By THOMAS FLOYD
And then there were eight.
With the new, much-discussed wild-card round now a thing of the past, MLS fans are back to the traditional eight-team bracket they've seen in the postseason since the league's inception. The next round will kick off with a matchup perhaps deserving of a grander stage when Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders — two of the league's top three teams — clash at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Come Sunday, the league is offering a triple-header of playoff action comprised of the star-studded showdown between the New York Red Bulls and Los Angeles Galaxy, the Philadelphia Union's playoff debut against the Houston Dynamo, and Sporting Kansas City's trip to take on the Colorado Rapids.
Here is a rundown of the conference semifinal first legs:
REAL SALT LAKE vs. SEATTLE SOUNDERS (Saturday, 10 p.m., FSC, TSN 2)
Recent form would suggest Seattle has the edge in this matchup, as the Sounders enter the postseason winners of five of their past six while Salt Lake is mired in an 0-4-2 stretch. But with winger Mauro Rosales hampered by an MCL sprain, Seattle is expected to be without its most influential attacker.
Salt Lake, on the other hand, will get Kyle Beckerman back from suspension to partner centrally with playmaker Javier Morales, who is nearing top form after a five-month injury layoff. But even without Rosales, the Sounders still offer plenty of attacking precision in the form of striker Fredy Montero, winger Alvaro Fernandez and holding midfielder Osvaldo Alonso.
NEW YORK RED BULLS vs. LOS ANGELES GALAXY (Sunday, 3 p.m., ESPN2)
With New York coming off a gritty wild-card win over Dallas on Wednesday and the injury status of Los Angeles stars Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane up in the air, it looks like neither team will be at 100 percent for this first leg at Red Bull Arena.
But there should still be plenty of compelling matchups to watch — New York's Thierry Henry battling the Galaxy's Omar Gonzalez, Rafael Marquez going head to head with David Beckham, Joel Lindpere running at Sean Franklin. One key player who won't be available is New York right back Jan Gunnar Solli, who received a red card for a brutal tackle Wednesday.
PHILADELPHIA UNION vs. HOUSTON DYNAMO (Sunday, 5 p.m., ESPN2)
After ending the season with a six-match unbeaten streak that launched the Dynamo from the fringe of missing the playoffs to the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed, Houston has turned into a potential dark-horse contender for the MLS Cup behind MVP candidate Brad Davis.
But don't sleep on Philadelphia, which rode Sebastien Le Toux's late surge to a strong finish of its own and is getting striker Danny Mwanga back to full health just in time for the playoffs. And the Union has one of the few players in MLS capable of consistently holding his own Davis in Sheanon Williams, arguably the league's finest right back.
COLORADO RAPIDS vs. SPORTING KANSAS CITY (Sunday, 7:30 p.m., FSC, TSN 2)
For earning the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed, Kansas City was dealt a trip to the Rocky Mountains to face a Colorado side that won the MLS Cup last year and finished just two points behind Kansas City in the standings this season. Some advantage.
It'll be a good matchup in central midfield as Colorado's Jeff Larentowicz and Kansas City's Graham Zusi fight to control the tempo. The flanks will also be crucial, as Omar Bravo and Kei Kamara will provide plenty of pressure from the wings for Colorado fullbacks Kosuke Kimura and Miguel Comminges to deal with.