Eastern Conference Championship head-to-head preview

Assessing how Colorado and San Jose stack up at every position

Sam Cronin vs. Colorado 080710

Photo Credit: 
Doug Pensinger / Getty



Matt Pickens has good size, good hands, and a great beard. His GAA of 1.10 on the year was middling in a league where the 'keeper has become the king, but he’s nothing if not consistent, as the Rapids gave up more than two goals only twice all season and haven’t lost twice in a row since May.

GOALKEEPERS

Written off and waived at the start of the season, Jon Busch has rediscovered the form that earned him 2008’s MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award. His save percentage (81 percent) this year is actually higher than it was then, and as he showed against the New York Red Bulls, Busch is capable of keeping his team in any game.

Colorado are young, but athletic and flexible in the back. Needing a late goal in the first round to draw even with Columbus, Gary Smith didn’t hesitate to switch from his preferred 4-4-2 to a 3-4-3. Not only did they get the goal, but they held the Crew scoreless in extra time. If there’s a weak point, it’s inexperienced left back Anthony Wallace, who can be caught ball-watching and is prone to pushing into the attack too aggressively.

DEFENDERS

“Red Cross Casualties” might be a more fitting nickname than “Blue Collar Boys,” as Busch termed his team last weekend. Starting left back Ramiro Corrales isn’t expected to play. Central defender Jason Hernandez picked up a calf strain and is still hobbling and Ike Opara has been out since June. The Quakes have scrambled well all year, but if they don’t solve their left back issue, Omar Cummings could find space early and often.

The Rapids are the quintessential double-destroyer team. Jeff Larentowicz sits deep, protects the back line and ignites the counter. Pablo Mastroeni has full freedom to roam all over the field and try to force turnovers. Wingers Jamie Smith and Brian Mullan are veterans who love to play direct and aren’t afraid to mix it up.

MIDFIELDERS

San Jose’s midfield is the most unusual in the league. They bunch up on the left side in an effort to drag the defense out of position and free up right midfielder Chris Wondolowski, this year’s leading scorer, at the back post. With Bobby Convey – who’s playing with a fire to match his talent – doing the bulk of the playmaking, it’s been a successful gambit so far.

Conor Casey and Cummings are a perfectly complementary forward pair. Cummings likes to drift wide right and either cross or cut in on goal; Casey makes perfectly timed near-post runs, and throws his weight around on every challenge. Both are capable of creating opportunities for others, and both put away double-digit goals themselves.

FORWARDS

San Jose’s approach to forward play is dictated by the same scheme that informs their midfield play. Ryan Johnson, Geovanni and Eduardo all act primarily to pull defenders away from Wondolowski and rarely show up on the scoresheet themselves. It’s unorthodox, but New York fans can attest to how effective it is.

Smith had a reputation as a hard man in his playing days, but he’s actually gone to great lengths to infuse the Rapids with some style and panache to go along with their reputation for physical play. He’s also shown tactical flexibility and a willingness to make adjustments on-the-fly in order to better execute the gameplan.

COACH

Frank Yallop was the second coach in MLS history to win two MLS Cups, and it didn’t happen by accident. Yallop’s teams have always been disciplined and smart, and he’s a master at juggling lineups to make up for injuries, hide weak spots or maximize strengths. He also has a knack for getting the opponent to toss their own game plan and play into his team’s hands.

Smith has worked hard to give himself some real options off his bench. He frequently uses defenders Julien Baudet and Scott Palguta as lineup changers, freeing his midfield to push forward with a purpose. Offensively none of Wells Thompson, Macouba Kandji or Claudio Lopez have set the world on fire, but they all know their role (get the ball to Casey and Cummings!) and are happy doing it.

BENCH

Injuries have sapped much of Yallop’s defensive depth, but the Quakes have a quality attacking triumvirate to call on in Khari Stephenson, Arturo Alvarez and Eduardo. None is a clear-cut goal-scorer, but all put in an honest shift of trying to get the ball into the box for Wondolowski. Alvarez, in particular, is capable of individual brilliance that can turn a game on its head.
There’s too much here in favor of the Rapids. Casey and Cummings are a handful for any defense to stop, let alone a banged-up one. Add in the triple homefield advantage of altitude, weather (forecast says 30 degrees with a chance of snow) and MLS’s only Terrace, and it’d be close to shocking if Colorado didn’t advance to their first MLS Cup since 1997.

OVERALL

The Quakes have nothing to lose, and that makes them dangerous. They also have the league’s best goalscorer in Wondolowski and, in Convey, a guy who could take over the game at any time. What they lack, though – a healthy, experienced left back and lungs used to playing at 5,000 feet – is enough to make them prohibitive underdogs.

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