One team must overcome the strongest squad ever assembled in MLS, another team must erase a three-goal deficit against the hottest team in the league.
Major League Soccer's New York teams are in trouble, and both enter Sunday's decisive Eastern Conference semifinal second legs facing very long odds. The Red Bulls are heading to Canada to face a Toronto FC team that has been virtually unstoppable at BMO Field. New York City FC returns to Yankee Stadium knowing it will need to be close to perfect to erase the 4-1 first-leg deficit against the red-hot Columbus Crew.
Out West, the Houston Dynamo are the underdogs heading to Portland for their second-leg showdown, but a rash of key injuries have left the Timbers looking vulnerable. The 0-0 first leg doesn't give Caleb Porter's side much of a cushion to work with, but the potential return of Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Blanco to the lineup would offer a major boost.
Here is a closer look at all three of Sunday's conference semifinal second legs, and what each team will need to do to join the Seattle Sounders in the conference finals later this month:
RED BULLS MUST ATTACK, BUT TFC POISED TO MAKE THEM PAY
Jesse Marsch wasn't happy with how his Red Bulls started last week's first-leg loss to Toronto FC, but a promising second half gives his team something to build on as they look to become just the second visiting side to beat TFC at BMO Field in 2017.
The Red Bulls are a team that generally takes the game to the opposition whether at home or on the road, so they won't be out of character as they look to attack Toronto FC to erase the 2-1 first-leg deficit.
"We can't go recklessly into the game, but I think we'll be aggressive," Marsch said earlier this week. "That's in our nature. That's what we always do. Whether we're at home or on the road. And we still, over the years, have been good on the road at scoring goals. So that's what we'll rely on again, and we're going to push the game.
"We feel like if we can control, tactically, the way the game is played that we can put things more on our terms," Marsch added. "I think that game was played on their terms more so we have to find a way to tip the scales."
The Red Bulls pushed the pace in the second half of the first leg, but failed to register a goal in the run of play despite having more of the ball. Having struggled to play through the middle of TFC's setup because of Michael Bradley's and Marky Delgado's work in central midfield, the Red Bulls worked the wings more in the second half and will likely follow that plan again in the second leg.
"My expectation is they're going to try and get balls in front of our goal," TFC coach Greg Vanney said. "And they're going to try and follow that up and try to see if they can't mix it up a little bit in the area."
TFC could also be without playmaker and first-leg goal-scorer Victor Vazquez, who left the first leg with a hip injury. Vazquez also returned to training late in the week, but Vanney has a variety of options he can turn to as a lineup replacement, including Jonathan Osorio and Toisaint Ricketts.
"We feel very good about the group that we have, and the fact that over the course of a long season we've relied on so many guys in so many big moments," TFC captain Michael Bradley said. "That will need to continue to be the case."
"I would expect that we're going to get the most extreme, most committed, most determined version of Red Bull possible," Bradley said. "We've talked and worked on what that would be like, and we're going to do everything we can to make sure we take care of things in a good way and we can turn the tables on them."
NYCFC FACING LONG ODDS TO OVERCOME BIG CREW LEAD
Patrick Vieira has said all the right things since New York City FC's 4-1 loss to the Columbus Crew. The NYCFC coach believes his team can erase the three-goal deficit, but the question is whether he will be able to convince his players.
“We have to build the belief that we can do it,” Vieira told reporters on Friday. “The way we play the game, of course, we can concede as well. But we can score a lot of goals. When you look at our record, even last year, in games in general, we are capable of doing it.”
NYCFC can score goals, and has scored goals in bunches in 2017. The club even very recently came within a Zack Steffen penalty kick save of scoring three goals against the Crew in the regular season finale.
But a bigger question than can NYCFC score goals is whether Vieira's side can stop the Crew from scoring. That is going to be very tough without suspended center back Alexander Callens. His red card turned the tide in the first leg, but also leaves his team vulnerable at a position that was already weakened by the lengthy injury absence of Maxime Chanot, who appears unlikely to play on Sunday.
While Vieira seems to think the Crew will sit back and look to protect the lead, Crew coach Gregg Berhalter made it clear he plans on having his team go after the road goal that would leave NYCFC needing four goals just to force extra time.
"It will be important to get a good start, but we also have to be cautious and understand how the opponent can hurt us," Berhalter said. "And understand that they're playing at home."
These teams played to a 2-2 draw at Citi Field two weeks ago, in a wide-open affair that saw the sides really throw numbers at each other. The action was also wide open in the first half of last week's first leg, which saw both teams create multiple scoring chances before the Callens red card swung the match in the Crew's favor. The Crew aren't likely to be overly defensive at Yankee Stadium, but managing the flow of the game will be key in order to try and limit the pressure their defense faces.
"Part of our gameplan is going to have to be to keep the ball as well, and not just rely on the counterattack," Berhalter said.
The Crew enter riding the longest unbeaten streak in the league, and will be a good bet of finding a goal on Sunday, but as daunting as the task is, Vieira believes his team can pull off the comeback.
“This is a difficult task, there’s no doubt about it,” Vieira said. “There’s no team in this league who went (that far) down and turned it around, it never happened. But there’s always a first time. It may be Sunday, it may be next year.”
TIMBERS WILL NEED BENCH TO STEP UP TO DROP THE DYNAMO
The Portland Timbers have had to call on their bench to help them get through plenty of injuries during the regular season, but they have not faced the kind of injury crisis they are enduring heading into Sunday's West semifinal second leg against the Houston Dynamo.
Diego Chara is out, Fanendo Adi still hasn't returned from injury and Larrys Mabiala is a question mark after leaving the 0-0 first leg draw with injuries. Throw in the recoveries of Sebastian Blanco and David Guzman, who both missed the first leg, and the Timbers could be without half their top starters on Sunday's decisive match.
Timber's coach Caleb Porter isn't panicking. He knows what his bench is capable of. He also knows he still has MLS MVP favorite Diego Valeri, and he knows what kind of atmosphere awaits visiting teams at Providence Park.
"I'm always confident, no matter who I have in, because I have a lot of confidence in this group," Porter said. "And that's not just one through 11, that's the entire squad. And we've gotten a lot of results this year without a lot of starters, and we showed it again in the last game."
Losing Chara is a big blow, but having Guzman back would help solidify things in midfield. If Guzman can't go, Porter will likely turn to a bench tandem of Lawrence Olum and Amobi Okugo in the defensive midfield roles, while Roy Miller should step in if Mabiala can't recover from his injury.
The Timbers attack should still cause problems, with Valeri and Nagbe leading the charge and Darren Mattocks having the speed to trouble Houston's central defense. The ugly playing field at BBVA Compass Stadium kept both teams from really showing off their attacking quality, but that won't be a problem at Providence Park.
The Dynamo will also be without starting goalkeeper Tyler Deric, who has been suspended pending an investigation into a domestic dispute, leaving backup Joe Willis to step in. Willis has been a capable fill-in before, but Deric's shot-stopping ability will be missed against a dangerous Timbers attack that will be sure to test Houston's back line.
The Dynamo will need to attack and search for that away goal to put real pressure on the Timbers. The speedy tandem of Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis create matchup problems against most teams, but the Timbers fullback tandem of Alvas Powell and Vytas Andriuskevicius were outstanding in the first leg and will need to be good again on Sunday to ensure that Portland advances to a highly-anticipated West finals series against the Seattle Sounders.