The Houston Dynamo find themselves in a familiar position as they begin their quest for a third straight trip to the MLS Cup.
After qualifying for the playoffs on the final day of the season, Houston hosts the struggling Montreal Impact on Thursday night in a knockout-round match with a berth in the Eastern Conference semifinals on the line.
The Dynamo made a push at the end of the 2012 season to secure the conference's fifth and final playoff spot, then beat Chicago in the first round before winning its second straight East title.
Houston (14-11-9), which has dropped the last two MLS Cup matches to Los Angeles, went 4-1-2 over its final seven this season and beat D.C. 2-1 on Sunday to secure fourth place.
"I do feel like last year, the run that we made and that play-in game ... it did help us," midfielder Brad Davis said. "We were on a little bit of a roll at the end of the year. It took us a long time to get a road win and then we finally did towards the end there. It was good, and then we were able to get right back out on the field again and continue that momentum and that push."
Giles Barnes led the Dynamo with nine goals and scored in the finale against United to end a six-game drought.
"It's definitely confidence going towards the playoffs," Barnes said. "Main thing is I've been playing well and doing my job for the team. I always believed in my abilities when I get chances in front of goal."
Houston is plenty confident despite again having to go through the play-in round to advance. The winner of Thursday's match faces top-seeded New York in a two-game, aggregate-scoring series beginning Sunday.
"I don't think we're a team that you necessarily want to play," defender Bobby Boswell said. "I don't think we're a team that people are saying, 'Oh we're matched up with Dynamo - good.' It's kind of one of those, 'Oh boy, what are we in for.'"
Montreal hasn't played well lately no matter the opposition, as it went 1-6-1 over its last eight. It backed into the playoffs after falling 1-0 to Toronto on Saturday, only qualifying due to Chicago's loss to New York on Sunday.
The Impact (14-13-7), in their second MLS season after finishing in seventh place in 2012, shared the conference lead as late as Sept. 8. They've dropped three straight on the road, including 1-0 to Houston on Oct. 4.
"We spoke with the team in the locker room, and the good thing was that nobody was really happy," defender Matteo Ferrari said. "I think it's a good thing because as we said, maybe we don't (deserve) to be (in the playoffs), but we are. And now we've got to play."
Montreal dominated the Dynamo in the first two meetings this season, winning 2-0 on June 19 and 5-0 on Aug. 24. Marco Di Vaio, who finished third in MLS with 20 goals, scored three times in those matchups.
The Impact may be without midfielder Patrice Bernier, who sat out the season finale and has missed three of the last five matches while dealing with a hip injury.
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