1. Sporting Kansas City (18-7-9)
The optimist says: This is the year that Sporting takes it all the way to the MLS Cup title. After a midseason hiccup, they're unbeaten in their last 12 and coming off a hard-fought win over Philadelphia to close out the regular season. Roger Espinoza and Paulo Nagamura should both be back and healthy, giving Sporting a pair of ferocious ball-winners in the middle third, and the defense is second to none.
The pessimist says: Sporting couldn't have hoped for two worse possible opponents in the conference semis. They're 1-2-0 this season against the Chicago Fire, 0-1-2 against the Houston Dynamo. Kansas City would have been far better off going against D.C. (2-0) or New York (1-0-2), who meet in the other semifinal. If Sporting run up against Houston, the playoff run could be short and inglorious.
The realist says: If Kansas City plays to potential and doesn't get smacked by injuries or disciplinary suspension, the MLS Cup finals are well within reach. This is a team that has already passed a significant tournament test in winning the U.S. Open Cup -- and let's not forget those 15 shutouts, the second highest total in league history. That kind of defense can carry a team a long way.
Ideal starting XI (4-3-3): GK: Jimmy Nielsen; DF: Chance Myers, Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, Seth Sinovic; MF: Roger Espinoza, Julio Cesar, Paulo Nagamura; FW: Kei Kamara, C.J. Sapong, Graham Zusi.
Wildcard: Jacob Peterson. Before this season, Peterson had never played for a team with a winning record. He's recovered from the shoulder injury that kept him out for much of the late regular season, and he has no gear but overdrive on the pitch. That combination of intensity and motivation could give opponents fits.
- Steve Brisendine, The Daily Wiz
D.C. United (17-10-7)
The optimist says: With United's unbeaten run over the last two months, the Black-and-Red could definitely claim star No. 5 on Dec. 1. Bill Hamid is in the form of his life, the back four is giving up less than a goal per game, and Ben Olsen's knack for impact substitutions have made this team competitive even without defending league MVP and leading scorer Dwayne De Rosario.
The pessimist says: Thierry Henry & Co. manage to bag a couple early goals in the first leg of the Eastern Semis in New Jersey and hold United in the return leg at RFK. As solid as the back line has been over the last 7 games, they can be undone by quick passing, the likes of which New York is definitely capable.
The realist says: United gets by New York - low-scoring draw in Harrison and the W in D.C. - and gives Sporting Kansas City the fight of their playoff lives before falling in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Ideal starting 11 (4-4-2): GK: Bill Hamid; DF: Andy Najar, Brandon McDonald, Dejan Jakovic, Chris Korb; MF: Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen, Marcelo Saragosa, Chris Pontius; FW: Lionard Pajoy, Maicon Santos
Wildcard: Ben Olsen. That starting XI doesn't include Designated Player Hamdi Salihi or string-puller (and ex-DP) Branko Boskovic, both of whom are more likely to come off the bench. Which is where Olsen comes in. His post-DeRo gameplan has been to keep the game scoreless as long as possible before putting in the firepower to attack a tired defense. Thus far, it's worked to the tune of 17 points from a possible 21 over the last 7 games. But it also leaves a razor thin margin for error and puts a lot of responsibility on the backs of United's young defense. So far, they've been up to the task, but the playoffs are something else. Luckily, Ben Olsen's been to this dance as a player, as have Robbie Russell and DeRo, all of whom will be imparting their experience to their young teammates.
Bonus Wildcard: Lionard Pajoy. The much-maligned (both here and in Philly, his former club) striker scored the equalizer in Chicago with a difficult diving header but also left some juicy chances begging to be finished. Used more for his defensive workrate and hold-up play, Pajoy isn't ever as likely to score as a forward should be, but when he does score, it tends to be an important goal. Don't put it past him to score a big one during these Playoffs.
- Adam Taylor, Black and Red United
3. New York Red Bulls (16-9-9)
The optimist says: The dominant draw against Sporting Kansas City and the 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Union is enough momentum to get this team going. They're a team of professionals and they're all on the same page. They know what to do to win.
The pessimist says: They're a team of overpaid underachievers and historical tormentors D.C. United will, once again, put one over on New York again and send us packing. They sky is always falling in Red Bulls land, so none of this is surprising.
The realist says: D.C. is the best possible first round match-up for the Red Bulls. It won't be easy, but this team has a shot. With their dismal road record, Thierry Henry and the boys will have to hold up the home end of the bargain, then batten down the hatches for the road leg. It's entirely do-able.
