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MLS Cup Playoffs: Atlanta hosts Crew, Whitecaps take on Earthquakes

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34 rounds of MLS action are in the books, and now the real fun is set to begin this week.

The MLS Cup Playoffs have arrived, and 12 teams are firmly in the running to hoist a trophy in December.

[ MORE: PST talks to Justin Meram ahead of the Crew’s playoff run ]

While Toronto FC, New York City FC, the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers will each have the opportunity to watch the first round from their homes, the action all starts on Wednesday and Thursday.

Here’s a look at what to expect when the knockout round begins.

Chicago Fire vs. New York Red Bulls — Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET

The Fire were one of the most intriguing stories for much of the regular season, but Veljko Paunovic’s side enters the postseason limping. Lucky for them, the Red Bulls have been just as inconsistent throughout the course of 2017 — which already saw Jesse Marsch’s club lose in the U.S. Open Cup final.

Paunovic and Co. have lost eight of their last 15 matches, which doesn’t bode well entering the home stretch of the schedule. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls have won just two of their last 10 matches. The Harrison side should be well-rested though for Wednesday’s encounter after starting a mostly second-tier squad in Sunday’s season finale against D.C. United.

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. San Jose Earthquakes — Wednesday, 10:30 p.m. ET

The Whitecaps looked to be a sure-fire club destined for a bye in the first round, but things didn’t fall their way on Decision Day. Now, Carl Robinson’s side faces an Earthquakes side that is simply unpredictable.

The Quakes have the second-worst road record in the Western Conference when it comes to acquiring points — holding eight in points 17 matches. However, Chris Leitch has instilled a new-found belief amongst the squad that gives the California side a puncher’s chance.

Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew — Thursday, 7 p.m. ET

These two sides haven’t met since July 1, so all bets are off about these teams knowing one another. Since that point, Atlanta and Columbus have been two of the hottest sides in MLS and the former moved into a new stadium — which has given opposing sides quite the difficult time.

In their last 10 matches combined, the clubs boast just one loss, which Atlanta suffered at home against Minnesota United. There’s no reason not to expect a great one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting KC — Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET

Peter Vermes’ Sporting KC side enters the playoffs winless in their last five, while their counterparts are unbeaten in six. The MLS postseason is often about which team is in the best form at the right particular moment, and right now, it doesn’t look like Sporting KC has luck on their side.

It’s also hard to not pay attention to the fact that the Dynamo have lost just once at BBVA Compass Stadium in 2017, which came on September 9 against the Colorado Rapids.

Justin Meram discusses Crew’s hot form, facing Atlanta and more

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The Eastern Conference has established itself within the ranks of Major League Soccer given the quality of the sides at the top.

While Atlanta United — in its first MLS season — and Toronto FC dominate headlines, alongside New York City FC, lost in the shuffle is Columbus Crew SC.

[ MORE: Impact fire Mauro Biello after team loses nine of last 10 matches ]

The Crew finished fifth in a congested East after settling for a 2-2 draw on Decision Day against NYCFC, however, Greg Berhalter’s squad has been among the best in MLS for the second half of the season.

Pro Soccer Talk caught up with Crew midfielder Justin Meram ahead of his side’s first-round matchup against Atlanta in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

“I wouldn’t say there’s less pressure on us,” Meram told PST. ” We might be written off in terms of the attention that they have had this season. Some networks have come out by saying that they [Atlanta] are the favorites, but nothing changes with this group.

“We let all that outside noise stay outside and we don’t let it affect us. Whether they have us winning a game, or whatever the case may be, we have a game plan and a style of play that we look to execute no matter where we go.”

Decision Day around MLS has created havoc — and a great narrative — but Sunday’s result against NYCFC proved to be the difference between potentially hosting a playoff game, or possibly having a bye, versus now having to travel to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Obviously that’s what makes Decision Day so much more exciting,” Meram said. “We didn’t control our own destiny, but the way things went with Atlanta and Chicago we could have jumped from fifth to second. It’s just one of those things that didn’t go our way.

