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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.

MLS Preview: Sporting Kansas City at Houston Dynamo

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  • Teams sit second, third in the Eastern Conference.
  • Houston has eliminated Kansas City from the last two postseasons.
  • Zusi, Besler out for Sporting; Garcia, Taylor missing for Houston.

Two years ago, Houston moved to the Eastern Conference. Ever since, the Dynamo have been the biggest obstacle between Sporting Kansas City and an MLS Cup final. Twice Sporting’s claimed first in the East, and twice it was rendered meaningless once eliminated by the Dynamo.

So Wednesday’s match in Houston (8:30 p.m. Eastern) should provide some insight as to where the teams stand with three weeks left in the season. Though Kansas City has made changes since last season — eschewing some Espinoza/Cesar brutality for a little Feilhaber/Rosell quality — Sporting’s on roughly the same level as last year. A win in Houston could hint this squad’s ready take the extra step. A stumble and not only will tracking down New York (and, the Supporters’ Shield) become  more difficult, but Kansas City will be given new reason to doubt by what’s turning into an old nemesis.

That may be reading too much into a regular season game (we’ll have to see how the match plays out), but given the familiarity the teams built in the last two postseasons, a match this late in the year’s bound to carry special meaning. For Houston, a team that’s had postseason success the last two seasons, perhaps getting into the playoffs will be enough, but for a Kansas City team that’s seen the Dynamo undermine their regular season success, a hiccup could leave a lasting effect.

Then there’s the little matter of the standings. Kansas City’s second in the East. Houston’s third. If those places hold, these teams meet for a homa-and-home in the conference semifinals. Third time’s a charm, right KC fans? Montréal, one point back of the Dynamo, have a game in hand, so tomorrow’s match may not be an outright playoff preview; regardless, we’re likely to learn a lot about how each team’s positioning themselves going into the postseason.

Houston will get a small boost from the return of Andrew Driver, the winger’s calf injury having sidelined him during the Dynamo’s recent surge. With Boniek Garcia on international duty, the Scot’s return comes at the perfect time, giving Dominic Kinnear an alternative to Jason Johnson wide.

The international break isn’t as forgiving for Sporting. Graham Zusi, the team’s best player going forward, will be with the U.S. national team, as will Matt Besler, half of the team’s league-best defensive duo. The depth at Peter Vermes’ disposal means quality options will be ready to step in, but with the difference between these sides so small to begin with, the loss of two key players could play a major part.

That in addition to the increased stakes for Houston provide a couple of reasons to see the Dynamo as favorites. Kansas City has the Supporters Shield in view, but they’re otherwise both securely in the playoffs and likely to finish in the East’s top two. Houston, on the other hand, are only four points clear of sixth. When deciding who’s more likely to win a game, always start with who wants it more.

Lose this weekend, and Houston could be back in a fight for their playoff lives. Win, and they move closer to avoiding another four-five, play-in game. They also move closer to a third-straight postseason meeting with Kansas City.

Three swoops for Dynamo Kyiv help close the gap with Shakhtar Donetsk

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Dynamo Kyiv, one of the two traditional powers in Ukraine, seemed to have other things to worry about than Shakhtar this summer. While the Donetsk club were making waves in last year’s Champions League and winning their league by 13 points (losing only once in 30 games), Dynamo was fighting emerging challengers Metalist Kharkiv and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk for second place. Ultimately, Myron Markevych’s Metalist claimed the league’s second Champions League spot, relegating Dynamo to the relative indignity of Europa League.

I say relative indignity because while European soccer has its own charms, it’s not where Dynamo’s supposed to be. At least, it’s not where they’re supposed to be at the beginning of a campaign. They’re one of Ukraine’s big two. One of those Champions League spots should be theirs on renown alone. It’s bad enough that they’d become a notable second behind Shakhtar, but to be passed by Metalist? And have Dnipro on their heels? It’s a concerning if subtle fall.

Dynamo clearly realize their plight and are solving it the way all club soccer troubles are solved: With money and new players. With three swoops, Dynamo have not only started to address the growing talent gap between themselves and their rivals, they’ve also lured three talents who had been linked with bigger leagues.

