The MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Championships are about to begin and will feature some teams that observers expected to make it to this round and some that have been completely unpredictable.
Out West, the top-seeded Portland Timbers will take on second-seeded Real Salt Lake, while the fourth-seeded Houston Dynamo will clash with second-seeded Sporting Kansas City in the East.
The Western Conference Championship will feature a battle between two of the conference’s most consistently dominant teams. Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference round will be a tight contest between two sides that few could’ve predicted coming into the year.
Relentless Portland Attack
The Timbers got a big win over their rivals, the Seattle Sounders, in the Western Conference Semifinal and proved that their offense isn’t to be trifled with.
Portland piled up five goals over the course of the series and, while Seattle put up an impressive effort on defense at times, the Timbers were often just too much for them.
Players like Donovan Ricketts and Diego Valeri supplied some of the team’s offensive firepower, but it's midfielder Darlington Nagbe that powered the attack in the middle.
Nagbe completed 40 of his 44 passes in the second leg of the team’s matchup with Seattle and made some key possession passes, like this one.
By contrast, Real Salt Lake has gotten by with superb defense. They effectively shut down the Los Angeles Galaxy’s attempt to reach a third-straight MLS Cup, but they’re a little lacking on offense.
They’ve only scored two goals this postseason and have only managed eight shots on goal, third worst among playoff teams.
Portland will present a major challenge for the club defensively, and how well they adapt to the Timbers will determine the outcome of the series.
Houston Vulnerable Defensively?
The Dynamo have been the playoffs’ most surprising side, knocking off the top-seeded New York Red Bulls. However, that doesn’t mean they’ve been perfect.
Houston certainly deserves credit for holding the potent Red Bulls to just three goals over the course of the series, but they’ve had their fair share of problems defensively.
Defender Eric Brunner struggled in particular, frequently getting outplayed by New York’s Thierry Henry. While there’s no shame in failing to perform against a star like Henry, Brunner's lack of physicality could be a problem against Kansas City.
Just watch the way Henry bullies Brunner on this play.
By contrast, SKC was efficient on both offense and defense in downing the New England Revolution. They managed to take 45 shots and committed just 29 fouls in their two matches, both of which are the second-best totals for postseason clubs.
Forward Claudio Bieler was an offensive weapon for Sporting off the bench, scoring the series-winning goal against the Revolution.
Kansas City has the added benefit of playing in raucous Sporting Park, which should create a daunting environment for the Dynamo.
The Dynamo are no slouches on offense, as they lead the playoffs with seven goals scored. But the combination of their defensive weakness and the imposing away crowd means that it’ll be very challenging for them to continue their surprising playoff push.
Similarly, Portland will likely be able to use their powerful offense to blast its way past Real Salt Lake.
An MLS Cup matchup between Sporting and the Timbers would bring some stability to a wild postseason, but each of these matchups are well worth watching all the same.