MLS Cup playoffs' best subplots

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Only 11 games to go before the MLS Cup champion is crowned, and after seven months of toil, finally the serious business can begin.

This year's playoffs feature some predictable faces and some shocks, and they promise to provide an entertaining conclusion to the North American season.

While the Western Conference regular season champ was to be expected – the two-time defending MLS Cup champion Houston Dynamo – the Columbus Crew surprised the East with a superb season.

Here we take a look at the most compelling story lines of a postseason that could be wide open.

1. Can Blanco defend the DPs?

The worth of the designated player is under the spotlight, with evidence starting to suggest that employing highly paid foreign superstars could hinder rather than facilitate on-field success.

David Beckham has been unable to reverse the fortunes of the Los Angeles Galaxy, who again finished out of the playoff picture, while D.C. United went from Supporters Shield winners to also-rans after signing Marcelo Gallardo.

Juan Pablo Angel of the New York Red Bulls and Claudio Lopez of the Kansas City Wizards will both be in the playoffs. However, it is likely that the man called upon to defend the honor of MLS's superstar contingent will be Cuauhtemoc Blanco.

Blanco's Chicago Fire have a realistic chance to go all the way, especially if their Mexican maestro can display his best form. His deft touches and brilliant soccer brain gives him the ability to turn games on their head, even at the age of 35. Last season, his efforts were too much for D.C. United to handle, although he came up short in chilly conditions during the Eastern Conference finals in New England.

Clearly, the off-field benefits of the likes of Beckham and Blanco are sizeable, yet for the DP rule to ever be considered a resounding success, it will take a team with a DP to win a championship. The great thing about Blanco is the way he elevates the level of the players around him and has fitted in to become a popular and highly respected member of the Fire locker room.

The man known as the Hunchback has more to prove than anyone as the playoffs get underway.

2. Can Schelotto steer the Crew?

Columbus' spectacular season has been one of the most inspiring and impressive stories in MLS history. Written off as no-hopers before the start of the campaign, Sigi Schmid's side has confounded the critics and was clearly the most outstanding team in the league in the regular season.

Argentine playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto fully deserves to win the league MVP award, having turned countless games in the Crew's favor with his quick thinking and delicate skills. However, as we have seen in the past, the playoffs offer a different game altogether and often several months of excellent toil is undone over the course of 180 minutes.

The Wizards upset a top seed in Chivas USA 12 months ago and will not go down without a fight. Schelotto's fitness and form will surely be a crucial factor. He played a full part in Columbus' final two regular season games when he could have been rested ahead of the playoffs.

Schmid's efforts in the dugout this season mean he deserves better than to have his methods questioned, yet Crew fans will still be nervously praying that their star player has plenty left into the tank heading into November.

3. Can Houston three-peat?

They were useless, disjointed and looked more likely to finish at the bottom of the Western Conference than the top. No, we're not talking about the Galaxy. We're talking about the Dynamo in the first few weeks of the season.

Since then, head coach Dominic Kinnear has worked his magic yet again, and right now no MLS team is playing better than Houston.

The Dynamo's huge advantage is that it has tasted MLS Cup success for the past two years and knows what it takes to win it all. Dwayne De Rosario always saves his peak form for this time of year and the Texas club must be regarded as the team to beat in the postseason.

Kinnear cares so much about keeping his men fresh for the playoffs that he sent a reserve squad to take on Luis Angel Firpo in the CONCACAF Champions League this week. The Scottish-born Kinnear is one of the coaching jewels of North American soccer and it will take a big effort to beat him and his players over the next four weeks.

4. Can New England cope with its injury list?

Don't mention those three straight defeats in the championship game to Steve Nicol or the New England Revolution. They remain the sorest of sore points.

Nicol has said he is interested in nothing except the title in 2008, but it gets a whole lot harder this time around. Shalrie Joseph remains an inspirational contributor in midfield, but key men Taylor Twellman and Steve Ralston are both out for the playoffs – a huge blow for the Revs. A first-round matchup with Chicago doesn't exactly bode well, either.

Sure, the Revs dumped the Fire out of the playoffs in four of the past six seasons. However, this year, Chicago has won all three games the teams have played by a combined score line of 9-1 and is full of confidence.

New England managed just two points from its last six regular-season games. Hopes of erasing those painful MLS Cup memories may have to wait another year.

5. Can Real Salt Lake shake up the favorites?

A new stadium, an ambitious and forward-thinking coach in Jason Kreis and now a playoff spot for the first time ever. Yes, things are definitely looking up for Real Salt Lake.

After three years of mediocrity, RSL finally broke out this season, losing just once at home and finishing third in the West. Once a franchise that looked doomed to fail, the Utah club is now starting to take some big strides forward.

Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman have both been outstanding, and RSL cannot be discounted, despite a tough first-round encounter with Chivas USA.

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