MLS Conference Finals: Intensity meter is about to be cranked up

What could be MLS's last two-leg playoff series kick off Sunday when Atlanta United hosts the New York Red Bulls and the Portland Timbers welcome Sporting Kansas City.


Storyline.The Red Bulls have owned Atlanta United in 2018, winning 3-1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in May and then again 2-0 at home in late September. The two wins were the difference between Atlanta United winning the Supporters' Shield comfortably and Red Bulls edging it by one point on the final day of the season.

Coaches. The Red Bulls' win over Atlanta United at Red Bull Arena -- or least how Chris Armas urged the crowd on after the biggest win of his short tenure as Red Bulls coach -- did not sit well with Five Stripes coach Gerardo Martino, who explained his reasoning for patting Armas on the shoulder instead of shaking his hand afterwards by saying, "I like coaches with a low profile.” Armas has tried to downplay the incident, insisting this week it's in the past.

Focus: Miguel Almiron vs. Kaku.

-- Almiron, tipped for a move to England in January. will likely be playing his final game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday unless Atlanta United reaches MLS Cup. He has been a Best XI selection in 2017 and 2018 with 21 goals and 28 goals over the two seasons. His goal on a free kick late in the second half of the return leg broke open the conference semifinal series against NYCFC.

-- Like Almiron, Kaku came to MLS from Argentina and now plays internationally for Paraguay. And like Almiron, Kaku finished with 14 assists in 2018 for the Red Bulls. He broke a streak of 12 games without an assist with two in the 3-0 win over Columbus in the second leg of their semifinal series.

Crowd. Atlanta United, the first MLS team to draw more than 1 million fans at home in a season, will open the upper deck at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, putting it in line to break the MLS playoff record crowd of 70,526 it set two weeks ago.

During the break ...
Atlanta United (303 minutes)
Miguel Almiron (Paraguay): Nov. 20 at South Africa (90 minutes)
Brad Guzan (USA): Nov. 15 at England (90 minutes).
Josef Martinez (Venezuela): Nov. 16 at Japan (24 minutes), Nov. 20 at Iran (74 minutes).
Hector Villalba (Paraguay): Nov. 20 at South Africa (25 minutes)

NY Red Bulls (793 minutes)
Tyler Adams (USA): Nov. 15 at England (28 minutes); Nov. 20 vs. Italy (90 minutes)
Fidel Escobar (Panama): Nov. 16 at Honduras (90 minutes); Nov. 20 vs. Ecuador (90 minutes)
Derrick Etienne (Haiti): Nov. 17 at Nicaragua (90 minutes)
Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica): Nov. 17 vs. Suriname (90 minutes)
Aaron Long (USA): Nov. 20 vs. Italy (90 minutes)
Michael Murillo (Panama): Nov. 16 at Honduras (90 minutes); Nov. 20 vs. Ecuador (90 minutes)
Kaku (Paraguay): Nov. 20 at South Africa (45 minutes)

PORTLAND-SPORTING KC (Sunday, 7:30 PM ET, FS1, Fox Deportes).

Storyline. So far in the 2018 playoffs, the Timbers have beaten the No. 4 seed, FC Dallas, on the road in the Knockout Round and No. 2 seed Seattle (in a epic battle) in the Western Conference semifinals. If they beat Sporting KC, they'll have beaten the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 conference seeds en route to reaching MLS Cup.

Coaches. Sporting KC's Peter Vermes and Portland's Giovanni Savarese go way back to the first year of MLS when they were teammates on the NY/NJ MetroStars, Vermes, a veteran with almost a decade's experience as a pro in Hungary, the Netherlands and Spain, and Savarese, a product of Venezuela via LIU, just starting out his pro career. They are in similar spots in their MLS coaching careers, Vermes, the league's dean in place since 2009, and Savarese, in his first season with the Timbers after five years with the NASL Cosmos.

Focus: Khiry Shelton vs. Jeremy Ebobisse

A matchup of American center forwards is a rare thing in MLS these days. Neither player has big numbers, but both played key roles.

-- Shelton's ability to occupy defenders and create space for Sporting KC's wingers and midfielders charging through earned him the starting job ahead of Chilean Diego Rubio until a knee injury sidelined him in early July. He started the last two games of the regular season and his assist in the 2-1 win over LAFC that clinched first place gave him final numbers of two goals and five assists in the regular season. He started only the first game of the semifinal series at RSL but will be back in the starting lineup because Rubio is suspended for Sunday's first leg.

-- Ebobisse has played under 800 minutes in his two seasons with Portland after being taken with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2017 SuperDraft, but his playing time increased in September and he beat out Swede Samuel Armenteros for the starting job in the playoffs. He's justified Savarese's decision, assisting on Diego Valeri's second goal against FC Dallas and scoring the tying goal in the first leg against Seattle.

Crowd. Sunday's game will be a sellout, the 144th in a row for the Timbers. It will be the last game they will play at the current capacity of 21,144. The home start to the 2019 season will be delayed while work is finished on renovations that will add another 4,000 or so seats to Providence Park.

During the break ...
Portland (270 minutes)
Andres Flores (El Salvador): Nov. 16 at Bermuda (45 minutes)
Cristhian Paredes (Paraguay):
Nov. 20 at South Africa (45 minutes)
Andy Polo (Peru): Nov. 15 vs. Ecuador (17 minutes); Nov. 20 vs. Costa Rica (60 minutes)
Jorge Viillafana (USA): Nov. 15 at England (88 minutes); Nov. 20 vs. Italy (15 minutes)  

Sporting KC (17 minutes)
Johnny Russell (Scotland): Nov. 17 at Albania (17 minutes).

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