MLS Conference Semi-Final Previews

With the knockout round of the MLS playoffs done and dusted, attention now turns to the Conference Semi-finals. After what’s been one of the most tightly-contested regular seasons in recent memory, the matchups look remarkably hard to call, with the four ties being decided by a two-game series, with the lower seed hosting the first leg and the higher seed hosting the second leg. Here’s a look then at what’s in store over the next few days of action.

Eastern Conference

Sporting Kansas City (2) vs. New England Revolution (3)

The New England Revolution have been one of the pleasant surprises of this season, with the team making the playoffs for the first year since 2009, led by its core of young stars, Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez, Kelyn Rowe, Andrew Farrell and Scott Caldwell. The potential absence of veteran defender José Goncalves for the first leg however, due to hamstring injury, would be a major blow, as the Revolution come up against a side in Sporting Kansas City who finished runners-up in the Supporters’ Shield standings, having gone undefeated in October. With the likes of C.J. Sapong, Dom Dwyer, Graham Zusi and Soony Saad, KC possess plenty of creativity up front, but they also boast the league’s stingiest defense, after conceding only 30 goals in the regular season. In fact, the team allowed just 100 shots on target in their 34 games (3.3 a game), though the recent form of centre-back Aurelien Collin may give the Revs hope that a player like Agudelo can exploit the Frenchman’s worryingly recurrent lapses in concentration.

Leg 1: Sat, Nov 2 – Gillette Stadium

Leg 2: Wed, Nov 6 – Sporting Park

Prediction: This young Revs side’s time will come but not yet – KC advance.

New York Red Bulls (1) vs. Houston Dynamo (4)

Fresh off their 3-0 win over the Montreal Impact in the knockout round, the Houston Dynamo appear to be once again kicking into life for the playoffs. However, after winning the Supporters’ Shield on the final day of the season, the New York Red Bulls have their sights set on their first ever MLS Cup and head coach Mike Petke has his side playing arguably their best soccer of the season so far. With a motivated Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill putting up MVP-calibre performances and former striker Peggy Luyindula reinvented in a midfield role, the Red Bulls look like they have all the confidence in the world and Dominic Kinnear’s Dynamo team will have their work cut out to topple the east’s no. 1 seed. With only 41 goals scored over the regular season, Houston remain the weakest offensive side left in the playoffs and will hope that striker Will Bruin can continue the scoring form he showed against Montreal mid-week, when the 24-year-old managed to bag a brace.

Leg 1: Sun, Nov 3 – BBVA Compass Stadium

Leg 2: Wed, Nov 6 – Red Bull Arena

Prediction: Dominic Kinnear seems to become a magician by the time the playoffs roll around but the Red Bulls are the no. 1 seed for a reason – New York advance.

Western Conference

Portland Timbers (1) vs. Seattle Sounders (4)

While many may wish it came later in the playoffs, this is still the matchup everyone wanted to see, as the two Pacific Northwest rivals face-off in what’s sure to be a heated two-legged contest. Portland head coach Caleb Porter has done a truly magnificent job in his first season in charge, transforming the Timbers from the side with the third-worst record in 2012 to the third-best in 2013, as they thoroughly deserved the no. 1 seed in the west. Portland lost only five games all regular season (a new record-low for MLS) and have arguably the best depth of all the playoff teams, with the addition of Argentine forward Max Urruti in September adding yet another attacking option to the team’s already impressive roster. The Sounders meanwhile managed to end their seven-game winless streak on Wednesday night, earning a 2-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids in the knockout round, and with their first choice defensive-line of DeAndre Yedlin, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Djimi Traore and Leo Gonzalez finally back playing together, they certainly looked less vulnerable at the back. Yedlin however is currently nursing an ankle injury which could rule him out of the first leg, while the team will also be without first-choice goalkeeper Michael Gspurning for the game at CenutryLink, after the Austrian was shown a red card for handling the ball outside his area late in the match against the Rapids. As a result, Marcus Hahnemann will likely deputise, which, given Gspurning’s recent form, may be a blessing in disguise.

There’s no denying that the Sounders have the firepower up front, with Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, the in-form Lamar Neagle and Obafemi Martins, but, having struggled for goals lately, it remains to be seen whether they can penetrate ‘The Great Wall of Gambia’ (centre-back pairing Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou Danso) at the heart of the Timbers defense. Even then, Seattle will still need to find a way past Donovan Ricketts, who has been arguably the league’s best keeper this season, rediscovering the form he showed whilst with the LA Galaxy, where his presence in goal was a key factor towards their 2009 MLS Cup win.

Leg 1: Sat, Nov 2 – CenturyLink Field

Leg 2: Thu, Nov 7 – Jeld-Wen Field

Prediction: The Sounders may have the star power but the Timbers superior quality in depth will show over two legs – Portland advance.

Real Salt Lake (2) vs. Los Angeles Galaxy (3)

The LA Galaxy are on the hunt for their third-straight MLS Cup and, in Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, boast arguably the league’s best forward-partnership. Their defensive problems have also been shored up over recent weeks by rookies Kofi Opare and Greg Cochrane stepping up in light of injuries to A.J. DeLaGarza and Todd Dunviant, while fellow youngsters Jose Villareal and Gyasi Zardes add an extra dimension of creativity to the attack. In Real Salt Lake however, they face a side who are one of the best organised and tactically-drilled in MLS, as head coach Jason Kreis has once again worked miracles with his roster. After a slight rebuilding project in the offseason, which saw them ship out starters Will Johnson, Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola, many had pegged Salt Lake to struggle in 2013 but that quite plainly has not been the case. With the spine of the team remaining intact (Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Alvaro Saborio), Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerway have filled the rest of their roster with young additions such as Olmes Garcia, Joao Plata and Devon Sandoval, who have impressed in a big way when given minutes. Aside from the 5-0 win over rivals Chivas USA in early October, Bruce Arena’s Galaxy side have not done much lately to convince they can complete the ‘three-peat’, though besting Salt Lake here would go a long way towards silencing those doubters.

Leg 1: Sun, Nov 3 – StubHub Center

Leg 2: Thu, Nov 7 – Rio Tinto Stadium

Prediction: Of all the semi-final matchups, this game is quite clearly the hardest to call. In a battle between two coaching savants however, it’s the much younger Jason Kreis who comes out on top – Salt Lake advance.

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