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Beware Wayne Rooney and D.C. United, while LAFC could go far: MLS knockout round preview

Go through MLS decision day with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy as they took the early lead, but saw their playoff hopes dashed by the Dynamo.
Wayne Rooney's goalscoring form and presence since joining DC United has got coaches, teammates and pundits alike in awe of his impact.

Ask any manager about the value of momentum heading into the playoffs and they'll tell you without exception that they'd prefer to be playing well rather than not.

So what to make, then, of the eight qualifiers for the knockout round? Over the last five games of the regular season, only D.C. United had a better than .500 record. In fact, D.C. was stellar, taking 13 out of a possible 15 points. The rest have experienced some hiccups (or worse) over the past month, though when you expand the time horizon to a team's last 10 games, you see a team like LAFC that showed a bit more consistency going 5-2-3. Portland and Philadelphia weren't bad either, going 5-3-2.

The reality, of course, is that what happened down the stretch is of limited value at this point. Wednesday's games are one-off contests and serve as their own competitive ecosystem. Home teams have historically had the other upper hand at this stage, winning 15 of the 20 matchups so far, though the fact that the knockout round has been around since 2011 points to a fairly small sample size.

Regardless, memories will be selective for each of the eight first-round managers in a bid to convince their charges why they'll prevail and make it to the conference semifinals.

1. All aboard the Rooney train

D.C.'s transformation from cellar dwellers to hottest team in the league has been nothing short of remarkable. Much of it is down to the arrival of Rooney, who easily qualifies as the MVP of the second half of the season, though a home-heavy schedule helped down the stretch. It isn't just his 12 goals and seven assists, but the fact that he's made the likes of Luciano Acosta and Paul Arriola that much better. The team is unbeaten in its last 10 matches and has conceded just eight goals in that span.

Now the pressure will be ratcheted up on Thursday against the Columbus Crew, and D.C. will be tested to varying degrees. Most of that will come in the back, where Steve Birnbaum has been solid and Bill Hamid is trying to get back in the goalkeeper conversation for the U.S. national team.

Rooney's leadership qualities, which have been overshadowed to a degree given his production, will be needed once again, though so far he's been near perfect in that regard.

2. The ultimate mind game

New York City FC will host the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday just three days after beating the Union 3-1. The rematch amounts to a mental test for both sides. NYCFC, a team that has been rife with inconsistency since the departure of head coach Patrick Vieira in midseason, will no doubt gain confidence from Sunday's triumph, and the fact that it will host the knockout round encounter on the postage stamp field that is Yankee Stadium will give it another advantage.

Yet overconfidence can't creep into NYCFC's thinking. Philadelphia manager Jim Curtin, who has squeezed just about every last drop out of his side this season, will make some adjustments that will require some flexibility from New York in terms of its approach. But unless the Union gets a sharper, more focused defensive performance on Wednesday from its young back line, its postseason run will be quick.

3. Can Columbus regain its mojo?

Throughout much of the #SaveTheCrew saga, the team itself had done a remarkable job of tuning out the noise and training its focus on the field. When it emerged that the team's future in Columbus has likely been secured, it was almost as if the fine-honed edge got dulled a bit. A 3-0 loss to Montreal during the international window could perhaps be forgiven, but a 2-1 defeat to Orlando nearly cost them a spot in the postseason.

A Gyasi Zardes hat trick on Sunday against Minnesota got the Crew over the postseason finish line, but he's been the only consistent scorer all season. Federico Higuain's production has dropped considerably from a year ago (six goals, nine assists, compared to nine goals and 14 assists in 2017), and that will need to be righted if Columbus is to survive against D.C. United and Rooney.

4. LAFC's un-maiden voyage through the postseason

OK, so the LA Galaxy's epic meltdown robbed the viewing public of an El Trafico postseason meeting, but LAFC held up its end, finishing third in the Western Conference. And while on paper this is the team's first foray into the MLS postseason, this is a side loaded with experience, playoff or otherwise. Midfielder Benny Feilhaber and defender Steven Beitashour have been on MLS Cup-winning sides in Kansas City and Toronto, respectively. Lee Nguyen has taken part in an MLS Cup final. Danilo da Silva has played in the UEFA Champions League, as has forward Carlos Vela, who has also twice played in the World Cup.

Then there is manager Bob Bradley, who won an MLS Cup/U.S. Open Cup double with the Chicago Fire back in 1998 and has been around the block a few hundred times since then. LAFC has looked vulnerable in the back at times during the season, but given its options in attack, from Carlos Vela to Diego Rossi to Lee Nguyen, a deep playoff run is well within reach. First it will have to get past a young and hungry Real Salt Lake side that has absolutely nothing to lose.

5. Which FC Dallas team will show up?

No team wants to play in the knockout round if it can possibly avoid it, which makes the late-season stumble by FC Dallas all the more puzzling. With three games left in the campaign, Dallas looked well-positioned to win the Western Conference, but three straight defeats, including Sunday's 2-1 stunner at Colorado, now see it hosting Portland on Wednesday instead of getting a pass to the conference semifinals.

But looked at another way, perhaps this isn't entirely unexpected. Scoring has been an issue for the team all season, with its 52 goals tied for the third worst among the 12 playoff teams. Poor finishing has been at the heart of it, as evidenced by a 5.63 gap between expected goals and actual goals scored, a mark that is fourth worst in the league. It's a team that is still in search of a No. 9, and the midseason departure of Mauro Diaz means there is a shortage of game-changers in the lineup.

So long as FCD's defense, which still ranks tied for fourth best in the league, was standing tall, the offensive struggles were less of an issue, but the back line has been has been leaky of late, exposing the team's other weaknesses. Diego Valeri and the rest of the Timbers will provide an immense test.

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