The most renown of the trio is Montpellier’s Younes Belhanda (pictured), a 23-year-old Moroccan attacking midfielder who had been linked with moves to England, Italy and Turkey. The specOne of the best players on the MHSC team that claimed Ligue 1 in 2011-12, Belhanda has been linked with higher profile moves for the last six months. That he ended up in Kyiv (for a speculated $13/€10 million) is a minor coup for Dynamo.

So is the capture of 27-year-old Dieumerci Mbokani, a DR Congo striker who scored 34 goals in 53 league games during his two years at Anderlecht. Thought Mbokani struggled during spells at Monaco and Wolfsburg, he has improved since his 2011 return to the Juliper League, where he’d previously stared for Standard Liege. That improvement, also seen for a DR Congo side the qualified for the last Cup of Nations, will complement Brown Ideye and Belhanda in Dynamo’s attack, albeit for another $13 million.

But that attack will feature a third surprising addition, that of 25-year-old Dutch winger Jeremain Lens, who agreed with Dynamo two weeks ago. The former PSV man makes the move to Ukraine after his most productive season in the Eredivisie, scoring 15 goals in 30 league games, production that made for another $13 million fee, according to reports. Where most Dutch league stars with that kind of production make their way to Germany or England, Lens has instead been lured to Kyiv, rounding out an attack that may more than rival Shakhtar’s.

The defending champions will line up with Luiz Adriano up top, some trio pulled out of their grab bag of Brazilian attacking midfielders: Alex Teixeira, Ilsinho, Douglas Costa, Taison, Wellington Nem, Fred, and Alan Patrick behind. With Henrik Mkhitaryan (and Fernandinho, deeper in midfield) all but gone, Mirseau Lucescu will have to adjust. What that adjustment looks like, it’s too early to say.

That adjustment could be brilliant, given all the talent Lucescu has at his disposal. But with Razvan Rat also gone (having left for West Ham United), this can be seem as a minor regroup for Ukraine’s champions. And if that’s the case. Dynamo’s attack of Lens, Mbokani, and Ideye being supported by Belhanda may make up that gap.

It will be fun if Metalist and Dnipro can somehow keep up. Even if they don’t, this year’s Ukrainian Premier League looks to be more interesting than last’s.

Mattocks rocket not enough to derail shorthanded Dynamo (VIDEO)

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Every team is missing some stars — the international break taking at least a few from most rosters — but as we were reminded when Vancouver met Houston at BBVA Compass Stadium, not all stars shine the same at club level. Kenny Miller was called up for Scotland, and although he’s played well for the Whitecaps, his loss doesn’t compare to the absences of Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia, two Best XI-caliber players. Also missing Jermaine Taylor, Houston should have been the more hamstrung side on Saturday.

If that was the case, the never showed it. Thanks to two second half goals, Houston won their second game of the season, 2-1, in what was ultimately a very Dynamo performance.

At the onset, it didn’t look like a comeback would be necessary. Houston controlled more of the ball, and playing at a venue that’s become a fortress, the Dynamo were able to dictate the game’s tempo.

All of which went for naught when Darren Mattocks did this:

That’s the kind of talent that makes a player a number one pick. That’s the type of threat that means Vancouver may not have goal scoring problems this season. That’s a player that’s destined to be a star in this league.

So the Whitecaps had the game’s biggest talent, but that’s never stopped Houston before. After going into half chasing Mattock’s goal, Houston converted two second half crosses, earning what cynics might call a quintessential Dom Kinnear win.

Credit Ricardo Clark on the first. The Houston midfielder spent most of the night charging toward the right channel. In the 55th minute, those forays paid off when he was in position to receive a ball in the right of the box, loft a cross far post for Gilles Barnes, and assist on the Dynamo’s first goal.

Seven minutes later, chaos in the six-yard box following a corner kick left Warren Creavalle to clean up for his first MLS goal, his score making up for two bad first half misses.

A 2-1 home win where the Dynamo wore down their opponent, converted a couple of crosses – that’s textbook Houston, right? Perhaps, although tonight’s textbook was missing a few of its key chapters.

“They’re not filling in,” Dominic Kinnear said of the absent players after the match. “They’re playing. We always say that. These guys, they’re not here to replace somebody. They’re here to keep us winning hopefully. There’s no mention of the guys who are not here because we cannot do anything about that.

Against an opponent choosing from almost all of their first choice players, the Dynamo still got a result. And in the process, they handed Vancouver their first loss of the season.