MLS Cup Playoffs: Conference Semifinal Schedule and 5 Things to Watch This Round

Eduardo Mendez@@Mendez_FCCorrespondent IINovember 1, 2013

MLS Cup Playoffs: Conference Semifinal Schedule and 5 Things to Watch This Round

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    The best club in MLS gets back work on the ultimate goal.
    The best club in MLS gets back work on the ultimate goal.Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Head coaches in search of playoff victory No. 1 will be the story to watch in the conference semifinals of the MLS Cup playoffs. But an additional four storylines will complete your preview.

    Each of the four ties scheduled for this round will be dissected from a unique angle to intensify your viewing pleasure. So, what exactly warrants your attention in the coming days?

    Read on to find out.

    Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, credit all statistics to the official MLS Press Box Stats and Standings.

Complete Schedule and Guide

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    Which match will you—the fan—be watching this week?
    Which match will you—the fan—be watching this week?Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    Before we delve into the featured storylines for this week's action, here is the complete schedule and guide for the conference semifinals. The results from the knockout round are posted as well.

    Knockout Round

    Seattle Sounders 2-0 Colorado Rapids

    Houston Dynamo 3-0 Montreal Impact


    New England Revolution vs. Sporting Kansas City, 8 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network

    Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers, 10 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network


    Houston Dynamo vs. New York Red Bulls, 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC

    Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN


    New York Red Bulls vs. Houston Dynamo, 8 p.m. ET, Univision Deportes

    Sporting Kansas City vs. New England Revolution, 9 p.m. ET, MLS Live


    Real Salt Lake vs. Los Angeles Galaxy, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

    Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders, 11 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network

The Story to Watch: Experience vs. No Experience

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    Thumbs up or thumbs down...what will be Caleb Porter's fate after the conference semifinals?
    Thumbs up or thumbs down...what will be Caleb Porter's fate after the conference semifinals?Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

    Two down. Three to go?

    Marco Schallibaum and Oscar Pareja entered the 2013 MLS Cup playoffs in search of their first playoff victory. What they found instead was an experienced coach on the opposite sideline that rapidly terminated their dream.

    Sigi Schmid and Dominic Kinnear proved experience counts when facing a winner-take-all scenario. The two drew on battles from previous years to propel their sides to a combined 5-0 victory in the knockout round.

    Mike Petke, Caleb Porter and Jay Heaps have been put on notice.

    Like Schallibaum and Pareja, all three head coaches enter the semifinal round in search of playoff victory No. 1. All three will face seasoned opposition, with Petke and Porter facing a peer that has previously lifted the MLS Cup.

    If the knockout round is any indication, all three will fail in doing so.

    Fortunately, the players will have a say in this tongue-in-cheek prognostication.

The Number to Watch: 180 or 16?

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    It's difficult to score when the opposing keeper is capable of Jedi mind tricks.
    It's difficult to score when the opposing keeper is capable of Jedi mind tricks.Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    Don't worry, New England.

    You're not alone in your failed attempts to sneak one past Jimmy Nielsen.

    The 2012 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year made his case for a second consecutive award in 2013. Nielsen finished his 34 appearances with a 0.88 goals against average—the lowest total among goalkeepers with at least 1,000 minutes played. Only Timbers goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts (14) had more shutouts than the man they call White Puma (13).

    Two of those shutouts have the Revolution's stank written all over it. The club is yet to score against Sporting Kansas City this season. We're 180 minutes in.

    The clock's still running.

    But there's a caveat and perhaps another number you should watch during this semifinal matchup. Even with Juan Agudelo's inevitable move to Stoke City, the Revolution brass rejected a seven-figure offer that would've immediately sent the 20-year-old's services across the pond. General manager Michael Burns' refusal to comply was justified by the numbers.

    Since his arrival in Week 11, the Revolution are 8-2-4 with a plus-16 goal differential when Agudelo features in some capacity. They're a more pedestrian 4-6-2 with a minus-four goal differential when he doesn't.

    Those scoreless performances against SKC are starting to make a bit more sense.

    One-hundred and eighty scoreless minutes. Plus-16 goals.

    Which number will prevail in this conference semifinal?

The Player to Watch: Peguy Luyindula

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    Peguy Luyindula is flying entering the MLS Cup playoffs.
    Peguy Luyindula is flying entering the MLS Cup playoffs.Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    For those lambasting Mike Petke's case for Coach of the Year, look no further than Peguy Luyindula to stand corrected.

