As far as entertainment value goes, the MLS playoffs, specifically the second legs of the conference semifinal this week, have made for some tremendous theater. Wednesday night was a dark one for top seeds, with the San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City both bowing out of the postseason in stunning, premature fashion at the hands of 2011 finalists Los Angeles and Houston, respectively, leaving a wide-open race on the road to MLS Cup.
On Thursday night, the drama rose to another level, with D.C. and New York playing a match for the ages after a week that played out like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Seattle, meanwhile, exorcised its postseason demons to finally win a playoff series and eliminate Real Salt Lake -- at Rio Tinto Stadium of all places -- breaking a scoreless aggregate deadlock on the strength of Mario Martinez's wonderstrike.
So what are we left with? Two fantastic conference final pairings littered with history and intrigue, geographical relevance (hooray for no more Western Conference teams vying for Eastern Conference supremacy!) and an MLS Cup final that will be held in either Washington, D.C., Seattle or Los Angeles. Here is a closer look at the remaining MLS playoff matchups:
• No. 2 D.C. United vs. No. 5 Houston Dynamo
• D.C.'s Playoff Road: Defeated No. 3 seed New York in conference semifinals on 2-1 aggregate.
• Houston's Playoff Road: Won at Chicago in the wild-card round 2-1; Defeated No. 1 seed Sporting Kansas City in conference semifinals on 2-1 aggregate.
• Season Series: Houston won 2-1-0 (D.C won 3-2 at home on April 28; Houston won 1-0 at home on May 12 and 4-0 at home on July 15).
Houston and D.C. enter this series on completely different emotional wavelengths. Houston's high from eliminating Sporting Kansas City for the second straight season may still linger. However, the club will have had an extra day of rest to refocus and re-energize ahead of what should be a bruising couple of games starting with Sunday's bout at BBVA Compass Stadium, where Houston still has not lost. D.C., meanwhile, just went through the emotional wringer after having the two venues for the conference semifinal swapped because of Hurricane Sandy, only to have the second leg postponed a day because of a snowstorm. On top of all that, they dealt with the drama that unfolded in victory over a fierce rival Thursday night.
D.C. will be shorthanded for the opening leg, as well. United won't have suspended goalkeeper Bill Hamid as he serves his ban for being red-carded Thursday. Starting right back Andy Najar is likely to be ruled out for at least one more game, if not the entire series, if the MLS Disciplinary Committee acts in accordance with how it has treated players who have thrown or kicked balls at referees this season. A three-game total ban (including the one for the red card he received), is not out of the question and would mean that the electric Najar would be unavailable until a potential MLS Cup final.
D.C. backup goalkeeper Joe Willis is no stranger to the Dynamo, playing 161 minutes over two matches against Houston this season. He started D.C.'s win over the Dynamo and came on after Hamid was ejected in their third meeting. He gave up four goals with his team down a man (two on penalties, including one inherited directly after Hamid's foul), but has the calm and cool demeanor to not let the moment overwhelm him. Hamid had been in tremendous form, but Willis has proven to be a capable backup in his two MLS seasons. If there is an area where the sometimes passive Willis will need to be sharp, it is commanding his area on set pieces, as Houston is as deadly as it gets from dead-ball situations.
With Najar out, veteran Robbie Russell will like maintain his place at right back. While he is an experienced and stable option, Houston will like its chances with star winger Brad Davis and fleet-footed left back Corey Ashe pounding that side of the field. Whereas New York could not exploit D.C.'s flank defending frailty -- especially with makeshift left back Lewis Neal stepping into the lineup against the Red Bulls --.Davis and Honduran winger Oscar Boniek Garcia could find success. D.C.'s fullbacks will have to gear up for a dogfight, and central defenders Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic will have to be prolific in the air to cut out the crosses from out wide to shut down in-form striker Will Bruin.
