The playoffs are a different season and no team is a better embodiment of that than the Houston Dynamo. Despite merely middling results in each of the past two seasons, they managed to get to the MLS Cup finals each year. Again, they kinda backed into the playoffs, only to beat the Montreal Impact.
The Red Bulls have no such rich postseason history, known for their dysfunction and disappointment.
On paper, there's no doubt that the Red Bulls are the better team. They have the biggest stars -- Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry -- and a ton of very capable role players. They also have a pretty massive advantage over the Dynamo this year, winning all three match-ups that even includes a pair of blowout wins over the Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium. This could get ugly. But never count out a team coached by Dominic Kinnear.
1. Can Mike Petke match wits with Dominic Kinnear? Technically, we won't find this out until the second leg as MLS, in its infinite wisdom, decided to suspend Kinnear for leaving the technical area while trying to break up a fight between his players and the Montreal Impact toward the end of their Knockout Round meeting, but you get the point. No other MLS coach has shown a mastery of the two-legged series quite like Kinnear, whose Dynamo teams have won 6 of 7. (Coincidentally, the only time they lost was in 2008 when they fell to the Red Bulls in the conference semifinals.) Petke has drawn deserved praise for his handling of the Red Bulls in his rookie season at the helm, but he'll be tested.
2. Will Thierry Henry finally show up in the playoffs? For all Henry's accomplishments, the Frenchman has been pretty much invisible in the playoffs. In six career postseason games, Henry has just a single goal and a single assist. The last memory we have of him was in last year's conference finals when he let Roy Miller take a critical free kick. Even at 36 years old, Henry is still capable of being one of the best players in MLS. The Red Bulls are going to need him.
3. Did Will Bruin snap out of his funk? Seemingly poised for a breakout after scoring 16 goals in the regular season and playoffs last year, Bruin has suffered through and up-and-down season that saw him slump to eight goals in 2013. But after scoring just four goals after May 8, Bruin broke out with a pair of strikes against the Impact. If the Dynamo have any chance, they are going to need Bruin to be the same guy who scored four times in last year's playoffs.
4. Is Luis Robles ready for the postseason? On team that features stars -- at least by MLS standards -- in virtually every area of the field, Robles kind of stands out. It's not that he's a bad player, he's fine, but he's no one's idea of an elite goalkeeper. Chances are, Robles is going to be called upon to make a few big saves in this series, something he wasn't able to do with enough frequency in the conference semifinals loss to D.C. United a year ago. There's also some concern over Robles' health, which would mean the even more untested Ryan Meara would be in goal.
5. Are the Red Bulls for real? Look, as good as the Red Bulls have been this year, there's some earned skepticism. This is, after all, a team that has become better know for failure than success over its first 17 years of existence. Sure, this is a different team with many player who have no working knowledge of those seasons of yore. At the same time, history has a way of weighing down or lifting up teams -- and the Dynamo and Red Bulls are on polar opposites of this scale. The Red Bulls may well be the best team in MLS -- as their Supporters' Shield suggests -- but the Dynamo provide a near perfect test.
Watch it: Sunday, NBC, 3:30 p.m. Eastern; Wednesday, Univision Deportes, 8 p.m.