For once, the MLS playoffs have a tough act to follow.
The regular season has long been derided as too long, with too many meaningless games and not enough teams eliminated from the postseason. But 2012 did more to maintain fans' interest than perhaps any in the league's history. San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski tied one of the longest-standing MLS records when he matched Roy Lassiter's haul of 27 goals in a single season. Meanwhile the Quakes were also the surprise winners of the Supporters' Shield, amassing 68 points and scoring goals at a rate -- 72 in 34 games, an average of 2.11/game -- not seen since the turn of the century.
Elsewhere there was the much-needed resurrection of D.C. United, with Ben Olsen's squad qualifying for the postseason for the first time in five years despite losing reigning league MVP Dwayne De Rosario to what may end up being a season-ending knee injury. Vancouver became the first Canadian team to reach the MLS playoffs after finishing dead last in the league a year ago, while Sporting Kansas City continued its renaissance to take the Eastern Conference crown thanks to Graham Zusi's steady ascendancy for both club and country.
But now that the playoffs are here, it's time to check out the stories to follow and see which teams will parlay regular-season success into championship glory.
1. The Western Conference takes aim at San Jose
The Supporters' Shield, emblematic of the best regular-season record, has for years come with a bull's-eye attached. Only six times in 16 MLS seasons has the winner of the regular-season championship managed to win MLS Cup as well.
But this season, the qualifiers from the Western Conference appear to be eyeing a possible matchup against top finisher San Jose with even more enthusiasm. Over the course of the season, San Jose racked up a string of improbable comebacks that have left opponents unconvinced as to the team's quality.
The Quakes also have received plenty of invective because of their physical style, one that is spearheaded -- some might say literally -- by forward Steven Lenhart. Following a 2-2 tie at San Jose on Oct. 21, L.A. Galaxy defender Omar Gonzales complained to MLSSoccer.com about the "dumb [expletive]" that the Quakes' forward engaged in off the ball.
San Jose manager Frank Yallop had a simple response to accusations that his team is too physical: “Rubbish.” Either way, the games involving San Jose, which could see a matchup with rivals L.A. if the Galaxy beats Vancouver on Nov. 1, should be compelling to watch.
2. Hans Backe, a dead man ... winning?
The New York Red Bulls manager is almost at the end of a three-year contract and with the man who hired him, Erik Soler, already having been given the boot, Backe is presumed to be the next to go -- even telling the Swedish media outlet Expressen that he will return to Sweden after the season.
On the one hand, Backe has led New York to three consecutive playoff appearances, the first manager to do so in the club’s history. But on the other, more was expected of a team that had one of the highest payrolls in MLS.
Odd then that New York has experienced a slight uptick in form in the past few weeks. New York's attacking talent has never been in doubt with Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper combining for 33 goals. But the Red Bulls' ability to press opponents higher up the field looks much improved, helping to blunt an entire season's worth of inconsistency on defense.
New York has a long road to get to the final, with Sporting Kansas City likely standing in its way. But Backe is relishing one last chance to bring a trophy to the Red Bulls. A first-ever MLS Cup would be one heck of a possible parting gift.
3. Can Seattle break its postseason jinx?
As manager Sigi Schmid carefully went about augmenting his Sounders side this season, it looked like he at last had a team that could break through and claim a playoff series for the first time since joining MLS in 2009. The acquisition of forward Eddie Johnson -- thought to be a high-risk maneuver the time -- has paid off to the tune of 14 goals. Midseason arrival Christian Tiffert has provided some valuable link-up play in the center of Seattle's midfield and helped take some of the attacking load off Mauro Rosales.
But the same injury bug that struck the team last year with Rosales' knee injury looks to have returned in the form of a hamstring injury to Johnson. Defender Jeff Parke has a similar ailment, albeit it one that is less serious.
Whether the setbacks are enough to derail Seattle's season is yet to be determined, but against a Real Salt Lake side that dumped the Sounders out of the playoffs last year, Schmid will need every healthy body he can find.
4. Injuries heap more pressure on SKC's Zusi
Seattle isn't the only team anxiously awaiting news on injured players. Sporting Kansas City, which has turned high pressure into an art form this season, will be hoping that Roger Espinoza can make it back in time for the start of Sunday's playoff series against Chicago or Houston. The team also is steeling itself to be without primary backup Paulo Nagamura.
SKC's defense has been outstanding this season but goal scoring has been a problem; given the team's reliance on its midfield to pressure all over the field, the possible loss of Espinoza and/or Nagamura could seriously compromise the team's effectiveness in the middle of the park.
All of which will put even more of a burden on Graham Zusi. The league leader in assists has excelled for both club and country this season -- he'll be counted on even more to lead SKC to the MLS Cup final that narrowly eluded them last year.
5. Who will be this year's Mike Magee?
Despite L.A.'s star-studded lineup last season, it was designated afterthought Mike Magee who delivered some critical goals en route to the Galaxy's third MLS Cup win. So who might fill that role this year? With the knockout round set to take place Wednesday and Thursday, some early candidates are Houston's Calen Carr, Chicago's Patrick Nyarko, L.A.'s Christian Wilhelmsson and Vancouver's John Thorrington.
Looking ahead to the later rounds, some names to remember are San Jose's Sam Cronin, Real Salt Lake's Will Johnson, Seattle's Brad Evans, New York's Dax McCarty, D.C. United's Lewis Neal and Sporting Kansas City's Jacob Peterson.