Crunch time in MLS

Unlike most other national leagues, the points leader at the close of business each year in Major League Soccer is not named as the champion. Instead, immediately following a gruelling 30-game 'regular season', the eight top finishers - the top two teams in each conference (East and West) plus the remaining best four, regardless of conference - square off in a tension-fuelled series of play-offs leading up to a one-off MLS Cup, the winner of which is then, finally, crowned the year's champion.

The first round of conference semi-finals are played in a home and away format with the next two (conference finals and MLS Cup) decided after 90 minutes. Join for a brief tour of the eight remaining teams and their potential paths to glory.

East: DC hope to get home
DC United finished the 2007 regular season at the weekend with the top points tally in MLS. They also have in their side Brazilian scoring sensation Luciano Emilio, whose 20 goals in 29 games make him the league's best marksman. Inspired by head coach Tom Soehn and the silky midfield orchestrations of Argentine Christian Gomez, the side from the capital will be desperate to reach MLS Cup and have a chance at winning their fifth title on home soil - the 12th MLS Cup final is scheduled for their RFK Stadium for 18 November.

First though, they will have to get past fourth-place finishers from the East, Chicago Fire, over two legs on 25 October and 1 November. Although the men from the Windy City did not seal qualification for the play-offs until the final weekend, the team are on a roll. Led by enigmatic Mexican playmaker and club MVP Cuauhtemoc Blanco and former Costa Rica and West Ham star Paulo Wanchope, the Fire will be flying high after eliminating golden boys LA Galaxy from contention in an all-or-nothing contest at the weekend.

"We played well to beat LA," said Blanco after the 1-0 win. "But we need to work on our finishing and we will prepare our best to make sure everything is in order for the play-offs."

The other Eastern Conference semi-final will pit the long-suffering New England Revolution against the New York Red Bulls (27 October and 3 November) in a classic Boston-New York grudge match. Neither side has ever won an MLS title, but both look like potential spoilers for 2007. The Revs are coming off a win in the final of the 2007 US Open Cup (USA's equivalent of the FA Cup) and hoping to leave the disappointment of their three losing MLS Cup finals well in the past. Taylor Twellman will be their main goal threat, with the savvy of Pat Noonan, Shalrie Joseph and Michael Parkhurst also likely to be factors.

The Red Bulls of New York will have the wily brain of head coach Bruce Arena to rely on, as well as the significant scoring threat of Juan Pablo Angel, US youth standout Jozy Altidore and the midfield assurance and experience of long-time USA captain Claudio Reyna, just back from injury.

West: Wide Open
Chivas USA finished top of the heap in the western conference leaving their city rivals LA Galaxy eliminated and ruing their poor form throughout the season. The offshoot of Mexican giants Chivas Guadalajara, who are led by head coach and former MLS playing great Preki and only in their third year of existence, will take on the fifth-place finisher from the East Kansas City Wizards (27 October and 3 November), who only just scraped into the play-off picture with a last-gasp win over Dallas at the weekend.

The contest is likely to be a battle royal between ace strikers Eddie Johnson of the Wizards, despite a recent downturn in scoring form, and Ante Razov of Chivas.

"There is still a lot of work to do," Razov said after wild celebrations greeted Chivas' conference title win. "We've got to feel good about the club for the fans and everyone but the work is not done."

Chivas will also be banking on increased output from their outstanding Claudio Suaraz and hope that injuries to Jesse Marsch, Francisco Mendoza and Maykel Galindo clear up in time for the first leg.

The final meeting will pit Houston Dynamo, defending MLS champions, against FC Dallas in an all Texan derby (27 October and 2 November). The Dynamo will be keen to repeat their heroics of last year and counting on the midfield wizardry of Canadian Player of the Year Dwayne De Rosario and the aerial supremacy of striker Brian Ching. Dallas, for their part, harbour one of the most lethal strikers in MLS history: Carlos Ruiz. On his day, the Guatemalan can open up any defence and the danger he poses will likely make the series a fascinating one.

With everything on the line, tension and drama is bound to rule the day in the MLS play-offs. Only one thing matters now: getting to DC on 17 November for a date with destiny.