MLS Conference Finals Preview: Everything to play for in Kansas City

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Well, for lack of a better cliché, it’s all come down to this. Seven months of jubilation, wonder goals, questionable refereeing decisions and everything in between has brought us to the second leg of the Audi 2018 Major League Soccer Cup Playoff Conference Finals. Both games will take place on Thursday night, featuring four teams under vastly different circumstances hoping to play at the 2018 MLS Cup Championship.

Sporting KC vs Portland Timbers

Sporting KC will host the Portland Timbers (Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) after playing to a crucial goalless draw in the first leg, keeping a clean-sheet away from home in one of the league’s toughest places to play. KC will need to earn a win, as a draw will mean the Timbers advance by advantage in away goals. Both of these clubs have been here before, and nothing less than a full-scale brawl will ensue as both clubs vehemently opt for physicality over technical fluidity.

Portland last hoisted the MLS Cup trophy in 2015 after an unlikely run in the playoffs proved too much to handle for the rest of the league. Much of the same is transpiring this time around, and if Portland’s Argentinian maestro Diego Valeri is allowed to impact the game by Sporting KC’s stout defense, the tie will nearly be dead and buried.

Having not won the Cup since 2013, Sporting KC will hope to lock down Valeri and limit his impact on the match, while allowing the stacked Kansas City midfield Roger Espinoza and Felipe  Gutiérrez to shine through and put pressure on Portland’s back line. Kansas City have been eliminated in the knockout round of the playoffs in each of the last four seasons and hope to break the trend on Thursday night.

The “Blue Hell” and the infamous Sporting KC supporters will be in full voice, providing a huge advantage to their club who boasted a remarkable 10-2-5 record at home throughout the regular season. It will be an uphill battle for Portland, who had one of the worst away records of the 12 qualifying playoff teams in the regular season.

Atlanta United FC vs New York Red Bulls (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1)

This aggregate result has surprisingly ended up as the most predictable of the two after Atlanta’s 3-0 thumping in front of a ruckus and sold-out Mercedes-Benz Stadium crowd. Arguably the two best teams this league has ever seen, the result surprised many as questions were thrown at New York Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas’s tactics on the night of.

His decision to sit back and let Atlanta dictate possession and dominate the midfield was one that puzzled even the common fan, not allowing his side to make the necessary adjustments to halt the terrifyingly skilled attacking force in Atlanta. A return home for the Red Bulls is their only rallying cry, as the New York faithful will try and help their team salvage its season with as many red smoke bombs as it takes.

Barring mass capitulation, Atlanta United should see themselves through to their first MLS Cup appearance in the club’s second season in the league. No club is more deserving of this achievement, as the level of play employed by legendary head coach Tata Martino and his side has turned the league on its head. The supporters, however, deserve the most credit as they have set a new standard for the league, while continuing to dust off the usual stereotype of empty seats in American soccer stadiums.

If the league hasn’t already, it’s time to take Atlanta United seriously. They are here to stay and have showed no signs of slowing down. Expect United to be on defensive lockdown for the most important match in its history, kicking off at 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1.

Spencer Golanka writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @sgolanka.