MLS Talking Points: Conference semifinals preview

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Toronto FC's clash against the New York Red Bulls and the Cascadia clash between Seattle and Vancouver headline the MLS playoff conference semifinals

One record-setting squad, two recent champions, and five teams hoping to be a part of a late-season surprise in the race to the 2017 MLS Cup title. That is your remaining playoff field, and as the conference semifinals prepare to kick off, the menu is stacked with four intriguing match-ups.

Toronto FC enters as the biggest favorite, taking on a feisty New York Red Bulls side riding high off its 4-0 thrashing of the Chicago Fire. The Supporters' Shield winners will be hard to stop, but Jesse Marsch will do everything he can to trip up the Canadian powerhouse.

The Columbus Crew enter the conference semis on an 11-match unbeaten run, but may feel the fatigue from a grueling knockout round elimination of Atlanta United when they begin their series with New York City FC on Tuesday. Columbus fans are sure to come out in force to protest owner Anthony Precourt, while NYCFC looks to take advantage of being the rested team.

Out West, Portland looks like the team to beat, but must first put away a surging Houston Dynamo side that is unbeaten in seven matches. Diego Valeri will look to build on his MVP-caliber season, while the Dynamo try to keep riding an improving defense that has allowed just two goals in its past five matches.

The defending champion Seattle Sounders aren't generating much consideration as a serious threat to repeat, but Brian Schmetzer's squad is definitely capable of making another run. It is contingent on Osvaldo Alonso and Jordan Morris getting healthy though, and even then they will find a tough road ahead against a much-improved Vancouver Whitecaps side.

Here is a closer look at all four conference semifinal series, which begin on Sunday with Seattle's visit to Vancouver:


TORONTO FC vs. NEW YORK RED BULLS


Jozy Altidore Damien Perinelle MLS Toronto FC Red Bulls 05192017

SCHEDULE: Toronto FC at Red Bulls, Monday, 7 p.m.; Red Bulls at Toronto FC, Nov. 5, 3 p.m.

SEASON SERIES:  1-1 draw at BMO Field on May 19; 4-2 Toronto FC win at Red Bull Arena on Sept. 30.

OUTLOOK: This series is a bit of a tricky one to project because it's tough to take much away from the regular season meetings. The draw in Toronto in May was a long time ago, and the big TFC win in September isn't very meaningful because the Red Bulls were missing several key starters.

It should also be noted that Sebastian Giovinco didn't play in either match against the Red Bulls this year, and he has a track record of terrorizing them. He could have a field day running at New York's three central defenders, and is definitely capable of capitalizing if the Red Bulls give away silly free kicks, something we saw quite a bit in this series during the season. Giovinco's presence makes it that much tougher to devote the much-needed attention necessary to deal with Jozy Altidore.

Justin Morrow scored a hat-trick in the September meeting and was arguably TFC's best player both times these teams met. It will be up to Tyler Adams to help ensure that doesn't happen again as he looks to win one of the more important match-ups in a series full of good ones.

The Michael Bradley-Sacha Kljestan battle will be the main event, with the former U.S. national team and Olympic teammates square off once again. Kljestan has flourished in the Red Bulls new 5-4-1 system, but Bradley has enjoyed his own MVP-caliber season.


NEW YORK CITY FC vs. COLUMBUS CREW


Wil Trapp Jack Harrison MLS 04292017

SCHEDULE: New York City FC at Crew, Tuesday, 8 p.m.; Crew at NYCFC, Sunday, TBD.

SEASON SERIES:  3-2 NYCFC win in Columbus on April 29; 2-2 tie in New York on Oct. 22.

OUTLOOK: These teams look destined to play a tightly-contested series, but NYCFC boasts the clear edge for a variety of reasons.

The NYCFC attack has created a plethora of chances in both 2017 meetings, including the recent 2-2 draw, a match that saw NYCFC produce nine shots on goal to the Crew's three. As much as the Crew's defense had improved a good amount during its hot streak, NYCFC showed that it can still dominate Gregg Berhalter's team.

Another factor in NYCFC's favor is the potential fatigue the Crew will face after being taken all the way to penalty kicks by Atlanta United. Five days might be enough time for the Crew to recover a fair amount, but the fatigue factor will play a role at some point, and NYCFC has the weapons to capitalize on that.

