Imagine that the fourth and fifth seeded teams in MLS may just play for the 2012 MLS Cup championship. Fully appreciative of their new lease on life after both teams struggled throughout the regular season, the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo sort of backed into the play-offs and now both are just a game away from competing for the 2012 MLS Cup championship, a repeat of last year’s final.

Los Angeles was fourth in the five-team play-off field in the Western Conference, while Houston finished fifth in the Eastern Conference to capture the last play-off berth. Neither team was favored to reach the final game, but those who counted them out forgot that the post-season is a new season and gives these two seasoned teams, which have now found their stride, the opportunity to redeem themselves after a ho hum regular season campaign.

Los Angeles, after knocking off Vancouver Whitecaps in the one-off game to reach the semi-finals, proceeded to defeat highly-favored Western Conference winner San Jose Earthquakes in the semis and is on the verge of capturing the Western Conference title after defeating the Seattle Sounders in the first leg of the home-and-away series, 3-0, on two goals from Robbie Keane and one from Mike Magee. The Sounders will have to beat the Galaxy by three goals in Seattle on Sunday (ESPN, 9 PM) to just even the aggregate score, or win by four goals to capture the Conference and advance to its first MLS Cup on Saturday, Dec. 1.

Houston got three goals from the boots of Andre Hainault, Will Bruin and Kofi Sarkodie to rally from an early 1-0 deficit to defeat DC United, 3-1, and win the first leg of the two-game Eastern Conference finals in Houston. Super rookie Nick De Leon, son for former Trinidad and Tobago international Leroy De Leon, scored the only goal for DC United.

United will host the second leg on Sunday (NBCSN, 4 PM), Nov. 18, and must defeat the Dynamo by two goals to even the aggregate score, or win by three goals to advance. Houston had to brush aside Chicago Fire in that one-off game to get to the semi-finals against Conference leader Sporting Kansas City, which it defeated in the semifinals. Houston met DC United, which defeated third-place New York Red Bulls by a 2-1 aggregate in the two-game Eastern Conference semi-finals. Houston’s win in the Conference final at home last weekend was its record 34th straight at home.

Both Los Angeles and Houston and battle-tested teams with much play-off experience. The Galaxy, coached by former US national coach and three-time MLS CUP winner Bruce Arena, has a lineup that includes US international Landon Donovan, whose partnership on the Galaxy frontline with Irish international Keane has yielded a number of goals for the defending champion; Brazilian midfielder Juninho, England international David Beckham and MLS veteran Magee are among the Galaxy’s resilient line-up.

Houston’s never-say-die attitude and depth have helped it survive a seesaw season. Head Coach Dominick Kinnear manages his team well and helps them find ways to win games; with no big name stars in the line-up, basic hard workers such as Bruin, midfielder Brad Davis, defender Bobby Boswell, veteran goal keeper Tally Hall and former US international forward Brian Chin get the job done. If Los Angeles and Houston reach the MLS Cup final, the game will be hosted by higher-seed Los Angeles at the Home Depot in Carson (CA.), which would be a rematch of last year’s final.

Bake, Fraser dismissed

New York Red Bulls failure to advance to the Eastern Conference cost Red Bulls coach Hans Bake his jobs. The Red Bulls, under new management, announced last Friday, Nov. 9 that Backe’s contract will not be renewed; Backe’s assistant Jan Halvorsen was also released. Former Liverpool and Aston Villa (both English Premier clubs) manager Frenchman Gerard Houlier is now the global sporting director for the Red Bulls and former Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh is the new sporting director. Former Red Bulls player and current assistant Mike Petke will coach the team until the search for a coach is completed.

Chivas USA, also of MLS, on Friday announced that former US national team defender Robin Fraser was dismissed as coach also on Friday; the entire coaching staff – assistant coach Greg Vanney, technical director and head scout Simon Elliott and trainer Brian Lee – has also been relieved of their duties. Jamaican-born Fraser was 15-32 in two years in MLS.