Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With the opening leg of the Major League Soccer Conference Semifinals in the books, the playoff picture is becoming virtually crystal clear.
The Los Angeles Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, and Sporting Kansas City all earned road wins on Sunday against Red Bull New York, the Philadelphia Union, and the Colorado Rapids respectively, making progression to the next round a sound bet.
Real Salt Lake, the only home team to secure a win in the opening round, is also sitting in a strong position to advance after a convincing 3-0 win over Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday.
Although the outcomes of the return legs are not forgone conclusions, it would take something remarkable for New York, Philadelphia, Colorado, and Seattle to advance at this stage.
But where did it go wrong for these teams? And do they have any shot at a spot in the Conference Finals?
New York fell to Los Angeles behind a first-half goal from Mike Magee, so the Red Bulls still stand a good chance of advancing, needing to only overturn a one-goal deficit.
While Los Angeles finished the regular season unbeaten at home, the playoffs are an entirely different animal. Not to mention that the Galaxy claimed the MLS Supporters' Shield this season, and only five regular-season champions have gone on to win the MLS Cup.
New York certainly has a chance of getting past Los Angeles, but in order to do so, the Red Bulls will have to score the first goal. If the Galaxy jumps out to an early lead, the Red Bulls would need at least two goals to advance, a tall order in a tough road atmosphere.
Expect Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe to employ similar tactics that saw his side pick up a 2-0 wild-card win on the road at FC Dallas last week. New York should look to bunker down early to avoid conceding, but hit Los Angeles on the counter attack and set pieces. If a goal comes, the game will open up and the Red Bulls can attack in search of a second.
Philadelphia finds itself in a similar position to New York, suffering a one- goal loss at home. The Dynamo continued their run of good form by topping the Union 2-1 at PPL Park on Sunday.
And just as New York's deficit is not insurmountable, neither is Philadelphia's. The Union know they can get a result at Robertson Stadium, having already picked up a win there this season with a 1-0 defeat of Houston in March.
Houston is a completely different team at this point in the season though. After a slow start, the Dynamo ended the regular season with a six-game unbeaten streak to clinch second place in the Eastern Conference.
Just like the L.A.-N.Y. tie, the first goal at Robertson Stadium on Thursday is crucial. Philadelphia surrendered only 36 goals in the regular season, the second fewest in the league along with Real Salt Lake. Maintaining a clean sheet offers the Union the best opportunity to get a clinching result.
Colorado, meanwhile, has a mountain to climb.
Rapids head coach Gary Smith was dealt an incredibly bad hand against Sporting at home on Sunday as he was forced to make three substitutions because of injuries in addition to seeing his side play for 30-plus minutes down a man after Tyrone Marshall was shown a dubious red card. Sporting won the contest 2-0.
Now the Rapids will head to Livestrong Sporting Park, which is one of the most difficult places in the league to get a positive result. With a home record of 9-2-6 during the regular season, Sporting has certainly made its new soccer- specific stadium a fortress.
In order to advance, Colorado will need to achieve a result that no other team has managed at Livestrong Sporting Park. Sporting's two home losses this season have come by a one-goal margin, but the Rapids need to win by at least two.
Probably the most shocking result from the opening playoff weekend was Real Salt Lake's dismantling of Seattle.
Alvaro Saborio scored twice with Ned Grabavoy adding a third late in the second half, but it was Javier Morales who ran the show, pulling the strings from his midfield position and dictating play throughout the match.
Seattle doesn't stand much of a chance, frankly. The Sounders will be buoyed by the fact that they are returning to CenturyLink Field, which is undeniably the best atmosphere in MLS, but the three-goal deficit makes progression to the Western Conference Final a near-futile prospect.
Home form from the Sounders has gone somewhat overlooked recently, and it's not as strong as the Emerald City faithful would have you believe.
Seattle actually produced a slightly better record on the road this season (9-3-5) than it did at CenturyLink Field (9-4-4). The Sounders have been less than convincing at home of late, falling to Philadelphia 2-0 on Oct. 8 and resorting to a late comeback to beat the San Jose Earthquakes, 2-1, on Oct. 15 after playing from behind for about an hour.
It would take a monumental collapse from Real Salt Lake to see the Sounders through.
On paper, you'd certainly fancy Los Angeles, Houston, Sporting, and Real Salt Lake to advance to Sunday's Conference Finals. But thankfully for New York, Philadelphia, Colorado, and Seattle, the game is not played on paper.