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Caps' quick counter, set-piece prowess could compound Quakes' road woes

Adrian Healey, Taylor Twellman and Jay Heaps examine the Western Conference knockout matches in the MLS Cup playoffs.

The San Jose Earthquakes were in full celebration mode on Sunday thanks to Marco Urena's stoppage-time winner against Minnesota United, a goal that secured a playoff spot for the first time since 2012. Their reward is an away trip to play the Vancouver Whitecaps, who can play some breathtaking soccer when in good form.

Here's the breakdown of Wednesday's Western Conference knockout-round match.

San Jose Earthquakes

Strengths

The Quakes midfield has coalesced in the past month, finding greater balance between attack and defense. Anibal Godoy and Darwin Ceren provide the steel in the middle, while Jahmir Hyka and Vako create from wider positions, though both are adept at finding spaces inside.

The center-back pairing of Victor Bernardez and Florian Jungwirth has jelled at the right time as well, providing San Jose with a good mix of brains and brawn. This duo, along with Godoy and Ceren, will have to be on their game to keep Vancouver's counterattack in check.

Vancouver WhitecapsVancouver Whitecaps
San Jose EarthquakesSan Jose Earthquakes
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Leading scorer and spiritual leader Chris Wondolowski remains the ultimate fox in the box, with his clever movement still flummoxing defenses after all these years.

Weaknesses

The Quakes' road form under manager Chris Leitch has been woeful, just 1-7-1 with plenty of blowouts in that group of results. The team's mentality after going a goal down has been highly suspect. San Jose did manage to secure a 1-1 draw at BC Place back on Oct. 15, but that was a case of hanging on for dear life for much of the match. It's unlikely that the Quakes can get away with a similar performance.

Goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell has been hugely inconsistent. He came up big in the aforementioned draw against the Whitecaps but has also been guilty of some gaffes that have ended up in the back of the net.

Set pieces have also been a problem for San Jose. According to ESPN Stats & Information, it tied the LA Galaxy for the most set-piece goals conceded in MLS with 13, including one in Sunday's win against the Loons.

Why they'll win

Vako is the kind of player who can create something out of nothing, and everyone knows how clutch Wondolowski can be. Danny Hoesen is also sneaky good. If the Quakes can keep things tight in the back, they are more than capable of a smash-and-grab performance and walking out of BC Place with a win. They will need to weather some difficult moments, and San Jose will need more of the good Tarbell to show up.

Vancouver's Yordy Reyna, right, will look to skewer San Jose on the counterattack on Wednesday.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Strengths

Vancouver's approach isn't overly complicated. With the irrepressible Yordy Reyna at the controls, this is a side that loves to skewer teams on the counterattack. Reyna has some help thanks to mobile attackers like Cristian Techera and a crafty forward in Fredy Montero. Defensively, the Caps have Kendall Waston and Tim Parker in the middle and two holding mids sitting in front in the form of Tony Tchani and Aly Ghazal.

Thanks to Waston, and the deliveries of players such as Christian Bolanos, the Whitecaps are efficient on set pieces. They have 16 goals from set plays this season, tied for second most in the league.

Weaknesses

Given Vancouver's struggles in possession, this isn't a team that is particularly adept at breaking down organized defenses. With San Jose likely to adopt some conservative tactics, at least at the start, the onus will be on the home side to take the initiative.

And for all of its prowess on the counter, this isn't a team that creates many chances. The Caps will need to be efficient and make sure they keep the Quakes behind.

Why they'll win

Vancouver will be playing at home, though that isn't as big of an advantage as one might think. The Whitecaps are tied for the fewest home wins among playoff teams. But Vancouver is strong where the Quakes are weak, namely on set pieces, and it has the kind of creative force in Reyna that can be a difference-maker in the postseason.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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