With the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs looming, there's no doubt that we're in store for an exciting postseason with what seems to be one of the more competitive fields in recent playoff history. It all starts on Halloween night with the first of two matches of the knockout round to be played.
The new playoff format this year pits the fourth and fifth seeds of each conference against each other in a single-elimination game to determine who goes on to play in the Conference Semifinals.
In the Eastern Conference, we have the No. 5 Houston Dynamo traveling to the Windy City to face the No. 4 Chicago Fire on Oct. 31.
And in the Western Conference, the No. 4 Los Angeles Galaxy will host Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Nov. 1 to begin their title defense.
The great thing about the playoffs is that anything can happen. It's like a brand new season, and nothing matters except the match that's right in front of you.
Here's a breakdown of why each of the four knockout round teams can advance to the Conference Semifinals.
at Chicago Fire (Oct. 31, 6:00 PDT on ESPN2)
Dominic Kinnear's Houston Dynamo look to repeat their success from last year's playoffs. Houston was able to make it to the MLS Cup championship match against the Los Angeles Galaxy last year but fell 1-0 to Bruce Arena's squad.
The Dynamo haven't had much success against Chicago this season. In three matches, Houston drew twice and lost 3-1 at Toyota Park in Chicago.
The good thing for Houston, though, is that they have much more postseason experience than Chicago. The Dynamo have made the playoffs every year, except 2010, since their inaugural season (2006).
Chicago, on the other hand, has failed to qualify for the postseason in each of the last two seasons.
In addition, Houston has the upper hand in terms of fresh legs. In their last game of the regular season, Dominic Kinnear sent out a squad composed mostly of reserves.
Chicago was still fighting for playoff seeding during the last week of the season, so they were forced to send out the regular starters.
With the likes of Brad Davis, Oscar Boniek Garcia and Corey Ashe in the midfield, Houston will definitely have the service to make it hard on Chicago's defense.
The key for Houston will be to take advantage of set pieces. With Brad Davis' coveted left foot, the Dynamo should be able to score a goal or set up some dangerous opportunities from free kicks.
vs. Houston Dynamo (Oct. 31, 6:00 PDT on ESPN2)
Judging by the team's performance, the Chicago Fire seem to not be missing midfielder Marco Pappa too much. Even though Pappa ranks second for Chicago in both goals and assists this season, the team won four straight after his departure for SC Heerenveen.
However, the Fire recently have not been in great form. They lost and drew their final two matches of the regular season, but compared to Houston, their form is really not that bad.
The Dynamo have been underperforming on the road to say the least. In their last 15 road games they've only won one, which was against lowly Toronto FC.
In addition, Houston has not beaten Chicago in their last five meetings. Considering Houston faces Chicago in an away game, the Fire definitely have the upper hand in terms of momentum and form.
Chicago's Sherjill MacDonald has been catching fire as of late. The designated player has turned in a good string of performances, notably recording a brace against the New York Red Bulls.
One of the most important factors of success in the playoffs is how hot a team is heading in, and the Fire's recent form bodes well for their chances.
at Los Angeles Galaxy (Nov. 1, 7:30 PDT on NBC Sports Network)
There's no doubt that the Whitecaps are the underdogs in this matchup. It's quite amazing that they've made it to the playoffs despite this being only their second season in MLS. Also, they're the very first Canadian team to qualify for the postseason.
As underdogs, Vancouver has nothing to lose and everything to gain. The slates have been wiped clean, and all they need to focus on is one game against the Galaxy. Any team can beat any other team, and this is especially true with all the parity that exists in MLS.
Want examples? Look at the Colorado Rapids in 2010. They qualified as the second-lowest seed and went on to win it all.
Real Salt Lake in 2009 is another instance of an underdog prevailing. They barely qualified for the playoffs and ended up beating the Galaxy in the final.
Vancouver's Jamaican duo of Dane Richards and Darren Mattocks are some of the most dangerous players in the league. Add Scottish midfielder Barry Robson and defensive stalwart Jay DeMerit to the mix, and Vancouver doesn't actually seem too bad.
Even though they're much weaker on paper, the Whitecaps have history on their side. Qualifying for the playoffs 10 points behind the next playoff team and winning it all would be a great success story for the Canadian club.
vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC (Nov. 1, 7:30 PDT on NBC Sports Network)
The Los Angeles Galaxy are fortunate to make the playoffs after a horrible start to the season. Now, all that matters is the playoffs, as they look to repeat as champions of MLS.
With the likes of Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Robbie Keane, Vancouver's chances don't look too great. In fact, the Whitecaps have never beaten the Galaxy. In five matches against each other, Los Angeles has won four of them.
Also, they've won six of their last seven matches at the Home Depot Center, while Vancouver hasn't scored in five of their last seven road games. The Whitecaps haven't even won an away game since July 5.
In addition to the "Big Three" that the Galaxy have, the L.A. defense and midfielders Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas are some of the best in the league.
Everything points to a win for the Galaxy, but they need to be careful not to overlook this game and ahead to the San Jose Earthquakes.
They still need to play the game and win in order to advance; complacency is not something they can afford, especially in a single-elimination match.
Chicago Fire 1 - 2 Houston Dynamo
Los Angeles Galaxy 3 - 1 Vancouver Whitecaps FC
I'm predicting an upset for the Houston Dynamo on Halloween night. Despite their bad form and road woes, I think Houston will step it up and narrowly beat Chicago with Brad Davis being instrumental in the win.
Houston will then go on the face Sporting Kansas City in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Los Angeles will just be too much for the Whitecaps to handle. The Galaxy's three designated players will turn in a great performance and look ready to defend their title.
L.A. will face rival San Jose Earthquakes in the Western Conference Semifinals in what should be one of the most exciting series of the playoffs.