The Major League Soccer postseason kicks off on Wednesday, with the wildcard round beginning a month-long journey to MLS Cup at a site to be determined. The balance and parity in MLS this season led to down-to-the-wire races for seeding and, ultimately, some dream postseason matchups featuring rivals, evenly-matched league powers and a playoff bracket that is quite unpredictable. Here is a team-by-team look at the 10-team playoff field:
SPORTING KANSAS CITY (18-7-9, 63 points, +15 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: The MLS postseason is all about which teams enter in the best form, and Sporting KC has not lost in 12 matches -- the best among all playoff teams. That bodes well for a club whose dominance does not always translate into multiple-goal outputs, but whose performances are typically pretty standard. Everyone in the stadium knows what to expect when Sporting KC takes the field: 10 field players with insanely high work rates and the discipline to carry on from start to finish in front of stable netminder Jimmy Nielsen. Teal Bunbury's season-ending injury paved the way for C.J. Sapong to reclaim his top form, and the attack is no worse off with him, Kei Kamara and MLS assist-leader Graham Zusi typically coming through with timely finishes.
Why they won't: As hard as this team works, Sporting KC has the fewest number of goals scored among the playoff teams in the East, and the second-fewest among all 10 teams in the playoffs. The outcome of a playoff series is determined on the scoreboard, not in the possession percentages, and while Sporting KC is more than comfortable playing in a 1-0 game, the last thing it wants is to be entered into a high-scoring affair. With some crucial injuries potentially altering the club's lineup, it is imperative that the team does not stray from its winning formula.
Key Player: Roger Espinoza, M. Espinoza is the engine behind SKC's dominant midfield, one that pressures all over the field, shields the defense and dictates the tempo and possession battle on a game-to-game basis. With fellow midfielder Paulo Nagamura banged up a bit after suffering a sprained ankle in the season finale, Espinoza's pending return from his sprained ankle is even more of a must for the U.S. Open Cup champions. Manager Peter Vermes told the club's official website that both are expected to be ready for the postseason opener this weekend, but either Chicago or Houston is capable of nicking a home result against a weakened SKC side (in fact, both won their home meetings against SKC this season).
D.C. UNITED (17-10-7, 58 points, +10 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: Like Sporting KC, D.C. also enters the playoffs on an extended unbeaten run (seven games), and the club has a growing sense of confidence with every result. Bill Hamid played like a world-beater in goal in the season finale against Chicago and has appeared to rediscover his top form, and the team has an uncanny ability to respond to falling behind in games, completely changing the mentality of past D.C. teams that have crumbled when facing in-game adversity. On paper, D.C. is far from the most daunting team out there, but coach Ben Olsen has made it work and has a locker room full of players who have bought in and truly believe.
Why they won't: D.C. has managed to stem the tide without the injured Dwayne De Rosario, but the remaining attacking nucleus is quite short on playoff experience and would benefit so much by having De Rosario and his extensive postseason resume available for selection. There may be a bit of a transition shock from regular-season mode to playoff mode for Olsen's much-improved side, and stumbling in the opener at Red Bull Arena on Saturday night would pave the way for a quick and disappointing exit for a club making its return to the playoffs after a five-year hiatus.
Key Player: Chris Pontius, M/F. Pontius' game tends to rise another notch when he faces the Red Bulls, especially in 2012, when he scored five of his career-high 12 goals this season in the three meetings with United's chief rival. He notched a hat trick against them at RFK Stadium earlier this season and had a two-goal game at Red Bull Arena as well. With De Rosario out, Pontius, the longest-tenured player on the team and a U.S. national-team candidate, has taken hold of the leadership role but has to deliver on the scoreboard, whether he's playing up top or out on the left wing.
