Western Conference Playoff Guide: Will the LA Galaxy's star power win out...again?

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FC Dallas - #1 seed

Who are they?

FC Dallas are a young, attacking-minded team that thrive on the counterattack. The oldest players in their typical starting XI are 32-year-old JeVaughn Watson and 28-year-old Zach Loyd, but the rest of the team is considerably younger. That hasn’t prevented them from being a threat in a loaded Western Conference, so much so that they fell just short of a Supporters' Shield on goal differential.

Star Power

Colombian midfielder Fabian Castillo is the face of the franchise, but FC Dallas will advance as far as Mauro Diaz is able to take them. The team is loaded with wingers and strikers that can replace Castillo in the event of injury, but if Diaz is forced to miss time, which has been commonplace in his MLS career to date, the attack loses a gear. His ability to find open players and generate offense is second to none.

What's their biggest weakness?

Even though they have improved in October by allowing only two goals in five games, the Dallas backline is their Achilles’ heel. Centerbacks Loyd and Matt Hedges have made a handful of goal-saving clearances throughout the month, but they both have the tendency to get caught flat-footed against superior talent. And of course, Diaz’s injury history is a big concern.

FC Dallas will win MLS Cup because ...

They are peaking at the right time. FC Dallas are a young team, but they were young in 2014, year one of the Oscar Pareja era. Now, they are entering the playoffs after winning four of their last five, are as explosive as ever before with all of their big-name contributors healthy, and have found a gem in Gonzalez, who has made a name for himself in only 11 career starts. Veteran leadership on the bench in the form of Dan Kennedy and Blas Perez will keep the team grounded.

- Scott Sidway

Vancouver Whitecaps - #2 seed

Who are they?

The youngest squad in Major League Soccer is also one of the most exciting. Making the playoffs on the back of a sound defensive footing (13 clean sheets) and a fast-paced counterattacking style of play built around South American talent and flair, Vancouver's attackers are a handful for any defense when in full flow.

Star Power

A year ago, it was clearly Pedro Morales, but the Whitecaps' talismanic captain may miss the playoffs altogether with a nagging hamstring injury. In his place, Cristian Techera has stepped up. His pace and skill have generated seven goals and five assists so far this year. The Uruguayan is small in stature, but very big in impact.

What's their biggest weakness?

Vancouver's weaknesses are no mystery. Goalscoring form and fitness. No one player has been banging the goals in for the 'Caps and too many chances have gone begging, costing them points. They've also been hit hard with injuries the last few weeks, and head coach Carl Robinson will hope those are in the rearview mirror.

Vancouver will win MLS Cup because ...

Self-belief. From day training camp opened, they believed a Cup was well within the realm of possibility. Without any big-name or big-money signings, Vancouver are a team. Goals are scored by committee and from all areas of the park. They're getting their key injured players back healthy and rested at just the right time.

- Michael McColl

Portland Timbers - #3 seed

Who are they?

One of the league’s better defensive teams all season, the Portland Timbers rode a hot offensive streak with 10 goals in their last three games – all wins – to their second Audi MLS Cup Playoff appearance in three seasons. The playoff berth comes as somewhat of a relief for a publicly ambitious front office and demanding – yet loyal – fan base.

Star Power

The star label may have belonged to playmaker Diego Valeri the previous two seasons, but striker Fanendo Adi has taken that mantle this year. The big Nigerian set a team record with his 16-goal haul this season, and his torrid play over the past three weeks – four goals in three games – sparked the Timbers' run to the No. 3 seed.

What's their biggest weakness?

As hot as the Timbers attack has been down the stretch, scoring goals has been a season-long problem. Before an outburst of nine goals in their last two games, Portland were averaging a paltry one goal per game. After a 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City on Oct. 3, a defensive midfielder and center back – Jack Jewsbury and Nat Borchers – were tied for third in goals scored.

The Timbers will win MLS Cup because ...

They’re headed into the playoffs on a hot streak as one of three clubs – Montreal and FC Dallas being the other two – to finish the season with three straight wins. And their sudden goal-scoring explosion has been sparked by two of their most important offensive players – Adi and Darlington Nagbe – who each have three goals in the past two matches.

