On Sunday, the first three games of the Western Conference half of the MLS Cup postseason will be played. Unlike the Eastern Conference, there will be no play-in games out west as a consequence of pandemic-forced conference realignment. Tuesday will feature the fourth first round game, and perhaps the best: Seattle Sounders vs. LAFC.
For now, let’s take a look at the three games on Sunday.
Sporting KC vs. San Jose Earthquakes (4:00pm ET, Fox Sports 1)
Somewhat quietly, SKC turned it around from a disappointing, injury-marred 2019 season. They finished first in the conference with a stabilized defense and a dynamic attack. Scottish winger Johnny Russell stayed healthy for most of the year and put up six goals and four assists, accompanying Newcomer of the Year candidate forward Alan Pulido in Peter Vermes’s 4-3-3 attack.
The Quakes had their own turnaround. They spent part of this season shipping goals, then put in some better players (Florian Jungwirth in central defense, for instance) and stopped conceding five goals a game. They snuck into eighth in the conference with Matias Almeyda’s chaotic man-marking system, which can be vulnerable defensively but also tactically confusing.
This game will come down to whether Sporting can prevent defensive mistakes, which still haunted them early in the season, and whether San Jose create enough chaos to cause an upset. Chris Wondolowski will be out there at some point, and no one has ever been better at taking advantage of defensive mistakes.
Minnesota United vs. Colorado Rapids (7:30pm ET, ESPN)
Both of these teams could be classified as low-key contenders. Minnesota, hit hard by injuries all year, are tough to beat at full strength, with the partnership of Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus in midfield and upstart Dayne St. Clair in goal. It appears that they will be at full strength, for the most part on Sunday: international players Gregus, Kei Kamara, Robin Lod, and Romain Metanire will unexpectedly be back from their various countries in time.
Colorado is a threatening underdog. They missed a chunk of the regular season due to a covid outbreak, but they shook off the rust and were playing well by Decision Day. They have a nice core of young players and play good soccer. Sam Vines should be part of the left back situation with the USMNT, Cole Bassett moves the ball well, and Andre Shinyashiki is a nice piece at striker.
The Rapids are a fun team to watch. Younes Namli is an underrated guy in midfield, with good feet and vision. They will have Diego Rubio available after all for Sunday, after MLS helped rush him back from the Chilean national team. With everyone back, this has the potential to be a competitive, entertaining game.
Portland Timbers vs. FC Dallas (10:00pm ET, ESPN)
Despite the loss of their best player, Sebastian Blanco, the Timbers are one of the top contenders in the Western Conference. As long as Diego Chara and Diego Valeri are out there, they have a chance. Jeremy Ebobisse will be back from a concussion that knocked him out for a lot of October and early November, and international players Felipe Mora and Andy Polo appear likely to make it back in time for this game.
FC Dallas have arguably the league’s best left back in Ryan Hollingshead, but defense might be all they have in this game. Paxton Pomykal was knocked out for the season early in the year, and the attack hasn’t done much of anything in the last few weeks. Their plan will be to bunker out a goal any way they can.