MLS enters crunch phase
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It’s play-off time in MLS once again, and FIFA.com outlines what to expect as the ten qualified teams take aim at North American soccer’s ultimate prize.

The post-season bracket is split into two conferences, with Sporting Kansas City, DC United, New York Red Bulls, Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo lining up in the East. Competing from the West are San Jose Earthquakes (top on points in the regular season), Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy and Vancouver Whitecaps.

Action begins this week with two 'play-in' games, contested by the lowest-ranked two teams (fourth and fifth) from each conference.

LA, Whitecaps tangle for Earthquakes date
Despite their raft of stars, like Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and aging former England captain David Beckham, Los Angeles Galaxy could only finish the regular season in fourth place in the Western Conference. As such, Bruce Arena’s glamour boys now have to host the Vancouver Whitecaps, the first Canadian team in history to reach MLS’s post-season party, in a tense, one-off contest at LA’s Home Depot Center on 1 November.

Vancouver had trouble scoring this season and finished a full 11 points behind LA in the standings, just edging out FC Dallas to the play-offs. However, the post-season in MLS is so often an arena more about momentum than regular season form, and this could be a good omen for the men from British Columbia, led by former USA hero Jay DeMerit and known for a sturdy defence.

The winner moves on to meet San Jose Earthquakes over two legs in their conference semi-final. The Quakes proved themselves the most consistent side in the regular season and have the league’s most potent striker in USA international Chris Wondolowski, who equalled a 16-year-old league scoring record by bagging an astonishing 27 goals in 34 games this term.

Our philosophy is this: the team is the star.
Jason Kreis on Real Salt Lake.

The other semi-final series in the West pits Real Salt Lake against Seattle Sounders. RSL are a largely star-less outfit, who rely on the goals of Costa Rican scorer supreme Alvaro Saborio and the team ethic espoused by coach and former MLS striker Jason Kreis, who told FIFA.com: “Our philosophy is this: the team is the star,” after his unlikely men from the high Rockies won their only MLS title in 2009. Seattle Sounders, for their part, boast one of the most passionate sets of supporters in MLS, but they will need to wait on the fitness of ace striker Eddie Johnson, who is nursing a hamstring strain after scoring for fun in the regular season. Johnson’s eye for goal represents the perfect conclusion to the clever interplay of Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales and Christian Tiffert.

Star-studded NYRB face DC in East  
The play-in series in the Eastern Conference pits Chicago Fire (fourth) against former champions Houston Dynamo (fifth) on Wednesday. In a conference that was much tighter than the West, Houston, who claimed back-to-back MLS titles in 2006 and 2007, edged Columbus Crew by a single point at the wire. The Texans now travel to Chicago to take on a side led by the defensive strength of former German international Arne Friedrich, to see who will move on.

Sporting Kansas City, who topped the East in the regular season thanks to their terrific home record and the nifty playmaker work of Graham Zusi, will be waiting for either Chicago or Houston in the Conference semi-final.

The other semi-final series has mouths watering as New York Red Bulls take on DC United in a classy east coast tussle. The Red Bulls, like LA on the opposite coast, are a side loaded with star names, including FIFA World Cup™ and UEFA EURO winner Thierry Henry, an English Premier League hero during his time with Arsenal. Hans Backe’s men from the Big Apple, however, will have to travel to the nation’s capital for theirtwo-legged encounter, as DC pipped them to second place in the fading days of the regular season. United, a dynasty from the early days of MLS when they won three of the first four titles, are not shy of talent either, even without injured Dwayne De Rosario holding the midfield together for former playing star Ben Olsen’s side.

The winners of the Conference semi-finals move on to the Conference finals, to be played in mid-November over two legs. The victors of those home/away series will meet on 1 December in the MLS Cup, the annual one-off final that decides who wears the crown in MLS.