For a league built to maintain parity, there's a familiar feel heading toward the MLS Cup final on Dec. 1. The L.A. Galaxy beat the Houston Dynamo 1--0 in last year's title game at L.A.'s Home Depot Center, and the chances of a rematch in the same stadium increased on Sunday when L.A. (a 3--0 winner over the Seattle Sounders) and Houston (3--1 over D.C. United) built commanding leads in the first of two semifinal legs. (Return legs are on Nov. 18.)
To say L.A.'s and Houston's playoff runs were predictable would be an exaggeration, though. The Galaxy—relying on stars Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and David Beckham—finished fourth in the West; Houston combined a midfield-clogging defense with opportunistic finishing to take fifth in the East.
The playoffs have provided compelling theater—the top-seeded San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting K.C. fell in the quarters—but there are still kinks in the setup. Too many teams make the postseason (10 of 19). Combine that with the lack of a true home field advantage, and the 34-game regular season is almost meaningless. Save for this: For the first time the single-game final is taking place not at a prearranged site but at the home stadium of the finalist with the better regular-season record. And that's progress.
JORGE CRUZ /LANDOV (KEANE)
DAVID BANKS/GETTY IMAGES (BRUIN)