So it's settled: The New York Red Bulls will face the Houston Dynamo in a two-game Eastern Conference semifinal series, which kicks off Sunday in Houston and concludes Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena, when one of the teams will advance to the Eastern Conference final.
On paper, the series is a bit of a mismatch: New York finished eight points (almost three full games, which is one-tenth of the season) ahead of Houston during the regular season and had a +17 goal differential compared to Houston's 0. What's more, the Red Bulls dominated the Dynamo in winning all three head-to-head meetings this year, including 4-1 (watch) and 3-0 (watch) demolitions at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, where the Dynamo went an entire calendar year without losing.
The reality is likely to be much less lopsided. Houston is the two-time defending conference champion, titles won in part by winning games and earning results on the road (3-1-1 road record in the Eastern Conference playoffs the last two years). The Dynamo out-shot New York in two of the three regular-season meetings, including a 20-5 margin back on Oct. 20. Most importantly, Houston has its difference-makers - midfielders Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia - available for the series, whereas they only faced New York once during the season.
So advancing to the Eastern Conference final is going to be no easy task. Here's what to expect from the Dynamo and how Mike Petke and the Red Bulls can win the series:
Red Bulls attacking
After leading the league in goals, outscoring the Dynamo 9-1 during the regular season, and putting up 10 goals in their last three games, New York's confidence is deservedly at an all-time high. Tim Cahill is on fire, Thierry Henry pulled off a goal worthy of a flipbook sequel, and Péguy Luyindula is playing like a No. 10. Houston does appear vulnerable at the back, where the team's shutout total dipped from 12 last year to 9 this year, and starting center back Jermaine Taylor is out for the season following foot surgery.
In the past, the Red Bulls have burned the Dynamo with speed on the flanks (see Richards, Dane). Houston has addressed that by going with more mobile options in Kofi Sarkodie at right back and Corey Ashe at left back. While New York may still want Lloyd Sam to attack Ashe, who is one yellow card away from a suspension, attacking the middle of the field (and the slower center backs, Bobby Boswell and Eric Brunner), might be the better option.
The matchup pitting Luyindula and Dax McCarty (with help from Cahill, Jonny Steele, and potentially Eric Alexander when he's in the game) against Houston's central midfield duo of Ricardo Clark (who's shown improved offensive skill to go with his defensive credentials) and first-year starter Warren Creavalle will determine how consistently the Red Bulls can create dangerous chances.
For Henry, Hall had been a bit of a nemesis - five games, 13 shots, seven shots on goal without scoring, including some incredible close-range stops - until the Frenchman scored in Houston on Sept. 8. Henry's movement and skill give Houston - heck, give everybody - serious problems, and his decisions around goal could decide the series. Both Fabian Espindola and Bradley Wright-Phillips have given Houston trouble in the past and could make an impact off the bench.
Red Bulls defending
Houston has been hit-or-miss offensively all year. When forwards Will Bruin and Giles Barnes are in-form, they have a very dangerous blend of size and skill. Both can score in the air, both are usually capable of holding the ball with their back to goal, and both move well off the ball. Bruin's finishing touch has been much-criticized (he missed a league-high 17 big chances, according to MLS stats partner Opta), but after scoring four playoff goals last year, he popped up with two more in Thursday night's win over Montreal. Red Bulls center backs Jamison Olave and Ibrahim Sekagya have the size and quickness to match those two, which should make for some serious battles.
Defending Houston, however, is mostly predicated on stopping the attacking trio of Garcia, Davis, and Clark (in descending order of importance). A Designated Player from Honduras, Garcia is everything to Houston's attack, the spark of creativity and unpredictability. On New York's left side, Steele and David Carney need to get physical on Garcia and make sure they communicate with teammates when he moves centrally, where he is most dangerous.
Davis mixes pinpoint wide service with a tendency to drift inside and wait for Ashe to overlap. Davis is a much more dangerous crosser of the ball, so if Markus Holgersson is at right back once again, he will need to do his best to stay tight on Davis, even if it means giving Ashe a little more space on the sideline.
The Dynamo are one of the league's best, most confident playoff teams. They are 9-1 all-time at home in playoff games (yes, that one loss came to the Red Bulls; no, it doesn't carry any weight here) and used first-leg victories, each by two goals, to advance over Kansas City and D.C. United last year. New York has been dominant enough at home that the Red Bulls should be able to advance if they avoid losing the first leg by multiple goals. So while Mike Petke is not going to concede possession and play for a draw, a 0-0 or 1-1 result would suit New York just fine.
To be the champion, you often have to beat the old champion, and in a playoff context, that's what New York faces in the next week. With this year's title in hand and an eight-game unbeaten streak, the Red Bulls remain a solid favorite.