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Ultimate Guide to MLS Weekend: Previewing the Conference Final 1st Legs

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistNovember 20, 2015

Nov 8, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA;  FC Dallas defender Walker Zimmerman (25) celebrates with teammates after kicking the game winning goal past Seattle Sounders FC goalkeeper Stefan Frei (not pictured) to defeat Seattle Sounders FC 4-2 during the penalty kicks in the MLS Playoffs at Toyota Stadium. FC Dallas. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Major League Soccer postseason returns to the pitch on Sunday as four teams continue their respective quests to hoist the MLS Cup on December 6.

Each of the remaining quartet advanced to the conference final round in a different way, but all four are more than deserving of their spots in the final four. 

Sunday's two-game slate starts at a sold-out Mapfre Stadium, where the Columbus Crew host the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final.

The visiting Red Bulls impressed for the majority of the regular season, but they struggled to finish off D.C. United in the semifinal round, as they needed a late Bradley Wright-Phillips goal in the second leg to secure passage into the next stage of the playoffs.

Nov 8, 2015; Harrison, NJ, USA; New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips (99) dribbles by D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid (28) to score a goal during second half of MLS Playoffs game at Red Bull Arena. The New York Red Bulls defeated  D.C. Uni
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Jesse Marsch's side must perform better on Sunday in order to take an advantage back to Red Bull Arena for the second leg on Nov. 29. In order to achieve success on the road, the Red Bulls need yet another big game out of captain Dax McCarty, who will be locked in a head-to-head battle with Columbus playmaker Federico Higuain. 

The play of the back line will also be critical to the success of the Supporters' Shield winners. United States international Matt Miazga was tied for second in aerials won during the regular season, per WhoScored.com. The player level with the young defender on 4.5 aerials per game is Kei Kamara, who displayed superb aerial ability in Columbus' second-leg victory over Montreal on Nov. 8.

Nov 8, 2015; Harrison, NJ, USA; New York Red Bulls defender Matt Miazga (20) heads a ball against DC United during the first half of the MLS Playoffs at Red Bull Arena. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports
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Keeping the Sierra Leone international out of the picture will be a tough task for Miazga, but a blueprint on how to stop Kamara was laid out by the Impact in the first leg of the conference semifinals. If Miazga and the rest of the Red Bulls back four can replicate what the Impact did to the Crew at Stade Saputo, they will be one step closer to the final match of the postseason.

Possession will also be a key factor in determining the victor in Columbus. The Red Bulls and Crew are first and second in the league possession table, per WhoScored.com, which means something has to give on Sunday. Columbus' young duo of Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani will face one of their toughest tests of the season as they square off against Sacha Kljestan, Felipe and McCarty. 

Nov 8, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew SC midfielder Tony Tchani (6) advances the ball under pressure from Montreal Impact midfielder Marco Donadel (33) during the MLS Playoffs at Mapfre Stadium. Crew SC won the series 4-3 on aggregate. Mandatory C
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Expect to see the first half played in midfield as both sides feel each other out, but do not be surprised if the dynamic wingers on both rosters begin to open up play in the second half with plenty at stake. 

Based off the attacking superstars on the respective rosters in the second game of the night, the contest between FC Dallas and Portland should be more open than the Eastern Conference Final first leg. 

Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo are sure to bring plenty of fireworks to the pitch for Oscar Pareja's side, who came out on top of a dramatic penalty shootout against Seattle to stay alive in the postseason. However, the South American duo aren't the only players in the FC Dallas squad who have shone moving forward recently.

The big X-factor in the match at Providence Park could be left back Ryan Hollingshead, who has rediscovered himself as a defender after fighting for time in midfield for the majority of the season. 

Nov 8, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; FC Dallas midfielder Ryan Hollingshead (12) reacts after making a kick during penalty kicks against the Seattle Sounders FC in the MLS Playoffs at Toyota Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Portland's formula for success will be a bit different to the one of the visitors since Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace are both suspended because of yellow-card accumulation. That means more pressure will be heaped on the shoulders of Darlington Nagbe and Fanendo Adi.

