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MLS stage set for dramatic playoffs

LET THE GAMES BEGIN
The LA Galaxy will aim to defend their title as reigning MLS Cup Champions.
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Kyle McCarthy

Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter.

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If all of the major leagues in the United States and Canada partnered with the most significant competition in Europe to devise a playoff format, they might come up with a postseason system similar to the one MLS employs.

The single-game drama of the NFL playoffs infuses the Knockout Round and MLS Cup. The parity resembles the NHL setup where any of the ten involved teams – yes, even sputtering Vancouver – could emerge as the winner at the end of the tournament. The compressed schedule moves from game to game almost as quickly as the MLB and the NBA postseasons. And, for those purists from the other side of the pond, the usual two-legged ties in the UEFA Champions League appear with a twist or two in the conference semifinals and finals.

All of those characteristics combine to create a parity-fueled and tension-packed second season designed to pluck one deserving champion from a field of worthy contenders. The process starts with a one-game playoff between the fourth and fifth seeds in each conference. The two triumphant sides advance to the two-game conference semifinals. The winners of those semifinals meet in the two-legged conference finals. The entire scenario concludes with MLS Cup, a one-off showpiece final now hosted by the entrant with the highest number of regular season points.

The format makes picking a winner difficult from the outset. Favorites always present a viable option, but the history books also boast a significant list of unheralded teams that found their way to the final and even lifted the Philip F. Anschutz trophy.

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Sorting through the field represents a difficult task after nine of the ten playoff teams finished within 13 points of each other during the regular season. San Jose and Sporting Kansas City established their relative superiority in their conferences by employing specific and unique styles of play. Can their collective strength cope with the talent-driven clubs from Los Angeles, New York and Seattle? Real Salt Lake poses another threat entirely with its possession-oriented approach and a seasoned group of players that may gear up for one last run at the title. Chicago, D.C. United, Houston and Vancouver also present their own particular threats to the established order.

The team-specific credentials are complemented by a collection of prominent players and a lengthy list of potential talking points. Established stars like Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry and Chris Wondolowski are all capable of winning a postseason game or series by themselves. Lesser known – but still influential – figures such as Brad Davis, Chris Rolfe, Mauro Rosales, Álvaro Saborío and Graham Zusi could all slide into the same role on a given day.

The renewal of certain rivalries – like the already set Eastern Conference semifinal between D.C. United and New York, and the looming potential reunion of Los Angeles and San Jose after a testy clash last weekend – could provide plenty of sparks. The ongoing droughts in New York (still seeking a first title) and Seattle (still seeking a first playoff series win) could end at some stage during these playoffs.

Those factors create the possibility of an intriguing and thrilling postseason filled with twists and turns en route to the final. FOX Soccer offers a brief primer on the landscape in both conferences ahead of the first match on Wednesday:

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EASTERN CONFERENCE

Knockout Round – #5 Houston Dynamo at #4 Chicago Fire (Wednesday):

This tested Dynamo squad advanced to MLS Cup last season with its usual mix of potent and rugged fare. It must mitigate Chicago's ability to absorb pressure (including the crosses Houston prefers to serve from the wide areas) and break quickly on the counter to preserve its hopes of a similar feat this year.

Conference Semifinals:

Chicago or Houston vs. #1 Sporting Kansas City (first leg in either Bridgeview, Ill. or Houston on Sunday):

Sporting will present problems for either team with its relentless high pressure approach, but it has also struggled against teams like Chicago and Houston that can defend earnestly inside their own half.

#3 New York Red Bulls vs. #2 D.C. United (first leg in Harrison, N.J. on Saturday):

These two I-95 rivals haven't met in the postseason since 2006. United will hope to mark its first playoff trip in five years by replicating its victory in that series against a prolific Red Bulls attack led by the magical Henry.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

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Knockout Round – #5 Vancouver Whitecaps at #4 Los Angeles Galaxy (Thursday):

The defending champs burnished their playoff credentials with an impressive display in a home win over Seattle on Sunday night. They will have to overcome their defensive questions to dismiss a revamped Whitecaps side that struggled to obtain results during the second half of the season.

Conference Semifinals

Los Angeles or Vancouver vs. San Jose (first leg in either Carson, Calif. or Vancouver on Sunday):

Most of the neutrals will hope for another contentious pair of games between the Galaxy and the Earthquakes. If the Galaxy manage to set up that meeting, then the two teams should display their enmity toward each other in a physical, tight series.

#3 Seattle vs. #2 Real Salt Lake (first leg in Seattle on Friday):

Expect another thrilling tie between two teams that met at this same stage last season. RSL emerged victorious last year after a dominant first-leg display at Rio Tinto Stadium. Seattle must try to replicate that feat with its array of offensive weapons as it attempts to reach the conference final for the first time.

Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.

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