On August 3, the Seattle Sounders were crowned MLS Cup champions by 42,000 adoring fans at CenturyLink Field. After all, who could blame them, having just seen Clint Dempsey unveiled as a Sounders player, making him the final piece of a team that was already near the top of the league.
And while Seattle's excitement is usually followed by laughter or envy from the rest of the country, that wasn't the case this time around. Dempsey's signing made MLS's 18 other clubs fearful of Seattle. The team, on paper, was a superpower.
Only the Sounders haven't played anything like a superpower, failing to win any of their last seven matches and falling into the play-in match. Dempsey hasn't found his footing, the team has struggled and Sigi Schmid now finds himself on the hot seat.
That's quite the difference from the attitude with the Colorado Rapids, where their young team is thrilled to be in the postseason. After all, everyone spent the entire season wondering when their inexperience would catch up with them and they would fall out of the playoff race. Hint: it didn't.
So here we stand, Seattle vs. Colorado in a play-in match that neither team was supposed to be in, for very different reasons. To the winner, a spot against the Portland Timbers in the conference semifinals. To the loser, a spot on their couches until 2014.
1. Can Seattle get back on track? The Sounders are winless in seven straight so the fact that they still made the playoffs is rather extraordinary, but their season will end quickly if they can't snap out of their funk. There were a handful of decent moments down the stretch and they closed the season with a fine match against the Galaxy, but they only managed a draw. When a home draw is all you have to show for your best performance in two months, you're in trouble.
2. Does experience matter? The Rapids may start as many as six players 24 years old or younger in Seattle, including rookies Deshorn Brown, Dillon Powers and Chris Klute. It is also Oscar Pareja's first playoff match as a manager. That kind of inexperience was supposed to doom them down the stretch, but it didn't. Will it in the postseason?
3. How will Silviu Petrescu affect things? No referee in MLS is as allergic to his whistle as Silviu Petrescu so when he was assigned to Wednesday's match, the Sounders couldn't have been happy. While some will argue that the physicality Petrescu allows for benefits Osvaldo Alonso -- and they would be correct -- that pales in comparison to what the Rapids' Hendry Thomas and Nathan Sturgis will get away with. If Petrescu is as willing to let the players play as he usually is, advantage Colorado.
4. Is Clint Dempsey ready to shine? It's been almost three months since Dempsey joined the Sounders and he has yet to play like the player Seattle thought they were getting when they signed him. He's been some combination of injured, slow and out of form in his much ballyhooed return to MLS. Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins haven't been amazing, but they've made positive contributions in the final third. The same hasn't been said of Dempsey and that needs to change.
5. Who wins Chris Klute vs. DeAndre Yedlin? A pair of youngsters will play fullback on the same side, with Klute manning the left back spot for the Rapids and Yedlin being deployed at right back for the Sounders. Yedlin, because of his speed, potential and maybe hair, has gotten the bulk of the publicity, especially early in the season, but it is Klute who has really been exceptional. He's MLS's best left back and finally gets to shine on the big stage.
Match date/time: Wednesday, 10:30 pm. ET
Venue: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, WA
TV: NBC Sports Network
Streaming: MLS Live