Miguel Almiron - Josef Martinez - Atlanta United - talking

Get hype! The Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs are underway, and tonight's Knockout Round matches are must-watch MLS. From dynamic Designated Players to CONCACAF's finest, stars to stalwarts and originals against expansion sides, we've got every base covered. Here's a rundown:


Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew SC

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This is going to be a blast. Atlanta United supporters have shown up and shown out since Day One, with record crowd chasing record crowd, most recently Sunday at still-shiny-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The players have similarly risen to this unprecedented expansion occasion, with everyone from exciting attackers Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron to veteran leader Michael Parkhurst and Rookie of the Year favorite Julian Gressel flying high in the Dirty South.


Almiron's status has become a prime point of intrigue, as the midfield maven made only a 30-minute appearance in the Decision Day draw with Toronto, following several weeks out with a hamstring injury. That shortened span proved enough to create an assist, highlighting just how dangerous Atlanta will be if the Paraguy international is ready to run from opening kick on Thursday (7 pm ET | ESPN2, UmiMás; TSN, TVAS).


There exists no question Columbus Crew SC are primed to push upfield, what with Justin Meram and Pipa Higuain finding space and creating more (most frequently for underappreciated forward Ola Kamara). This is a squad so deep they can decide whether they'll deploy the wicked straight-line speed of Kekuta Manneh off the bench. But mind the defense, where for all his potential, Jonathan Mensah has displayed an unenviable ability to turn single-moment mishaps into game-altering fan-crushers.


And goodness knows, Crew SC faithful could use less weight on those straining heartstrings. It's been a week. They might not admit it beforehand, but count on a Columbus player or two putting some extra oomph on it as they attempt to add another home date for the fans.


Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting Kansas City

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The likely low score of the evening belongs to what we can expect to be a nervy, tension-filled evening at BBVA Compass Stadium, where the Houston Dynamo are, ah … welcoming frequent postseason foil Sporting Kansas City on Thursday (9:30 pm ET | UniMás w/ SAP, MLS LIVE; TSN4, TVAS). The hosts feature an almost unfair assortment of pick-your-poison forwards, any of whom can accelerate along Route One in stride to turn a possession-light stretch into an instant advantage. It's an upset if we don't see a celebratory robot (Cubo Torres) or panther crawl (Alberth Elis) on Thursday.


But SKC has been stout, far and away the best defensive team of 2017 (just 29 goals allowed), though they're going to be without 'keeper Tim Melia, whose shot-stopping makes "impenetrable" seem insufficient. Pressure is on the back line, but they're experienced and in-form, with Ike Opara finally turning in a full-length campaign to match his formidable ability.


Not many MLS squads would make a midseason gamble on selling off their top scorer, but Sporting jettisoned Dom Dwyer and have seen flashes of brilliance from Diego Rubio, Gerso and Latif Blessing, though they've collectively been a bit boom-or-bust. If SKC puts a pair on the board, bank on a W; barring that, it's going to be a tight ride to see if they can avoid the sudden strikes Houston can use to shatter silent sequences.


On the back end, even with a daunting 12-1-4 home record up against SKC's weak 2-8-7 away form, Houston must deal with the unexpected absence of defender AJ DeLaGarza, who tore his ACL on Decision Day. The four-time MLS Cup champion started 30 of 34 matches this season, and helped stabilize everything in front of Homegrown 'keeper Tyler Deric, who might find himself having a more handsy day than he's used to. Could mean more of this, so make mine Marvel.


Watch FREE stream of Houston-Sporting KC on MLS LIVE! (Blackouts apply.)