Previewing the 1st Leg of the MLS Conference Semifinals

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistOctober 28, 2016

Oct 26, 2016; Toronto, CANADA;  Toronto FC defender Justin Morrow (2) and  midfielder Jonathan Osorio (21) and midfielder Michael Bradley (4) celebrate a goal by forward Sebastian Giovinco (left) during the first half against the Philadelphia Union at BMO Field. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The conference semifinal stage of the MLS Cup Playoffs begins on Sunday with four first-leg contests between the eight remaining sides in the competition. 

New York Red Bulls and New York City FC will head to Canada to face Montreal Impact and Toronto FC respectively in the Eastern Conference. 

FC Dallas visit the Seattle Sounders and the L.A. Galaxy host the Colorado Rapids in the two Western Conference showdowns on Sunday. 

Below we took a look at each of the individual matchups and what each team needs to do to take an upper hand into the second leg. 


New York Red Bulls at Montreal Impact 

Plenty of people will point to the other Eastern Conference semifinal as the one with the most attacking firepower, but the matchup between the Red Bulls and Impact carries three of the front-runners for the Most Valuable Player award. 

Bradley Wright-Phillips earned his second MLS Golden Boot in three years with 24 regular-season goals, while teammate Sacha Kljestan led the league in assists, with 19. 

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Oct 23, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips (99) runs past Philadelphia Union defender Ken Tribbett (4) during the first half at Talen Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The pair of Red Bulls playmakers are surrounded by plenty of experience with Dax McCarty, Felipe and Mike Grella a part of the midfield setup. Academy product Alex Muyl may be the most impressive player in the supporting cast. Muyl has easily fit into the attack since Lloyd Sam was traded to D.C. United in July. 

The Red Bulls back line may not get the attention the attack does, but the four-man unit has been sturdy during the club's 16-game unbeaten run. Goalkeeper Luis Robles quietly led the league in shutouts, with 11 during the regular season, and Aurelien Collin is coming off one of his best matches of the season, against the Philadelphia Union. 

All the talk of the talent on the pitch will be overshadowed by the franchise's continued failure to win MLS Cup. The Red Bulls have had plenty of talented squads in club history, but none of them have been able to secure the elusive trophy. 

Montreal made a massive statement on Thursday in the knockout round with a 4-2 thumping of the red-hot D.C. United. Matteo Mancosu, who scored twice in the win over United, has put in some terrific work at the forward position as the Didier Drogba situation gets more bleak by the day. 

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Magnificent Mancosu. #DCvMTL https://t.co/KGRoUjsbcf

Most of the Red Bulls' defensive attention will be cast upon Ignacio Piatti, who scored 17 goals and assisted on six more in the regular season. The Argentinian has a pair of goals and an assist in three matches against the Red Bulls in 2016. 

Belgian center-back Laurent Ciman will be the main marker of Wright-Phillips. If he can impose his physical presence against the Englishman, the Red Bulls may struggle to test Evan Bush on a consistent basis. 


New York City FC at Toronto FC 

David Villa, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley will all share the pitch in a playoff series that starts at BMO Field.

Second-seeded New York City FC, led by 23-goal scorer Villa, visit No. 3 Toronto, powered by the duo of Giovinco and Altidore, in what could be the most entertaining series of the postseason. 

Oct 23, 2016; New York, NY, USA;  New York City FC forward David Villa (7) reacts to a call during during the first half against the Columbus Crew at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

We don't say that just because of the attacking talent expected to be on the pitch. Both clubs have defenses that are susceptible to mistakes, and with pressure at an all-time high, we're expecting at least one at BMO Field. 

NYCFC's young stars and world-class veterans have traveled well in 2016, putting together a 7-7-3 road record. Villa and rookie Jack Harrison should be able to create a good amount of chances, but Patrick Vieira's men will only go as far as their defense, which let in 57 in 34 matches, takes them

Toronto benefited from a few lapses at the back in Wednesday's Eastern Conference knockout-round win over Philadelphia. Altidore comes into the match in the form of his life, and not just because he's lighting the net on fire. The American's work on the ball near midfield to build up possession has been superb as well.

Oct 26, 2016; Toronto, CANADA; Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (17) reacts after scoring against Philadelphia Union at BMO Field. Toronto defeated Philadelphia 3-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Giovinco will benefit from that play, as he'll be able to use his speed to link up with Altidore's balls from the middle. The Italian is also one of the best free-kick takers in the league, and he came close to scoring from a set piece on Wednesday. If he gets behind the NYCFC defense, Giovinco should be able to earn a few free-kick opportunities. 

