MLS Cup Playoffs: Field to be cut from 8 to 4 in leg 2 of conf. semis

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Sunday afternoon is drawing closer and closer, which can mean only one thing: another quadrupleheader of 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs action, this time to send four teams through to the conference finals and four more teams home for another winter of wondering “what if?”

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The conference semifinals, which will see four second legs played from Sunday afternoon to late in the evening, set up as follows…

New York Red Bulls 1-0 D.C. United — Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Red Bulls are the only remaining side to hold an advantage before kicking off the second leg at home. As such, they’ve got to be considered massive favorites to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, though it won’t as straightforward as that without center back Damien Perrinelle, who was lost for the rest of the playoffs after he suffered a left knee injury in the first leg.

That is, of course, dependent upon United venturing into the Red Bulls’ final third every now and then to put a shot on target — something they have thus far failed to do even once through 90 minutes. A mass exodus and complete reshuffling of the United roster presumably looms this winter, so it’s last chance saloon time for Ben Olsen’s current edition of the Black and Red.

Prediction: Red Bulls 2-1 (3-1 agg.) United

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Columbus Crew SC 1-2 Montreal Impact —Sunday,  5 p.m. ET, ESPN

No second leg presents itself with the excitement and vast array of possibilities of Columbus versus Montreal. An early Crew SC goal makes this one all the better, considering Montreal will have to chase an away goal, thus opening themselves up tot he devastating counter-attacking ways of the Black and Gold. Crew SC were largely reined in during the first leg, unable to counter into the open field so regularly as the regular season.

For the Impact, their season almost entirely comes down to their midfield three — Marco Donadel, Nigel Reo-Coker and Patrice — taking care of the ball in the middle third of the field, not allowing Ethan Finlay and Kei Kamara to start counters inside their attacking half, and quickly snuffing out those chances in the (hopefully, for their sake) rare event. Oh yeah, then there’s Didier Drogba, who has 12 goals in 13 games (playoffs included) since signing for the Impact, biding his time for a chance to play hero.

Prediction: Crew SC 1-1 (2-3 agg.) Impact

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FC Dallas 1-2 Seattle Sounders — Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, FS1

To put it simply, FC Dallas blew a golden opportunity to put their semifinal tie with the Sounders away in leg no. 1 last Sunday. After 18 minutes, Oscar Pareja’s side held a 1-0 lead at CenturyLink Field and had the Sounders on the ropes, shaking at the knees and ready to be knocked down. Instead, FCD took their foot of the gas, dropped deeper defensively, conceded more than 56 percent of possession the rest of the way and watch the Sounders scored two deserved late goals to undo a brilliant opening half-hour from FCD.

That said, FCD are still in a great position to go through, especially if midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and/or defender Brad Evans (injuries) are unable to go in Sunday’s second leg. In Alonso, the Sounders lose one of MLS’s strongest engines and ball-winners, without whom the red carpet is rolled out for Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo to stroll through the middle of the park. In Evans, they lose a mobile center back partner to Chad Marshall’s aerial dominance and cement-block feet, without whom Marshall, 31, and Zach Scott, 35, will be playing catch-up to Castillo, Tesho Akindele and David Texeira all game long. Spoiler alert: the Sounders will lose that battle.

Prediction: FCD 3-1 AET (4-3 agg.) Sounders

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Vancouver Whitecaps 0-0 Portland Timbers — Sunday, 10 p.m. ET, FS1

If you think you have any idea which way the second leg of Vancouver versus Portland is going to go, you’re flat out lying. 0-0 in the first leg had a lot to do with the Timbers playing 120 minutes and needing 11 rounds of penalty kicks 72 hours earlier in the knockout round. If not for goalkeeper David Ousted coming up big on two occasions, the Timbers still would have taken an advantage into leg no. 2. Darlington Nagbe has put together the best month of his professional career after moving to the center of midfield, so he’ll (as always) be the X-factor on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Whitecaps continue to fly under the radar as the side who concedes very few goals and takes very few chances going forward — a far cry from the wide open, run-and-gun side of March and April. Pedro Morales is still working his way back into fitness after a hamstring injury robbed him of the final month of the regular season, which means it’s entirely possible we see the workman trio of Gershon Koffie, Matias Laba and Russell Teibert in the center of midfield once again. If Diego Chara (foot) is unable to go for the Timbers once again, that’s a battle the ‘Caps will win — and exploit — all night long, right into the Western Conference finals.

Prediction: Whitecaps 2-2 (2-2* agg. – away goals) Timbers