Sean Franklin's 27-yard strike just after halftime helped the Los Angeles Galaxy open their run at an unprecedented third consecutive MLS championship with a 1-0 victory over Real Salt Lake on Sunday night in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals.
Franklin's first goal in more than five months provided a small advantage for the Galaxy when the clubs head to Utah on Thursday for the return match.
Los Angeles is trying to become the first club to win three straight MLS titles.
New York Red Bulls squandered a two-goal lead and had to settle for a 2-2 draw when Omar Cummings scored an equalizer two minutes into stoppage time in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Red Bulls return to New York on Wednesday for the second leg, determined to overcome the disappointment of a draw in Houston.
"Judging by the feel right now, it feels like a loss because we were winning 2-0," New York goalkeeper Luis Robles said. "Now, we have to go home and we have to win. It's as simple as that."
Cummings, a second-half substitute, tapped in after Robles parried Bobby Boswell's header.
"We didn't script it this way," Houston assistant Wade Barrett said. "We gave up two goals and dug a hole ... It was a fantastic performance in the second half. The way everything turned out, you feel real positive going into Wednesday."
The Dynamo played the final 25 minutes with a man advantage after New York's Jamison Olave was red carded for a reckless tackle from behind on Cummings.
Australian midfielder Tim Cahill put the Red Bulls in front in the 22nd minute, taking Thierry Henry's cross from the left side and heading it inside the near post. Eric Alexander made it 2-0 in the 32nd with a 14-yard strike.
"I thought it was tremendous to go up 2-0 on the road in the first half," New York coach Mike Petke said. "I thought we gave them confidence with the deflection goal. The red card killed us. At the end of the day, those goals were our fault. It wasn't something created out of spectacular stuff. It was self-inflicted."
At Carson, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane had numerous chances throughout the match, but repeatedly failed to provide an additional cushion for the Galaxy.
After a scoreless first half, Franklin collected an errant pass from Keane two minutes after the break and fired inside the left post.
Los Angeles largely controlled possession against second-seeded Salt Lake in a matchup of clubs with three of the last four MLS titles between them. These clubs met in the MLS Cup final in 2009, with Real Salt Lake winning its only league title on penalties.
Los Angeles entered the playoffs unbeaten in four games after allowing just one goal in its entire October schedule. The Galaxy have never lost in the two-leg conference semifinals since MLS adopted the playoff format in 2003.