Road to MLS Cup '09 begins here

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What impact will a relatively low bar set by the Crew have in the 2009 MLS postseason? Luckily, not much.

The playoffs feature a diverse, mostly deserving group of eight who were able to reach the postseason in what was a somewhat average season across the board for most every club. Only two teams really struggled during the entire season while the Crew didn't entirely run away with the league as the other 12 teams went through the day-to-day grind with similar ups and downs.

Two teams though will rise above the crowd, do everything right in the first two rounds of the playoffs and meet for MLS Cup supremacy at Seattle's Qwest Field on Nov. 22. Here's a look at the '09 MLS Playoffs, which kick off Thursday night with Houston visiting Seattle (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2):

New England and Real Salt Lake struggled through large portions of the '09 season and reached the finish line on fumes, yet somehow managed to get into the playoffs and are on even footing with more complete teams in Chicago and Columbus.

Was it a testament of their character? A reaffirmation that their respective squads had the makings of a championship team and only adversity was necessary to bring that out from within?

Not quite. This is MLS after all, and each MLS postseason features a team or two that don't really belong but are there because they were just a notch enough above terrible to reach the playoffs.

New England had a negative goal-differential and reached November with a not-so-torrid 2-4-3- record in September and October. Real Salt Lake, meanwhile, had more losses (12) than wins (11) and had double-digit road losses this season.

Those are the kind of credentials that are good enough for teams to reach the MLS postseason, but with any luck, Chicago and Columbus will take care of business.

When Chivas USA joined the league four years ago, club owner Antonio Cue said a lot of things that never came to fruition, namely his "I'd play with 11 Mexicans if I could" decree that evaporated by Year Two. But one of the things he held close was his desire to have a team that would compete for a title in its fifth year.

This is Year Five of the Chivas USA experiment and, while the club has made progress in its first four seasons, it has yet to win a playoff series. Elimination games overall are tough for Chivas USA -- the club is 1-5 in U.S. Open Cup play, failed to advance out of its SuperLiga groups in '08 and '09 and failed to get past the qualifying round in the '08 CONCACAF Champions League.

The Goats have more heartbreak than success, but all that could change in a span of eight days with a playoff victory over their hated rivals, the L.A. Galaxy. Chivas USA's ardent supporters would forget the failures of years past with a trip to the Western Conference final.

In the east, Chicago also has hit a bit of a wall. The Fire seemingly are a perennial contender and feature two standout veterans in Brian McBride and Cuauhtémoc Blanco, but the club has been unable to break through in the Eastern Conference. MLS Cup '03 was Chicago's last taste of a final, but the club is still living off its success from the '98 season when it won MLS Cup as an expansion team.

With McBride and Blanco each slowed by injury this season, it's debatable how much time each has left beyond '09. Thus, Chicago's window of opportunity is closing and the club needs to figure out just how to handle that if it wants to have a shot at glory once more.

This postseason will feature both Houston and Los Angeles together for the first time, and the two very well could meet in the Western final. While Houston has been a fixture since moving from San Jose and becoming the Dynamo, the Galaxy have been absent for three seasons. But each enjoyed success this season.

The Galaxy stopped saying they "only play for championships" somewhere along their three-year playoff-less streak -- it's difficult to contend for titles when you're mired at the bottom of the standings. In the early days of MLS, that was much easier for the Galaxy to accomplish, but with the league increasing in numbers, Los Angeles found itself squeezed out and surpassed by other clubs.

Now, the Galaxy are back in the playoffs for the first time since winning MLS Cup '05. The team, though, might find the task of dealing with lofty expectations difficult after having such a drastic turnaround in such a short amount of time.

Houston, meanwhile, has become a constant force in the Western Conference. Coach Dominic Kinnear has built a permanent contender that in '09 has been overshadowed by the Galaxy's return to prominence and Seattle's arrival. The Dynamo, however, aren't exactly the kind of team rivals should overlook. As long as Kinnear is on the sidelines, Houston has a chance.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in their path is fatigue. The Dynamo are playing on tired legs after their wicked summer and exhaustion may do them in. In July and August, Houston played 15 games -- about an average of one every four days -- and that may have taken some steam out of the club as it won just three of nine games in September and October.

It's difficult to figure out what's more perplexing to consider: Columbus as a budding dynasty or to have an expansion team make a run at an MLS Cup title. The Crew were a laughable franchise just two years ago. Entering the '08 season, Columbus was more about ineptness than success, but black-and-gold soon became feared colors.

After winning the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup double last season, Columbus showed this year that its achievements from a year ago were no fluke and once again claimed the Supporters' Shield for the league's best overall record. And to prove their depth and high level of play, the club advanced to the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League.

Columbus seems the runaway favorite to come out of the East, but the Sounders will have a tougher road to travel if they want to taste success in their expansion season. An expansion team has won an MLS Cup championship before, but the '98 Chicago Fire and '09 Seattle Sounders FC were similar in only one thing: their expansion label.

The league was considerably different in '98 and Sigi Schmid had a much more difficult task of stockpiling his roster this year than Bob Bradley did more than a decade ago. Expansion nowadays looks more like Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake of '05, with a ghastly defense, punchless attack and turnstiles in front of the lockers.

Seattle changed that, though. From building their team around Freddie Ljungberg and Kasey Keller to hiring Schmid, the Sounders have done nearly everything right from the start. Even though history was against it, Seattle believed and expected to have immediate success. Its buzzing fan base is a luxury most other MLS teams can only dream about and could play a role in the postseason before all is said and done.

The difference between Columbus and Seattle is simple: Schmid. With the affable Schmid on their side, Columbus reached new heights and became a serious and successful club. Now that Schmid is in the Emerald City, Seattle instantly has become the same.

Come Nov. 22, Seattle will enjoy a true rags-to-riches tale and will forever knock Chicago off its expansion success with its MLS Cup '09 conquest.