As Saturday's MLS playoff games unwind, here's a quick look ahead at the series that will get underway on Sunday.
New York Red Bulls vs. Houston Dynamo
Leg 1 | At Houston | Sunday, November 3, 3:30 p.m. (NBC)
Leg 2 | At New York | Wednesday, November 6, 8 p.m. (Univision Deportes)
Playoff history: The Red Bulls achieved one of the biggest upsets in the league's postseason history in the teams' only other playoff meeting back in 2008. The Red Bulls, who squeaked into that postseason as the final wild card, were shifted to the Western Conference side of the bracket because the higher-seeded wild card (The Kansas City Wizards) also came from the Eastern Conference. As a result, the Red Bulls were matched up with the two-time MLS Cup defending champion Dynamo, then the West's top seed, in the conference semifinals.
The Red Bulls were only able to draw 1-1 with Houston at Giants Stadium in the first leg, but improbably came through with a dominating 3-0 win at Robertson Stadium in Houston to advance to the next round. The Red Bulls went on to make the 2008 MLS Cup, where they lost to the Columbus Crew.
However, the Red Bulls' victory against Houston was the first step on the road to what is now a bizarre-but-true punchline -- New York: Western Conference Champions. Only in MLS.
Thankfully, the playoff system MLS used then is long gone. That goes for the Red Bulls' roster as well -- this year's edition shares 0 players with the 2008 squad. Houston, by comparison, is the model of consistency. Current Dynamo players Mike Chabala, Bobby Boswell, Corey Ashe, Ricardo Clark, Brad Davis, and coach Dominic Kinnear were all on the Dynamo roster for 2008's upset.
Intriguing storyline: Since Houston's 2008 collapse, the Dynamo have gained a reputation as one of the most dangerous teams to play in the playoffs, regardless of where they end up being seeded in the bracket. A lot of the credit for that should go to Kinnear, who seems to always have the right game plan at the right moment for the right opponent.
However, if the Dynamo are to dispatch a higher-seeded team from the playoffs for the third consecutive year, they'll need to do it without their talismanic coach for one of the games. Kinnear was slapped with a mandatory one-game suspension by the league for leaving his technical area, as he ran across the field to help break up the melee between Houston and Montreal players at the end of their opening-round match.
Kinnear will be back for the second leg, but his absence from the locker room and sidelines for the first one could be an interesting test to see just how much his presence inspires his team's professional performances under pressure.
X-Factor: Thierry Henry. Who else? The French legend is finally surrounded by a balanced collection of complimentary parts, but he remains the centerpiece. When Henry is at his best, his combination of skill, finishing, and intelligence make New York extremely hard to deal with when they're looking for a goal. Midfielder Tim Cahill has found a rich run of form, displayed against the Dynamo when he scored the fastest goal in MLS history just weeks ago. If Henry can reach a similar level, New York might be unstoppable.
Three Predictions: 1) Houston will score off a Brad Davis set piece. 2) Mike Petke will win the fashion duel with Kinnear handily. 3) The battle between Red Bull wide midfielders (likely Jonny Steele and Lloyd Sam) and Houston's outside backs (likely Corey Ashe and Kofi Sarkodie) will be among the most compelling stories in the series.
Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake
Leg 1 | At Los Angeles | Sunday, November 3, 9 p.m. (ESPN, TSN2)
Leg 2 | At Salt Lake | Thursday, November 7, 9 p.m. (ESPN2, TSN2)
Playoff history: These two West powers first met in the postseason in the 2009 MLS Cup Final, where Real Salt Lake won 5-4 on penalties to capture their first major title as a club.
Los Angeles exacted a measure of revenge two seasons later, when they defeated RSL 3-1 in the Western Conference final.
The teams that will meet in this playoff series are largely the same as the sides that met in 2011, with a few notable departures (David Beckham and Josh Saunders for LA and Jamison Olave, and Fabian Espindola for RSL, to name a few).
Intriguing storyline: Landon Donovan's ongoing return. The U.S. national team star made headlines and sparked conversation from around the soccersphere this year when he elected to take a hiatus from playing the game, instead choosing to take several months to clear his head and join up with the Galaxy after the MLS season started. This unprecedented decision prompted criticism from many. Donovan made his return at the end of March, and while at times he has looked as confident and dangerous as ever, his Galaxy team struggled through an uncharacteristically inconsistent season.
However, here they are in the playoffs, where anything can happen (and usually does). If Donovan can lead his team to be the first ever three-peat MLS Cup champions, he'll have a pretty definitive last laugh at all those that criticized his sabbatical.
X-Factor: Kyle Beckerman. The RSL attack flows through the dreadlocked midfielder first, and Los Angeles' fearsome frontline depends on service that Beckerman can so often deny. With some of MLS' best playmakers on either side, controlling the flow of the game in central midfield will be key. If Beckerman can disrupt the short passing of the Galaxy's Juninho and provide quick outlet passes to Javier Morales, RSL stands a much better chance of knocking off the defending champs. Three predictions: 1) Bruce Arena will sub on a player that will have a very obvious hand in a key play at some point over the two legs. 2) RSL won't lose at home, but it might not be enough to see them through. 3) Alvaro Saborio will continue his run of good form and get a goal in the first leg.