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MLS playoff preview: Houston Dynamo at Chicago Fire

Oct 31, 2012, 10:20 AM EDT

Brad Davis 2

There are reasons to feel good and bad about both of these teams, who launch Major League Soccer’s 17th playoff season tonight.

Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET Wednesday, Toyota Park, ESPN2

(Official league match preview is here)

(MORE: MLS playoff primer and schedule)

On Chicago:

  • It’s tough to feel great about a (slightly slumping?) team with just one win it its last five matches going into the playoffs. That one victory was a dandy, a very professionally managed 2-0 win over the Red Bulls outside New York. Veteran Dutch target striker Sherjill MacDonald had both goals for the Fire, who were at their counter-attacking best in that one.
  • Who runs that counter attack for Frank Klopas’ team? That’s Chris Rolfe, and as he goes, so goes the Fire. Just like in his first go-round at Toyota Park a few years back, Rolfe is the very definition of a streaky attacker. When he was so confident and on top of things back in September, the Fire was 4-1 (its only loss coming to Eastern Conference champion Sporting Kansas City).
  • Past Rolfe, Klopas’ team is full of good roll payers, but a little short on difference-makers in the attack. Guys like MacDonald, Patrick Nyarko, Dominic Oduro, Alex and others have their moments, but they aren’t reliable game-changers.
  • So the boys in the back will be needed to lock it down, and perhaps just a little better than they did throughout all of 2012. Rookie of the Year favorite Austin Berry is, well, a rookie, and he gets nipped on positioning here and there. Outside back Jalil Anibaba is another good, young defender – but this is just his second season. And goalkeeper Sean Johnson can turn a game either way, usually with big stops but occasionally with the real howler.
  • Chicago certainly has this on its side: no one on the field Wednesday has been in more big games that German veteran center back Arne Friedrich.

(MORE: Austin Berry is PST’s pick for Rookie of the Year)

(MORE: Talking tactics and Chris Rolfe)

On Houston:

  • Dominic Kinnear’s team has been just a little better than dreadful away from home this year, tied with Vancouver for the fewest road wins (3) and a fairly hideous -12 goal difference.
  • After an impressive early summer success the Dynamo is just 3-3-4 down the stretch. And this teetering between formations (4-4-2 and 4-3-3) shows the Dynamo still hasn’t exactly found itself. Clearly, this is not the best time to be “finding yourself.”
  • On the other hand, Houston knows how to get it done on the road in the playoffs. Last year, they fought their way into MLS Cup 2011 largely on the strength of wins at Philadelphia and Kansas City. From there, they had to meet Los Angeles at the Galaxy’s Home Depot Center, and nearly pulled out another upset. Houston lost that one, 1-0, without top man Brad Davis (pictured).
  • Houston fans won’t soon forget another important playoff match in Los Angeles, back in November of 2010. Kinnear’s team had Los Angeles absolutely on the ropes before a power failure – of all things, right? – served as a sort of re-set for Los Angeles, which went on to win in overtime.
  • The Dynamo attack is all about Oscar Boniek Garcia on the right and Davis on the left. Will Bruin and Brian Ching, the veteran warrior who has taken on a second-half sub role this year, depend on service from the wings. And Davis, of course, is one of the league’s premier dead ball strikers.
  • The Dynamo will understand that preventing Rolfe from getting the ball in good spots is critical to stopping Chicago’s attack before it gets started. That will be up to defensive midfield screener Adam Moffat or Ricardo Clark (or both, depending upon how Kinnear shapes his team for this one.)
  • If there’s a gap in the back, it’s at right back, where rookie Kofi Sarkodie has shown his talent at times, but also some immaturity in some moments. Watch for Nyarko’s attempts to exploit that.

(MORE: Considering Houston’s playoff experience)

Bottom line:

Don’t look for a lot of goals.

Even at home, Chicago doesn’t always commit tremendous numbers forward. Anibaba on the right is a little young and will likely lean toward caution in this one, generally choosing to “stay home.” Gonzalo Segares on the left is 30 now and not quite the spry presence we used to know around Bridgeview.

On the other side, Jermaine Taylor and Bobby Boswell haven’t gotten much press this year, but they remain a solid central defensive duo. Houston likes to move the ball out of the back quickly and safely, minimizing chances for back-line booboos.

So one mistake will probably decide it in a 1-0 or 2-0 contest.

FYI: It will be cool to cold and probably a little windy – about what you would expect for an Illinois night in late October.

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