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MLS playoff picks: 'Quakes could shake things up

By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor

MLS Features Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Red Bull New York was built to win the MLS Cup this year. You don't toss around millions of dollars to sign Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez just to capture the Eastern Conference regular-season crown.

But the last few months, especially since Henry and Marquez arrived to join up with Juan Pablo Angel, will mean little if the trio can't continue to win when it matters: in the playoffs.

The last two MLS Cup playoff tournaments have proven just how little influence the regular season has when it comes to determining finalists.

Just ask New York. Two years ago, the Red Bulls sneaked into the postseason as the lowest seed and advanced to the final, a 3-1 loss to the Columbus Crew.

Just ask Real Salt Lake, which was the eighth and final seed last year and won the MLS Cup title. When half the league makes the playoffs, anything can - and will - happen.

Chris Wondolowski
Chris Wondolowski went from a complete unknown to top scorer in MLS.
So New York, the top seed in the East, can't overlook the San Jose Earthquakes in the conference semifinals. Even if San Jose, the eighth and final seed, is supposed to be a speed bump for the free-spending Red Bulls.

New York advanced through the Western bracket two seasons ago, an advantage since that half of the league was inferior to the East. By finishing fifth but still making the playoffs, N.Y. moved into the Western playoffs and thrived.

RSL took the same path last year, going from fifth seed in the West to Eastern champion. Don't be shocked if that trend continues this year, as both San Jose and Colorado qualified from the West, but will compete in the East bracket.

New York has an edge in talent on San Jose, no disputing that. But San Jose is capable of beating the Red Bulls, as a pre-Henry/Marquez 4-0 win at Buck Shaw Stadium on May 8 proves. Even if N.Y. also played a man down for 77 minutes.

"You can't get away now with some mistakes," New York coach Hans Backe said.

And San Jose was better during the year than New York was two seasons ago and Real was last season. New York and Real qualified with records below .500. San Jose won 13 games, and earned seven draws. Although we're sticking to the fact that the regular season means nothing, San Jose was a little more impressive.

"I don't think it really matters who you play in the playoffs," New York's Tim Ream said. "Any team can beat any other team in any given day in this league."

True, even D.C. United won six games - including at playoff teams Colorado and Seattle - this season.

San Jose features the Golden Boot winner in Chris Wondolowski, who went from a complete unknown to top scorer in MLS, and overlooked Bobby Convey and his 10 assists.

Wondolowski scored against N.Y earlier this year and bagged nine match-winning goals. When he scores, S.J. is 9-2-2. Defensively, the Earthquakes are just as solid as New York, posting the same amount of shutouts with 13.

If San Jose can win the first leg of the two-game series Saturday at Buck Shaw Stadium - where it is 11-2-2 all-time against New York - it would be in a good position to eliminate the Red Bulls in the second leg at Red Bull Arena.

However, if the teams' second meeting on Aug. 28 is any indication of how this series will go - New York won 2-0 on goals from Dane Richards and Henry - then the Earthquakes' first trip to the playoffs since rejoining the league in 2008 won't last long.

But we're still not saying the trend mentioned earlier - when a squad switched conferences and advanced to the final - won't continue when the MLS Cup final is played Nov. 21 at BMO Field in Toronto.

Following are MLS Cup playoffs predictions:

EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS

Red Bull New York vs. San Jose Earthquakes


Henry is dealing with a knee injury, but the emergence of Richards (five goals and three assists) and the always steady Angel (13 goals and four assists) are more than enough to lead New York past San Jose. The Earthquakes need a win at home to have any hope and only then can they dream of adding to their previous MLS Cup championships in 2001 and 2003.

Winner: New York.

Columbus Crew vs. Colorado Rapids

Columbus led the East for almost the entire season and over the last few years this club has been a consistent winner (under both former boss Sigi Schmid and current manager Robert Warzycha). But this team just doesn't scare you. Rapids duo Omar Cummings and Conor Casey (combined 27 goals) are tough to contain and Columbus lost starting GK Will Hesmer to injury in the regular-season finale.

Winner: Colorado.

WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS

Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Seattle Sounders FC


L.A. struggled down the stretch (7-6-2 in last 15), but had little to play for late in the year. The visit to Qwest Field won't be easy for David Beckham and gang, but L.A. won 4-0 at Seattle in May in front of 36,273. L.A. also won the other match, 3-1, at home on July 4. However, that was the end of the Freddie Ljungberg era in Seattle and Sounders FC is 10-2-3 since in its last 15.

Winner: Los Angeles.

Real Salt Lake vs. FC Dallas

Real won't lose at home and neither will FC Dallas. So, going into the series, each club knows winning at home by one goal will likely not be enough. RSL was the lone unbeaten at home during the regular season and beat Dallas, 2-0, late in the regular season at Rio Tinto Stadium to halt the Hoops' 19-game unbeaten run. RSL has one loss in its last 25 - at FCD on July 17, 2-0. PKs anyone?

Winner: Real Salt Lake.

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Colorado over New York.

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Real Salt Lake over Los Angeles.

MLS CUP FINAL: Real Salt Lake over Colorado.

Comments? Criticism? Applause?
Contact Brian Westfall at bwestfall@sportsnetwork.com.

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