Matt Pentz: Ranking potential Sounders Knockout Round opponents

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Matt Pentz is an award-winning sports reporter who writes weekly columns on Sounders FC for Prost Amerika. Matt’s work also appears on the Guardian, ESPNFC, FourFourTwo and Yahoo

Sounders supporters would be wise to start girding themselves for the Knockout Round.

 

With two games remaining in the regular season, it remains mathematically possible to rein in either Vancouver or Kansas City and earn one of the two byes straight into the Western Conference semifinals. It’s possible, but unlikely – the Sounders could have at the very least made the ‘Caps and SKC sweat had they earned a point in Philadelphia on Sunday but were instead resoundingly defeated 2-0. With both the Whitecaps and Sporting holding games in hand over Seattle and Portland, the playoff bracket is starting to fill itself in. Those first two are likely to earn the byes, the Sounders and Timbers should at least host the elimination games and the rest of the chasing hoard will to claw their way in.

Seeding now broken into tiers – at least for the top four – it’s time to start looking at hypothetical matchups. Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer is adamant in his opposition to scoreboard watching. “Control the controllables” has become something close to his catchphrase. In whiffing on a golden opportunity to make a legitimate push for a top-two finish in Philly, though, the best he and his charges can hope for now is a kind draw.

Below, in descending order from kindest to most-dreaded, are the teams Seattle will most and least hope to see in their section of the MLS Cup playoff draw.

San Jose: Should the Earthquakes find their way in – and they very well could; as of now they’re level on points with RSL for sixth place – they would be among the least qualified playoff teams since the early half of the 2000s, when an absurd eight out of 10 possible teams got in. San Jose has a comically poor negative-22 goal differential and has lost 12 of its 16 matches away from Avaya Stadium. Sure, it tripped up Portland over the weekend, but that reflects more poorly on the Timbers than well on the ‘Quakes. Drawing San Jose isn’t the same things as a first-round bye, but it’s close.

Houston: In theory, the Dynamo makes for a compelling underdog. It loves playing on the counter, and that front line is so quick and deadly that one mistake could seal your elimination.
Houston has completely fallen off since mid-August, however. And given that it almost certainly would have to play on the road in Round 1, its lone win away from home in 2017 hints at a brief stay.
Dallas. I keep waiting for FCD to flip the switch and become what it once was. Most of the key difference-makers are still around, after all, and this was the clear-cut best team in the West as of a few months ago. Something is clearly wrong with this group, though, and if they get dinged on an illegal-substitution charge, they might not even get in.

Vancouver: This is probably harsh on the team currently running away with first place in the West, but the jury is still out on the ‘Caps as a legitimate Cup contender. Vancouver might not have brought its first-choice squad to Seattle last Wednesday, but the whooping the Sounders put on their rivals will still give them confidence in a potential conference semifinal series.

Portland: The Timbers can pour in goals, and in Diego Valeri boasts the best player in the Western Conference. Those two attributes alone can carry a team a long way.
Seattle, though, is a bad matchup for Portland. The Sounders’ stout defense should limit damage at the back, and their attackers are at the very least opportunistic enough to pounce on the handful of mistakes the error-prone Timbers D would likely gift them over two legs.
The thought of having to protect a late lead with Clint Dempsey prowling around their box should keep the Timbers Army up at night.

Salt Lake: If the MLS Cup playoffs have taught us anything over the last few years, it’s to beware the hot hand. RSL is playing as well as anybody right now, and has showcased an impressive fighting spirit under coach Mike Petke. If you’re looking to identify the low seed most likely to pull off a first-round upset away from home, Salt Lake is your squad.

Kansas City: Sporting isn’t perfect. The decision to kick the can down the road in trading away Dom Dwyer despite a wide-open West remains as puzzling today as it did when the deal was made. Vancouver put dent in the idea of Children’s Mercy Park as an impenetrable fortress just this past weekend. Still, this is the most well rounded team in the conference, and it is still smarting from consecutive years of playoff heartbreak. The back line is solid and Benny Feilhaber is a gamer. And if you believe in sports karma, Seattle still owes Sporting one from last year’s controversial knockout round match.

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