Seattle vs. Colorado: What you need to know about Western Conference final
The international break is over, which means that after a long wait, the MLS playoffs are about to resume. In the Western Conference Final the second-seeded Colorado Rapids will do battle with the fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders in what promises to be a tight, competitive series.
How We Got Here
SPI Projection to advance to final: 54.3 percent
Thanks to a late-season charge in which they won five of their final seven matches, the Seattle Sounders reached the playoffs and have carried that momentum into the Western Conference finals. A 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City in the knockout round, followed by a 4-2 aggregate win over top-seeded FC Dallas in the conference semifinals, have Seattle on the verge of reaching their first-ever MLS Cup.
The Sounders started slowly in front of the home fans this year but came back and ended the season with a 10-2-5 home record (W-D-L). What should boost the hopes of Seattle fans though is the team's very solid history in Commerce City against the Rapids. Seattle own a 5-1-3 record in Colorado with 15 goals scored and 14 conceded. However, in their lone visit to Colorado back in April, they were defeated 3-1.
SPI Projection to advance to final: 45.7 percent
After finishing rock-bottom in the west in 2015, the Colorado Rapids flirted with a worst-to-first run in 2016 before ending up second in the conference for the regular season. The Rapids' formula of good goalkeeping, strong defending and opportunistic scoring paid dividends in the conference semifinals, with a penalty shootout win against the Los Angeles Galaxy after a 1-1 draw on aggregate.
Colorado were impeccable at home during the regular season with an 11-6-0 record but Seattle's CenturyLink Field presents a different challenge. The Sounders' home ground has been a house of horrors for the Rapids since the Sounders joined MLS in 2009. Colorado's all-time record in Seattle is 2-1-9, yet they did manage a 1-0 win there back in May.
When Seattle have the ball
The unsung heroes of Seattle's late-season and playoff run have been the central midfield pairing of Cristian Roldan and Osvaldo Alonso. The versatility of the former and the hard-nosed edge and passing ability of the latter allow Seattle's attacking corps to have the time they need to generate chances. With Jordan Morris in doubt for the first leg, Seattle will have to be patient in their build-up play against Colorado's stout defense since a more direct route would be taken away without Morris.
Dead balls also will be Seattle's friend. Nicolas Lodeiro is one of the best at serving them up and the "tall trees" at the back, Roman Torres and Chad Marshall, are threats in the air. The fact that 14 of the Sounders' 44 regular-season goals were scored via set piece reflects that.
When Colorado have the ball
While the injury to Tim Howard is probably the biggest talking point out of Colorado this week, the sidelining of Shkelzen Gashi also will hinder the Rapids' chances of victory. It sounds like a broken record and he could well be feeling fatigued after national-team duty, but Jermaine Jones will be crucial to setting the table for Colorado's attack. Dominique Badji and Marlon Hairston have the wheels to make something special happen, so when the opportunity arises, the service from the Colorado midfield has to be there.
Seattle player in the spotlight
No surprise here: it's Lodeiro. Seattle's attack was already short-handed with Clint Dempsey's heart ailment, and now with Morris' availability unknown, the impetus will fall upon the shoulders of the Uruguayan. As mentioned above, set pieces will be key to breaching the Colorado defense and Lodeiro's passing/crossing ability is one of the best in MLS. And when the chance arises, Lodeiro has proven to be a lethal finisher, as evidenced by his three goals in these playoffs so far.
Colorado player in the spotlight
All eyes will be on Rapids goalkeeper Zac MacMath in this series. The back-up has been pushed into the starting role due to Howard's injury and will be under pressure to keep Colorado's dream season going. Fortunately for Rapids fans, there is no major drop-off from Howard to MacMath. The 25-year-old started 17 games for the Rapids this season, allowed just 13 goals, enjoyed a save percentage of .768 and amassed a 9-5-3 record. Not bad. But this is playoff time and Colorado cannot afford a rusty start from MacMath.
To boot, this series could well be decided from the penalty spot, an area in which Howard excels like he demonstrated in the Galaxy series with two saves. Colorado will need MacMath to come through in the clutch.
What will decide both legs?
You could see this one not being decided until the final kick of the ball. Colorado is not a team that gets blown out, so there's little chance of a three-goal spurt for the Sounders like they had in the FC Dallas series. Also, it should be noted that in the teams' two meetings this season (both of which were Rapids victories), Lodeiro had not yet arrived from Boca Juniors. The Uruguayan gives this match-up a different element altogether. This series will come down to his playmaking and the Colorado defense will provide the ultimate test.
Who will win the series?
It will be interesting to see how much of an impact the international break has on the Sounders' rhythm, but more important will be the health of Morris and Torres. There are fewer doubts with Colorado. Pablo Mastroeni has brilliantly orchestrated this team all season long and they seem to be thriving in their ugly duckling role. It would not be at all surprising to see a single goal decide this one. In the end, the Rapids will be the team standing.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .