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Oct 25, 2007

Things to know about the MLS playoffs

For months, fans of Major League Soccer have been feasting on what has been a compelling regular season. While the drama surrounding David Beckham's arrival evolved into a buzzkill, MLS was blessed with the scintillating play of new stars like New York's Juan Pablo Angel and Chicago's Cuauhtémoc Blanco and a playoff race that went down to the wire. With the MLS playoffs set to begin, here's what to watch for: Five story lines to watch
1. Big name playoff debuts They've done the business in the regular season. Now it's time for the league's newest stars to prove their worth when the lights are brightest. For players like Blanco and Emilio, the playoff concept is nothing new, having dealt with similar arrangements in Mexico and Honduras, respectively. But for others like Angel and Toja, the fact that the regular season now means nothing is a unique experience, and so is the increased pressure and intensity that comes with the postseason. If these players can adapt quickly to the playoff atmosphere, then the championship hopes of their respective teams will take on more substance. 2. No experience necessary It won't be just some star players getting their first taste of the postseason. Five of the eight head coaches involved will be getting their playoff baptism as well, with Chivas' Preki and Kansas City's Curt Onalfo squaring off in a clash of first-year coaches. The same is true for United's Tom Soehn and the Fire's Juan Carlos Osorio, although Osorio's previous stint with Colombian club Millonarios gives him something of a leg up. So how big a detriment is their lack of playoff experience? It means little if MLS history is anything to go by. There have been five managers in league history who have won a title in their first trip to the postseason. The last one to accomplish that feat was D.C. United's Peter Nowak in 2004. 3. Can Houston repeat? Only the D.C. United squad of 1997 has successfully defended a title, and while a similar performance is well within the Dynamo's capability, the loss of suspended midfielder Ricardo Clark will be difficult to overcome. Richard Mulrooney provides plenty of grit, guile, and experience, but whether that will be enough to compensate for the loss of Clark is still a mystery. What is known is that Houston possesses the requisite defensive discipline to go all the way, having conceded just 23 goals, the lowest season mark in league history. 4. Favorites hobbled D.C. United and Chivas USA have been the most consistent teams in MLS this season, but both sides have suffered untimely injuries to key players. For United, Emilio and frontline partner Jaime Moreno are both nursing bum ankles, with the Brazilian the bigger doubt for Thursday's opener against Chicago. Considering that United has never scored in the postseason against the Fire, much less beaten them in a playoff game, this doesn't bode well for the Black-and-Red. Chivas have been even harder hit. Ante Razov's knee sprain no longer appears to be season-ending, but it's likely he'll miss both games against Kansas City. Forward Maykel Galindo (abdominal and ankle), as well as midfielders Jesse Marsch (groin) and Francisco Mendoza (groin) are also ailing, although all three are expected to play. Given the Goats' relative lack of depth, these knocks have put a huge dent in their championship hopes. 5. The juiciest first-round matchup Plenty of eyes will be on the Houston-Dallas tilt, and after Clark went postal on Dallas' Carlos Ruiz seven weeks ago, the potential for further extracurricular activities remains. But in pure soccer terms, the Chicago-D.C. United matchup is the jewel of the first round. You have the league's best team going against the one of the hottest over the last two months. And in Blanco and United's Christian Gomez, you have two of the league's premier playmakers on display.

MLS Cup playoffs first leg
D.C. United vs. Chicago,
Oct. 25
Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.
8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

New England vs. New York,
Oct. 27
Giants Stadium, Meadowlands, N.J.
7:30 p.m. ET

Houston vs. Dallas,
Oct. 27
Pizza Hut Park, Frisco, Texas
8 p.m. ET

Chivas USA vs. Kansas City,
Oct. 27
Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
8:30 p.m. ET
Five players to watch
1. Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Chicago He passes, he scores, he dives. Love him or hate him, Blanco has been worth the price of admission since joining the Fire in midseason. Not only is he the main reason for Chicago's postseason appearance, but he's also their prime source of confidence heading into their playoff series against United. Blanco's ability to float into open spaces makes him a nightmare to mark, and he'll test United's ability to stay disciplined in defense. 2. Jozy Altidore, New York Altidore's first full professional season has seen him emerge as one the league's best young attacking talents, and with Angel sure to attract plenty of attention from New England's back line, the 17-year-old is well-positioned to make an impact in the playoffs. The U.S. youth international has been lining up on the wing of late, but Altidore still has shown an ability to pop up in the box, scoring the equalizer in the season finale against Los Angeles. 3. Dwayne De Rosario, Houston De Rosario was a member of the league's Best XI the last two years, but the Canadian endured a subpar season in 2007, one in which he showed only sporadic moments of his sublime skill. De Rosario often has fallen into his old habit of trying to do too much when things get dicey, and against Dallas he can expect to get plenty of attention from former teammate Adrian Serioux. But if De Rosario can recapture his form of 2006, the Dynamo will be tough to beat. 4. Jesse Marsch, Chivas USA In a league rife with quality holding midfielders, Marsch has stood out this season for the Goats. With Chivas limping into the playoffs, Marsch's leadership will be in even greater demand, especially against a Kansas City side that finally shook off their history of late-season collapses. Marsch also does an effective job of maintaining Chivas' attacking rhythm, and continuing that role -- even in the face of his injury -- remains crucial to the Goats' chances. 5. Steve Ralston, New England In the best of times, Ralston would be counted on to deliver his usual pinpoint crosses to the likes of Taylor Twellman and Pat Noonan. But given the recent struggles of attacking midfielder Andy Dorman, New England's form going into the playoffs hardly qualifies as such. For that reason, Ralston might reprise the central role that he's assumed over the last few weeks, with the onus to keep the supply line open to the Rev's forward line. Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.