• Major Talking Point: Will D.C. captain Dwayne De Rosario return to face his former club? The 2011 MLS MVP is about nine weeks into his 10-to-12 week recovery timetable for his MCL injury, but he returned to full training prior to the second leg against New York and was upgraded to "probable" on United's injury report, though he did not make the matchday roster. D.C. has yet to lose since De Rosario went down while on international duty with Canada (6-0-3), but it is hard to argue against getting perhaps the most clutch MLS playoff performer in the league's history on the field -- even in a reserve role -- if he is truly ready and fit. What an added story line it would be if De Rosario, whose image dons one of the pillars at BBVA Compass Stadium as a tribute to his heroic tenure with the Dynamo, came back ahead of schedule to impact the series.
• No. 3 Seattle Sounders vs. No. 4 Los Angeles Galaxy
• Seattle's Playoff Road: Defeated No. 2 seed Real Salt Lake in conference semifinals on 1-0 aggregate.
• L.A.'s Playoff Road: Defeated Vancouver in the wildcard round, 2-1; defeated No. 1 seed San Jose in conference semifinals on 3-2 aggregate.
• Season Series: Seattle won 2-1-0 (Seattle won 2-0 at home on May 2 and 4-0 at home on Aug. 5; L.A. won 1-0 in regular-season finale on Oct. 28).
Both teams are on separate missions to prove points. For the Galaxy, it's about showing the floundering opening months of the season were indeed a fluke and this star-studded, veteran group whose window is rapidly closing is capable of climbing the league mountain yet again. Seattle is on a mission to correct the wrongs from each of its three playoff failures, winning its first postseason series in team history by taking out Real Salt Lake, the team that eliminated the Sounders last season. Next up: the Galaxy, who knocked out the Sounders in 2010. Should Seattle get by Los Angeles, there is a chance that Houston, the team that ended Seattle's expansion season run in 2009, could be waiting in the MLS Cup final, one that would be held in Seattle should that scenario play out. It is all a bit too poetic from the Sounders' point of view.
Bruce Arena's exclamation after Wednesday night's triumph over San Jose that L.A. has been the best team in MLS since July is way closer to truth than exaggeration. The club has managed to quietly jell (going 15-5-4 in its last 24 matches, including the playoffs), and rookie center back Tommy Meyer has passed his playoff test with flying colors while filling in for the injured A.J. DeLaGarza to pair with back line stalwart Omar Gonzalez. The rest of the Galaxy's integral complementary pieces are healthy: Mike Magee has found his playoff mojo again and Designated Players Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Robbie Keane have done what is expected of them. Keane is often the third member listed of the trio, and while San Jose's Chris Wondolowski rightfully stole the headlines this season with his record-scoring goal season, it is the veteran Irishman who was arguably the best forward in MLS over the last four months. Seattle's defense and goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who did not concede a goal in the club's conference semifinal triumph over Real Salt Lake, will have their hands full.
One thing to watch in the coming couple of days is whether the MLS Disciplinary Committee takes any action against Seattle left back Marc Burch, who clearly mouthed an anti-gay slur aimed at RSL's Will Johnson on Thursday night after he appeared to dive to try and earn a penalty. Even though it was not picked up by field microphones -- like Houston midfielder Colin Clark's stab at a Seattle ballboy back in March -- it was clear as day to anyone watching the telecast what was said. The league DC could let it slide, because there was no audio to 100 percent verify Burch's remark, but the committee would be well within its rights to send a zero-tolerance message as well (and on a side note, when will players understand that cameras are everywhere and that people can lip read? The lack of emotional restraint is astounding at times). Should Burch be forced to miss out, it could severely hamper the side of the defense tasked with handling Donovan, as the club's other left back, Leo Gonzalez, is dealing with a hamstring injury and didn't even make the bench Thursday night.
• Major Talking Point: Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson are still 0-fer in their playoff careers when it comes to scoring goals and, even though Montero brilliantly set up Martinez for his incredible goal against Real Salt Lake, that goose egg still looms over his otherwise shining MLS resume. It is hard to believe that Seattle will be able to get by a high-octane Galaxy squad without getting a contribution from its top two scorers. Montero and Johnson each scored twice against the Galaxy this season, with each tallying once in a win that broke a two-year winless drought against L.A. in May before doing so again in a rout a few months later. Should playmaker Mauro Rosales return from his recent hamstring injury, that could be the key to unlocking the explosive potential of the two players, who combined for 27 tallies in the regular season.