NEW YORK RED BULLS (16-9-9, 57 points, +11 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: The class on this roster, when it performs at its peak, can be unstoppable. Thierry Henry is healthy, motivated and becoming the poster child for what it means to be a Designated Player. Unlike rival D.C., on paper, this team has the making of a champion, and if Kenny Cooper can carry his scoring form from the season finale over into the playoffs and act as a battering ram while going up against D.C.'s vulnerable central defenders in the conference semifinals, then that will open up a world of possibilities for Henry, Tim Cahill & Co.
Why they won't: Because something always goes drastically wrong for the Red Bulls, doesn't it? The timing of the front-office overhaul and word of Hans Backe's pending departure could prove to be the distraction that derails another promising campaign for a team still in search of its first trophy. More tangibly and pertinent to on-field happenings, the Red Bulls constantly find themselves playing from behind early, a problem that has become less of an epidemic in the club's most recent games but is a recipe for disaster against playoff-caliber competition.
Key Player: Dax McCarty, M. Henry is the greatest game-changer in MLS and can single-handedly carry his squad in a way that no other player in the league can. But it's been McCarty's tenacity, work rate and tackling ability that often goes under-noticed and can help New York dominate the ball while covering up the imperfections across the back line. How sweet would it be for McCarty, who was misused in his brief, forgettable time in D.C., to emerge as a playoff hero against New York's nemesis? He was a key factor in FC Dallas' run to the MLS Cup final in 2010 and can is more than capable of replicating that role yet again.
CHICAGO FIRE (17-11-6, 57 points, +5 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: The Fire can attack from all angles, with Chris Rolfe being a second-tier MVP candidate upon his comeback to MLS. The returning Fire star took no time at all to re-acclimate to the league after getting over an injury, emerging as a true-difference maker in a withdrawn forward role behind Sherjill MacDonald and acting as the catalyst for a team that had loads of in-season overhaul. Defensively, Chicago is stable, with Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Berry and German veteran Arne Freidrich churning out consistent results.
Why they won't: As well as the Fire can play, they had a tendency to drop a stinker at the most questionable of times, evidenced by a loss at New England in the penultimate game of the season. It was a match the Fire should have won with relative ease to keep them out of the wildcard round, but instead, they find themselves with a more treacherous path. The Fire have the fatal flaw of being their own worst enemy.
Key Player: Sean Johnson, GK. When Johnson is on his game and things are going right, the young goalkeeper is one of the best at his craft in the league. He has shown, however, that he is prone to making grand errors on some pretty major stages (the Olympic qualifying gaffe will forever taint his resume), and all it takes to be eliminated from the MLS playoffs is one catastrophic, poorly timed blunder. This is his long-awaited chance to prove his doubters wrong, but it also another instance in which Johnson may come under some serious heat if he cannot come through unscathed.
HOUSTON DYNAMO (14-9-11, 53 points, +7 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: Dom Kinnear has a full complement of healthy charges from which to select, and the experience from last year's run to MLS Cup is littered all over the roster. If the good side of the sometimes-enigmatic Mac Kandji comes out for the postseason, then the Dynamo can score with the best of them. Houston was at its best this summer when Calen Carr and Kandji were in form, giving Brad Davis more capable options to find in the attack and not just trying to zone in on second-year standout Will Bruin.
Why they won't: The Dynamo limped into the postseason a bit, going 3-4-4 down the stretch after a five-game winning streak seemingly had them headed to the top of the table. The club went unbeaten at BBVA Compass Stadium and has one of the best home-field edges in the league, but the problem is, they need to go on the road just to earn a place in the conference semifinals. Houston's last foray to Toyota Park to face the Chicago Fire ended in a decisive 3-1 defeat.
Key Player: Oscar Boniek Garcia, M. Houston's set-piece proficiency is its calling card, and Davis, the service maestro is healthy and in fine form, but the Dynamo have a run-of-play threat in Garcia that differentiates this team from the one that advanced to last year's final. Arguably the best in-season DP acquisition in the league, Garcia adds a completely different element to Kinnear's attack and can unlock defenses with his wise runs and stealth passing.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES (19-6-9, 66 points, +29 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: When the Supporters' Shield winner hits on all cylinders, there is not a better team in the league. By any metric, San Jose was the top dog from start to finish. The Earthquakes' 72 goals were 23 more than the Los Angeles Galaxy scored, and they were the closest team in the league with 59. The club's +29 goal differential dwarfs the competition, with Seattle being next in line with +18. San Jose's 19 wins were the most in MLS. Simply put, San Jose is a balanced juggernaut, with a stable defense to go along with a spread-out attack.