    The Frenchman's inability to find his finishing touch this season strained the Red Bulls faithful to new heights. Zero of his 21 attempts this season connected during the run of play. His only goal of the year came on penalty kick Thierry Henry generously allowed him to take.

    But rather than follow Albert Einstein's definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results—Coach Petke made the tactical decision of the year.

    Luyindula was removed from the top of the formation.

    A lion was reborn in the midfield.

    Four of Luyindula's seven assists this season have come in the last two weeks. Three alone were recorded in New York's 5-2 demolition of the Chicago Fire. A man who couldn't finish the simplest of attempts all season ended the afternoon connecting passes even Johnny Haynes would admire.

    But Luyindula isn't embarking on uncharted territory here.

    According to Franco Panizo on MLS' official website, it's nothing more than a basic skill set that led to his revival:

    I'm a soccer player. I love football. I like to play football everywhere, every part of the field. I was formed as a midfielder when I was young, so it's just back to basics, you can say, and it's a great feeling for me to give goals for my partners and to hold the ball for them when they were busy or a little bit tired...I can do it. I know I can do it.

    Luyindula will have to "do it" for another five matches. Especially if the Red Bulls hope to add another title to their newly constructed trophy case.

The Club to Watch: The Portland Timbers

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    A familiar foe awaits the No. 1 club in the Western Conference.

    For the fourth time this season, Portland and Seattle will renew their Cascadia rivalry. The previous three meetings finished in a deadlock, with both clubs posting identical records.

    One draw. One win. One loss. Zero goal differential.

    But two of those matches forced the Timbers to travel North. That won't be a concern for the moss-green club in the conference semifinal round. A record 57 points and a current eight-match unbeaten streak assured Portland home-field advantage in the Western Conference.

    As reported by Dan Itel on the club's official website, that very fact is the driving force behind the humble confidence surrounding the Timbers:

    This group is very, very hungry. And I think they smell a little bit of blood in the water with the playoffs. And I like our chances. Obviously, it's not going to be easy, the teams we're going to have to match up against are very good teams...We want to be in form, flying, confident and going into the playoffs ready to make a run at it and win it and not just being happy being in it. And I think with this team we think we can make a realistic run at it...You always want to be playing your best football at the right time, and we're fortunate it's working out that way.

    Coach Porter's side isn't just playing their best football, they're playing the best football in the league.

    The Timbers are one of three clubs who finished the final two months of the season with five victories. The difference: New York only defeated one playoff team, while Sporting Kansas City beat none en route to the final week of the year.

    Portland knocked off three...and Seattle was one of them.

    The Timbers will have to draw on that confidence if the Sounders are to be a repeat victim in this playoff round.

The Matchup to Watch: Real Salt Lake vs. Los Angeles Galaxy

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    A dream matchup awaits between these two Western Conference powers.
    A dream matchup awaits between these two Western Conference powers.Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    Obviously, the broadcasting aesthetics belong to the Cascadia rivalry.

    But the championships belong to the other two Western Conference powers.

    Between them, the Galaxy and Real Salt Lake boast five of the 17 MLS Cup trophies. Three of the last four titles have been shared amongst the two clubs, but it’s Los Angeles who most recently basked in the dignified glory of a championship.

    The two-time defending champions will look to three-peat in 2013.

    They would be the first club in MLS history to do so.

    This biannual playoff meeting will look to replicate the dramatic tradition of its predecessors. In 2009, RSL defeated the Galaxy on penalties in the MLS Cup final. The victory awarded the Claret and Cobalt their first-ever title. Los Angeles would return the favor in 2011. A 3-1 victory saw the Galaxy through to the MLS Cup final en route to an eventual third title.

    History is written by the victors.

    Who will write the latest chapter in 2013?

    Three match notes to consider:

    • The Galaxy won two of the previous three meetings between the two clubs by a combined score of 6-2. RSL won the only other meeting (3-1) in Week 15.
    • With a lion's share of the possession (62.1 percent), RSL outshot Los Angeles (40-27) during the regular-season series.
    • The two clubs combined for 12 goals during the regular-season series, with nine different players making an impact on the stat sheet.

    Follow Eduardo on Twitter for more insight on a variety of sports topics.

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