The Knockout Round of the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs is complete, and so on we roll into the respective conference semifinals.

These games are usually the cagiest of the entire postseason. The hosts enter on three or four days of rest, and the visitors enter knowing that a scoreless draw is a pretty good result. A draw in which both teams score? That's a legitimately great result.

And so you get a disparity like this: In the four Conference semifinal first legs from last season, there were seven goals scored (1.75 goals per game). In the other 13 games of the the entire 2015 playoffs, there were 39 goals scored (3 goals per game).

The numbers weren't quite as stark in 2014 because of New England's 4-2 win over Columbus, but the the other three games at this point two years ago produced four goals. In 2013 this stage was in line with the goals per game of the rest of the playoffs, but in 2012? Five goals total in four games.

You get the idea. Onto what we'll be seeing, in chronological order:

Montreal Impact v New York Red Bulls

The first game of the day (3 pm ET; ESPN in the US | RDS & TSNGo in Canada) features the team that sprung the only upset of the Knockout Round hosting a team that hasn't lost in any competition since July 3.

The Red Bulls have been damn good, and while there will continue to be worries about their late-game defense, these numbers are stunning: 20 games unbeaten in all competitions, and 16 games in MLS. They've won their last four and six of their last eight, and since the start of September they've averaged better than two goals per game.

For the Impact, the numbers are less all-encompassing, though still decent. They finished the season on a 2-1-1 streak (which is now 3-1-1 following their win over D.C. United) and they're unbeaten in the last five starts by Matteo Mancosu. We use the word "talisman" too much on this website, but the Italian has really, truly been one.

More worrying: Montreal are just 1-3-2 at home since the beginning of August, and their only win was against a pretty poor San Jose side.

The Shape of the Game: Montreal sit deep and absorb while RBNY try to win second balls

Montreal cannot come out and go toe-to-toe with the Red Bulls and they know this. They lack the legs through midfield, and it's pretty apparent that they lack real distributors out of the back. "Boot it long" is their go-to strategy even when facing a gappy pressure team like United:

That's the map of their distribution against D.C. Red arrows are incomplete passes, green complete and blue is Ambroise Oyongo's assist on what turned out to be the game-winner from Mancosu.

There's simply no facility for nor interest in methodical build-up out of the backline, and that's fine. After months of flirting with some middle way of playing, the Impact have reverted to what they did so well back in March: Sit deep, stay compact defensively and absorb. Then when there's a chance to go the other way, get the ball onto Ignacio Piatti's foot for into space for Dominic Oduro and let the chips fall where they may.

This is the best version of themselves.

With RBNY, the best version is the suffocating, high pressure team playing out of the 4-2-3-1 that we've seen for the last two years. They are who they are, and that always makes teams jumpy:

The wild card is, of course, Jermaine Jones. Colorado take on an entirely different personality when he's out there -- he drives the game forward pathologically and is 100 percent determined to make the hardest pass on the field at all times. He's also an absolutely destructive defensive presence (when given adequate support from his deeper-lying midfielders), which means that the likely LA central midfield pair of Sebastian Lletget and Baggio Husidic aren't likely to complete over 90 percent of their passes again if he's on the field.


LA (4-2-3-1):Brian Rowe; Robbie Rogers, Daniel Steres, Jelle Van Damme, Cole; Husidic, Lletget; Donovan, Dos Santos, Boateng; Alan Gordon

Colorado (4-2-3-1):Tim Howard; Eric Miller, Bobby Burling, Axel Sjoberg, Marc Burch; Cronin, Azira; Hairston, Dillon Powers, Shkelzen Gashi; Kevin Doyle

What's it all mean?

Patience, until Jones gets on the field. Then havoc. Force me to choose and I'll go with a scoreless draw, since I think we're due at least one of those this round.

That said: Colorado have huge set-piece advantage here, especially if they start Burling over Jared Watts

Toronto FC v New York City FC

Our third game of the day (7 pm ET; FS1 in the US | TSN1 & TSN4 in Canada) really should be the highest scoring. Both Toronto FC and NYCFC have fun and irresistible attacks, somewhat questionable backlines, and two of the most obvious MVP candidates in the league.

TFC straight-up fumbled away the Supporters' Shield by winning just once in their final five home games of the season, but getting Sebastian Giovinco has changed their fortunes a bit. They've now won two straight (including the 3-1 result over Philly on Wednesday) at BMO and are unbeaten in three overall while scoring eight goals. The bit of bad news is that after 28 very, very solid games, the defense has disappeared, and they conceded 10 goals in their final six games of the regular season -- plus, obviously, the one vs. the Union.

NYCFC are who they are at this point: An attacking juggernaut no matter the situation. They won three of their last four to close out the year, all by multiple goals. They've been shut out just once since May and are the best road team in the league. They will not be intimidated by the atmosphere in the least.

The Shape of the Game: NYCFC build from the back and TFC try to force them into mistakes

This has been the dynamic tension surrounding NYCFC all year, and the question at the heart of it is "Can they keep playing how they want to play and suffer the lows while building upon the highs?" Obviously it's been good enough to get them into the playoffs, and get them a week of rest to boot.

Their press break is at the heart of it:

Most teams try to get the ball out of their own end as quickly as possible. NYCFC don't, and while that leads to some huge, embarrassing turnovers, it also leads to sequences like the one above where the league's best pressing team is turned into a speed bump.

