me, Gonzalez will be the most influential in his team’s success.
Adam Serrano, LA Galaxy: Far and away, Omar Gonzalez is the most important player for any of the Western Conference postseason teams due to his impact for the LA Galaxy defense. Since Gonzalez made his return in July, the swagger seems to have returned to the Galaxy defense as LA has conceded just 13 goals since he returned after allowing 34 in his absence. But now with the postseason beginning and A.J. DeLaGarza still sidelined with an injury, Gonzalez’s impact will be seen in his role in leading LA’s rookie center back Tommy Meyer, who will need to step up in order to see LA repeat as MLS Cup Champions.
Brandon Timko, Vancouver Whitecaps FC: Robbie Keane. Landon Donovan and David Beckham have both returned from injury, but how they hold up throughout a potential playoff run remains a question mark. That puts a little bit more pressure on their Irish sniper. More often than not the ball ends up on the foot of Keane when the Galaxy go for goal, so he’ll need to be on top form if they have any chance of repeating.
5. Which Western Conference playoff team has the most dangerous attacking options?
Robert Jonas, San Jose Earthquakes: While it would be easy to choose the Earthquakes and their attacking trio of Steven Lenhart, Chris Wondolowski, and Alan Gordon — together they totaled 50 goals during the regular season — San Jose’s high powered offense benefits from their complete team effort to furiously attack on thewings and send countless crosses into the penalty area. However, in terms of overall attacking options, players that can create as well as finish scoring opportunities, the LA Galaxy have a headline grabbing selection of players to punish defenses. Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Edson Buddle, David Beckham, Christian Wilhemsson, and Juninho can each attack the area from any angle, and together they are capable of turning a game in the Galaxy’s favor within a single possession.
Matt Montgomery, Real Salt Lake: There's a bit of a toss-up element here: The obvious answer seems San Jose Earthquakes, who have hardly struggled for goals, especially with Chris Wondolowski coming into his own. But the depth at LA Galaxy can't be discounted — if Arena can get his squad fit, the likes of Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, David Beckham, Edson Buddle, Christian Wilhelmsson and Juninho could prove a dangerous set of players to cope with.
Matt Gaschk, Seattle Sounders FC: All five teams in the West have incredible attacking options and they all take different approaches to that attack. Statistics would tell you that San Jose has the best attack, but my vote goes to the LA Galaxy. When they are in form and healthy, it's hard to beat a group that includes Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Edson Buddle and Christian Wilhelmsson. Not to mention the deep threat of Juninho. San Jose may have Chris Wondolowski, but Donovan is the most lethal player in MLS and the Galaxy showed last year that they have what it takes to go all the way... before they added Buddle and Wilhelmsson to the mix.
Adam Serrano, LA Galaxy: Of the entire talented Western Conference MLS Cup Playoff field, it is impossible to ignore the San Jose Earthquakes’ attacking troika of Chris Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon. Together San Jose’s trio amassed 50 of the Earthquakes’ 72 goals this season—with Wondolowski setting the league standard with 27 while Gordon and Lenhart scored 13 and 10 respectively. The numbers would be impressive on their own, without taking into account San Jose’s knack for scoring late goals. But San Jose isn’t the only dangerous team from an offensive standpoint as all of the Western Conference teams boast numerous attacking weapons. One offense that may be flying under the radar this postseason is Real Salt Lake’s as their possession-oriented game seems to have taken a backseat in terms of attention compared to LA’s numerous attackers or Seattle’s impressive wide play.
Brandon Timko/Vancouver Whitecaps: LA Galaxy. There is no question that a healthy Galaxy squad has the best attacking talent in the league. Beyond their three Designated Players, LA are also blessed with the elite striking of Brazilian Juninho, the technical ability of Swede Christian Wilhelmsson, and now even the return of pure goalscorer Edson Buddle. True, San Jose led the league in scoring by a wide margin, but even so, there is not a more dangerous team than the Galaxy when everyone is available.