Given NYCFC's ability in the final third, TFC manager Greg Vanney may move away from the 3-5-2 he used on Wednesday. The success of any formation used by the Reds will be determined by Bradley, Jonathan Osorio and Armando Cooper in midfield. The central trio was one of the top units in MLS at the end of the regular season. 


Colorado Rapids at LA Galaxy 

The Western Conference semifinal between the Colorado Rapids and L.A. Galaxy presents a stark contrast in personnel, and that may turn this matchup into the must-see tie of the round. 

We all know what the LA Galaxy are about. Landon Donovan, Giovani dos Santos and Robbie Keane are three of the most talented players in the league, and manager Bruce Arena always gets one unexpected player to break out during the postseason.

Emmanuel Boateng was that man on Wednesday, as he bagged a brace against Real Salt Lake, but the midfielder's only strikes in 2016 have come against the Claret and Cobalt. 

Oct 26, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; LA Galaxy forward Emmanuel Boateng (24) battles Real Salt Lake midfielder Sunday Stephen (8) for the ball during the second half at StubHub Center. The LA Galaxy won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

If Boateng is able to replicate his production on the wing on Sunday, the Galaxy should be able to stretch the Rapids thin. As if that weren't enough to impress you, Donovan was one of the top defenders for the Galaxy on Wednesday. The two-way work rate of the American legend will be key when Colorado attempts to break forward. 

Of course, all of the attacking firepower in the L.A. lineup can be silenced by the best defensive team in the league. Pablo Mastroeni's side conceded just 32 times in their chase for the Supporters' Shield, which came up two points short. 

Central midfielders Sam Cronin and Michael Azira don't get the love they deserve, but they have the capability to shut down the most dangerous players in the league. If Cronin and Azira can congest the middle, the Galaxy would have to rely on their speed and crossing from the wings. 

Cronin is one of Colorado's imposing central-midfield duo.
Cronin is one of Colorado's imposing central-midfield duo.Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado center-back Axel Sjoberg is a threat in the air on both sides of the pitch, and he should be able to hold the Galaxy at bay if they are forced to launch cross after cross. One player he'll have to watch out for the in the box is opposing center-back Jelle Van Damme, who crossed midfield on numerous occasions versus RSL. 

Shkelzen Gashi, Kevin Doyle and Sebastien Le Toux all carry big-game experience in attack, and each one of them is capable of bagging in an away goal. Colorado could only look for one goal at StubHub Center since they are the experts of the 1-0 victory. 

On top of all that, Jermaine Jones could make a cameo for the Rapids. The United States international returned to the pitch in the club's regular-season finale against Houston Dynamo. 


FC Dallas at Seattle Sounders 

FC Dallas' quest for the treble begins inside a raucous CenturyLink Field on Sunday. 

Oscar Pareja's men have already captured the U.S. Open Cup and Supporters' Shield, but the chase for postseason success will be their most difficult journey of the season. 

FC Dallas have survived the transfer of Fabian Castillo and the season-ending injury to Mauro Diaz so far, but one has to wonder where the consistent attacking threat will come from in the postseason. 

If the top seed in the Western Conference can figure that out, they'll be the favorites to win it all. But until then, there will be a heavy reliance on the Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman-led defense to win matches. Earning a clean sheet in Seattle would be huge, but conceding once shouldn't hurt FC Dallas too much.

Oct 16, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; FC Dallas defender Matt Hedges (24) in action against the Seattle Sounders during the match at Toyota Stadium. FC Dallas defeats Seattle Sounders 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle owns a good amount of momentum heading into Sunday's contest. The Sounders used Nelson Valdez's first goal of 2016 to advance past Sporting Kansas City on Thursday. 

The Sounders put two shots on goal in the last meeting between the clubs on October 16. The 2-1 defeat is the only time the Sounders have lost since September began. 

Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro must be better in order to break down the Dallas back line. However, the biggest key to Seattle's success on Sunday will be keeping Osvaldo Alonso on the field, with some believing the Cuban should've been sent off against Sporting Kansas City in the knockout round. 

As long as Alonso controls his physical play and doesn't earn a spot in the referee's book, the Sounders should be able to disrupt Dallas' rhythm for 90 minutes.


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

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