DENVER, Colo. (AP) — The San Jose Earthquakes haven’t advanced to the MLS Cup in seven years. The Colorado Rapids have waited nearly twice as long.
In an odd matchup of the two lowest-seeded Western Conference teams playing for the Eastern Conference title, the visiting Earthquakes and Rapids will face each other in the postseason for the first time Saturday night.
With all four of the wild-card teams coming from the loaded West, No. 8 seed San Jose and seventh-seeded Colorado slid to the East bracket for the semifinal round.
After falling 1-0 at home in the first leg of their aggregate-goal series with the East’s top seed, New York, the Earthquakes advanced with a 3-1 road victory Nov. 4.
Midfielder Bobby Convey, named the MLS comeback player of the year Wednesday, scored twice in the deciding match – the only multigoal effort in the opening round – and set up Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski for the series winner as San Jose advanced to the conference final for the first time since hoisting the MLS Cup in 2003.
“Everyone wanted New York to win this,” said Convey, whose goal in the sixth minute was the first by an Earthquake other than Wondolowski since Sept. 5. “We came in under the radar. But we’re hard to beat.”
Ninety minutes from their first MLS final since losing to D.C in 1997, the Rapids head into this matchup with the same level of confidence after eliminating Columbus, the East’s second seed, on a penalty kick shootout.
“Honestly, (San Jose) should be more worried about us,” coach Gary Smith told MLS’ official website after his team advanced from its first playoff series since 2006. “We have been dominant at home.”
Including a 1-0 victory over the Crew in the first leg of the semifinals, Colorado has outscored opponents 27-11 at Dick’s Park this season while going 9-2-5. Both losses were by a 1-0 margin.
The Earthquakes, though, have thrived in hostile environments lately. The league’s second-best road team in the regular season with 22 points, San Jose is 4-1-1 away from Buck Shaw Stadium since the beginning of September.
“We’re going to go in there and have a good game plan and hopefully come out on top,” said coach Frank Yallop, who led the club to the 2001 and ’03 MLS Cup championships.
Looking to extend its unbeaten streak in this matchup to 13, San Jose fell 1-0 in its last match at Dick’s Park on Aug. 7.
San Jose goalkeeper Jon Busch, who makes his third straight conference finals appearance after starting for Chicago in 2008 and ’09, will have to contend with Omar Cummings and Conor Casey.
Cummings had two assists in the semifinals and Casey, who scored the series-tying goal in the second leg last Saturday, are the highest-scoring duo in MLS with 14 goals apiece.
They could be an even bigger factor with Earthquakes captain Ramiro Corrales likely out with a right hamstring strain and central defender Jason Hernandez nursing a calf strain.
“Knowing that you’ve got (Cummings and Casey) ahead of you, you can really take confidence in the way you play,” Rapids midfielder Jamie Smith said.
Outside of Wondolowski, who scored 18 of the team’s 34 regular-season goals, the Earthquakes have far fewer offensive threats to throw at Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens.
“(Wondolowski is) in confident form and looks in a confident mood,” Gary Smith said. “However, he’s just one player, and I would think if, as we have done, on a number of occasions on our home field, we can force the issue and get on the front foot, then it negates an awful lot of what any opposing team can do coming into this place.”
San Jose is looking for its first victory at Dick’s Park since April 19, 2008.
The winner faces Los Angeles or FC Dallas in the MLS Cup in Toronto on Nov. 21.