The Houston Dynamo enter familiar territory...again.
Fatigue and rest will be the story to watch in the conference finals of the MLS Cup playoffs. But an additional four storylines will complete your preview.
Only two matchups remain. Both ties scheduled for this round will be dissected from a unique angle to intensify your viewing pleasure. So, what exactly warrants your attention in the coming days?
Read on to find out.
Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, credit all statistics to the official MLS Press Box Stats and Standings.
Which match will you—the fan—be watching this round?
Before we delve into the featured storylines for this week's action, here is the complete schedule and guide for the conference finals.
Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting Kansas City, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC
Real Salt Lake vs. Portland Timbers, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Saturday, Nov. 23
Sporting Kansas City vs. Houston Dynamo, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network
Sunday, Nov. 24
Portland Timbers vs. Real Salt Lake, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Real Salt Lake fans won't have to wait much longer for their home match.
Depth, conditioning and rhythm will all be tested during the conference final round of the MLS Cup playoffs.
Only four participants remain standing—and barely at that. The FIFA international window did commissioner Don Garber no favors, forcing MLS to condense the opening matches of the postseason. The league's final four are ready to endure their third match since Nov. 2.
The Dynamo have more cause for complain. Saturday's clash with Sporting Kansas City will be the club's fourth match in nine days.
But fear not, for rest is on the way.
Following the weekend's action, the MLS Cup playoffs will go on hiatus. A two full weeks will separate the first and second legs of the conference finals. The situation, though not ideal, will serve as a much-needed rest period for embattled souls.
...or will it serve as an obstacle for club's looking to hold onto momentum?
Only time will tell.
This number shouldn't be that difficult to follow.
Yet somehow, Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes lost track of it along the way.
No player in Kansas City has scored more goals this season than Claudio Bieler. The Argentine finished his 2013 campaign with a club-best 10 finishes. If you add a timely game-winner in Wednesday's 3-1 victory over the New England Revolution, his total has increased to 11.
Apparently, Coach Vermes isn't impressed. After returning from a slight groin strain in September, Bieler failed to start the final six weeks of the season. Kansas City's goals per match average dropped nearly half a goal. The Argentine didn't travel for the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal. SKC returned home facing a 2-1 deficit. The club's leading goalscorer finally came off the bench with the series tied on aggregate.
He lifted the club into the next round.
The numbers don't lie, Coach Vermes. The math isn't difficult to follow. The impact is blatantly obvious.
Try not to make too many "tactical decisions" in the conference final.
The trick here: Will you watch him on the pitch or on the bench?
It's been a roller-coaster year for Alvaro Saborio. The Costa Rican striker was forced to miss 18 matches this season with a variety of nagging injuries. But even with just 15 starts under his belt, Sabrio managed to amass a club-best 12 goals.
It was more of the same during Thursday's victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy.
After Chris Schuler was able to find the game-winner in the 102nd minute, Saborio went down. The 19,042 at Rio Tinto Stadium let out a collective gasp. Real Salt Lake would be forced to finish off the two-time defending champions with just 10 men.
The mission was accomplished, but word on the extent of Saborio's injury is yet to be known. Head coach Jason Kreis failed to divulge any further information following the match. The early word from the ESPN2 broadcast was a hip flexor that bothered the 31-year-old entering the match.
Stay tuned for updates as word comes in about the extent of his injury.
Same matchup. Same result?
Always bet on orange.
Unless, of course, you're in Los Angeles.
But that's not a cause for concern at the moment. The Dynamo won't have to worry about a trip to Carson, Calif. this year; however, another familiar foe awaits head coach Dom Kinnear and company.
For a third consecutive postseason, Houston and Sporting Kansas City will meet in the MLS Cup playoffs. The Dynamo have escaped the victors in each of the last two postseasons. A repeat performance will see the club through to its third consecutive MLS Cup final.
There's no escaping the Orange Crush come November.
Here we are again. They're a very good team. They always turn it on at the end of the season. One of the difficulties that they provide, especially late in the season here, is that we have a very short turnaround here and we're going into some different weather. But we've done well against them over the course of this year for the most part and it's going to be a great matchup because it always is. They're a great team. Dominic does a great job with the group and I have the utmost respect for him and how his team plays and the fact that they come to play. So from that point of view it's going to be a tremendous series.
In four career playoff contests, the Dynamo are 3-1 with a plus-five goal differential against their sporting-blue rival. They're more than a "very good team," coach.
They own you.
For the fifth time in just over three months, Real Salt Lake and Portland will meet again.
Didn't Jason Kreis warn us about this?
Entering Week 34, Real Salt Lake's head coach was well aware there was a foundation being laid for another intense MLS rivalry. Scott Pierce reported the story on MLS' official website:
To play the same opponent in really important matches is what starts rivalries. That's why we're where we are with Seattle after playing them in the playoffs so many times in a row...Really stressful matches that mean something. Somebody taking the lead in the conference at that time or an Open Cup game.
Fast forward a few weeks.
The Timbers and Real Salt Lake are set to do battle...for a fifth time. According to Portland's official website, head coach Caleb Porter is confident in the matchup and his tactics:
I think we match up well. The nice thing is that we played Seattle and they play a diamond. So we're really in a rhythm playing basically a similar system. I think that's a real key in a quick turnaround. There's not a ton of tactical changes that we're going to have to make. A lot of the same things we will want to exploit against Salt Lake are things we wanted to exploit against Seattle. I think our guys will also have a lot of confidence knowing we just faced a really talented team in Seattle playing a diamond and now we go face another really talented team playing a diamond. The last time we played Salt Lake, I thought we played very well against them. It was a 0-0 draw, it wasn't a win, but I don't think they had a shot on goal. I think that was a real positive performance. Now we just need to get the attack cranked up versus them.
But the scorelines aren't as confident, Coach Porter.
The Timbers failed to capture a victory in four previous encounters with RSL (0-2-2). The club was even eliminated from the U.S. Open Cup following a 2-1 loss at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The stakes are even higher in the conference finals.
Look for both teams to "crank up" more than the attack with a trip to the MLS Cup final on the line.
Follow Eduardo on Twitter for more insight on a variety of sports topics. Follow @Mendez_FC