The race for the 2014 MLS Cup finals is well underway and with the Eastern and Western Conference finals now set in stone, there remains four very good teams left in contention for this season’s top prize.
The New York Red Bulls and the New England Revolution maintained their respective two goal leads and beat out D.C. United and the Columbus Crew respectively, earning a spot in the Eastern Conference final in the process. Meanwhile, in the West, two deadlocked matches were finally resolved after the LA Galaxy put five goals past Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders kept the away goal advantage over FC Dallas, setting up for perhaps the most anticipated matchup of the year thus far.
Let’s take a look at these final four teams and see who has what it takes to make it all the way to the finals:
Eastern Conference Finals: New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
When it comes down to it, the New York Red Bulls are good at many things, but great in one very important way: the team can score goals. Plenty of goals, in fact, off the foot of Bradley Wright-Phillips, who leads the league in the regular season with 27 goals and added another three in the playoffs so far. Of course, Wright-Phillips owes plenty to his teammate, French legend Thierry Henry, who supplies him with an assist on almost every goal.
This Henry-Wright-Phillips combination is New York’s best strength but also its greatest weakness in the upcoming series against the New England Revolution. Of particular note is the risk Henry is placed in when playing on artificial turf, something the Revs have at Gillette Stadium. The risk of injury will be on the mind of Red Bulls’ head coach Mike Petke, who might opt to sit his star performer for one of the two legs.
New York has the advantage of hosting the first game, though, so putting three or four goals past New England might allow Petke the luxury of not only keeping Henry off turf, but resting some of his key players ahead of the finals, too. Whatever happens, it seems like Henry is on a warpath in this, his final season in MLS, with one eye fixed firmly on the MLS Cup.
New England Revolution
Like New York, the Revolution has found success mostly through the work of one or two key players, supplemented by a core of very solid MLS level players. For the Revs, however, the battle is often won and lost at midfield rather than up top, where both Lee Nguyen and Jermaine Jones have ruled the roost.
Nguyen scored 18 goals this season from midfield while Jones has been an absolute wrecking ball since joining the Revs after the 2014 FIFA World Cup. This combination will need to be ticking for the Revolution to find success against New York, but if there’s one team that seems to have the legs to contain the Red Bulls, it is New England.
Statistically, the Revs and the Red Bulls put up similar numbers, too, so there’s not much differentiating the two teams in terms of total goals scored (51 New England, 55 New York) or assists (49 New England, 54 New York) so this series promises to be a very closely contended one.
Western Conference Final: LA Galaxy vs. Seattle Sounders
Los Angeles Galaxy
Gone may be the days of David Beckham but the LA Galaxy has not skipped a beat this season. Their successes – numerous as they have been for many years – sees the Galaxy challenge for a record fifth MLS Cup this season, and, should they be the winners at years’ end, the Galaxy will be the most storied team in MLS Cup history.
The team’s strength is in its offensive leaders; Landon Donovan’s retirement circuit has seen him push the team to the highest heights once more, but it is Irish forward Robbie Keane who continues to dominate the offensive end, scoring 19 goals and assisting on 14 this season. The Galaxy also boasts a strong and capable defensive line, with players like Omar Gonzalez and goalkeeper Jaime Penedo showing just how tough they are to break down throughout the regular season.
If those numbers aren’t enough, take a look at these: the Galaxy scored a combined 69 goals this season, the highest goal tally in the league; the team also recorded 75 assists, again, leading the league in this regard. There is no team that has shown more attacking acumen and chemistry than this LA Galaxy team, and Bruce Arena’s players are the clear favorites to take the MLS Cup title at the end of the year.
But if the Galaxy is to find success in 2014, the team will have to go up against the mighty Seattle Sounders, a side that plays a perfect Western Conference rival to Los Angeles. Seattle is the other powerhouse side, setting up the conference final in a sort of Tyson v. Holyfield matchup between the team teams.
Seattle has an abundance of attacking options, too. Between U.S. international Clint Dempsey and Nigerian forward Obafemi Martins, the Sounders boast two Designated Player strikers who can absolutely punish back lines on every sort of play. Whether it’s a slow build-up, a fast counterattack or a set piece, the Sounders have proven themselves as dangerous as any team in the league and it is this dynamism that makes them such a threat this season.
Of course, the Sounders also boast defensive prowess in spades, largely through the work of defensive midfielder Ozzy Alonso. Out wide, DeAndre Yedlin and Marco Pappa provide offensive coverage but Yedlin slots in at right fullback, providing defensive cover as well.
The only point of separation between the two is on form; the Sounders have managed just one goal in the playoffs so far while the Galaxy have netted five, but it’s not about how you get there, only that you do, and this series promises to be the most exciting match up of the 2014 season.