By THOMAS FLOYD
After seven months and hundreds of matches, the 2011 MLS campaign has been whittled down to just three games.
The two conference finals Sunday will determine the participants in the MLS Cup, to be held Nov. 20 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. Breaking from a recent pattern, this year's postseason has been a fairly predictable affair, with No. 3 seed Real Salt Lake's triumph over the No. 2 Seattle Sounders the only "upset" of the conference semifinal round. And for the first time since 2007, the MLS Cup will feature two teams actually from the conferences they're representing.
The Eastern Conference final will kick off Sunday's doubleheader, with Sporting Kansas City hosting the Houston Dynamo. Later, the Western Conference final will see Real Salt Lake travel to take on the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Here is a breakdown of the conference final slate:
SPORTING KANSAS CITY vs. HOUSTON DYNAMO (Sunday, 5:30 p.m., FSC)
After both sides missed the playoffs in 2010, either Kansas City or Houston will make it to the MLS Cup this year. The two teams finished with nearly identical regular-season records, but Kansas City's two-point edge was enough to ensure this match will take place at Livestrong Sporting Park, where coach Peter Vermes' team went 9-2-6 during the regular season.
Houston's visit to Kansas City this year came in September, and the home side rolled to a 3-0 win paced by Teal Bunbury's two-goal performance. But that match was the final game Houston played with Geoff Cameron in midfield (Andre Hainault and Jermaine Taylor were in central defense) before the All-Star defender-midfielder joined Bobby Boswell at centerback to form a partnership that has thrived down the stretch.
Although Kansas City didn't need striker Omar Bravo (abductor strain) to push aside the depleted Colorado Rapids, the veteran's presence could be crucial Sunday against Houston's sturdy back line. Defensively, right back Chance Myers will draw the assignment of containing Houston midfielder Brad Davis, although it will have to be a team effort if Kansas City is going to negate Davis' lethal set-piece prowess.
LOS ANGELES GALAXY vs. REAL SALT LAKE (Sunday, 9 p.m., ESPN, TSN 2)
It's a match worthy of being an MLS Cup, but the Supporters' Shield-winning Galaxy will have to host CONCACAF Champions League finalist Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference final instead. The showdown is a rematch of the 2009 MLS Cup, which saw Salt Lake claim an upset win over the Galaxy thanks to the heroics of goalkeeper Nick Rimando in penalty kicks.
The regular-season results between these teams in 2011 must be taken with a grain of salt. In March, Salt Lake cruised to a 4-1 win at Rio Tinto Stadium thanks to a brilliant display from Javier Morales, but the Galaxy didn't have Landon Donovan, who was on international duty, and the injured Omar Gonzalez. And just last month, Los Angeles claimed a 2-1 triumph at the Home Depot Center over a Salt Lake side that was without suspended captain Kyle Beckerman.
Of course, it's possible neither team will be at full strength Sunday either. Salt Lake could be without centerbacks Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, who both sat out the second leg against Seattle with quadriceps strains suffered in the series opener. And Los Angeles will be closely monitoring the health of midfielder David Beckham, who has struggled with back spasms for months and was in clear pain throughout his gutsy performance against the New York Red Bulls on Thursday.