Yet the first postseason game between D.C. United and New England at RFK Stadium Wednesday is the same matchup of No. 4 and No. 5 teams, respectively, as in postseasons since 2012 when the league shifted to an intraconference playoff format. (In previous years, teams “crossed over” in the playoffs.)
The change for the 2015 postseason is another knockout game has been added to each conference that squares up the third and sixth seeds. For the Eastern Conference, that means No. 3 Montreal hosts No. 6 Toronto FC on Thursday in a rematch of their regular-season finale on Sunday won by the Impact, 2-1.
In the West, Seattle (No. 4) and LA Galaxy (No. 5) renew their rivalry Wednesday at CenturyLink Field, and third-place Portland hosts sixth seed Sporting Kansas City on Thursday.
All four conference semifinal series start on Sunday, with the top seeds playing the lowest surviving seeds and the conference runner-up taking on the other survivor. The conference semifinals and finals are both two-game series that determine the two finalists in the MLS Cup championship game Dec. 6.
Eastern Conference Knockout Round
D.C. United vs. New England (7:30 p.m. ET, UniMas)
REDEMPTION AT RFK? Last year, D.C. won the conference title and the Revs finished second, so neither played in the knockout round, and nor did they meet in the playoffs. United stumbled in the semifinals against the Red Bulls; the Revs rolled over Columbus and edged past New York to reach, and lose, their fifth MLS Cup final.
Both teams have stumbled through barren periods this season and need a playoff win to extend disappointing seasons. Between May 8 and July 11, the Revs won just one of 12 games. United is in the midst of its worst skid -- two wins in the last nine games – and finished the regular season Sunday thrashed, 5-0, at Columbus.
Neither is in great form coming into this showdown; in fact, they are equally mediocre in their last six games at 2-3-1. At least New England heads to RFK off a victory.
The Revs ended a four-game winless run Sunday by beating up on New York City FC, 3-1, but did a slumbering offense that had scored just two goals in those previous four matches really play that well or did a disinterested opponent willingly open the gates?
Forward Charlie Davies scored to end a personal nine-game goalless streak after assisting on Lee Nguyen’s opening goal in the second minute. He started and played the full 90 minutes for only the second time in the past three months but isn’t fazed by traveling to play a must-win game on two days’ rest.
There’s an added twist to this game in that Davies started his MLS career with United in 2011 and scored 11 goals in 26 games before returning to Europe. When came back to MLS in 2013, United was lurching through the worst season in league history, and from that disastrous three-win campaign D.C. rebounded to win the 2014 Supporters’ Shield.
But recently? Take away a 4-0 defeat of Chicago in the penultimate game and United has been outscored, 19-5, in its last eight games. Recurring, costly mistakes have plagued 2014 Rookie of the Year Steve Birnbaum throughout the season and D.C. hasn’t been able to replace veteran midfielder Davy Arnaud (post-concussion issues). He’s missed the last seven games, and Finn Markus Halsti hasn’t plugged the gap.
Midfielder Nick DeLeon and left back Taylor Kemp have combined for 11 assists, so United can threaten from the flanks. It will need big games from its attackers and a top-notch defensive effort to stave off the Revs.
Western Conference Knockout
Seattle vs. LA Galaxy (10 pm. ET, UniMas)
SHOWDOWN IN SEATTLE. Every year, it seems, since starting its MLS operation in 2009 the Sounders have gone into playoffs a serious contender to lift the trophy and left their fans disappointed. In six previous postseasons, they have won only three of eight encounters and last year held the home-field edge in the conference finals against the Galaxy and lost on away goals (2-2 aggregate).
Seattle hosts the knockout game this year at CenturyLink Field, where the teams tied, 1-1, Oct. 4. Seattle needed a last-second goal by Chad Barrett just to get the point, but it also gifted the Galaxy a goal when a bad back pass left keeper Stefan Frei marooned.
Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso missed training on Tuesday to treat an undisclosed injury suffered in the season finale, a 3-1 defeat of RSL. Whether or not he plays, it’s essential for Seattle to clamp down in central midfield. Otherwise, Steven Gerrard -- who hasn’t been much of an influence the last few games -- could rise up with a string of passes and through balls for Gyasi Zardes and Robbie Keane to feast upon.
The Sounders could use the guile and danger with which Marco Pappa gets after opposing defenses. His penetrating forays from the flanks draw defenders away from Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey, whose interplay in different areas of the field hasn’t been as consistently threatening this season as in 2014. In midseason, the Sounders brought back Erik Friberg, whose only two assists were logged in the first two of his 13 appearances.
Pappa scored against RSL in his first start since Aug. 30 and scored a sweet left-footed goal. His corner kick in the 1-1 tie with the Galaxy was glanced into the goalmouth by Brad Evans for Barrett to crash into the net.
The Galaxy’s poor road record this season (2-9-6) is being cited as one reason to pick the Sounders, but CenturyLink is one venue in which the Galaxy has succeeded. The Sounders won last year’s regular-season finale, 2-0, at the Link, but the Galaxy romped, 4-0, in late July of 2014. It has played 12 games there since Seattle joined MLS in 2009 and won four of them.