Playoff time has arrived in Major League Soccer as seven months of action boils down to four weekends of drama to decide the champions.
The playoff system, which allows the team finishing eighth in the regular season a chance to emerge with the MLS Cup on November 18, is not particularly fair, but it is undeniably exciting.
Predicting the outcome of the first-round matchups is no easy business, as one of the strengths of MLS is its relative parity. At this time of year, momentum and confidence are the most valuable commodities. Finishing high in the regular standings counts for little.
Here's a look at the first-round matchups, which begin Thursday in Chicago.
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
D.C. United vs. Chicago Fire
The Fire, led by Mexican superstar Cuauhtemoc Blanco, survived a late-season scare to clinch a playoff spot thanks to their victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy last Sunday. They have proved hard to break down, going unbeaten in their last eight league games, although only three of those results were wins. Only the Columbus Crew matched Chicago's number of drawn games with 10.
D.C. United have cruised through the season, ruthlessly racking up victory upon victory and establishing itself as the league's best team. United's big guns are firing, especially Brazilian Luciano Emilio, who won the MLS Golden Boot with a league-best 20 goals.
Anything can happen over two games, but United will like its chances of keeping things tight in the Windy City before proving its authority back in Washington next week. United is also determined to end its poor playoff record against the Fire, having been thrashed 4-0 over two legs in 2005 and losing to them three times in all postseason series.
Chicago goalkeeper Matt Pickens' assertion that "they fear us" could provide the favorites with all the motivation they need.
Prediction: D.C. advances.
New England Revolution vs. New York Red Bulls
This is the only playoff series that will be played entirely on artificial turf, with the opener taking place at the Meadowlands before switching to Gillette Stadium in New England next week. The Revolution dominated the teams' regular-season meetings, winning twice and drawing once, but those results count for little now.
The sensible choice would be New England, who won the U.S. Open Cup and, all things considered, might be the most accomplished unit in MLS right now. But the Red Bulls fancy their chances of making a deep run.
They'll look to the youth-and-experience forward combination of teenager Jozy Altidore and veteran Juan Pablo Angel. New York has failed to score only twice since the MLS All-Star game, both times against West top seed Chivas USA, so it cannot be written off.
This matchup promises to be very tight and Steve Nicol's well-organized Revolution are not going to give anything away. They have an in-form goal scorer of their own in Taylor Twellman (16 goals).
Prediction: New York advances.
WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
Chivas USA vs. Kansas City Wizards
Chivas has been superb all season, and coach Preki and his players deserve enormous credit for their efforts. Topping the Western Conference was a mighty achievement for a club in only its third year of existence, but Chivas might've peaked too soon. Towards the end of the regular season, Chivas looked somewhat worn out, and the injury that ruled out Ante Razov for six weeks was a major blow.
The Wizards are a strange and unpredictable team, nearly missing out on the playoffs due to a poor run before beating a half-strength FC Dallas on the final weekend. Forward Eddie Johnson will be in the spotlight as a group of English Premiership clubs decide whether he is worth the financial gamble.
Chivas and Kansas City exchanged home wins in the regular season and appear to match up fairly evenly. Chivas deserves to make a title run due to its efforts over the past six months, but the fear is that it has run out of steam.
Prediction: Kansas City advances.
Houston Dynamo vs. FC Dallas
Houston would appear to have the edge in MLS' Texas rivalry as it looks to become the first team since D.C. United in 1997 to repeat as champions. The Dynamo did not exactly play like defending champs early in the season, but they went on a solid unbeaten run and have stepped things up again in recent weeks. Houston lost only once, to the in-form Galaxy, in its final nine games and is peaking at just the right time.
This matchup will have added spice thanks to Ricardo Clark's brutal kick on FC Dallas's Carlos Ruiz the last time the teams met. But Dallas does not look to have the firepower to get the better of its intra-state rivals and has been low on confidence since its U.S. Open Cup final defeat to New England at home.
Dallas coach Steve Morrow is stuck with the problem of what to do with under-performing Brazilian star Denilson, who has produced little more than some entertaining showboating tricks. Realistically, Dallas needs a convincing home win in the first leg at Pizza Hut Park to stand a chance of moving on.
Prediction: Houston advances.