Major League Soccer

The good, the bad & the ugly of every MLS Cup Playoff Western Conference semi-finalist

Chris Smith
The Western Conference has been narrowed down to just four teams.
The Western Conference has been narrowed down to just four teams. / Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
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Just like that, Round One of the MLS Cup Playoffs is done and the Conference semi-finals are set.

Although the likes of NYCFC, the Philadelphia Union, and Sporting Kansas City are through with home wins as expected, we did see one big shock in the previous round; Real Salt Lake winning on penalties in Seattle after failing to attempt a single shot in 120 minutes of play.

After a long regular season, Round One gave us the chance to evaluate some teams' strengths and weaknesses in the heat of a knockout situation. So, before the next round begins, let's get into the good, bad, and ugly of every team, starting in the Western Conference:

Colorado Rapids

The good

Everything about the Rapids is built on team spirit and togetherness. There's a next man up attitude that's unmatched throughout the league, meaning Robin Fraser could change his entire XI and you probably wouldn't notice. It's a quality that makes them more than a match for any team in the league, despite having the lowest salary spend in MLS.

"Whoever we play, we play. We fancy beating anyone, at home or away," club captain Jack Price told 90min recently.

There's obviously quality in the ranks, too. Price should have been in the running for the MVP award this season and Kellyn Acosta is a United States international midfielder.

But what makes this team so formidable is its willingness and compulsion to fight for each other. Dick's Sporting Goods Park is going to be bouncing for this Thanksgiving match-up, only galvanizing the Rapids more.

The bad

Speaking to 90min in September, Fraser called upon his side to improve in possession and stop losing concentration with the ball in dangerous areas.

That brings us to one of the Rapids' only real weaknesses. They're ruthless in transition, but can sometimes struggle to break down a low or mid-block - and that's exactly how Western Conference semi-final opponents Portland Timbers like to defend, soaking up pressure and being tough to play through.

It'll be up to the likes of Price, Cole Bassett, and Mark-Anthony Kaye to find solutions with Colorado given possession impetus as the home side.

The ugly

Even though they're at home, the Rapids might be able to draw the Timbers onto the ball a bit more, forcing a counter-attacking shootout. Should this be the case, it'll come down to who has the best finishers.

On paper, the Timbers have the edge in the likes of Felipe Mora and Sebastian Blanco, compared to Michael Barrios and Diego Rubio. But if games were won on paper, the Rapids wouldn't even be in the Playoffs, let alone finishing first in the West.

Portland Timbers

The good

Only SKC outscored the Timbers in the West during the regular season and their attacking prowess has only been boosted by the return to form and fitness of Sebastian Blanco.

The 33-year-old hit nine goals and six assists in just 1,272 minutes of action prior to the Playoffs and ended the regular season with three goals and an assist in two games. Blanco then decided their Round One clash against Minnesota United with two excellent strikes in a 3-1 win at Providence Park.

As mentioned previously, if the Timbers get into a punch-up with Colorado, they have the attacking pieces to get the job done.

The bad

While they're a force at the top end of the pitch, Portland leave a fair bit to be desired defensively. Gio Savarese's men kept just nine clean sheets during the regular season, while only the San Jose Earthquakes (60.56) had a worse xGA value (59.14).

Whether from set-pieces or open play, the Timbers just haven't been able to cut out the mistakes or find a cohesive defensive formula - perhaps Diego Chara being another year older is hurting more than previously anticipated, because this is uncharacteristic of a Portland team.

Jack Price has been especially dangerous with his set-piece delivery this season and could offer a real test of this flimsy Timbers backline.

The ugly

Portland had the best home record of any Western Conference team in the regular season, taking 35 points at Providence Park. But just one point behind were Colorado. Away from home, the Timbers lost the fifth-highest number of games all year.

The Rapids faithful will generate a brilliant atmosphere for this game and the more pressure they pile on with their set-pieces and counter-attacks, the louder it'll get. Without their loyal Timbers Army, things could fall apart quickly for Portland.

Sporting Kansas City

The good

Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell are the obvious difference-makers in this SKC team, but what makes them so effective is how those around them manipulate the game to their benefit.

Peter Vermes' side are one of the best possession teams in MLS. They're patient with the ball, poking and probing for openings, and will regularly switch play to move the opposition around - see Graham Zusi's repeated ball across to Salloi in the win over Vancouver in Round One.

All this dazzling passing obviously unsettles opposing defenses, creating space for Salloi and Russell - who scored a combined 31 regular-season goals - to get to work.

The bad

SKC were terrible toward the end of the regular season, and it was their inability press effectively that killed them.

There's never been an issue motivating this team to hunt for the ball, but their lack of cohesion left gaps all over the place. It was all too easy for the opposition to put a ball into the channel behind the full-backs, or break lines with one scything pass from front to back.

If Real Salt Lake can dig in defensively the way they did against Seattle in Round One, Kansas City will offer up chances.

The ugly

SKC's 3-1 win over Vancouver in Round One was made all the more impressive by the fact that this is an out-of-form team. Kansas City lost their final three regular-season games, and regularly dropped the ball down the stretch.

They face an RSL side that have already beaten them twice this season, and the longer Salt Lake can keep things level, the more uncomfortable things will get at Children's Mercy Park. Fragile confidence is the easiest to wash away.

Real Salt Lake

The good

RSL spent most of the regular season punching hell out of the opposition, but leaving themselves wide open for haymakers. It was hella fun, but unsustainable, especially in a knockout situation.

Pablo Mastroeni has clearly been working on defense and across 210 minutes of soccer on Decision Day and in Round One, they haven't conceded a goal.

RSL have left the 3-5-2 behind in favor of a narrow, solid 4-4-2, and it's frustrated the life out of two Western Conference heavyweights. Defending so much means Salt Lake will have to rely on a little luck, but they received a good share of that in their penalty shootout win over the Sounders.

The bad

RSL have pulled the handbrake so hard, it seems like they've forgotten how to attack. Against the Sounders, they failed to attempt even one single shot - only the third time this has ever happened in league history.

Can they really keep going like this? SKC certainly have the ability to open up spaces in the Salt Lake defense, and Salloi and Russell will take full advantage of any chance they get.

Credit must be given to Mastroeni for drilling this team so quickly, but it's also important to remember only FC Dallas and Austin FC (both 56) conceded more goals than Real Salt Lake in the West this season (54). How tough are those bandages?

The ugly

'Ugly' is actually the perfect word to summarize RSL's chances.

They won ugly against the Sounders, defending with their lives to force a shootout. That was just a couple of weeks after they won really ugly against this very SKC side, with Damir Kreilach scoring a 95th-minute winner to punch their ticket in the post-season. Had a handball been called on Justen Glad minutes earlier, RSL may not have made it.

If Salt Lake are to shock another favorite in the West, they're gonna have to do it the hard way again.

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