An exciting quartet of knockout round matches kicked off the MLS Cup playoffs, but now we move into the meat of the action.
The top two seeds in both the eastern and western conferences join the fray as Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders begin their conference title defenses.
The first legs of the conference semifinals kick off with the Sounders hitting the road to face the Vancouver Whitecaps, which is coming off a 5-0 rout of the San Jose Earthquakes.
[ MORE: PST’s 2017 MLS awards ]
But while the Whitecaps and New York Red Bulls eased into the conference semifinals, the Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew had to endure 120 minutes of soccer, and with a short recovery time, it will be interesting to see how they perform in their first legs respectively.
Here’s a look ahead at the first legs of the MLS Cup conference semifinals:
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Seattle Sounders — Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET
The Sounders are heading across the border for another Cascadia Cup matchup. This time, they’ll be without their star forward.
Clint Dempsey will sit out the first leg of the Sounders first-leg after he picked up a straight red card early in the Sounders’ 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids in last Sunday’s regular-season finale. In his place, the Sounders will likely look to Will Bruin to play as the club’s center forward and link up with midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro. On the other side, former Sounders forward Fredy Montero finally broke his playoff goal-scoring drought with the opening goal for the Whitecaps in their 5-0 drubbing of the Earthquakes. Carl Robinson’s side is one of the hottest teams in MLS and will cause the Sounders plenty of problems in Sunday’s match.
New York Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC — Monday, 7:00 p.m. ET
Nearly a month ago, Toronto FC handed the Red Bulls a blow with a 4-2 victory. Since then, the Red Bulls haven’t lost.
Jesse Marsch’s side has three wins and a draw including the team’s 4-0 demolition of the Chicago Fire on the road that saw Sacha Kljestan, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Gonzalo Veron and Daniel Royer all score while youngster Tyler Adams played a big roll. However, this TFC side is tested and ready to avenge its loss in last year’s MLS Cup final. Greg Vanney’s three-man backline anchored by veteran centerback Drew Moor allowed a league-best 37 goals, stifling opposing attacks while launching dangerous ones of their own.
Houston Dynamo vs. Portland Timbers — Monday, 9:30 p.m. ET
MLS MVP candidate Diego Valeri and the Timbers secured top spot in the Western Conference with a 2-1 win over the Whitecaps and after a week of training, the Timbers, winners of four out of their last six, head to Houston, which has only lost once at home all season.
The Dynamo’s collection of young forwards in Rommel Quioto, Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas along with Erick “Cubo” Torres will look to take a step up in their career against one of the top teams in the league. The Dynamo attack will have to get through Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala.
Columbus Crew vs. New York City FC — Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. ET
After 120 minutes of exhausting soccer in front of 70,000 fans in Atlanta, the Crew return home to face David Villa and NYCFC.
Zack Steffen became a household name across MLS for his outstanding performance against Atlanta United and he’ll be counted on again against one of the league’s best strikers and attacks overall. NYCFC’s attack has gotten plenty of attention but its defense, including shot stopper Sean Johnson, has allowed just 43 goals this year and just one goal or less for seven of the last eight games.
However, in the Crew’s favor, NYCFC has just two wins in its last eight games. Perhaps the Crew can take advantage of the momentum returning home for the conference semifinals opener. Outside of the action on the field, it will be interesting to keep an eye on the response from the fans, who will be attending their first game since news broke that Crew owner Anthony Precourt is floating the idea of moving the team to Austin, Texas.