Five American teams from a bi-sected Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference will do battle in the upcoming play-offs alongside just three from the West, minus star-studded LA Galaxy and dynastic 2008 US Open Cup winners DC United, who both failed to make the post-season chase for silverware.
Leading the charge from the East is the unlikely Columbus Crew, who have never reached an MLS Cup final and find themselves in their first play-offs since 2004. Hoping to finally shake their reputation as underachievers, the side from Ohio are led by the goals of Argentine ace Guillermo Barros Scheloto and Venezuelan sensation Alejandro Moreno (the pair share 16 goals this term). The gold-and-black clad side, led by former USA youth coach Sigi Schmid, finished with a league-best 57 points and on top of the Eastern conference for only the second time in their history.
"We just have to keep on doing what we're doing," said Moreno. "We can't get caught up in all the excitement. We just have to keep playing."
A full 11 points behind the Crew are perennial play-off participants Chicago Fire, who finished second in the East. Led by Mexican veteran Cuauhtémoc Blanco - paired with former international adversary Brian McBride - the men from the Windy City will be hoping to pick up their second MLS title.
On 43 points, just three behind first opponents the Fire, are the New England Revolution. The true nearly men of Major League Soccer, Steve Nicol's side have lost the last three MLS Cup finals, just barely missing out on their first league crown after a previous final loss in 2002 (four in all). Led through midfield by the firm presence of Grenadian international Shalrie Joseph, the Revs will have to make do without the veteran hand of Steve Ralston, who broke his leg, and top marksman Taylor Twellman, who will miss after a succession of concussions.
Kansas City Wizards booked fourth place in the East and will take on fancied Columbus, hoping Claudio Lopez and Jimmy Conrad can keep up their torrid form and add to their 12 goals in the regular season.
A Juan Pablo Angel-led New York Red Bulls just barely snuck through to the post-season after DC United stumbled at the final hurdle last weekend. The New Yorkers edged out Colorado Rapids in the West for the last spot by just one, slim point. After a stop-start campaign, Juan Carlos Osorio's gang from the Big Apple will need to find an extra gear if they are to entertain realistic hopes of a first title, taking on holders Houston in the first round.
Best of the West
The top team in the Western Conference, Houston Dynamo finished six points off the pace set by regular season leaders Columbus. However, having won the last two MLS titles, the side should not be taken lightly. Led by top scorer Brian Ching and Canadian sensation Dwayne De Rosario, the orange-clad Texans are a firm favourite to go all the way to the final on 23 November in Los Angeles. "We're confident right now and were playing well and that's all that really matters," said forward Nate Jaqua. "Being confident and playing well are what the play-offs are all about."
Rounding out the crop of eight combatants are Chivas USA, the cross-town rivals of Western Conference bottom-feeders LA Galaxy, and Real Salt Lake, who will be playing in their first play-off round since the club's founding in 2005.
The first stage of MLS play-off games will take place between 30 October and 9 November, with the winners moving on to the Conference championships. The two remaining clubs will meet in MLS Cup in late November to decide the 2008 champions.
Conference semi-finals schedule
Chicago Fire-New England Revolution
Houston Dynamo-New York Red Bulls
Chivas USA-Real Salt Lake
Columbus Crew-Kansas City Wizards