Last year, the Houston Dynamo finished at the bottom of the Western Conference. This season they're playing for the conference title.
After a bit of a layoff, the Major League Soccer playoffs continue Tuesday when the two-legged conference finals start. In the East, the Columbus Crew host Toronto FC, while the Seattle Sounders visit the Dynamo in the West.
The conference championships could probably best be characterized as an underdog challenge on both sides: The Crew facing the winners of the Supporters Shield and the presumptive favorites, and the Dynamo taking on the defending MLS Cup champions.
"I've been working hard, we've been working hard together and now we've been rewarded," Houston coach Wilmer Cabrera said. "But we want more and we know that every time and every game you get something, now it's more pressure for you. We like that. We really like that."
The Dynamo finished 7-14-13 last season for 10th in the Western Conference, well out of the playoff picture. Houston brought in Cabrera from the USL in hopes of returning to playoffs for the first time since 2013.
"Sometimes we have to start from the bottom to prove ourselves," Cabrera said. "The most important is not how you start. When you move, you need to be well prepared because at some point, when the opportunities open for you, you need to be ready and that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be ready."
The Dynamo advanced 2-1 on aggregate after a two-legged semifinal against the Portland Timbers, who finished atop the Western Conference.
There was a long break between games for international play, giving the Dynamo ample time to game plan for Seattle. But three players — Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto and Boniek Garcia — traveled with the Honduras national team for a grueling two-legged playoff with Australia in World Cup qualifying. Honduras fell to the Socceroos 3-1 on aggregate.
A look at the other three teams in the conference finals:
SOUNDERS: Seattle beat Cascadia rival Vancouver 2-0 in its two-legged semifinal. Clint Dempsey, who was suspended for the scoreless first match, scored both goals in the second.
Last season, Seattle was a fourth seed but swept through the playoffs and into the final against Toronto FC, beating the Reds 5-4 on penalties after a 0-0 draw. It was the Sounders' first league championship.
Dempsey, who has 14 goals this season, returned this year after an irregular heartbeat kept him out of a Seattle's championship run.
Last week, he was named the MLS Comeback Player of the Year.
CREW: No team in the playoffs has faced more off-field turmoil than the Columbus Crew.
Last month, owner Anthony Precourt and Precourt Sports Ventures, which has owned the Major League Soccer club since 2013, announced the team will move to Austin, Texas, following the 2018 season unless a new, privately financed stadium is built in downtown Columbus.
The Crew, one of the 10 founding clubs in MLS, have been playing since 1996 and won the MLS Cup championship in 2008. They have played at Mapfre Stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium in the league, since 1999.
Heartbroken fans in Columbus have launched an effort to try to convince Precourt to keep the team in the city, spreading the word with the hashtag "SaveTheCrew" on social media.
The Crew, which finished second-to-last in the East last year, defeated NYCFC 4-3 on aggregate to advance.
TORONTO FC: Toronto has been an offensive juggernaut this season with an MLS-leading 74 goals to go with the league's best overall record. The team is the favorite to win the Cup.
But the Reds will be without forward Jozy Altidore , who was suspended for the first leg against the Crew. Altidore and Sacha Kljestan of the New York Red Bulls were ejected for a halftime confrontation during their semifinal playoff match Nov. 5. Kljestan will serve his penalty in the opening game of the 2018 regular season.