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How will the MLS playoffs unfold? Here are one man's predictions

The 2012 MLS playoffs kick off on Wednesday when Chicago hosts Houston in the Eastern Conference knockout game (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2), the first of 15 postseason matches involving 10 teams and concluding with the MLS Cup final on December 1. SI.com's Avi Creditor has a great team-by-team breakdown, so in this column I'll get into my predictions and provide some context on what makes this MLS postseason different from previous ones, to wit:

Regular-season performance now matters more, but only in the final. One of the big complaints about the MLS playoffs has always been that it renders the regular season largely meaningless by including too many teams and providing little in the way of home-field advantage. That will definitely change with the MLS Cup final guaranteed to take place for the first time at the stadium of the finalist with the better regular-season record. I like the reward, and we'll also never have to see another half-empty neutral-site stadium like we saw in Toronto at the end of the 2010 MLS Cup final. But ...

Aside from the final, home-field advantage now means even less. The conference finals will now be two-legged affairs instead of one-off games at the home of the team with the better regular-season record. That should make the conference finals more unpredictable than in the past. In MLS, two-game series are determined by total goals, with the away-goals rule that we often see elsewhere not in effect. There's very little home-field advantage in these home-and-home series, with the slight exception that the higher seed does get to host a tie-breaking extra time at the end of game two if total goals are tied.

No more geographical nonsense! There have been so many examples of teams from the West winning the East title (and vice-versa) in recent years that it got to be funny. That's no longer a possibility in the new set-up, which doesn't allow conference crossovers. The only downside is a team with a losing record (Vancouver) was able to sneak into the West playoffs while a team with a winning record (Columbus) missed the East playoffs entirely, but that's a small concern if you ask me. In my mind, any team that finishes fifth in its conference shouldn't make the postseason anyway.

Big picture, I like the MLS playoffs. There's a greater sense of urgency than in the regular season, and the postseason has given us some of the league's most memorable games over the years. This year we're already guaranteed to see two great rivalry matchups in the conference semis (Salt Lake-Seattle and D.C. United-New York), and a third is a likely possibility in San Jose-Los Angeles. Here's my take on what will happen:

Chicago-Houston (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Neither team is coming into the playoffs on a high, but Chicago has shown a greater propensity for poor performances at unlikely times, and many of Houston's starters rested in the season finale against Colorado. This is going to be a tight game in which one play makes the difference, and I like Houston's Brad Davis or Oscar Boniek García to provide it.

The pick: Houston.

Los Angeles-Vancouver (Thursday 10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

I know, I know, anything can happen in one game. But Vancouver fell ass-backward into the playoffs, winning just one of its last 10, and L.A. may be the league's top team at the moment. It's hard to see a veteran-laden team like L.A. losing at home here.

The pick: Los Angeles.

Kansas City-Houston

K.C. is still smarting from its home loss to Houston in last year's East final, but Sporting has learned from that experience and has more late-season fitness to play its punishing style than it did at this time last year.

The pick: Kansas City.

D.C. United-New York

Give D.C. coach Ben Olsen credit for guiding United to the playoffs without its best player (Dwayne De Rosario), but it says here New York will ride a virtuoso Thierry Henry performance to the next round.

The pick: New York.

San Jose-Los Angeles

In a one-game home-field situation, San Jose would be my pick. But this is 180 minutes against a playoff-tested L.A. side that has been playing more like a Bruce Arena-coached team in recent months.

The pick: Los Angeles.

Salt Lake-Seattle

Seattle fans are hungry for their first MLS playoff series win, but Salt Lake is not a good matchup for the Sounders, who are dealing with their second straight season with a key injury on the eve of the playoffs (Eddie Johnson this year, Mauro Rosales last year). Too much déjà vu going on here.

The pick: Salt Lake.

Kansas City-New York

Maybe it comes from seeing K.C. put two quick ones past the Red Bulls in Jersey not long ago. Maybe it comes from Sporting's greater consistency and an ability to frustrate its foes, or perhaps it's the late-season distraction surrounding New York coach Hans Backe, who's almost certain to lose his job. But there are plenty of reasons to lean toward K.C. in this series.

The pick: Kansas City.

Los Angeles-Salt Lake

If I'm being honest, I expected more from this group of Salt Lake players after they won MLS Cup 2009 and reached the final of the CONCACAF Champions League in 2011. But this series presents a golden opportunity over two legs to regain some of the mystique this team seemed to be acquiring a couple years ago. Expecting a classic.

The pick: Salt Lake.

Kansas City-Salt Lake

It would be fitting if the new crown jewel of U.S. soccer stadiums in Kansas City gets to host MLS's marquee game. It could also be bitterly cold on December 1, which would bring another element into play. This Kansas City team has felt like a special one from the start this season, and Sporting's league-best defense will prove it again here as K.C. does the double, adding the MLS Cup to the U.S. Open Cup.

The pick: Kansas City.

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