So now we know. Our two-legged conference semis will be as follows (overall seeding in brackets):
New York Red Bulls (1) vs Houston Dynamo (9)
Sporting Kansas City (2) vs New England Revolution (7)
Portland Timbers (1) vs Seattle Sounders (6)
Real Salt Lake (4) vs LA Galaxy (5)
We'll get under way on Saturday evening, when New England host Sporting KC at Gillette Field. You have to feel that that game may be the one that determines that tie. Sporting won't be able to play their usual game on the artificial turf and New England have a chance to get the edge going back to Sporting Park. If they don't, or worse still give up a lead to a team who make a specialty of defending them, then Sporting's recent playoff misfortunes could be a thing of the past.
Later on Saturday night, it's the series MLS wanted, as Seattle (2-0 victors over Colorado on Wednesday night) meet local rivals and Western Conference winners Portland, who finished off the regular season strongly with a 5-0 dismantling of Chivas on the final day — which is one way to answer accusations you don't score enough goals, I suppose. A lot of eyes on DP Diego Valeri, who seems to be rounding back into the kind of form he showcased in his very first game of the year in this goal of the year candidate against New York.
Speaking of New York, the Supporters' Shield winners travel to Houston on Sunday afternoon for the first leg of their attempt to improve on a playoff record that has seen them fall at this stage in each of the last three years. They face a Houston side who've struggled against the Red Bulls this year (if being outscored 10-1 in regular season play can be called "struggling"), but this is the playoffs, and even the hot New York team who've cruised through the last two months of league play will be wary about a Dynamo team who got Will Bruin scoring again against Montreal in their 3-0 wild card win on Thursday night.
Finally on Sunday night we have the first leg of what might be the technical spectacle of the round as Jason Kreis's RSL go to Bruce Arena's Los Angeles. Two teams in supposed states of overhaul this year — both having given young players their chance to step up. And both reaping the benefit of an emphasis on continuity within the club. In LA's case it's a certain cultural continuity that is putting more and more emphasis on homegrown talent such as Gyassi Zardes, while in Salt Lake, there's been an emphasis on smart recruitment of players to fit their possession-treasuring system, and the likes of Luis Gil have been more than adequate replacements for those who left in the off-season clearout.
The return legs will be played on Wednesday and Thursday next week. But don't even think about that just now — we have liveblogs of every game this weekend and Richard Farley and myself will be back on Monday with five things we learned this weekend. And if you're one of those who likes to look back with a rueful smile on the accepted wisdom of earlier times, you could always take a look at our team by team guide from the start of the playoffs — perhaps looking sadly at the profiles of the two eliminated teams while murmuring "Such a waste."
Wishing they'd been eliminated early so I'd stop hassling them for copy, our regular cast of fan reps and beat writers for the eight remaining teams (the same number of players Montreal had left on the field after their loss to Houston, incidentally). See what they have to say about the semis below, have your say in the comments and join us on Saturday for the first of the semis.
All game times listed as ET
New England Revolution vs Sporting Kansas City
Sat 8pm, Gillette Field (NBCSN)
Wed 9pm, Sporting Park
MB Carradine, Midnight Riders:
No one projected the Revolution would finish 3rd in the East, and rightfully so. The Revs finished 9th in 2012, and no seismic off-season changes followed. The pre-season conversation was less about playoffs, and more about whether Heaps would hold onto his job. This Revolution front office is not known for its brilliant acquisitions. Aging French stars of yesteryear? A must. An ill-fitting striker who can't stop scoring for his national team, but has no desire to play in New England? Sign him up. Another, heralded as the new "number 9" who fired his first warning shot by refusing to get on the plane to Boston? By all means! Lozano, Feilhaber, Caraglio... Cue the laugh track.
No one had any reason to believe that Jose Goncalves would be different, but his impact was immediately palpable. Andrew Farrell lived up to the hype. Half-season rental Agudelo thrived alongside Nguyen. Rowe and Fagundez matured into legitimate game-changers. Shockingly, the Revs steadily gained swagger. And with their backs against the wall, the Revs finished 4-0-2 and surged into 3rd.
Once again, the expectations are low for New England. Pundits have chosen Sporting KC to advance, and for good reason: SKC's bruising defense does not unlock easily. If the Revolution (the darkest of horses) are to shock us again, they'll need to sustain flawless football over 180 minutes and capitalize on the few chances SKC allows. It's a tall order for a young team, but New England appears undeterred by the expectations of others.