Why they won't: The team's propensity for trailing late in games and needing to come from behind is ultimately its undoing, and the Goonies finally say die. It is one thing to have the belief that the club can constantly come back and win or tie, but constantly being in that position is a dangerous prospect, especially when going up against the more veteran, disciplined units in the league that are capable of seeing out a match. San Jose also had the penchant to churn out some head-scratching results over the course of the season, which included two losses to potential conference semifinal foe Vancouver and losses to non-playoff teams Montreal and Portland. The Earthquakes were undoubtedly the top squad in the league, but they are not one without faults.
Key Player: Victor Bernardez, D. MVP-in-waiting, Golden Boot winner and single-season goal record-holder Chris Wondolowski remains locked in as the premiere scoring threat in the league, but for San Jose to reach its peak, it needs its defense to shoulder some of the load. Bernardez is a candidate to be the league's Newcomer of the Year and Defender of the Year and can make the Earthquakes' job infinitely easier by dominating in the back. San Jose did not post a clean sheet on a team that was not Chivas USA after a 5-0 rout of Real Salt Lake on July 14, which is a glaring red flag for playoff time, when goal-scoring tends to be down.
REAL SALT LAKE (17-11-6, 57 points, +11 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: It is easy to sleep on RSL as a contender, because not a whole lot has changed with this stable club since it lifted the MLS Cup trophy in 2009. The veteran nucleus has been there and done that and is motivated to do it again, and as long a Jason Kreis' first-choice XI is healthy -- which has been the grand condition over the last three years -- RSL can take down all comers.
Why they won't: RSL's magic touch has waned a bit, and the sting of failing to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals is still pretty fresh. Seattle also poses a heck of a threat for a conference semifinal, with individual matchups being relatively even all over the field. Whether it's captain Kyle Beckerman trying to outshine Osvaldo Alonso as the defensive midfield boss or central defenders Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers going straight-up against forwards Freddy Montero and Eddie Johnson, the opening series is a genuine toss-up.
Key Player: Alvaro Saborio, F. As Saborio goes, so often does RSL. Olave's health is probably more of a key factor given the fact that his backup, Chris Schuler, is also dealing with a fresh injury, but when the streaky Saborio is finishing with precision and is in a rhythm, he completely transforms RSL from a quality team to a potentially explosive one. RSL won't find itself on the winner's podium without Saborio, who had MLS career-high 17 goals this season, having a major say.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS (15-8-11, 56 points, +18 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: This is Seattle's most dynamic, multi-faceted team of all of the four that have made the postseason in Sounders' MLS history, and there might not be a team in the league with more capable attacking threats on the field and on the bench. The fact that David Estrada, Sammy Ochoa, Mario Martinez and Steve Zakuani, who all started the club's CONCACAF Champions League game this past week, are attacking options 6-9 on this roster is a frightening proposition. As solid as the team was during the regular season, postseason success is ultimately how this team will be remembered, and the club is locked in on turning the page from past postseason failures.
Why they won't: Seattle has to tangle with Real Salt Lake, and while falling to the third seed may have given the Sounders a break by getting to host the opening game of the conference semifinals, RSL is just a brutal early-round matchup on any field. Fresh knocks to vital forward Eddie Johnson and stalwart center back Jeff Parke could leave Sigi Schmid shorthanded depending on the outcome of fitness and medical tests this week, providing another hurdle for the Sounders to overcome in trying to get over the hump of never winning a playoff series.
