After a two-week break for international play, the MLS Cup Playoffs return this weekend for the first leg of the conference finals.
Here’s a preview of both Sunday matchups:
Eastern: Columbus Crew SC vs. New York Red Bulls
The New York Red Bulls’ season began with a town hall meeting calling for the head of seemingly every front-office employee after the club let go of Mike Petke and hired Jesse Marsch.
That same season may just end with the hoisting of an MLS Cup.
New York was the most consistent team throughout the regular season. The Red Bulls tied for the most wins, with 18, had the highest goal differential, at 19, and captured the Supporters Shield on the final day of the regular season. Had it not been for a 4-3 loss in penalty kicks to U.S. Open Cup runner-up Philadelphia, New York may have had a shot at the coveted MLS trifecta: MLS Cup, U.S. Open Cup, Supporters Shield.
The Red Bulls’ form has carried over to the MLS Cup Playoffs. Without legend Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, New York has leaned on a one-dimensional approach with a strong core of players. Sacha Kljestan has thrived in the midfield, playing under forwards Bradley Wright-Phillips and a resurgent Mike Grella. The defense, meanwhile, has been lock-tight, with veteran Ronald Zubar playing next to 20-year-old centerback Matt Miazga.
Truth be told, the Columbus Crew SC started this season’s MLS Cup journey last year by signing former Sporting KC star Kei Kamara. The freaky-athletic, 6-foot-3 forward was just what the doctor ordered for an already-talented attacking team featuring Federico Higuaín, Ethan Finlay and Tony Tchani. Kamara, one of three MVP finalists, scored 22 goals this season and added eight assists. His leaping header in the 111th minute of the conference semifinals sent the Crew on, and now they look to advance to their second MLS Cup final.
Leg 1 – Columbus Crew SC 2, New York Red Bulls 1
Leg 2 – New York Red Bulls 3, Columbus Crew SC 1 (New York advances 4-3)
Western: Portland Timbers vs. FC Dallas
What’s old is new and what’s new is, well, really good. Or such is the case with the Western Conference final.
FC Dallas advanced to the conference final on the back of its youth, a movement that has coach Oscar Pareja up for MLS Coach of the Year and other MLS clubs adding significant resources into their own youth programs. Eight players under the age of 25 started for FC Dallas in the deciding leg of the conference semifinals against Seattle Sounders FC. Only two players north of age 25 saw the field in that game.
Mauro Díaz, Fabian Castillo and David Texeira lead the youth movement, and make up perhaps the most intimidating attack in all of MLS. Díaz tallied eight goals and 10 assists during the regular season; Castillo finished nine and nine in those departments, Texeira six and three.
Meanwhile, Portland has leaned on its veterans throughout the season, especially during a late run in September and October to sneak into third in the standings. Earning that home game proved vital, as the Timbers were able to outlast Sporting KC 7-6 in 11 rounds of penalties in one of two Western Conference knockout rounds.
Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe are playmakers in the midfield for Portland. Together, they work in tandem to set up easy goal-scoring opportunities for their 6-foot-4 forward, Fanendo Adi, who quietly recorded 16 goals and three assists during the regular season. Former Premier League defender Liam Ridgewell (age 31) and Nat Borchers (34) anchor a defense that allowed just 39 goals in 34 games this season.
Leg 1: Portland Timbers 1, FC Dallas 1
Leg 2: FC Dallas 2, Portland Timbers 0 (FC Dallas advances 3-1)