TFC won't be surprised by that, and the question they're facing is how high they want to push that line of confrontation. In Marky Delgado they have a complete rested one-man high press (he's possibly the fittest player in the league), and obviously Michael Bradley can run all day as well. That leaves Greg Vanney to figure out if he wants to play a 3-5-2 and push Delgado waaaay up in order to cut off escape angles for the NYCFC fullbacks, or to go back to more of a 4-4-2 of one vintage or another.

The other question is how much gas Giovinco and Jozy Altidore have in the tank. Both worked extremely hard against Philly on Wednesday, and may not be up for 90 minutes of real pressure. It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if they dropped a little deeper and tried to hurry Andrea Pirlo and Andoni Iraola on those big, diagonal switches. When those are accurate they're spectacular, but when they're not accurate they're a counterattack waiting to happen.

Dropping Altidore a little deeper and coaxing the NYCFC backline a little higher could lead to stuff like this:

The other benefit of playing a little bit deeper is it makes it that much easier to track Frank Lampard, who will probably play -- I'm guessing -- at least a half. Lampard's been ridiculously efficient this year, and nobody's quite figured out how to account for his late runs out of central midfield when the game gets opened up.


TFC (3-5-2):Clint Irwin; Eriq Zavaleta, Drew Moor, Nick Hagglund; Steven Beitashour, Delgado, Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Justin Morrow; Giovinco, Altidore

NYCFC (4-3-3):Eirik Johansen; Jefferson Mena, Frederic Brillant, Maxime Chanot, Ronald Matarrita; Iraola, Pirlo, Lampard; Harrison, David Villa, McNamara

What's it all mean?

As for the section immediately above this one: I feel kind of dumb leaving Armando Cooper out of the TFC starting XI. But I think, given his workload late this season, it may make more sense to bring him off the bench.

This game's outcome hinges upon three things: The link play between Giovinco and Altidore; how effective TFC's wide defense is against NYCFC wingers Tommy McNamara and Jack Harrison; and set pieces. 

I think the verdicts on the above will be "really good," "not that great" and "wow NYCFC need help on restarts," which should mean a high-scoring TFC win. That's neither the worst nor the best result for either side.

Seattle v FC Dallas

Sunday's final match (9:30 pm ET; FS1 in the US | TSN2 in Canada) is the now annual postseason showdown between Seattle and FC Dallas. It's the third year in a row the two teams have met and, given the trajectory of each franchise, it wouldn't be at all shocking if next year makes four.

The Sounders were the league's hottest team in the second half of the year, going 9-2-4 after the arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro, a mark which includes Thursday's mildly controversial 1-0 win over Sporting KC. Lately that's been done with defense, as they've conceded just seven goals in their last nine games across all competitions.

Dallas are recalibrating and figuring out exactly who they are in the wake of Mauro Diaz's season-ending Achilles injury (two weeks ago against Seattle, mind you). The gutted out two more games in the seven days after that, getting a win on the road in CCL action then pitching a shutout at LA on the final day to claim the Shield.

They haven't lost on the road since mid-August.

The Shape of the Game: Dallas sit in a low-block 4-4-2 and try to counter a more aggressive Seattle side

Dallas have two choices without Diaz, and they showed both last week. Door No. 1 is to just slot veteran Mauro Rosales into the No. 10 role, and try to approximate if not duplicate what Diaz brings to the table. This worked well in Guatemala last week and Rosales is still a very, very good passer of the ball.

Door No. 2, however, may make a little bit more sense on the turf of CenturyLink field. Sitting low to absorb pressure means that they can rely upon the dominant defense of Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman while drawing the Sounders forward, which should give space for Maxi Urruti and (probably) Tesho Akindele to counter into.

There's nothing fancy about this, and that's fine. And look, it's not like Dallas can't play at all without Diaz -- Kellyn Acosta, for one, is a much better passer of the ball than folks want to realize. But they're much more liable to get an opportunistic goal or a set-piece goal than they are to conjure something magical.

And this is the same for Seattle, even with Lodeiro on the field. They haven't been a dangerous, multi-faceted attacking team since Clint Dempsey was ruled out, and Flaco Fernandez's apparent hamstring injury on Thursday night limits the options even further. Go ahead and be stunned if he plays a single minute on Sunday -- I certainly will be.

The one thing I'd say to be extra aware of is how high Seattle's fullbacks are pushing. They are infinitely better when Joevin Jones gets into the attack, as he/they showed on the game-winner against Sporting. Doing so, however, opens up the field for potential Dallas counters, and FCD right winger Michael Barrios is past due.

Does that mean there's more pressure on Lodeiro? Yes:

For great players, that's just a fact of life this time of year.


Seattle (4-2-3-1): Stefan Frei; Tyrone Mears, Roman Torres, Chad Marshall, Jones; Osvaldo Alonso, Erik Friberg; Cristian Roldan, Lodeiro, Brad Evans; Jordan Morris

Dallas (4-4-2): Chris Seitz; Atiba Harris, Zimmerman, Hedges, Maynor Figueroa; Barrios, Acosta, Carlos Gruezo, Ryan Hollingshead; Urruti, Akindele

What's it all mean?

Ok, one other thing about pushing Jones into the attack: When he's up there, the Sounders draw more fouls in good spots, and they have a habit of turning those into goals. They've become a really good set piece team.

Dallas, however, are arguably the best defensive team in the league on restarts, and have three dominant aerial presences along that backline. This game will be tight and hard and scrappy and physical and both teams will have their work cut out for them. I give the Sounders a slight edge because they're at home, but even if they take a lead this game's not going to open up all that much.

One more thing:

Happy weekending, everybody.