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MLS Conference Finals: All to play for out West

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Ninety minutes plus stoppage time of soccer is all that separates two clubs from competing for ultimate league glory in the MLS Cup final.

Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers have it all to play for in their second-leg matchup at Children’s Mercy Park, with neither side breaking the deadlock in the first leg in Portland. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta United has one foot already wedged in the door for MLS Cup, after a thrilling 3-0 victory over a demoralized New York Red Bulls side that is feeling the crushing weight of history.

[READ: Robbie Keane announces retirement]

Let’s take a closer look at each conference’s second-leg matchups:

Sporting Kansas City (0) vs. Portland Timbers (0)

Sporting KC will hope that the Blue Wall at Children’s Mercy Park can help will the side to victory and a return to MLS Cup.

Peter Vermes’ side held off waves of Portland Timbers attacks last Sunday evening, holding on for a scoreless draw on the road. Sporting KC was also aided by the use of VAR, which correctly judged Liam Ridgewell to be offside when he headed a free kick off the post, eventually headed in by David Guzman. Diego Valeri was mostly marked out of the match, though Sporting KC’s star winger Johnny Russell had a pair of gilt-edged chances that he blasted over the bar.

Heading into this second leg, with just four days of rest, both teams will hope they can muster enough energy to get a goal and change the complexion of the game. The Timbers know that just one goal on their part will completely open up the game, forcing Sporting KC to try and get two goals in regulation. It will be a tough job for Portland though,. Sporting KC is unbeaten in its last eight patches and in the club’s last 12 matches with Portland, it has recorded a clean sheet in nine of them.

In the Timbers favor, the club has scored in seven-straight away matches, including beating FC Dallas on the road in the MLS Playoffs knockout round.

New York Red Bulls (0) vs. Atlanta United (3)

The New York Red Bulls are probably the only club happy that the second leg comes sooner than normal after the first leg.

Chris Armas’ tactical switch completely backfired, as Atlanta United scored in the first half to open up the game before the Red Bulls became much too open defensively, allowing goals from Franco Escobar and substitute Hector “Tito” Villalba late in the second half. It’s going to be a herculean feat for the Red Bulls to come back from this three-goal deficit, and Atlanta United will be poised to sit back, absorb pressure and ensure the final result.

It will either be a coronation or a funeral at Red Bull Arena come Thursday, as some of the world’s top young stars take the field once again. The Red Bulls need Tyler Adams’ dynamic running and energy in midfield, Kaku to create as the No. 10 and Bradley Wright-Phillips to find his finishing touch again. On the other side, the center-back trio of Michael Parkhurst, Leandro González Pírez and Jeff Larentowicz will be tasked with shutting down the Red Bulls attack, holding on to give Atlanta United one last home game this season.

Sounders in firm control after Leg 1

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The game in 100 words (or less): The Seattle Sounders took full control of the Western Conference finals with a resounding 2-0 win over ten-man Houston. The Sounders already had hit first in the 11th minute through Gustav Svensson but the red card to Jalil Anibaba changed the game. Houston had some chances later but fatigue meant the focus and control was off. Former Dynamo striker Will Bruin’s goal may have put the tie to bed.

Three moments that mattered

11′ — Gustav Svensson Goal — The Sounders wanted to set the tone early and they picked up an early goal off a corner kick, as Svensson redirected a header past Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis. The goal changed the complexion of the game to that point, until our next big moment.

28′ — Jalil Anibaba red card — Joevin Jones was a menace to deal with tonight and after getting past Anibaba, the latter pulled Jones down and as it appeared to be denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, Anibaba was given his marching orders. Suddenly, Houston, down a goal and down a man, had a lot more to do to stay in the tie. Nicolas Lodeiro missed the subsequent penalty kick but Will Bruin picked Lodeiro up later.

42′ — Will Bruin goal — The former Dynamo man scored a massive goal against his former club on a great cross from Jones on the left wing. While the tie isn’t over, the Sounders are in firm control and look set to repeat as Western Conference playoffs champions.

Man of the Match: Joevin Jones

Toronto FC holds Columbus on the road

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The game in 100 words (or less): Without two of its stars, Toronto FC set out to play compact and hold on for a draw on the road, and that’s exactly what they did. Michael Bradley recorded 17 recoveries and a trio of interceptions as TFC broke up play and covered the passing lanes, frustrating the Columbus Crew all night. The best chance fell to Harrison Afful late, but TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono made a crucial save to keep it at 0-0.

Three moments that mattered

0′ — The starting lineup — In a game with chances few and far between, the tactical set-up by Greg Vanney – in which his side without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore came out in a 4-1-4-1 formation – proved to be the difference in the game, frustrating the Crew all night.

52′ — Pedro Santos penalty kick no-call — Justin Meram plays a neat pass through the TFC backline that Santos runs on to, and he appears to be taken down in the box by Bono. Referee Robert Sbiga doesn’t blow the whistle and lets play continue, where Ola Kamara takes a shot that’s deflected away. Santos appeals for video review, and receives a yellow card for his efforts.

85′ — Big Save Bono — Gregg Berhalter’s 77th minute substitution to bring on Kekutah Manneh helped to push Afful higher up the field, which led to this late-game chance. Bono, who hadn’t had a whole lot to do, came up with a massive stop to keep the tie level.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the Match: Alex Bono, Toronto FC

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.

Men in Blazers podcast: A eulogy for 2016; Plus: PL through 16 weeks, MLS Cup recap

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Rog and Davo eulogize 2016 and the first 16/38th’s of this Premier League campaign, breaking down the storylines, managers and players of the season heading into the holiday period. Plus, an MLS Cup 2016 recap.

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