“We didn’t play our best in the first half, but we also faced a really good team and I was pleased with how we bounced back. I think that showed our quality and our ability to claw back into games on the road, which is crucial during the playoffs.”

The Crew have been one of the league’s top home sides in 2017, winning 12 matches at MAPFRE Stadium — which ranks second in MLS behind only Toronto FC.

However, Meram and his side now face a stiff test against an Atlanta team that has lost just one of its eight matches since moving over from Bobby Dodd Stadium in mid-September.

“I need to be at my very best on Thursday,” Meram said. “We all need to be on top of our game because we need a collective effort in order to beat Atlanta.”

Scheduling has a funny way of factoring into the outcomes of matches at times, but given the fact that the Crew and Atlanta haven’t met since July 1 all bets are off in terms of which side is the  favorite to advance.

Atlanta won both matches earlier in the season as the two clubs met in home-and-home fixtures over a span of three weeks, but Meram remains confident that his side’s current form will help them prevail.

“Their attack is lethal,” Meram said when asked about facing an Atlanta side that scored 70 regular season goals. “One small little mistake allows them to pounce on chances. They punish you.

“We have to be clinical with our build up play and shape throughout the match. When we get our half-chances we need to bury them. When we played Atlanta the first time, we had a couple of breakaways that we didn’t put away and it hurt us.

“We have the quality, but playing at their home, with their fans, we need to focus on finishing our chances in order to advance.”

The topic of relocation has come as a shock not just in Columbus, but throughout MLS since last week’s announcement that owner Anthony Precourt would explore his options for the club moving forward.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Meram has insisted though that he and his Crew teammates remain focused on winning MLS Cup — which would be the club’s second in franchise history.

“Obviously we haven’t let it affect us,” Meram told PST. “We played a really good game on Sunday. We’re just staying with the same mindset that we’ve had the second half of the season, which doesn’t reflect the owner’s announcement.

“There’s not much I can say. I have a job to do. He [Precourt] has a job to do. The fans have their job to do. Right now, it’s about focusing on the playoffs and seeing what happens. There’s nothing definitive about staying or going, so I can’t speculate at this point.

“At the end of the day, I want a championship, and I believe that’s the feeling for all of our guys right now. That’s how it has to be from the player’s perspective because the second we shift our mindset we’re going to get punished by other sides.”

MLS Team of the Week — Stars of Week 15

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Week 15 of the 2015 Major League Soccer season is in the books, and though there were only five games over the weekend — what international window? — we weren’t short of standout performers, or goals, on Saturday and Sunday night.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Week 15 MLS coverage | Standings | Stats | Schedule ]

David Villa showed Saturday night that, when healthy, he’s still going to be a destructive force to be reckoned with (1 goal, 1 assist), while his NYCFC teammate Kwadwo Poku was busy leaving his fingerprints all over the game despite playing just 15 minutes (1 goal, 1 assist). Elsewhere, Diego Fagundez bagged the undisputed Goal of the Week, and Robbie Rogers was a handful going forward and could have scored a time or two from the left back position.

Thoughts? Questions? Agreements? Disagreements? (Of course not.) Leave them in the comments section, as always. I’m not afraid to defend my picks.

[ MORE: 2015 MLS Team of the Week archive ]

MLS Team of the Week — Week 15

Goalkeeper: Stefan Frei (Seattle Sounders)

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Defenders: Andrew Farrell (New England Revolution), Robbie Rogers (LA Galaxy), Aurelien Collin (Orlando City SC), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders)

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Midfielders: Diego Fagundez (New England Revolution), Tony Tchani (Columbus Crew SC), Scott Caldwell (New England Revolution), Kwadwo Poku (New York City FC)

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Forwards: David Villa (New York City FC), Lamar Neagle (Seattle Sounders)

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