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A case for and against each Western Conference team in the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs

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It’s up for grabs, folks.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Sporting KC Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle Sounders

Why they will win MLS Cup: Quite simply, the Sounders have been the best team in MLS over the second half of the season. After a torrid start, Seattle won 14 of their final 16 matches, incredibly earning a playoff bye on Decision Day.

A big reason for the turnaround came in the form of Raul Ruidiaz, who signed from Morelia in June and gave a previously toothless attack a true No. 9 that could bag goals (10 in 13 appearances), and support a defense that performed well throughout the year, with only New York Red Bulls conceding fewer goals.

Oh yeah, and we’ve been here before. The Sounders have made playoff qualification on the back of late-season run a routine. And that fine form carried them to MLS Cup the last two seasons.

Why they won’t: Can Seattle really keep this up? The hottest team in the league have drastically outperformed their xG over their fine run of form. And should Ruidiaz struggle to score, who will be the next man up? Nico Lodeiro is the most likely candidate, but five of his eight goals have come from the spot this season.

Brian Schmetzer’s side have boasted the league’s top defense this year, but between the side drastically overachieving offensively and a lack of a second option going forward, it’s easy to see the Sounders’ great run coming to an abrupt end.

Portland Timbers

Why they’ll win MLS Cup: In Diego Valeri, the Timbers boast one of the league’s most influential players. And the 2017 MVP is certainly capable of putting his team on his back, as we saw with his two beautiful finishes to help beat Dallas in the knockout round. Add Sebastian Blanco to the mix, and you have the perfect personnel to execute Giovani Savarese’s counter attacking system.

Also, while the Timbers’ season finished many peaks and valleys, they seemed to be finishing on a high, ending the season at 5-2-2 and playing well to win in Dallas in the knockout round.

Why they won’t: Inconsistency has been the name of the game for the 2015 MLS Cup winners. After an awful start, the Timbers went on a 15-match unbeaten run, before faltering and having to fight their way back into the postseason behind a strong finish. In an MLS playoff that requires a string of good performances, the Timbers aren’t the most reliable side to do so.

Savarese also may not know his team’s best formation or starting 11. Savarese employed the defensive 4-3-2-1 formation during the long unbeaten run, but finished the season playing a 4-2-3-1 shape, and employed three in the back a few times, as well.

Sporting Kansas City

Why they will win MLS Cup: Coaching. Peter Vermes has his side as well-drilled as any in the league, and he’s had great success despite a ton of player movement in past seasons in Kansas City. While in past seasons SKC relied on large chunks of possession and Dom Dwyer to do the work up top, Vermes has tweaked things this year without a consistent striker. Wingers Johnny Russell (11 goals, 7 assists) and Daniel Salloi (11 goals, 7 assists), and striker Diego Rubio Gutierrez (8 goals) have lead the charge for a team with 16 different goal scorers. Being able to hurt opponents in so many different ways make them an incredibly difficult side to prepare for and defend.

And while the offense has shown a newfound versatility this season, the defending hasn’t changed at all, with Ike Opara and Matt Besler one of the top center half tandems in MLS, and one of the league’s best keepers in Tim Melia between the posts. If SKC needs to see out a tie and hold a lead late, they have a group well equipped to do so.

Why they won’t: While SKC’s strength in attack is its plethora of options, not having one bona fide goal scorer can also become a weakness. If Sporting need to grab a goal, who can they really count on? Russell and Salloi can provide that spark. But they’re both wide players, and not true No. 9s. At some point, one of Vermes’ strikers, Diego Rubio, Krisztián Nemeth or Khiry Shelton, will have to rise to the occasion.

Recent history doesn’t bode well for Sporting either. Although this is the first time Vermes’ side have earned a playoff bye since 2013, they’ve lost their last 4 postseason matches. going out in the knockout round in each of the last four playoffs.

Real Salt Lake

Why they will win MLS Cup: Sometimes, a young team’s youthful exuberance can pay dividends, and that was certainly the case in the knockout round when RSL shocked LAFC 3-2.

Mike Petke’s bunch are one of the league’s toughest to beat at home, making them a tough out. And while his young side have been predictably inconsistent away from home, they’ll hope that the momentum from LAFC will translate into a good run of form through the postseason.

Despite the youth, there is plenty of quality to go around. Damir Kreilach and Albert Ruznak are two of the most underrated players in MLS.

Why they won’t: Let’s be honest, RSL were lucky to even be in the playoffs, needing a collapse from LA Galaxy on the final day just to get into the postseason. And there are plenty of reasons they limped into the postseason. The back line has leaked goals, conceding 58 this season, easily the most of any team in the postseason.

The home form from RSL has been great this year. But despite the surprise win in LA, RSL have the worst away record of any playoff side.

In the end, inexperience and inconsistency of performance likely make RSL the biggest underdog remaining in the MLS Playoffs.