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FOLLOW LIVE – MLS Conference Finals, Leg 1

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There’s never been more on the line in the latest Trilliam Cup matchup.

For the first time, Toronto FC and the Columbus Crew will meet in the MLS Cup playoffs, kicking off at 8:00 p.m., with both teams taking different paths to the Eastern Conference finals.

Toronto FC battled the New York Red Bulls to win on away goals, after a 2-1 win in Red Bull Arena in the first leg, but tempers flared and the Supporters Shield winners will be without both Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore on Tuesday night. The Crew meanwhile survived an incredible 120 minutes at Atlanta United to win in a shootout, and then carried that momentum into a 4-3 aggregate victory over New York City FC.

[FOLLOW: MLS Conference Finals Play-by-Play]

Now, with the Crew’s status in Columbus still up in the air, Crew fans have one chance to pack MAPFRE Stadium to support their team and prove to the league they can support an MLS franchise.

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, the upstart Houston Dynamo host a sold-out crowd as the defending MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders visit, with kickoff set for 9:30 p.m.

The Dynamo stunned the injury-riddled Portland Timbers in the last round and the Dynamo has lost just once at home in MLS action this calendar year. On the other side, the Sounders are getting a major boost, with Osvaldo Alonso and Jordan Morris close to returning, either in this game or next week, and Clint Dempsey remains fit and raring to go back in his home state.

Follow all the action from tonight’s MLS Cup playoff matchups.

What We Learned from Portland’s first leg win at Seattle

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SEATTLE — The Sounders may have pulled one back late, but the Timbers will be happy with the result. After their 2-1 win Saturday at CenturyLink Field, the West’s top seed find themselves in the driver’s seat ahead of Thursday’s second leg in Portland.

Here’s what we learned after the match-up’s first 90 minutes.

  • 1. Seattle still has a first leg problem.

When the Sounders outplayed Real Salt Lake to open last year’s Western Conference semifinals, their first leg issues seemed to be solved. Though the game ended 0-0, Seattle had dominated, forcing Nick Rimando into one of the better goalkeeping performances in MLS history to keep the tie level. Even though Seattle still hadn’t scored in the opening leg of a playoff series, they’d now shown the ability to do.

But in last year’s Western Conference final, the Sounders were blitzed in Los Angeles, losing 3-0. On Saturday in Seattle, they were down 2-0 before Osvaldo Alonso pulled one back, bolstering what would have been faint hopes had they taken a two-goal deficit to JELD-WEN.

So maybe Seattle’s first leg syndrome’s still present? Portland’s a very good team, and against them, there’s no shame in being on the wrong side of a 2-1. But Seattle’s now faced Portland four times this season. They know what to expect. Only in the first leg of a playoff series did they fall behind by two goals.

  • 2. Inexperience? A non-issue for Portland.

We asked about it in the preview. For a team that had very few tested playoff performers, would inexperience be a factor? It seemed to affect Colorado on Wednesday. It seemed to affect Montréal on Thursday. In front of 38,507 in Seattle, would the Timbers’ be able to match Seattle’s intensity?

They did, but more so than merely bringing the right energy level, Portland brought the kind of poise that allowed them to be second-best for 15 minutes before scoring the opener. They brought the kind of focus that produced a second goal after halftime, a score that proved extremely valuable come the 90th minute.

The Timbers remain a relatively inexperienced side in terms of MLS’s playoffs, but on Saturday, that wasn’t a factor. They did not look like a team playing their first playoff game together.

  • 3. That diamond we heard so much about? It cost Seattle tonight.

If Seattle’s playing their normal, 4-4-2 — one that features traditional wide midfielders — they’re in a better position to prevent each goal. On the first score, Jack Jewsbury got too much time to create a chance down the right flank, with Adam Moffat unable to help Leo Gonzalez prevent the cross to Ryan Johnson. On the second, Portland wins a battle on the left, circulates a ball to the right, leaving Moffat little time to get out and contain Kalif Alhassen.

Post-game, Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid hinted the formation may have been a factor in the goals. He also said Seattle may go back to their normal setup in Portland, one that’s a better fit for Mauro Rosales.

Of course, on JELD-WEN’s narrow field, the diamond may not be as much of an issue. (Author’s note: Whoops! See comments for factoid debunking this piece of speculation!)

  • 4. Portland’s shield proved stronger than Colorado’s.

Clint Dempsey had his best match of the season Wednesday against Colorado. On Saturday, however, the Seattle playmaker didn’t have as much influence. Although he continued to be a focal point in attack, he was almost always met by Diego Chara.

Whereas Seattle made life difficult for German Mera on Wednesday, Portland central defenders Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou Danso were far less tested. Seattle’s only goal came from a ball flicked on in front of a deep defensive line. Of the rest of Seattle’s threats, very few originated in the middle of the park.

  • 5. Attrition will be a factor for Seattle.

DeAndre Yedlin will almost certainly play on Thursday (Schmid hinting tonight’s decision to withhold his right back was one of caution). Obafemi Martins may also play a role. Elsewhere, however, Seattle continues to lose players.

Zach Scott, Yedlin’s replacement, left in the 62nd minute after picking up a rib injury in the first half. If he can’t go, Yedlin’s health becomes even more important. But if the 20-year-old doesn’t continue to improve (or maybe it’s raining on Portland’s turf the day of the game), Seattle could be forced to move Brad Evans out of midfield.

The team also has to compensate for Lamar Neagle’s absence, the starting forward having picked up a second yellow card. If Martins isn’t able to start, Schmid may be forced into moving Clint Dempsey back up top. That will almost certainly lead to a change in formation.

If all does well, the Sounders should be able to choose a strong XI for Thursday’s game. Their bench, however, may be as thin as Saturday’s, leaving them little room to adjust should they encounter new misfortune.