Malena Barajas, co-founder, Women United FC, Sporting Kansas City:
Last weekend, Sporting KC's hopes for the Supporters' Shield were trampled by a magnificent performance by the New York Red Bulls against the Chicago Fire. As NYRB piled on the goals, it became clear SKC would face the New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and so dodging the Houston Dynamo who have ended SKC's playoff runs in 2011 and 2012 - perhaps a better deal as SKC sets its sights on the MLS Cup.
The Semifinals start Saturday in a nationally televised match at Gillette Stadium. During the regular season, SKC and NER met twice resulting in four points for SKC and zero goals to NER's credit. A good friend and NER supporter was quick to remind me that SKC's 3-0 win at Sporting Park in August against his team was a drama-filled event where two NER players saw red in the second half. That win also included two headers scored by Kei Kamara in the first half. I expect a lot less drama but just as much excitement in this series. NER worked hard to win a playoff spot, (the first since 2009), and SKC has evolved over the season even if Vermes is criticized for rarely changing tactics. Both teams have a lot of pride at stake, and as I review side-by-side stats from the regular season rounded to whole percentages, the two lead in shutouts, and are close to even on passing accuracy (SKC's 78% to NER's 76%) and duels won (SKC's 50% to NER's 48%).
NER should not be underestimated, especially as its forward and leading scorer Diego Fagundez and stronghold midfielder Lee Nguyen seem to be high on confidence. The SKC backline will have a lot of work to do over the two legs of this series and are the key to SKC's success.
Seattle Sounders vs Portland Timbers
Sat 10pm, CenturyLink Field (NBCSN)
Thurs 11pm, JeldWen Field (NBCSN)
Dave Clark, Sounder at Heart, Seattle:
Beating the Rapids in a way that overcame so many obstacles while reclaiming a bit of Sounders FC glory was a great thing. Advancing in the MLS Cup Playoffs is a great thing. Doing it while down a man and with injuries to two DPs is a great thing.
Here's the thing about playoffs. Greatness is not just expected at this time of year. It is necessary.
The oldest of rivals face each other again. An old growth forest and the deep waters stare at each other. Desire and majesty pulsing through their souls. Seasons of hope rest on this two leg conference semi. The anger and opposition that within each other mean that which ever side wins can feel as if the season was a success. The loser will have failed.
Tactics, history, standings - all are useless in this kind of rivalry. Health, analytics, football lines and weekday games - they do not matter. None care that it is merely an early round match.
A statement will be made or retracted.
Roger Anthony, Timbers Army, Portland:
Let's do this by the numbers:
1-1-1 – Regular season records in head-to-head matches between Portland and Seattle. Aggregate goals were 2-2.
1, 1, 1 – Regular season goals scored by three of the Timbers' four-headed strike machine consisting of Jose Valencia, Frederic Piquionne, Maximiliano Urruti and Ryan Johnson, the latter of whom had nine. Urruti is still nursing a thigh problem from the 13 October Timbers-Sounders match in Portland. Coach Caleb Porter's got some interesting choices to make.
10 – Number of times Seattle defenders were called for fouling midfielder Darlington Nagbe in the final two Portland-Seattle matches. Nagbe was the most frequently fouled player in MLS this season, and he couldn't have done it without Sounder MF Osvaldo Alonso.
5 – Timbers who scored seven or more goals this season, topped by MF Diego Valeri's 10.
3 – Goals Portland surrendered in eight matches since the start of September. None were scored by the four playoff clubs the Timbers faced.
2 – As Stumptown Footy blogger Stacey Neve observed, two seconds PRIOR to the ball hitting the net, Nagbe began raising his arms in celebration of Valeri's second goal against Chivas.
1 – Seattle's "Consecutive Games Without Taking a Swing at Somebody" total before the playoffs started. Unsurprisingly, it was reset to zero following Wednesday's Colorado match.
Add those numbers up, and you get a picture of two evenly matched but starkly different clubs. One plays with a steely poise and unity polished by adversity; one plays with a surplus of hardened cynicism.
Our game is beautiful because to excel at its highest levels, the whole must be greater than the sum of the parts. Only one of these teams fits that description.
Houston Dynamo vs New York Red Bulls
Sun 3.30pm, BBVA Compass Stadium (NBC)
Wed 8pm, Red Bull Arena (Univision Dep.)
Stephen Eastepp, Dynamo Theory, Houston:
The stage is set for the Dynamo to take on New York. It's likely the club Houston would most want to avoid considering their results against the Red Bulls this year, but luck isn't on their side. It would be difficult to locate many outside Houston that would give the Dynamo a chance.