- Dan Itel

Seattle Sounders - #4 seed

Who are they?

Seattle have been nothing if not consistent since joining MLS. With Sunday’s postseason-clinching victory vs. Real Salt Lake, the Sounders have now made the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons. Having an ambitious ownership group willing to make splashy signings including Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins is one factor in that success. The country’s most raucous fanbase and the perennial attendance records certainly don’t hurt either.

Star Power

Dempsey and Martins could both make a very viable case for Seattle’s biggest soccer star. But we’ll give the nod to Dempsey for the purposes of this guide. The US national team stalwart missed time this year with injury, suspension and national team duty but still managed to produce to the tune of 10 goals and 10 assists in 20 games. And he seems to be rounding into form at precisely the right time.

What's their biggest weakness?

Seattle did have one glaring weakness exposed this year when Dempsey and Martins were both forced out of action. Without their two star strikers, the Sounders' offense went utterly silent, at one point enduring a brutal scoreless stretch that lasted a franchise-record 363 minutes. If the duo can’t go for whatever reason, the Sounders have shown that they don’t have many contingency plans.

Seattle will win MLS Cup because ...

The Sounders have had their struggles at times this season but they’ve also been a hard side to assess because they’ve been decimated by injuries, national team absences and suspensions for much of it. Now, as playoff time approaches, Seattle seems to be more or less full-strength. They’re a veteran group, motivated to bring Seattle the franchise’s first MLS Cup. Their best – if they bring it – will be tough to match.

- Ari Liljenwall

LA Galaxy - #5 seed

Who are they?

The LA Galaxy see themselves as MLS's standard-bearers, and it's hard to argue against them. They've been the most aggressive club in luring big-name stars to the US – with plenty to show for it – and have claimed a record five MLS Cups, three in the past four years under Bruce Arena, who has had them in the title hunt for seven years running.

Star Power

The Galaxy is made up of many stars, more so now that Giovani Dos Santos and Steven Gerrard are part of the group, but the most prominent figure – the biggest personality and the force that drives LA – is clearly captain Robbie Keane. He's the leader on and off the field, and even as LA has tanked in recent weeks, he keeps scoring: 17 goals in his last 14 league games.

What's their biggest weakness?

The Galaxy's lineup, on paper, might be the best MLS has seen, but it's not worked so well the past two months. The chemistry has waned in the attack and defensive breakdowns have been costly, and some of that's about pivotal players adapting to new environs while LA adapt to the specifics of their games. They haven't taken care of the details and have lost momentum.

LA will win MLS Cup because ...

They're the Galaxy. And because Bruce Arena is their boss. And because they've done it from this position before, winning as the eighth overall seed in 2012 (and back in 2005, ancient history now). LA know how to win playoff games better than everyone else.

- Scott French

Sporting KC - #6 seed

Who are they?

Sporting Kansas City are in the playoffs for the fifth straight year, despite a rough run of recent form, because this 2015 team has a knack of stepping up and getting the job done when they have to. They proved that with their US Open Cup title run and their high-energy performance in Sunday's 2-1 postseason-clinching win over Los Angeles.

Star Power

This is the most balanced team Sporting have ever had (as proof, three guys reached double digits in goalscoring for the first time in club history). The fulcrum of that balance, though, is their No. 10. Benny Feilhaber was one of those double-digit scorers – and he handed out 20 assists across all competitions. When he's on, Feilhaber is a handful.

What's their biggest weakness?

Unless Ike Opara can complete his recovery from an early-season left Achilles rupture (manager Peter Vermes expects him to, but will he be 90-minutes fit?), Sporting will go through the postseason without a dominant aerial presence (at either end) on set pieces. Matt Besler and Kevin Ellis are both good at positioning, but a guy who's a beast in the air could prove problematic.

Sporting will win MLS Cup because ...

Kansas City were a study in playing to the opposition's level this season. They struggled against Western Conference teams below the red line (5-0 loss to San Jose and two defeats to Colorado, anyone?) – but guess what? Those teams are all gone. Sporting are unbeaten vs. Vancouver (2-0), Seattle (1-0-2) and Portland (1-0-2), and have victories over LA and FC Dallas.

- Steve Brisendine