Key Player: Freddie Johntero, F. OK, so that's cheating a bit. But the fact remains that Freddy Montero and Eddie Johnson have awful postseason track records in their respective MLS careers. Montero has no goals and one assist in six postseason games over the last three seasons, and Seattle has stumbled to a grand total of no playoff series wins as a result. Johnson has the same stat line as Montero, with his postseason experience coming years ago with both the Dallas Burn in 2002 and Kansas City Wizards in 2007. In order to crack RSL's resolute defense, Montero and Johnson (if fit) have to come through, plain and simple.
LOS ANGELES GALAXY (16-12-6, 54 points, +12 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: The defending champions know what it takes to get it done in the postseason, and they are playing with a stated confidence and swagger to the point that they won't be beating themselves like they were in the opening months of the season. Remember when the Galaxy started out 3-8-2 and were trending toward most disappointing team in MLS history? Those days are long gone, and the club finished the season with just two losses in the last 16 games. And even though it seems that most can't wait to write the post-mortem on Donovan's career (perhaps fueled by Donovan's own recent comments to ESPN that are those of a player whose career may be winding down), the fact remains that Donovan had a very good season when he was on the field, and he is still as talented and dynamic of an attacking player as there is in the league. The Donovan-Robbie Keane-David Beckham DP trio led the Galaxy to MLS Cup last season and is more than capable of rising to the challenge again.
Why they won't: Getting past the wildcard round means a date awaits with the California Clasico rival San Jose Earthquakes, a team that has no fear for the Galaxy's star-studded roster and championship pedigree. San Jose took the season series 2-0-1 (although all three games were tightly contested and quite entertaining at that), and former Galaxy coach Frank Yallop has a team with a strong enough mentality to go toe-to-toe with the defending champions. Also, with A.J. DeLaGarza still on the mend, some questions linger about the viability of the back line. All eyes are on rookie center back Tommy Meyer.
Key Player: Omar Gonzalez, D. The Galaxy's turnaround can be attributed to many factors, but Gonzalez's incredibly quick return from a torn ACL transformed the Galaxy's central defense from a glaring weakness to its restored state of stability, and as long as he is roaming across the back, there's a sense of calm and composure that extends across the field. Gonzalez has the ability to neutralize the top forwards in the league, and the Western Conference is littered with them. Simply put, a stellar showing from Gonzalez along the lines of his Defender of the Year campaign from 2011, will go a long way in determining the Galaxy's fate.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (11-13-10, 43 points, -6 goal differential)
Why they'll win it: Defense wins championships, and the Whitecaps have a unit that is capable of competing at a high level, with American veteran Jay DeMerit anchoring the line that allowed just one goal in the last four games of the regular season. The Whitecaps underwent a roster overhaul during the season, but the defense remained intact in front of goalkeepers Joe Cannon and Brad Knighton. The lower scoring the match, the better chance for the flawed Whitecaps to nick a result and carry on.
Why they won't: Honestly the Whitecaps just are not that good when compared to the rest of the stacked Western Conference field and are the clear weak link in the playoff field. They had fewer wins this season than the expansion Montreal Impact, had just one win in their last 10 games and managed to come out flat when the stakes were at their highest down the stretch. They scored the third-fewest goals in the entire league, besting only lowly Portland and Chivas USA. More specific to their wildcard matchup, they have an awful track record in their brief time in the league of playing at Los Angeles, who swept the two meetings between them at the Home Depot Center this season by a combined 5-0 scoreline. The Whitecaps are the longest shot in the field to lift MLS Cup.
Key Player: Kenny Miller, F. It would certainly be pretty nice timing for Miller to earn his DP dollars, no? The Scottish forward has been a considerable bust since joining MLS with just two goals in 13 games and has hardly been the solution that coach Martin Rennie was hoping for when reconstructing his attack in the middle of the season. That said, Miller has the pedigree of a top scorer and is someone who has played on some massive stages. All it takes is one virtuoso performance to turn his foray into MLS from underwhelming to worthwhile.