We now know the survivors who are set to do battle in the Conference Semifinal portion of the Audi 2021 MLS Playoffs, and that means it's time for another round of gallant/foolish (pick your fave) predictions.
My Round One results produced a decent enough 4-2 record —which essentially came about because I picked one lone upset, but it was the wrong lone upset. Clearly having learned nothing, I've again opted to tab a single shocker.
Just to change things up, we'll start with the Western Conference tilts on deck (and kill all the suspense over which upset I'm predicting in the process).
Best moments of round one of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs
WHEN: Thursday, Nov. 25 at 4:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: FOX, FOX Deportes, TSN2, TVA Sports 2
The storylines write themselves for this Conference Semifinal. The young upstarts against a wily old guard. Attack by committee vs. star power. A team that hasn't won a playoff round since 2016 locking horns with a club that has conference final trips and a pair of MLS Cup appearances in the prior eight seasons. Quaint moneyball consistency matching wits with flair-filled, but streaky excellence. One of the best teams at attacking on set pieces against one of the worst at defending them. It's a whole multi-layered thing.
Beyond the squad matchups on the field, there are potentially important intangibles to consider here. Colorado are very much a rhythm side and I'm a little concerned the extra week off may do them more harm than good. Then there's the time-honored sports concept that young teams often need to take an instructive early playoff powder before they truly come up in the title chase world. These are precisely the types of dynamics a veteran Timbers side currently revving into top gear can take advantage of on Thursday. Portland officially becomes a rampant title threat with a 2-1 upset.
WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 28 at 3 pm ET
WATCH ON: ABC, ESPN Deportes, TSN5, TVA Sports
I don't want to take anything away from Real Salt Lake. They held their nerve for 120 minutes and then held their nerve in the shootout, never making the mistake that the Sounders were caught waiting for. The Royals took the long, stressful way there, but they have earned their way here.
That said, this next one is Sporting KC's to lose. They easily handled a Vancouver side more strenuous to play than RSL (especially with their main ideas man Albert Rusnak missing out against Seattle with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis). Forget the long-distance rivalry between these clubs, and forget that Real Salt Lake have won the last two in Kansas City. This make-things-happen home side aren't likely to repeat Seattle's mistake. In a wild one, Sporting KC repeat their 4-2 win from the 2018 Conference Semifinal.
WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 28 at 5:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN5, TVA Sports 2
Perhaps more than any other Conference Semifinal showdown, this clash will be won in midfield. The Union are powered by a buzzing central park crew that has kept them in "get 'er done" mode for a couple months now. They will offer a stern challenge to Hany Mukhtar and his gritty friends in the Nashville midfield. The team that wins that turf battle should take the W. Of course, the two stables could also cancel each other out.
That realization led me to compare the other areas of the field matchup. The boys from Philly will have the best striker (Kacper Przybylko) and the best goalkeeper (Andre Blake) in the match, advantages that outweigh any slight deficit in backline strength. The Union want to show they're no longer postseason chokers, and you know they want another shot at New England (the author of last year's, erm ... choke). I believe they'll book that rematch in dramatic fashion, Philadelphia 1-0.
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 30 at 7:30 PM ET
WATCH ON: FS1, FOX Deportes, TSN1, TVA Sports 2
This game will be a treat for those who enjoy tasty forward-defender matchups. The Revs will need Andrew Farrell to keep Golden Boot presented by Audi man Valentin Castellanos within shoulder bump's reach, while NYCFC central tandem Alex Callens and Maxime Chanot will need to keep their switches straight to deal with Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou. Whichever team carries this dual battle of the boxes should be able to get the job done.
In 2021, New England consistently took care of business, while New York City FC found ways to somehow not. The visitors led the league in xG differential, but the Revs won eight more games to, ya know, hoist the Supporters' Shield powered by a new MLS points record (73). I'd actually feel worlds better about NYCFC's chances if Anton Tinnerholm was fit. He won't be in uniform, however, and that makes me think DeJuan Jones will be a difference-maker in a firm 3-1 New England win.