The MLS regular season is in the books, with the New York Red Bulls sewing up the Supporters' Shield to enter the playoffs with their first major competitive trophy in tow and a completely new outlook on life but work still to be done to ensure that their 2013 campaign isn't remembered solely for its regular season exploits. Mike Petke, Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill & Co. will host the MLS Cup if they can get there, but they face a host of legitimate challengers and contenders as they aim to end the LA Galaxy's two-year reign atop the league mountain.
Here are just a few of the storylines in play as the league gets set to crown its 18th champion.
STRAUS: Breaking down the MLS playoff bracket
Can anyone dethrone Arena, Kinnear?
We've seen this play out before: Other teams finish the regular season in better position with more momentum and promise heading into the playoffs, but Bruce Arena's LA Galaxy and Dominic Kinnear's Houston Dynamo do what they have to do to get into the dance, then flip the playoff switch and reach the final. There are surely other teams this season who have had better campaigns and might even look better on paper, but until proven otherwise, it's impossible to treat LA and Houston as anything but serious threats to reach a third consecutive final with the two most successful playoff coaches at the helm.
The Galaxy, in search of an unprecedented third straight MLS Cup, start off this postseason in better position than they did last, when they had to go through the wild card round. Landon Donovan's ankle health is certainly a concern because if he is at anything less than his best, his vaunted partnership with Robbie Keane becomes slightly more manageable for opposing defenses.
STRAUS: Donovan tells of his favorite MLS goals
Potential Cascadia clash looms
MLS loves nothing more than prime time, heated clashes between Seattle and Portland, and with one result in the wild card round, it will have quite the two-game series on its hands. If Seattle, shockingly winless in seven matches heading into the playoffs, can get by the Colorado Rapids in their play-in game -- which is no easy feat when you recall that Colorado thrashed Seattle 5-1 not even a month ago -- then the Sounders and Timbers will do battle in perhaps the two most anticipated playoff matches in league history.
Caleb Porter's Timbers lost just five times this season -- fewest in the league -- and achieved a remarkable turnaround to finish first in the Western Conference, but they are pretty thin on postseason experience. Seattle is a team hell bent on achieving postseason success to match its ambition and investment, especially after coming up short in each of the past four seasons. The natural bad blood between the two Pacific Northwest rivals boils during the regular season. Just imagine what a confrontation with a place in the conference final would bring.
Some will fall short of expectations again
With only one team lifting the MLS Cup trophy in December, it is going to make for a sour offseason for nine other contenders. For some, the taste of defeat will be even more bitter, though.
Sporting Kansas City and Seattle are much in the same boat: Two model franchises with passionate fan bases that have failed to match postseason expectations despite vaunted rosters and lofty annual goals. Both endured through overall successful seasons. Sporting KC tied New York for the most wins in the league while also winning its CONCACAF Champions League group, and even though Seattle limped its way into the playoffs, it managed to add Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey to a roster that is as talented, on paper at least, as there is in the league.
Real Salt Lake was supposed to be in a rebuilding year, but Jason Kreis coached his revamped team to a second-place finish in the West as internal expectations remained as high as ever. However, the stinging memory of missing out on yet another title, this time the U.S. Open Cup, is still fresh, and with Kreis linked to the New York City FC job, this could yet again be RSL's last chance at a trophy before another set of major changes. No team wants to be the perennial regular season stalwart that continually falls short in crunch time, and RSL has been battling to avoid that moniker ever since capturing its 2009 MLS Cup title. Having to go through the Galaxy in the conference semifinals won't make that battle any easier.
Now with reason to use the trophy case at Red Bull Arena, New York also faces higher expectations. Winning the Supporters' Shield comes with the task of trying to validate that with postseason honors, and for a club used to having the other shoe drop, entering the playoffs as the favorite makes for entirely new waters.
STRAUS: Red Bulls clinch Supporters' Shield with dominant win over Fire
All eyes on Dempsey
Simply put, this is where Clint Dempsey needs to shine. The Sounders and MLS dished out unprecedented cash to bring Dempsey back home from the Premier League, and while he has been battered by the opposition and struggled to find his scoring form as he adjusts to a new team and league, the postseason stage provides an opportunity for some legitimate early returns and validation for the league's second Dempsey Era.
Dempsey relieved a ton of pressure by scoring his first Sounders goal in Sunday night's season finale against Donovan's Galaxy, and all eyes will be on Deuce to see if he can perform at his best with the lights at their brightest. If Dempsey can put Seattle on his back and carry the Sounders to MLS Cup success, he'll become a city icon in no time.
GASTINEAU: How Drew Carey became part-owner of the Sounders
The kids on display
MLS boasts a wealth of up-and-coming talent, and perhaps no team embodies that more than the New England Revolution. Back in the postseason for the first time since 2009, these Revs are not your older brother or sister's Revs. With 18-year-old dark horse MVP candidate Diego Fagundez, 20-year-old Stoke City-bound forward Juan Agudelo and 21-year-old second-year midfielder Kelyn Rowe all playing vital roles, Jay Heaps' side is as dangerous as it is young and inexperienced.
New England's attacking qualities going head-to-head with Sporting Kansas City's stout defending, ball possession and experience makes for one heck of an intriguing and contrasting conference semifinal matchup.
Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Joe Bendik (Toronto FC)
Defenders: Jose Goncalves (New England Revolution), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steven Caldwell (Toronto FC)
Midfielders: Lawrence Olum (Sporting Kansas City), Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers), Jonathan Osorio (Toronto FC), Peguy Luyindula (New York Red Bulls)
Forwards: Camilo (Vancouver Whitecaps), Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)
CREDITOR: Red Bulls No. 1 in MLS Power Rankings entering playoffs