In three matches this year, New York has had their way against Houston. Three wins for the Red Bulls – and all pretty convincing. The scariest part of it all is New York came into BBVA Compass Stadium twice and walked away with easy victories. Normally having the first leg of a playoff series is comforting for Houston fans, but New York has shown they are just fine on the road against the Dynamo.
Fortunately for Houston, they'll be building off the momentum of a solid performance in their knockout win against the Montreal Impact. Marco Di Vaio and the Impact were completely shutout in an all-around remarkable performance by Houston. The defense was solid and the offense – particularly Will Bruin – was flawless.
The Dynamo have proven they are built for playoff runs. The grit and determination they tend to reserve for this time of year is something everyone speaks of. On Halloween night it showed up again and pushed Houston on to the next round.
This time the opponent is who MLS crowned the best of the regular season. They surely got the best of Houston in the regular season. The playoffs is a whole new ballgame.
Dan Ryazansky, editor, Metrofanatic, New York:
With the shiny Supporters Shield finally in New York's no-longer-empty trophy case, mission accomplished, right? Wrong. Trophyless no more, New York is now set to vanquish the ghosts of playoff past. Everything but MLS Cup will be a disappointment for a team that steamrolled through the last two months of the MLS regular season.
Needing a win for the Shield, New York got just that, but not before going down early to Chicago's Mike Magee in a textbook "that's so Metro" moment. A magnificent strike from Titi Henry and four second-half goals earned that elusive trophy. Front and center was Peguy Luyindula, starting in midfield, and setting up three New York scores. The once-maligned forward has become a beloved midfielder in a span of two games.
New York outscored the Dynamo by 9-1 margin. However, Houston is a proven playoff performer, as evidenced by their runs to the last two MLS Cups. New York will clearly be favored. With Henry and Tim Cahill, they have two players who can alter the game at will. That being said... it's the playoffs. As evidenced from troubles of years past, anything can happen. The Curse of Caricola might be gone, but one cannot forget the troubles of years past... That said, we now have a trophy!
LA Galaxy vs Real Salt Lake
Sun 9pm, StubHub Center (ESPN)
Thurs 9pm, Rio Tinto Stadium (ESPN2)
If I'm honest, I always say that RSL scares me. They play to win, they have plenty of talent, a great and well respected coach, and they did beat LA in the 2009 MLS Cup Final. And that 2009 final was such a heartbreaker for so many LA Galaxy fans it isn't, and hasn't been forgotten.
This year has seen the Galaxy gain some success against Real Salt Lake. In two trips to Sandy, Utah LA was able to get a 2-0 win and a loss. Then in Carson, the Galaxy were able to take another step forward with a 4-2 win. However, the last of those games was played in the middle of August; hardly a current barometer of form. This series will come down to which one of these teams gains an advantage; which of these teams gets the stunning goal from the unexpected player. It will be exciting with quick counterattacks and, depending on whose at home, long stretches of team possession.
Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan account for 26 of the Galaxy's goals while Alvaro Saborio, Javier Morales, and Robbie Findley make up the same number for Real Salt Lake. Both of these teams score just over 1.5 goals per game and both allow just over one goal per game. They are also winners of three of the last four MLS Cups (RSL 2009, LA 2011 and 2012).
These teams are both anchored by superb goal keepers with Nick Rimando for RSL and Jaime Penedo for the LA Galaxy. They both contain a stifling defense, great central midfielders and dangerous strikers. If LA's star power is to be of any use, then they should be able to sneak by a very good, and very respected Real Salt Lake team.
Denzel Eslinger, RSL Soapbox:
So Real Salt Lake clinched their playoff spot a couple weeks ago with a 0-0 draw at the Portland Timbers, I thought the team needed a tough test from Chivas USA to get them ready for whoever they would face in the playoffs and they got just that and were able to hold on to a 2-1 win at Rio Tinto Stadium. The weekend was just about the dust settling and seeing where RSL would land both in the Supporters' Shield race as well as in the Western Conference, by the time it was all said and done they were 4th overall in MLS and 2nd in the West, which meant a first round playoff series with the LA Galaxy.
I think this series determines who wins the Western Conference, both teams have tons of experience and are so well matched that they are dead even when facing each other. In regular season action they each have 10 wins with 5 draws, in the post season each side has a single win over the other. These are the two best teams in MLS over the last 4 years as both have had 15 win/50 point seasons each year, something no other team has done. For all the parity on the pitch the clubs couldn't be more different, LA has two players that each make more money than the entire RSL roster, the Galaxy are about who can support the stars, while RSL is about the team being the star. I think this one ends up with over time or PK deciding it and in that case there is nobody better than RSL's Nick Rimando at leading a team to victory.