What does it take to win an MLS Cup? Is it experience, form, or raw talent? It certainly can't hurt to have players on your side that have seen long runs in the playoffs, can it?
It's sometimes said that experience the joys of lifting MLS Cup, you need a squad that's sort of "been there" before, that has a good understanding of the playoffs. Obviously, it's not the only factor involved, and sometimes, it's entirely a non-factor.
Certainly it can't hurt, though, to have players on your side that have seen long runs in the playoffs.
With an all-time record of 4-4-4 in the post-season through 1,140 minutes of play, Real Salt Lake has scored 14 total playoff goals. Four of those came from Robbie Findley, who scored three in the run-up to the cup in 2009. Alvaro Saborio has scored three, all of which came last year. On the other side of the ball, Javier Morales has found six assists - three of which were in 2011.
The player with the most overall playoff time is Nick Rimando, who played in six playoff matches with D.C. United and six with now-defunct Miami Fusion. He also has four playof shutouts with Real Salt Lake. Kyle Beckerman, who has played in 22 matches, with 10 of those coming during his dark days at Colorado Rapids.
As much as RSL's experience might help them along, it's worth considering that most of the players involved with the 2009 MLS Cup win hadn't played much playoff soccer at all.
Looking around the Western Conference, some interesting facts pop out.
- Over at San Jose Earthquakes, Chris Wondolowski has scored one playoff goal and played only three matches. Jon Busch has played 16 matches, and Ramiro Corrales has played in 15. Alan Gordon has been a seven-time substitute, playing only 88 minutes - just over 12 minutes per match on average.
- Seattle Sounders' most experienced playoff man is Jeff Parke with nine matches (six with New York); Brad Evans is close behind with seven (four during Columbus Crew's MLS Cup win.) Osvaldo Alonso has played in all six of Seattle's historical playoff matches.
- LA Galaxy's most playoff-experienced player is by far Landon Donovan, who has played in 29 matches (Todd Dunivant and Pat Noonan are closest, with 17 played for both) and scored 20 goals.
- Only four of Vancouver Whitecaps' personnel have playoff experience: Atiba Harris (4), Dane Richards (11), John Thorrington (6) and Joe Cannon (18).
If anything can be learned from history, it's that it's not always easy to grasp who will be hoisting the trophy at the end. Some have devised algorithms to make predictions based on the differential between games played, goals and player minutes; others point to playoff experience (as I've done a bit here), to salary, or to ability.
It wouldn't be exaggerating if I said that I'm not convinced any of that makes a whole lot of difference. With up to six games to be played, there are three major factors involved: Form, fitness and ability, which, unfortunately, doesn't start with an "F."
If we're looking at form - and let's hone in on the last five played - Real Salt Lake sits with 11 points, San Jose with 9, Seattle with 8, LA Galaxy with 8, and Vancouver Whitecaps with six. It's not a clear indication of form generally, but it's an approximation that will have to do.
Fitness is a bit more of a concern for Real Salt Lake, but with plenty rested during the last match of the regular season, the concerns should start to alleviate. Chris Schuler is training, though not fully, and all else are apparently wholly involved. I have considerably less information on other squads, which is perhaps to be expected.
And ability? Well, that's hard to determine until after the fact, but the Western Conference clearly has a strong showing, whether you're looking at RSL and Saborio, Morales and Espindola; at LA Galaxy with Keane, Beckham and Donovan; at Seattle Sounders and Alonso, Johnson and Montero; or at Vancouver Whitecaps and DeMerit, Robson, and Young-Pyo Lee
It should, no doubt, be scintillating.