Your early preview of all four Conference Semifinal Series

There were some upsets and a lot of drama, but the Knockout Round is in the rearview mirror and New York City FC and Columbus Crew SC in the East and the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake in the West advance to the Conference Semifinals on Sunday. 

What can we expect in the first legs on Sunday? Probably the unexpected, but here’s a breakdown of each of the four matchups.

Columbus Crew SC vs. New York Red Bulls

Sunday | 3 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US | TSN, TVAS in Canada

Columbus appear to have found a formula for navigating the MLS postseason. It starts with going on the road to a newly-minted stadium and stunning the hosts and their raucous crowd in a penalty-kick shootout.

That’s what Crew SC did a year ago, defeating Atlanta United in the Knockout Round, and they followed the same script Thursday night to beat D.C United on PKs at Audi Field.

They'll be bigger underdogs against the New York Red Bulls than they were a year ago when they defeated NYCFC in the same round. But no team in the East caused the Red Bulls more troubles during the regular season than Crew SC.

At MAPFRE Stadium in June, the Red Bulls spent much of the game defending and their hosts took a deserved lead on a 26th-minute goal by Gyasi Zardes before Alex Muyl leveled in the 57th minute in a 1-1 draw.

While they lamented missed scoring chances in a dominant first half at home, Crew SC went to Red Bull Arena and raced out to a three-goal lead after a little more than a half hour en route to a 3-2 victory. It was one of just two Red Bulls home losses this season. Columbus are also the only team in the East the Red Bulls didn’t beat in this record-breaking season of theirs.

The MLS originals have met three previous times in the postseason, with Crew SC winning each matchup, including the 2008 MLS Cup and most recently, the Eastern Conference Championship in 2015, winning 2-1 on aggregate.

FiveThirtyEight.com projection, first leg: Columbus win 44 percent; New York win 28 percent; draw 27 percent

Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders FC

Sunday | 5:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US | TSN, TVAS in Canada

It’s been five years, but the Cascadia rivals meet again in the MLS Cup Playoffs in what should be a sensational two-legged semifinal series.

That playoff match was won by the Timbers 5-3 on aggregate in the 2013 Conference Semifinals, and Portland will certainly feel momentum is on their side after upsetting FC Dallas, 2-1, Wednesday night at Toyota Stadium.

The Timbers won two of the three regular-season meetings this season, but the Sounders picked up a 1-0 victory at Providence Park in the final matchup this year on Aug. 23 on a Julio Cascante own goal. It was Seattle’s first win in the Rose City since 2014.

The Timbers won by the same scoreline at Providence Park on May 13 — the 100th all-time meeting between the rivals — with Sebastian Blanco coming up with the late winner. A month later, Portland claimed a 3-2 win at CenturyLink Field with Larrys Mabiala scoring a brace, including the 74th-minute winner.

The loss sent the Sounders 11 points adrift of the playoff line in the West, but Brian Schmetzer’s side ended the season with 14 wins in their final 16 games and climbed to second place after beating San Jose, 2-1, on Decision Day presented by AT&T.

On Sunday the Timbers will be without Mabiala, who was sent off for DOGSO in the 58th minute against FC Dallas.

FiveThirtyEight.com projection, first leg: Portland win 48 percent; Seattle win 27 percent; draw 25 percent

New York City FC vs. Atlanta United

Sunday | 7:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes in US | TSN, TVAS in Canada

After NYCFC comfortably dispatched of the Philadelphia Union, 3-1, on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, this scintillating showdown of attacking juggernauts was born.

Both of the regular-season meetings were highly anticipated and both ended up draws.

In a 2-2 stalemate at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in April, David Villa and Alex Ring both struck for equalizers after Greg Garza and Chris McCann put the hosts in front in each half.

When the scene shifted to Yankee Stadium in June, NYCFC were the far better side, but they were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw. Alex Callens canceled out a Josef Martinez goal early in the second half in a match that proved to be Patrick Vieira’s last in charge of NYCFC.

Another storyline that game was Miguel Almiron missing the second half due to injury. The influential playmaker missed the final two games of the regular season with a hamstring injury and his health will be a major talking point.

FiveThirtyEight.com projection, first leg: NYCFC win 48 percent; Atlanta win 30 percent; draw 24 percent

Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting Kansas City

Sunday | 10 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes in US | TSN, TVAS in Canada

Hostilities will be renewed between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City when the sides meet in the postseason for the first time since the 2013 MLS Cup, which was won by SKC on penalties.

Sporting Kansas City, who finished atop the Western Conference with three straight wins and five games unbeaten, will be the favorite. But the same was true of LAFC in the Knockout Round and RSL prevailed, stunning the expansion side, 3-2, at Banc of California Stadium Thursday night.

Mike Petke’s side will be hoping to ride that momentum into the opening leg at Rio Tinto Stadium, where they defeated Sporting, 4-2, on the Fourth of July. After Jefferson Savarino canceled out Daniel Salloi’s opening strike, Corey Baird and Sebastian Saucedo scored in quick succession late in the first half to send the hosts into the the half with a 3-1 lead. Ike Opara pulled SKC to within a goal in the 64th minute, but after Salloi and Roger Espinoza were both sent off late, Luis Silva capped the scoring with a penalty kick in the 10th minute of stoppage time.

RSL then gutted out a hard-earned 1-1 draw at Children’s Mercy Park in late September with Baird opening the scoring in the 9th minute before Opara leveled early in the second half for SKC.

FiveThirtyEight.com projection, first leg: RSL win 38 percent; Sporting win 37 percent; draw 25 percent


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