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Kick Off: Fire, Dynamo clash as MLS playoffs begin

Is there really a better figure to lead the Chicago Fire back to the postseason than Frank Klopas?

The hometown hero and a star of the last Fire team to win an MLS Cup is back on the big stage beginning tonight, as the Fire return to the playoffs for the first time in three years with an Eastern Conference Knockout game against the Houston Dynamo at Toyota Park (9 pm; ESPN2, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).

This team has Klopas’ fingerprints all over it, and ESPN.com’s Scott Powers takes a look and what it took for “Kid Klopas” to steer the team back to the playoffs. “You’re pushing and trying to get better every day,” Klopas says. “That’s what it’s all about — holding guys to a higher standard, but that starts at the top.”

But can the Fire overcome their troubling trend down the stretch to top the Dynamo? Here’s a look at the matchup from the Chicago Tribune, and another from the Sun-Times.

One of the key cogs for the Fire this season has been defender Arne Friedrich. Klopas landed the German World Cup vet after a driving tour of some of Chicago’s diverse, European-influenced neighborhoods. “This is a city built by immigrants. You can see the Italians, the Germans, the Polish, the Greeks,” Klopas tells the Sporting News.Wherever you come from, you probably feel at home here. You’ll find your people.”

To get your video fix for tonight’s game, check out MLSsoccer.com’s Armchair Analyst with a scouting report, catch up with Chicago’s Chris Rolfe and hear from inside the Fire locker room ahead of their first postseason match since 2009.

Tonight’s match also marks yet another postseason berth for the Houston Dynamo, their sixth in the past seven years. One of the biggest reasons they’ve made it this far in 2012 is because of newcomer Boniek García, profiled here in the Houston Chronicle.

Here’s one last breakdown of the match, with this Dynamo fan picking the visitors to squeak out a win at Toyota Park.

Regardless of who moves on, Sporting Kansas City will be waiting. You can bet Peter Vermes & Co. will be spending their Halloween night on the couch in the Midwest, with all eyes fixed on the television.

It’s a new dawn and new day for the LA Galaxy, meanwhile, who begin the defense of the MLS Cup in earnest on Thursday in the Western Conference Knockout Round game against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Despite a frustrating regular season, the slate is now officially wiped clean for the reigning champs.

As for the Whitecaps, don’t be surprised if manager Martin Rennie trots out the forward combination of Darren Mattocks and Kenny Miller. He hinted as much on Monday. And what a treat it’s been for ‘Caps fans to watch Y.P Lee acclimate so smoothly to MLS this season. His role will be crucial on Thursday as he makes his postseason debut.

And the ‘Caps will have at least one fan in the stands at the HDC on Thursday – part owner and current Los Angeles Lakers star point guard Steve Nash, who says he’ll try to sneak in a trip out to Carson on Thursday night to support his (other) team.

Here’s a quick preview of both Knockout Round matches, with predictions, courtesy of Goal.com’s Kyle McCarthy.

The big news surrounding Friday night’s Western Conference semifinal series opener, meanwhile, is the health of Seattle Sounders striker Eddie Johnson. Looks like there’s an outside chance he’ll play in Friday's first leg at CenturyLink, but it should be all systems go for the capper at Rio Tinto Stadium against Real Salt Lake next week.

Moving to the Eastern Conference, there’s an update about the status of Sandy-ravaged Red Bull Arena ahead of that semifinal series opener between New York and D.C. United on Saturday. For now, the lights are still out at RBA.

The brightest star on either team in the series is easily Thierry Henry, who returns to the playoffs for the third time in his MLS career and with as much to prove as ever. Fox Sports’ Leander Schaerlaeckens offers up this take on Henry’s MLS career so far, and wonders if he can finally rise above the fray he’s helped create in New York.

And here’s a profile of D.C. United star Chris Pontius, who makes his postseason debut on Saturday and says he likes his team’s chances in the matchup against New York.

On to Toronto FC, who held their season-ending press conference on Tuesday after another year spent on the outside looking in on the postseason. Lots of takeaways, from the TFC staff placing the blame on deposed former head coach Aron Winter, to  current boss Paul Mariner's rationalization for why he’s the man to turn TFC around: “I’m very good at what I do.”

Expect the Montreal Impact’s season-ending presser on Wednesday to go a little more smoothly. Club owner Joey Saputo is expected to be among those who meet the media.

The end of the year always means end-of-the-year awards, and the guys at NBC ProSoccerTalk are making their bets. Check out their picks for MVP, as well as a host of other hardware.

And here’s a look at some of the final Power Rankings polls of the season, courtesy of MLSsocer.com, The Seattle Times and SB Nation.

Want some insight into how NBC’s new television deal with the English Premier League might affect MLS? Here’s one look.

Is Eric Lichaj back in the running for a starting job at Aston Villa? His performance on Tuesday in the Capital One Cup might help.

The US women’s national team has a new coach: Scotsman and former Australia national team coach Tom Sermanni. ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle weighs in on the pick and insists that USSF president Sunil Gulati got the right person for the job.

And lastly, these two bits of international soccer news are worth another look: Arsenal boss Arene Wenger reflects on an historically unlikely win over Reading, and two English players charged for their role in an on-field brawl in Serbia.

MLSsoccer.com Musts

Where to watch the MLS Cup playoffs on TV

Rookie Rankings: Who tops MLSsoccer.com's poll?

Goal of the Year voting begins on Wednesday

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