MLS preview: Three weeks left as conf. finals kick off Sunday

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There are anywhere between 450 and 540 minutes left in the 2015 Major League Soccer season. That’s it. Eight months of games and 10 months of training sessions all come down to this, the conference finals, which kick off Sunday with the first of two legs in the Eastern and Western Conferences.

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I’m on the record as having picked FC Dallas to win MLS Cup, and through the conference semifinals, a strong case can be made they’re actually favorites to do so right now. That does, however, discount the red-hot Portland Timbers, who they’re set to face in the West, as well as Columbus Crew SC and the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls in the East.

Columbus Crew SC vs. New York Red Bulls — 5 p.m. ET, ESPN

Try all you like, and you still might not find two teams more different to one another than Crew SC and the Red Bulls. For the former, it’s all about attacking a wide open field, and quickly; for the latter, it’s all about limiting said space by applying a high line before settling in deep to defend with lots of numbers behind the ball. Given they’re playing away from home in the first leg, and away goals are at play, I fully expect RBNY to play for a 0-0 draw in the first — and, poor aesthetics aside, it’s not a bad plan at all.

If Crew SC’s 2015 season taught us anything, it’s that there is no Plan B if Plan A — destroy opponents on the counter — isn’t working. What RBNY really have going for them is a three-man midfield — Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan and Felipe — that works its collective socks, which they’ll be forced to do on Sunday, with full backs Kemar Lawrence and Sal Zizzo constantly dealing with dangerous wingers and overlapping full backs. The X-factor for Crew SC remains Kei Kamara, who in facing a pair of center backs already one yellow card away from suspension in the second leg, will feed on cross after cross after cross into the penalty area. Keep an eye on: Ronald Zubar, back-up-center-back-turned-starter due to injury, is good for a colossal gaffe about every two or three games; he was solid against D.C. United in leg no. 2.

Regular season: CLB 1-2 RBNY (3/28); CLB 2-1 RBNY (7/4); RBNY 2-1 CLB (10/3)
Injuries/suspensions: CLB — OUT: Gaston Sauro (suspension), Kristinn Steindorsson (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Tony Tchani (leg), Mohammed Saeid (hamstring); YC WARNING: Harrison Afful | RBNY — OUT: Damien Perrinelle (knee), Anatole Abang (hamstring), Chris Duval (broken leg); YC WARNING: Matt Miazga, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kjestan, Ronald Zubar

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Portland Timbers vs. FC Dallas — 7:30 p.m. ET, FS1

Here’s the good news for the Timbers: they’ve lost just once in their last eight games (regular season and playoff) since flipping the midfield triangle and shifting Darlington Nagbe into the center of midfield, where he’s put in regular shifts as the game-changer we’ve so long expected of him. It’s a change that was crying out to be made for months — if not years — by Caleb Porter. Remember those last eight games? Fanendo Adi has more goals (7, to go along with one assist) than anyone else in the league during that span — as good as Nagbe has been, Adi is the X-factor for Portland, because chances are always going to present themselves with the attacking talent on display; the problem has long been putting them away.

The bad news, though: it’s exactly the type of team that FCD thrives against, picking and choosing their moments to break from a low defending block and pick you apart on the counter through Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo. Much like RBNY, FCD will be happy to sit deep inside their own half in the first leg, away from home, only they’ll break out with greater urgency and devastating speed. The key to limiting Castillo’s impact in the first leg is all about right back Alvas Powell getting forward and forcing him to track back defensively well inside his own half. If Portland are able to do that, so much of what FCD will try to do on the counter will be stunted. It is, of course, easier said than done.

Regular season: POR 3-1 FCD (4/4); FCD 4-1 POR (7/25)
Injuries/suspensions: POR — OUT: Diego Valeri (suspension), Rodney Wallace (suspension), Ben Zemanski (knee); YC WARNING: Liam Ridgewell, Lucas Melano, George Fochive | FCD — OUT: Rolando Escobar (facial fracture); YC WARNING: Mauro Diaz, Blas Perez