MLS playoffs: D.C. and Houston will meet in the final

The MLS playoffs kickoff tonight with Chicago at D.C. on ESPN2, easily the most intriguing matchup of the first round. Some thoughts:

1. I would not want to play the Chicago Fire right now: Don't let the shabby 10-10-10 record deceive. The Fire are riding an eight-game unbeaten streak into the playoffs, although five of those were ties. If someone on the squad could just learn to finish they'd be a real menace. Cuauthemoc Blanco, of course, has played a vital role in the team's surge. But of almost equal importance has been the arrival of defender Wilman Conde from Colombian club Millonarios. He's slotted into the central midfield with Chris Armas the last few games and wreaked havoc with tough tackling and defense-splitting through balls. Just two weeks ago the Fire frustrated and outplayed D.C. at RFK in a 0-0 draw.


Bench Paulo Wanchope

: The veteran Costa Rican striker has been miserable for the Fire. He looks old, slow, and indifferent. It's time to put the dude out to pasture--or at least to United Arab Emirates. Granted Chad Barrett hasn't been much better, but at least he's young, tenacious, and talented. Eventually the goals will start to flow for the kid. Pair him up top with Chris Rolfe and see if they can jumpstart the team's anemic attack.

3. Watch out for Christian Gomez: The reigning MVP had a lackluster first half of the season. Luckily for D.C. Ben Olsen picked up the scoring slack while Gomez floundered. But in recent weeks the Argentinian has once again been terrorizing defenses with his kamikaze runs through the middle of the pitch. He also seems to be looking for goal at every opportunity. With both Jaime Moreno and Luciano Emilio gimpy, Gomez will have to engineer the offense if D.C. is going to make a run in the playoffs.

4. Who cares about Chivas v. Kansas City?: I can summon no enthusiasm for this series. Chivas has been the biggest surprise of the season, finishing with the best record in the west despite a roster that looks pretty flacid on paper. But with Ante Razov out injured, Preki's duct-tape operation shows signs of finally coming apart. The squad failed to get a win in its final three games. After a strong start, Kansas City limped into the playoffs and doesn't appear to be a threat to knock off anyone. Look for whoever staggers through this series to get walloped in the conference finals.


This is Denilson's last chance

: It's been an extraordinary year for foreign acquisitions in MLS. Almost all of the high profile signings--Blanco, Juan Pablo Angel, Guillermo Barros-Schelotto--have worked out tremendously. Some lesser known foreigners--Emilio, Juan Carlos Toja, Conde--have also had a dramatic impact on the league. Denilson is the one ugly exception. The nimble-footed Brazilian has added nothing to the Dallas attack and plays no defense. He has no goals from the run of play and no assists. Dallas has the option to cut ties with the midfielder at the end of this season. Unless Denilson can work some serious mojo in the playoffs, he'll soon be joining Wanchope in the United Arab Emirates.

6. How does Steve Nicol do it?: Take a look at New England's roster. What do you notice? Not a single high profile foreign acqusition in the bunch. Nicol has put together a squad that year after year is among the league's best basically by plucking players from the MLS draft. Every year it seems he uncovers some overlooked gem--Clint Dempsey, Shalrie Joseph, Andy Dorman, Jeff Larentowicz. This year it was rookies Adam Cristman and Wells Thompson contributing vital minutes. But I think the Revolution's run of tanking in the MLS final is over. I don't see them getting past New York.

7. Houston will win it all: Signficant injuries to Brian Ching, Brad Davis, and Stuart Holden have not slowed down the defending champs. Now that those three appear to be fit, they've lost Ricardo Clark to suspension after he fulfilled every MLS player's dream by planting a viscious cleat into Carlos Ruiz. No worries. They just bring in Richard Mulrooney to fill the defensive mid vacuum. Houston has the best defense in the league, dynamic wing players in Davis and Brian Mullan, and a nice yin-and-yang strike duo in Ching and Joseph Ngwenya. Look for them to once again hoost the MLS Cup on November 18.

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