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With apologies to the LA SuperClasico series, there is perhaps no MLS playoff series this year more intriguing and more tough to call than the Houston Dynamo-Seattle Sounders series.
The two-time MLS Cup champion Dynamo take on the expansion Sounders in a young rivalry that showed plenty of promise during the season. You might look at the Sounders success vs. Houston in this year's series, including a 1-0-1 mark in league play and U.S. Open Cup victory, and think that Seattle holds an edge, but a closer look shows that the teams never truly met at full-strength. Houston was missing several players in both losses this year while the Sounders were without Montero for the 1-1 tie in Houston.
So what can we expect? We can expect Houston to be physical, we can expect Seattle to look to run the Dynamo ragged, and we can expect one of the better midfield battles in recent playoff history.
Here is a closer look at the series, which begins tonight in Seattle (10pm, ESPN2):
TOP MATCH-UPS TO WATCH
Ricardo Clark vs. Freddie Ljungberg. Ljungberg was one of Seattle's best players in the second half of the season and we should expect the Swedish start to step up his game at this time of the year. Clark is obviously one of the league's top defensive midfielders and has the athleticism and workrate to make Ljungberg every look he gets, but the way Ljungberg is playing these days Clark may need some help.
Fredy Montero vs. Geoff Cameron. As fun as it is to watch Cameron marauding from midfield, he is the only Dynamo defender athletic enough to contend with Montero's deadly bag of tricks. Some may not realize it, but Cameron and Montero never actually faced off this year, with Cameron missing two of the matches and Montero missing the third. As steady and intelligent as Bobby Boswell is, he can't keep up with Montero the way Cameron can, and Boswell should be able to do the job on Nate Jaqua.
Stuart Holden vs. Osvaldo Alonso. Holden is truly the key for Houston's chances of victory. He is facing a game, but tiring Alonso, whose game dropped off in the second half of the season (no doubt a product of him having not played a season this long before) and Holden has the skills and engine to run Alonso ragged.
Jhon Kennedy Hurtado vs. Brian Ching. The Dynamo attack will need Ching to step it up and his production in the second half of the season just didn't cut it. He had as many red cards (two) as he had goals in the second half of the MLS season and if he can't get back to the player who provided so much to the attack in the first half of the season, then Seattle will have a much easier time defending the Dynamo than most would have expected. Hurtado is a beast who will make sure to physically wear down Ching. Can Ching step up to the challenge?
Steve Zakuani and Luis Angel Landin. Yes, Landin is technically a Designated Player so he probably shouldn't be considered the X-factor for Houston, but he's the team's newest attacking player and the player who we haven't seen in the MLS playoffs before. Will he rise to the challenge and show off his pedigree? For Seattle, Zakuani's blazing speed is always a threat, but his finishing has been lacking. If he can keep his shots on target, while continuing to terrorize on the left flank, Houston is in for a long series.
This is a razor-thin series to call, and we can certainly see Houston doing what it needs to in order to contain Seattle's attack and score enough to win the series, but we will give the edge to the Sounders. Seattle has played better down the stretch, has more weapons in attack, and will have the opportunity to set the town at a packed Qwest Field in tonight's season opener. Houston's attack has been faltering (its regular-season finale notwithstanding) and the disappointment over its Champions League failure has to be dwelling. Ultimately, it is the issue of recent form that swings this series in the Sounders favor.
Perhaps just as interesting is what will come in game two if the Dynamo are trailing or tied in the series. Last year, Houston came back from New York with the series tied and promptly laid an egg in game two, losing an ugly 3-0 decision to the underdog Red Bulls. How much will that result weigh on the Dynamo's minds come game two?
We give the edge to the Sounders, in a 3-1 series aggregate, to advance to the Western Conference final.
What do you think of the series? Who do you see winning? Which match-up are you most looking forward to?
Share your thoughts below.