Last week in the USL Playoffs, some blog went 4 for 4 on their predictions. Shocking!
#1 Seattle Sounders v. #6 Puerto Rico Islanders
Friday at 8:00 in Puerto Rico, Sunday at 8:00 in Seattle
Things went according to plan for the Sounders in round one. A 3-0 series win over the expansion Carolina Railhawks was without much controversy or discomfort. The Islanders played Cinderella in the quarterfinals, following up a five goal first half shootout in Montreal with a 3-0 shutout back at home. No matter how much Montreal tries to get the playoff scheduling right, they're always foiled.
Seattle secured a scoreless draw in their visit to the island early in the season. Puerto Rico wasn't so lucky in their return trip to the Pacific Northwest. In a game that I was lucky enough to see firsthand, a Roger Levesque goal right before halftime was enough for a 1-0 win for the Sounders. However, I think Puerto Rico dominated the second half and were really unlucky to not escape with at least a point.
Puerto Rico has made some late additions to the roster that could change things, but it's going to take a huge effort from them on the island Friday night to have a chance here. Seattle's strong defense should allow them to bunker down in Puerto Rico, and then go for the win after Saturday's long flight. Puerto Rico's best chance lies with Petter Villegas and Fabrice Noel. I don't think Seattle has anyone who can match Villegas' skill and Noel's speed. The Islanders have to take advantage of this Friday night.
I do think this should be a very competitive series. In my opinion, Puerto Rico will need a 2+ goal advantage heading cross country to Seattle. I don't think they'll be able to pull it off. Seattle will take another step to their Cascadia Cup/Commissioner's Cup/USL First Division championship treble.
Winner: Seattle Sounders
#2 Portland Timbers v. #4 Atlanta Silverbacks
Friday at 8:00 in Atlanta, Sunday at 8:00 in Portland (FSC)
Portland had to struggle a bit to get past the defending champs from Vancouver in the quarterfinals. They overcame a 1-0 deficit from Swangard Stadium to win 3-0 back in Portland. The series deciding goal didn't come until the 70th minute though, when Andrew Gregor stepped up. Atlanta lived dangerously in the dreaded 4/5 match-up, but got the job done. A late winner in the first leg was backed up with 1-1 draw in Rochester. The Rhinos got to within one goal in the 79th minute at PAETEC, but the Silverbacks defense held on to the series win.
Same scorelines here as in the other semifinal for the regular season series, except Portland snuck a 1-0 win out of the RE/MAX before Atlanta pulled a point out of PGE Park in a scoreless draw. An excellent counterattack by the Timbers gave them the goal in Atlanta, but it is their stellar defense that has led them to the second best record in the league. The Silverbacks were able to eke out some chances in the second half in Atlanta, but it wasn't enough. In the second game in Portland, Ryan McIntosh was his usual ridiculous self, making eight saves to keep the Timbers off the board. Atlanta only managed one shot on goal, however these two games came in the roughest part of the schedule for the Silverbacks. The lineup was being shuffled to try to give people a rest, and a more conservative approach was necessary.
Portland should feel rather confident heading into the series based off the scorelines, but Lee Corso would jump in here and say, "Not so fast...". Macoumba Kanji debuted for Atlanta after these games, and Machel Millwood was out with an injury. Atlanta tried to play through Antoniuk with long balls against the Timbers, which never worked well. Portland's defense is the best in the league, and they snuffed out the direct play. However, they don't have tons of speed, and that is Kandji and Millwood's specialty. Will that be enough to flip the regular season results?
Everything will come down to the opening leg in Atlanta Friday night. Portland hasn't lost at home all season, and gave up the fewest goals in the league in doing so. Throw in the jacked up turf at PGE Park, and it won't be an easy place for Atlanta's high powered offense to light up the scoreboard. Things will be different at the RE/MAX though, and I expect a far different game from the drab 1-0 loss back in July. While the Silverbacks have solidified their team as squarely in the upper half of the USL, this is a chance for them to step up to the elite.
As much as I want to pick the Red & Black here, I just think Portland is too good this year. I think the top defense will beat the top offense. The Silverbacks have to do the same thing as Puerto Rico, take a big lead across the country and try to hold it, except they have a more difficult task against Josh Wicks, Scot Thompson, Cameron Knowles and the top defensive team in the league. I really hope I'm proven wrong on Sunday night.
Winner: Portland Timbers