Starting XI: Do New York Red Bulls have Houston's number? Are Portland Timbers ready to make a hit?
The top 11 questions heading into the weekend...
11) Is this the end of the Impact as we know them?
Montreal limped into the playoffs on a 1-6-1 skid and played like it in Houston on Thursday night, struggling to keep pace with the impressive Dynamo and losing any lingering semblance of composure in the Knockout Round's dying moments, finishing the 3-0 loss with eight men. The night encapsulated the doubts and shortcomings surrounding the Impact in their current form, and may herald seismic changes this winter.
10) Can this Houston team go one step further?
Thursday's result prompted a familiar chorus around MLS, one that boils down to “Uh oh, it's the Dynamo again.” Playoff productivity has helped Dominic Kinnear's men take part in four of the last seven MLS Cup finals (winning two, of course), and advance to at least the Conference Semifinals in all but one season since their relocation to the Bayou City in 2006. Title-bout losses for the past two years running present the current squad with higher expectations, though. Is it in them?
9) Or do the Red Bulls have their number?
Playoff Central: Dynamo top Impact, will face NY
It's safe to say that New York match up well with the Dynamo: RBNY beat Houston three times this year by an aggregate score of 9-1, and boast a 7-3-7 all-time record against the Orange. Most importantly, the Supporters' Shield winners have gone into BBVA Compass Stadium and thumped their Conference Semifinal opponents at their own place twice in the last two months. The score line probably won't be quite so emphatic when they clash at that muggy venue again on Sunday (3:30 pm ET, NBC), though.
8) What does the offseason hold in store for Oscar Pareja?
In the end, the Colorado Rapids didn't mount quite the charge many of us expected from them, yet good vibes are emanating from the Commerce City club as they look back on a campaign of great improvement and promise. Unfortunately for Colorado, a vacancy at their coach's previous employer, FC Dallas, has already caused a whirlwind of speculation about a Lone Star return for the architect of the Rapids' revival.
7) Are Rave Green nerves sufficiently calmed ahead of an epic Cascadia redux?
As vulnerable as Montreal looked down the stretch, it might've been worse in Seattle, where a nasty funk had some of the league's loudest fans fingering the panic button in the runup to Wednesday's duel with the Rapids. With leading figures like Brad Evans, Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey coming up big and collective fluidity improved by the shift to a narrower midfield, the Sounders finally have some wind in their yacht sails as Portland buzz into town on Saturday (10 pm ET, NBCSN).
6) Are the Portland Timbers ready to make a hit record?
Tifo: Inside the Timbers Army
Earlier this week ESPNFC.com blogger Jason Davis made the case that Stump City's iconoclastic addiction to the beautiful game has taken root independent of winning championships, somewhat like an indie band whose obscurity only makes their fans love them even more. So how will the top-seeded Timbers and their fans handle the highs and lows of their first-ever MLS playoff run, especially as it kicks off at CenturyLink Field, the most hostile turf they could've asked for?
5) Are the Revolution too green to be weighed down by history?
New England welcome Sporting Kansas City to Gillette Stadium on Saturday (8 pm ET, NBCSN, RDS2 in Canada) in the first leg of perhaps the only semifinal series not widely seen as a tossup, thanks to the sides' contrasting playoff pedigree – and an established pattern of KC dominance: The Revs have not scored on Sporting since July 30, 2011. But given the youth factor in Jay Heaps' corner, perhaps his relatively untested group can seize some history of their own this month.
4) Can Sporting's meat grinder chew up everyone standing between them and MLS Cup?
Let's be practical for a moment, perhaps even as practical as SKC coach Peter Vermes seems to have become as he leads his team into another postseason full of high hopes and very real dangers. Vermes surely took lessons from upset losses to Houston in the past two editions of the playoffs, and he now has his already-flinty squad playing an attritional, Dynamo-esque style that is practical, sometimes dour and usually effective. The Revs are in for a battle, no doubt.
3) In the RSL-LA series, is home-field advantage actually the opposite?
“I think having the first leg at your home field is the advantage ... You kind of get that confidence at home, get the blood flowing a little bit. And you know what you have to do in the second game.”
That's Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando's take on the home-and-home format, and it's informed by his team's past difficulties as the higher seed. They must secure a helpful result against the defending champions at Stubhub Center in their playoff opener on Sunday (9 pm ET, ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN2/RDS2 in Canada) so they don't have a mountain to climb on Thursday at Rio Tinto Stadium, their lair on the Wasatch Front.
2) Will LA's experience come good?
As MLSsoccer.com's Greg Lalas documented this week, Galaxy boss Bruce Arena bears far more postseason experience than most of his seven counterparts. When you add in the savvy of luminaries like Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane and the gleam of the 2011 and '12 trophies in their cabinet, it's clear that LA won't be surprised by anything that comes their way over the next month. Are they the most dangerous team left in the bracket?
1) Is this really New York's year? Really?
For those who believe that “the Curse of Caricola” was lifted by RBNY's capture of the Supporters' Shield last week, there's really no ceiling for what Mike Petke and his men can accomplish now, given the talent – and more importantly, the spirit and unity – at their disposal. An MLS Cup run would finally destroy one of MLS' most stubborn stereotypes: the Red Bulls as chokers.