Something else to consider is the status of Justin Meram, who hasn't looked himself since returning from international duty earlier this month. Whether it is a foot injury or fatigue, Meram could be forced to sit in favor of Kekuta Manneh if Berhalter feels Meram is struggling.

All that said, the Crew showed in the latest meeting between these teams that they can also find the cracks in NYCFC's defense, and Federico Higuain has enjoyed a good amount of success against Patrick Vieira's team. NYCFC also didn't finish the season in the best of form, and its defense hasn't looked as strong since Maxime Chanot was sidelined with an injury. That is good news for Ola Kamara, who has scored nine goals in the Crew's past 13 matches, and also scored in each of the Crew's matches against NYCFC in 2017.

The Crew will be hoping Zack Steffen can build on his stellar outing against Atlanta United, and we shouldn't forget the David Villa penalty kick he saved in the regular season finale. He will need more heroics like that if the Crew are going to get past NYCFC.


PORTLAND TIMBERS vs. HOUSTON DYNAMO


Diego Valeri Juan David Cabezas MLS Portland Houston 07292017

SCHEDULE: Timbers at Dynamo, Monday, 9:30 p.m.; Dynamo at Timbers, Sunday, TBD.

SEASON SERIES:  4-2 Timbers win in Portland on March 18; 2-2 tie in Houston on July 29.

OUTLOOK: The Timbers have been playing some of the best soccer in the league in recent months, and their matchup against the Dynamo should be made even more ideal due to some defensive injuries.

The Dynamo defense posted its third straight shutout in the shutout round win against Sporting Kansas City, but losing Leonardo to injury is a big blow, and it will be even more costly of Fanendo Adi returns from injury for the Timbers.

Porter's squad has adapted well without Adi, thanks in part to Darren Mattocks. Will Porter sit Mattocks, or stick with the hot hand and bring Adi along slowly? With the Dynamo forced into starting Philippe Senderos, Houston's defense could be more vulnerable to Mattock's speed than Adi's power.

Houston will need Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis to be at their best, going after Portland's fullbacks and generating chances if the Dynamo will have a chance. Portland's midfield should control play in the series, but the Dynamo have the speed to trouble Portland, particularly on the counterattack.

Which Erick Torres will show up for Houston? The one who was unstoppable early in the year, or the one who has been largely ineffective over the past three months? If he can't get going, the Dynamo will have a tough time keeping up with Portland's attack.


SEATTLE SOUNDERS vs. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS


Nicholas Lodeiro Tony Tchani MLS Seattle Vancouver 09272017

SCHEDULE: Sounders at Whitecaps, Sunday, 8 p.m.; Whitecaps at Sounders, Thursday, 10:30 p.m.

SEASON SERIES:  2-1 Whitecaps win in Vancouver on April 14; 1-1 tie in Vancouver on Aug. 23; 3-0 Sounders win in Seattle on Sept. 27.

OUTLOOK: Injuries look to be the great equalizer in this battle of Cascadia rivals. A full-strength Seattle side would be the clear favorite, but with several Sounders hobbled, the Whitecaps have a very real chance of knocking off the reigning champions.

The Sounders trounced Vancouver a month ago, but that was before Osvaldo Alonso, Victor Rodriguez and Gustav Svensson suffered injuries in the subsequent weeks. Alonso appears likely to return to action, but Rodriguez and Svensson look more likely to join injured Jordan Morris on the sidelines, at least for the start of the series. That, coupled with Clint Dempsey's suspension, will give the Whitecaps a golden opportunity to earn a series-deciding win in the first leg.

Nicolas Lodeiro ran wild on Vancouver the last time out, and will be needed even more without Dempsey and Morris to help carry the attacking burden. He and Will Bruin will need to be at their best to help ensure the Whitecaps don't carry a big lead into the second leg in Seattle.

The Whitecaps will be calling on Yordy Reyna to have a big series. With Alonso just returning from an injury absence, and Svensson injured, the options to try and slow down the Peruvian playmaker could be limited, which will make the Whitecaps attack that much more dangerous.

Will Fredy Montero be the deciding factor in the series? The Whitecaps striker has burned his former team before, and will be pivotal to the Whitecap's chances of eliminating the champions.

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