While everyone is aware of Nagbe's talent, Adi has flown under the radar with Nagbe and Valeri in the same starting XI. The lanky Nigerian has turned himself into a more consistent forward of late, as he has five goals since the start of October. 

On the defensive side of the pitch, both sides possess a sterling center back who will cause fits for the opposing forwards, but Portland enters with a large advantage. Offseason acquisition Nat Borchers has been solid in the middle of the defense all season next to Liam Ridgewell, and he will go up against the out-of-form David Texeira on Sunday. FC Dallas' Matt Hedges will have a more difficult task on his hands given Adi's recent level of production in front of goal.

As for predictions, we'll take a 1-1 draw in Columbus and a 2-1 FC Dallas victory over Portland. 

Conference Final 1st-Leg Schedule

New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew (Sunday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN)

FC Dallas at Portland Timbers (Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)

Players to Watch

Michael Parkhurst, CB, Columbus Crew

United States international Michael Parkhurst will face a big challenge on Sunday as he will be without center-back partner Gaston Sauro, who will be serving a one-game yellow-card suspension. 

Nov 8, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba (11) heads the ball past a defending Columbus Crew SC defender Michael Parkhurst (4) during the extra time in the game at MAPFRE Stadium. Columbus beat Montreal in extra time 4-3 on agg
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

With Sauro out, Parkhurst will most likely line up next to Tyson Wahl, who is no slouch but is a bit less consistent than Sauro. 

If Parkhurst and Wahl can limit the opportunities of Wright-Phillips in the final third, they will force others to step up and score for the Red Bulls. Forcing Lloyd Sam or Mike Grella to beat the Crew may end hurting the Red Bulls too much in the first leg. 

Kemar Lawrence, LB, New York Red Bulls

The best individual matchup of Sunday's games will come on the right flank of the Columbus attack, as Red Bulls left back Kemar Lawrence squares off against Ethan Finlay.

Nov 8, 2015; Harrison, NJ, USA; New York Red Bulls defender Kemar Lawrence (92) controls the ball against DC United defender Steve Birnbaum (15) during the first half of the MLS Playoffs at Red Bull Arena. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Lawrence is one of the up-and-coming talents in MLS, and he has rarely made a wrong step during the 2015 campaign. The Jamaica international only faced Finlay once this season, on July 4, so his skill set is still fairly new to the Columbus winger.

If Lawrence shuts down Finlay, the Crew will have to rely more on Higuain or Justin Meram to set up Kamara for chances in the box. And given McCarty and Miazga's recent success, they could follow Lawrence's lead and silence Higuain and Kamara.

David Texeira, FW, FC Dallas

Texeira is the one player keeping FC Dallas from being a complete team. The Uruguayan has been less than stellar up top during the postseason, but he does have two chances to redeem himself against Portland.

Nov 1, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC defender Zach Scott (20) takes down FC Dallas forward David Texeira (9) during the second half at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In 134 minutes against the Sounders, Texeira attempted two shots, one of which was on target. In the second leg at home, he put in a poor performance that forced him off the pitch in the 63rd minute. 

Scoring his first goal since October 17 will not be an easy task against Borchers and Ridgewell, but if Texeira breaks his scoring drought, FC Dallas could be in pole position to hoist the MLS Cup in a few weeks.

Darlington Nagbe, AM, Portland Timbers

Nagbe was always going to be under the microscope, but the eyes on him will multiply with Valeri and Wallace suspended.

Nov 1, 2015; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Timbers midfielder/forward Darlington Nagbe (6) moves with the ball during the second half of the game against the Vancouver Whitecaps at Providence Park. The Timbers and Whitecaps tied 0-0. Mandatory Credit: Godof
Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The newly capped United States international will be relied on to open up the FC Dallas defense with his speed and technical ability. 

If Nagbe pounces early and feeds Adi for a few solid chances in the box, Portland has a chance to dominate the match at Providence Park. Conversely, if Nagbe fails to show up, the Timbers could fall into a big hole against the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90

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