Playoff Pressure: Which teams face most heat to win it all?
Not all teams are made equal in the MLS Cup playoffs that kick off on Wednesday night.
A couple of teams are just happy to have made the postseason, while others will be thoroughly unfulfilled if they're not holding the MLS Cup trophy on December 1.
We rank the 10 qualifiers based on that purely scientific metric known as PRESSURE. We count down to the team that will be feeling the heat most this November.
10. Vancouver Whitecaps — Manager Martin Rennie has been trying to tell people: It was a feat for this team just to have made the playoffs. If they knock off the LA Galaxy in the Western Knockout Round, that will be the Whitecaps' MLS Cup.
Fans would be happy: Just by the Whitecaps showing up at the Home Depot Center on Thursday for the first playoff match ever for a Canadian side.
9. Chicago Fire — Another manager dropping hints is the Fire's Frank Klopas, telling media on Tuesday that this playoff berth, the team's first since 2009, is just the start. The Fire were one of the surprise outfits of 2012 and making the postseason will be perceived as a positive first step for a club on the rise.
Fans would be happy: With a victory in the Knockout Round match against Houston. But even defeat can be swallowed if they show big-team personality vs. the Dynamo.
8. Houston Dynamo — Dynamo fans have been spoiled by the success of this club since they arrived in Houston. Even if they stumble in the 2012 playoffs, they've still succeeded in maintaining a high bar with a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal looming in the spring.
Fans would be happy: Knocking off the Fire at Toyota Park and giving the East leaders Sporting KC a run for their money.
7. D.C. United — Ben Olsen's title would be switched to 'miracle worker' if D.C. United can make a playoff run without reigning league MVP Dwayne De Rosario. It's highly unlikely despite their No. 2 seed in the East.
Fans would be happy: A thrilling, competitive series against rival NY Red Bulls. Win or lose. Just tasting the playoffs for the first time since 2007 will hold fans over this offseason.
6. San Jose Earthquakes — They're the Supporters' Shield winners, but just winning the regular season title and qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League should be satisfying enough for an organization that was starving for success and got it in a big way in 2012.
Fans would be happy: Knocking off the rival LA Galaxy in the Western Conference semis. After the emotions and satisfaction of a dramatic MLS campaign which included a Golden Boot record chase for the ages and the groundbreaking for a brand new stadium on its way, Quakes fans won't be greedy.
5. LA Galaxy — This year is nowhere close to the make-or-break that was 2011, when LA were also hosting MLS Cup. David Beckham got his MLS title last year. After a rocky 2012, any playoff triumphs after the Knockout Round are pure gravy.
WATCH: Scouting report on LA vs. Vancouver
Fans would be happy: Getting out of the Knockout Round and going blow-for-blow with the Supporters' Shield holders up north in the Western Conference semis.
4. NY Red Bulls — Perhaps it was the midseason stumbles. Perhaps it was the executive changes and the cloud hovering lately over Hans Backe. Or maybe simply it's that there are other teams that have assumed the title of real favorites. Whatever it is, the 2012 edition of the NY Red Bulls are not encumbered with high expectations heading into these playoffs despite their big names.
Fans would be happy: Advancing to MLS Cup. It would send a message to the rest of the league that it's not just bluster coming out of Red Bull Arena. But that there's a base in place on the field that gives real hope that the 17-year trophy drought could realistically come to an end soon.
3. Real Salt Lake — The clock is ticking on a veteran group which feels it should have more trophies to show for the quality of the squad in recent years. Many believe this will be the final go-round and the urgency should be evident in November.
Fans would be happy: Advancing to MLS Cup. A Western Conference title celebration would give fans that feel-good sensation that their team is still among the league's elite ahead of what is expected to be a busy offseason.
2. Sporting Kansas City — Winning it all is the obvious next step for Sporting KC after last year's Eastern Conference title run. Other teams have looked thoroughly outmatched trying to go toe-to-toe with SKC this year and after dominant winning streaks and undefeated runs during 2012, with a US Open Cup to boot, it's time to translate that superiority into a league crown.
Fans would be happy: With no less than MLS Cup. The empty feeling that comes with playoff elimination on your home field (vs. Houston in 2011) has a tendency to linger and can only be erased with a title. Fans know that Roger Espinoza is expected to be moving on, the suitors will likely be lining up for Graham Zusi this offseason and Jimmy Nielsen is inching closer to 40. The time is now.
1. Seattle Sounders — The club's playoff ousters in their first three years have been the crushing variety that have left deep wounds. How could their sparkling, bubbly style which proves so effective during the regular season — and in the US Open Cup — fail them in the postseason? Manager Sigi Schmid has threatened to blow this core up earlier this year. Would he go through with it?
Fans would be happy: With no less than MLS Cup. A team with big-market swagger, budget and crowds is expected to finally flaunt that superiority when it counts the most.