Ideal starting XI (4-4-2): GK: Luis Robles; DF: Wilman Conde, Rafael Marquez, Markus Holgersson, Heath Pearce; MF: Joel Lindpere, Tim Cahill, Teemu Tainio, Dax McCarty; FW: Kenny Cooper, Thierry Henry
Wildcard: Rarely can you say that the league's second highest paid player is a "wild card" but Rafael Marquez is just that. The embattled Mexican international had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to playing to his ability, but the last two games he's really turned it on. The Red Bulls -- who gave up the most goals out of all Eastern Conference playoff teams -- are going to need him to keep playing that way if they're going to raise their first ever (real) trophy.
- Matt Coyne, Once a Metro
4. Chicago Fire (17-11-6)
The optimist says: If the Fire can get on a roll they could go very deep in the playoffs, even all the way to the MLS Cup. The team has dangerous players, as well as a stout defense and goalkeeping that normally keeps the team in the game regardless of foe. Bottom line, if the Fire can take advantage of scoring opportunities and put them away, we have a dangerous offense that can score more goals that our defense will allow. This team also has the veteran leadership needed to go far in the playoffs.
The pessimist says: The Fire have been too inconsistent. Other than one hot run of form over 10 games, the team has been very up and down. And that makes putting together a successful, long playoff run pretty unlikely if we keep up this play. Our inconsistent finishing has really hurt us, as evidenced by the recent game against DC United with the No. 2 seed on the line. Injuries to key players like Pavel Pardo have made our road tougher too.
The realist says: It all depends on what Fire team shows up. If the team plays like they are capable of, there is no reason to think we can't make some serious noise. However, if we play like we have been in the last 5 games, not taking chances of scoring opportunities and getting beat by teams we shouldn't, then it does not bode well for our playoff hopes. I think Wednesday's play-in game vs. Houston will show what Fire team we will see for the rest of the playoffs (if we can get by Houston).
Ideal starting XI: GK: Sean Johnson; DF: Jalil Anibaba, Arne Friedrich, Austin Berry, Gonzalo Segares; MF: Pavel Pardo, Logan Pause, Patrick Nyarko, Alvaro Fernandez; FW: Chris Rolfe, Sherjill MacDonald.
Wildcard: Patrick Nyarko. The guy is our MVP in my eyes. He can do it all, and for my money he is consistently one of the most underrated midfielders in MLS. He is a lynch pin of the Fire team and he works extremely hard at all times but doesn't get the recognition for it from most people. He is definitely part of the heart and soul of the Fire.
- Ryan Sealock, Hot Time in Old Town
5. Houston Dynamo (14-9-11)
The optimist says: Historically, the Dynamo are a team that turns it on late in the season. The 2012 Dynamo team is a nice, solid mix of experienced players and youthful talent and have the potential to beat anyone. Houston will have to get wins in Toyota Park and Livestrong Park, something they are capable of doing.
The pessimist says: The Dynamo haven't had much success on the road this year, posting a 3-6-8 record. We may have fielded a heavy reserve squad in Colorado, but it's Colorado - we should have done better. Chicago has been tough to beat at home and their last meeting (3-1 Fire win) still haunts me.
The realist says: If Houston wants to compete for the MLS championship, they'll need to find that killer instinct that seemed to evade them at times during the regular season. The 4-4-2 is a must and the Dynamo need Brad Davis, Boniek Garcia, and Will Bruin to show up big.
Ideal starting 11 (4-4-2): GK: Tally Hall; DF (r-l): Kofi Sarkodie, Bobby Boswell, Jermaine Taylor, Corey Ashe; MF (r-l): Ricardo Clark, Brad Davis, Adam Moffat, Boniek Garcia; FW: Will Bruin, Mac Kandji.
Wildcard: For Houston, the wildcard for the MLS Playoffs is coach Dominic Kinnear. If this Dynamo team finds success in the playoffs, credit Kinnear for putting this team together. Early in the season, while the club was struggling for creativity, Kinnear brought in designated player Boniek Garcia - arguably the team MVP thus far. While Houston lost one of their top players in Geoff Cameron, he found a way to secure the back line and has brought out the best in youngsters Kofi Sarkodie and rookie Warren Creavalle. Kinnear jumped on the opportunity to bring back legend Ricardo Clark, plus if Giles Barnes breaks out, Houston could be unstoppable - all thanks to Kinnear.
- Stephen Eastepp, Dynamo Theory