The battle to be best in the West will be settled at the Home Depot Center, as the Galaxy and Dynamo battle it (Friday, 11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com) out for a ticket to Seattle.
Los Angeles came through its SuperClasico series with Chivas (3-2 on aggregate) thanks to moments of individual skill rather than any continuously cohesive team play. Defensive mistakes blighted its first leg performance while, last weekend in the return match, Bruce Arena's side made heavy weather of overcoming a limited opponent, hanging on in the closing stages when the tie should have long been settled.
When a team can boast Landon Donovan and David Beckham as two of its number, it is not surprising that those around such stars look to them for inspiration. However, Houston is not Chivas and, as I wrote before the postseason began, for L.A. to go all the way, it needs others to step up. Mike Magee has played well but Arena still needs more from Edson Buddle.
While the Galaxy's star power has been its trump card, Houston has shown the experience of having been here before. A punishing series against Seattle was won through patience and perseverance -- although Brian Ching's deciding goal was a cracker -- and you can expect another display built on pragmatism, as well as a defense anchored by the ageless Pat Onstad, on Friday.
Not that Houston does not possess game-changing players itself. Ching is a proven match-winner while Dominic Oduro's pace will trouble LA's back line. If that doesn't work, Luis Angel Landin and Cam Weaver offer threats from the bench. To nullify these sizable threats, the Galaxy must limit their service, meaning that the likes of Brad Davis, Brian Mullan and Stuart Holden must be shut down.
One goal was scored in the two games these sides played against each other during the regular season -- Todd Dunivant's strike deciding a June clash at the HDC -- and I would expect it to be similarly close on Friday, although there may be more goals. It might need extra time to separate them but, in the end, the playoffs are often about the stars and I expect the X-factors of Donovan and Beckham to give LA the edge.
Verdict: L.A. 2-1 Houston
Salt Lake vs. Chicago
One night later, the Western champion will discover who it will face at Qwest Field on Nov. 22 when the Fire and RSL meet at Toyota Park.
Chicago will start the game as favorite but, as Columbus discovered, this is not your regular season Salt Lake side. Against New England, Denis Hamlett's men did enough to get through but the greater variety of attacking options available to its next opponent means more improvement is needed. The return of Wilman Conde and Gonzalo Segares would offer more flexibility although I wonder if either of the two will be risked, given their lack of match fitness.
Naturally, Cuauhtemoc Blanco will be the main man for the hosts. The veteran Mexican is one of a number of Fire players for whom this game will the last in the Windy City -- Chris Rolfe and Brandon Prideaux will not be back while the futures of Brian McBride and Marco Pappa are also uncertain -- and, given his sense for the big occasion, I expect a showing similar from the Chicago talisman to that which he gave in the second leg against the Revolution.
However, as RSL showed in overcoming a Guillermo Barros Schelotto-inspired Columbus onslaught last Thursday, Jason Kreis' side has a playoff spirit which can respond favorably to the odds stacked against it. Falling behind will not be part of the game plan but, with the experience of having successfully recovered before, there will be no panic among the Salt Lake ranks should Chicago get the first goal on Saturday.
If Salt Lake is to clinch a first-ever MLS Cup berth, its precocious youngsters and savvy veterans must continue to excel. Robbie Findley's pace could give the Fire defense fits, especially if Dasan Robinson and CJ Brown are its anchors while Yura Movsisyan is also a threat off the bench. Meanwhile, Javier Morales and Andy Williams were at their creative best in the comeback in Columbus and must continue to provide.
A quirk of MLS is that RSL is playing in the championship game of the Eastern Conference a year after taking part in the west's equivalent. Having fallen then to a team from the nation's right coast, can it redress the balance with a shock win of its own? I doubt it, but then who would have predicted that Kreis and his men would get even this far when the postsesason brackets came out? Chicago, you have been warned.
Verdict: Chicago 2-1 Real Salt Lake
A thing that made me go hmmm
Two weeks after I suggested that Jeff Cunningham's goalscoring form could put him back in the national team picture, wouldn't you know it, Bob Bradley went and included the FC Dallas man in his squad for Saturday's friendly in Slovakia. The veteran striker is one of a number of players who will look to use the friendly to remind Bradley of their capabilities.
Among the others is Sacha Kljestan, back in the fold having lost his place following the Confederations Cup, and Robbie Rogers whose left-footedness will make him a contender for a spot on the plane to South Africa. Dax McCarty has also been included and may get a chance in the center of midfield, a position in which the competition for places is particularly fierce.
Less deep is the central defensive pool. With Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit sidelined for lengthy periods, the USA desperately needs back-ups to seize their chances to shine. Thus, the coming week is a big one for Chad Marshall, Clarence Goodson and Jimmy Conrad.