The Sounders are among eight teams still battling for the championship.
1. San Jose Earthquakes
• Record: 19-6-9, 66 points
• 2011 finish: Missed playoffs
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Overview: Led by new all-time single-season scoring co-leader Chris Wondolowski, San Jose’s high scoring offense makes it a favorite to become the seventh team to win both the Supporters’ Shield and the MLS Cup in the same year. The Earthquakes blew away MLS with 72 goals, 13 more than the next team. Never count them out until the final whistle, as they scored to tie or win games in second-half stoppage time eight times this season, by far a league record.
2. Real Salt Lake
• Record: 17-11-6, 57 points
• 2011 finish: Lost to Los Angeles in West finals
Overview: After winning the 2009 MLS Cup as the East’s fourth seed, Salt Lake has finished in the West’s top three each of the past two years but failed to make it back to the final. They’re back as the two seed this year, but that could be a bad thing: RSL’s record in CCL and MLS playoff series (single-game rounds excluded) as the higher-ranking team is 1-3. But as the underdogs, they’re 5-0.
3. Sounders FC
• Record: 15-8-11, 56 points
• 2011 finish: Lost to Salt Lake in West semifinals
Overview: True, the Sounders may be without leading scorer Eddie Johnson for the first leg against Real Salt Lake in a rematch of the 2011 West semifinals, but they will have their leading playmaker, Mauro Rosales. Aside from Johnson perhaps missing the first game, Seattle finally has some consistency in their starting lineup, and that could help carry them past the first round for the first time.
4. Los Angeles Galaxy
• Record: 16-12-6, 54 points
• 2011 finish: MLS Cup champions
Overview: After a horrible start to the season (3-8-2), the Galaxy have lost just two games since July 4. A huge part of that turnaround was the return of 2011 MLS Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez from injury. With some doubt surrounding the futures of Landon Donovan and David Beckham, Los Angeles could be making its last run with this core group of players that also includes Irish international Robbie Keane, who with Donovan and Beckham accounted for 32 of L.A.’s 52 goals this season.
1. Sporting Kansas City
• Record: 18-7-9, 63 points
• 2011 finish: Lost to Houston in East finals
Overview: Unlike their West counterparts, San Jose, Sporting earned the top East spot mostly through defense, allowing a league-low 27 goals and scoring just 42 — second-lowest among playoff teams. Despite losing forward Teal Bunbury to a season-ending knee injury in late August, Sporting went unbeaten in its last 12 games of the season and is hoping its offensive trio of Kei Kamara, MLS assist leader Graham Zusi (15) and 2011 Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong can provide enough scoring to complement the stingy defense.
2. D.C. United
• Record: 17-10-7, 58 points
• 2011 finish: Missed playoffs
Overview: The league’s most decorated team — with four MLS Cup titles and five appearances in the final, ended a four-year postseason drought this year. More impressive, United did it despite losing 2011 MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario to a season-ending injury the second week of September. Midfielder Chris Pontius has had a lot to do with that (12 goals, four assists), but so has second-year coach Ben Olsen, the 35-year-old who just three years ago was playing for the team.
3. New York Red Bulls
• Record: 16-9-9, 57 points
• 2011 finish: lost in West semifinals to Los Angeles
Overview: Thierry Henry will have his third shot at bringing New York its first-ever championship. The former FIFA World Player of the Year runner-up has been a symbol of a talented-yet-underachieving squad that hasn’t made the final since 2008. Coach Hans Backe is under increasing pressure now with three designated players on his roster (Henry, Rafa Marquez and Tim Cahill), and anything but a deep run this year could mean the end of his time in New York.
4. Houston Dynamo
• Record: 14-9-11, 53 points
• 2011 finish: lost in MLS Cup final to Los Angeles
Overview: The Dynamo were far from impressive on the road this year at 3-9-5 with a -12 goal differential, but they tend to find renewed toughness on the road in the postseason, as they demonstrated Wednesday by winning at Chicago in the East’s wild card game. While few teams are short on playoff experience, Houston’s roster features more than its fair share of veterans rich in postseason appearances, like Brian Ching (22), Brad Davis (16), Bobby Boswell (14) and Ricardo Clark (14). Last year’s run to the final proved they know how to get there, and it’d be no surprise if Houston managed to win its third title.
Joel Petterson, The Seattle Times