A pair of drama-packed nights have cut the field of contenders for MLS Cup down to eight and eliminated some of the league's biggest names, but the four conference semifinal pairings should thoroughly entertain.

By Avi Creditor
November 02, 2018

And just like that, the field of MLS Cup contenders is down to eight.

Following four knockout matches across Wednesday and Thursday–three of which were won by the road teams and lower seeds–the conference semifinals are set and a quartet of clubs have had their seasons come to an abrupt end.

The midweek extravaganza showed once again that one-off knockout matches may be the best way to go for the playoffs, given the heightened intensity and urgency seen throughout, with three of the four matches–all but NYCFC-Philadelphia–keeping fans on the edge of their seats. The two-legged conference semifinals will surely still feature some drama, but when working away goals and 180 minutes into the equation, you always need to be prepared for more cagey affairs, with teams unwilling to fully open themselves up to potential costly mistakes early in a series.

The league's quarterfinals will be missing plenty of starpower, too. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's LA Galaxy didn't even reach the postseason, while crosstown LAFC and Carlos Vela have closed up shop for their expansion year and Wayne Rooney's sensational run with D.C. United is on hiatus until next March after their respective teams fell Thursday night. The league office might rue seeing some of its biggest hitters exit so quickly, but each of the four remaining matchups carries substantial intrigue.

Here's what we're left with (lower seeds host the first leg):

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. New York Red Bulls vs. 5. Columbus Crew

First leg: Sunday, Nov. 4, 3 p.m. ET | Second leg: Sunday, Nov. 11, time TBD

Regular season: 1-1 draw in Columbus on June 9; Columbus won 3-2 in New Jersey on July 28

The Supporters' Shield winners didn't do much of their damage en route to the best regular season in league history against the Crew, taking just a single point out of two meetings with Gregg Berhalter's side. The Red Bulls only lost once in their last 13 matches after falling at home to the Crew, though, and with only 33 goals conceded in 34 matches this season they boast the best defensive record in the league.

That mark will be put to the test by a rejuvenated Federico Higuain (who carries a needless yellow card into the series after antics defending a free kick vs. D.C.) and a Crew side that can cause trouble from multiple angles. Fullback play is key to Columbus's success in the attacking third, meaning Red Bulls wingers will have to be on their toes to provide support on both ends of the field. If the series comes down to PKs, you'd be hard-pressed to pick against Columbus and Zack Steffen, given his track record.

The series is a rematch of the 2015 conference finals, won, narrowly, by Columbus, who famously struck off the opening kick in the first leg to set the tone. The Red Bulls will surely be wary of Justin Meram's whereabouts in the first minute on Sunday.

2. Atlanta United vs. 3. NYCFC

First leg: Sunday, Nov. 4, 7:30 p.m. ET | Second leg: Sunday, Nov. 11, time TBD

Regular season: 2-2 draw in Atlanta on April 15; 1-1 draw in New York on June 9

A few weeks ago, this wouldn't have been very close to call. Atlanta United appeared to be rolling towards a Supporters' Shield, while NYCFC was in shambles. But injury and endurance questions now plague Atlanta, while NYCFC appears closer to the team that started the season as a contender, making this matchup all the more intriguing. 

That the first leg takes place at the narrow and tight confines of the Yankee Stadium outfield throws another wrinkle into Atlanta's plans as well. Tata Martino's team loves to space things out and stretch teams with a dynamic attack. NYCFC's home park is not very conducive to that at all, and with playmaker Miguel Almiron on the mend from a hamstring injury, it might behoove Atlanta to take a more conservative, disciplined approach on the road before looking to rev its engines in front of what will surely be a packed house at Mercedes Benz Stadium in the second leg.

Then there's the matter of NYCFC's stars who are returning to fitness and form. Both striker David Villa and central midfield cog Yangel Herrera appear to be back to their best, which makes NYCFC that much more dangerous. Atlanta should and will still be the favorite to go through, but it won't be easy in the least. 

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WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Sporting Kansas City vs. 6. Real Salt Lake

First leg: Sunday, Nov. 4, 10 p.m. ET | Second leg: Sunday, Nov. 11, time TBD

Regular season: Real Salt Lake won 4-2 at home on July 4; 1-1 draw at Sporting Kansas City on Sept. 30

These teams hate each other. Their rivalry may not have the same organic venom produced by regional bragging rights, but SKC and RSL have played many a heated battle over the years, including the 2013 MLS Cup final, which was won by Sporting KC in penalty kicks.

Five years on, both teams are substantially different, with Peter Vermes remaking Sporting KC into a more dynamic, multi-faceted side and one that grew stronger as the season ended as opposed to wilting like teams in recent years. RSL, meanwhile, has also endured an identity change, though veterans Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman represent the old guard and are still producing at a high level.

One thing to keep an eye on is yellow cards. RSL was dealt a full deck in Thursday's win over LAFC, with Albert Rusnak, Corey Baird, Jefferson Savarino, Aaron Herrera and Sunny all going in the book. With accumulation suspension rules being what they are and a physical series to be expected, RSL could find itself significantly shorthanded for the second leg if it's not disciplined enough in the opener.

2. Seattle Sounders vs. 5. Portland Timbers

First leg: Sunday, Nov. 4, 5:30 p.m. ET | Second leg: Thursday, Nov. 8, 10:30 p.m. ET

Regular season: Portland won 1-0 at home on May 13; Portland won 3-2 in Seattle on June 30; Seattle won 1-0 in Portland on Aug. 26

Speaking of teams that hate each other: A two-legged Cascadia clash in the playoffs? Yes please. 

Just like the other pairing in the conference, the last time these two teams met in the playoffs was in 2013. Portland won both legs of that series, advancing on a 5-3 aggregate. Both sides enjoyed lengthy unbeaten runs, with Portland going 15 without a loss from April 14 to Aug. 4, and Seattle going undefeated in 12 from July 4 to Sept. 30. Both have a history of winning (Portland took the 2015 MLS Cup; Seattle won it all in 2016 and was runner-up last season) and have the experience to tackle any side.

Their series could come down to the productivity of their playmakers. Diego Valeri was instrumental in lifting the Timbers out of the knockout round with his two-goal showing in Dallas, while Seattle's Nicolas Lodeiro closed the season on fire, with a goal and seven assists in his last four matches. Like with RSL, some of Portland's biggest names will have to be on their best behavior, as midfield cog Diego Chara and center back Liam Ridgewell are both carrying yellow cards into the series. The Timbers will be without their other starting center back, Larrys Mabiala, for the first leg after his red card against Dallas.

Regardless of the outcome, one absolute certainty is two raucous atmospheres. A heated rivalry plus playoff stakes should equal a must-see series in the Pacific Northwest.

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