MLS Playoffs: Conference champions are set to be crowned

MLS's Eastern and Western Conference champions will be crowned on Thursday night. History is on the side of Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City as they enter their respective second legs against the New York Red Bulls and Portland Timbers.

NY RED BULLS-ATLANTA UNITED (Thursday, 7:30 pm ET, FS1, Fox Deportes).

First Leg. The Red Bulls swept Atlanta United during the 2018 regular season, but the Five Stripes say they learned a valuable lesson from the 2-0 loss in the second meeting at Red Bull Arena. In Sunday's first leg, they came out with a renewed intensity and played that way the entire game, pulling away for a 3-0 victory, their third straight win in three playoff games.

Second Leg. The Red Bulls won't sit back, like they did in Atlanta. They need to press, but Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst says his team will be ready, having seen how their opponents came at them in their Sept. 30 meeting in Harrison.

“I think it's a benefit that we played that game and it went the way it did,” he said. “Now we understand exactly the type of pace this game is going to be played at and the intensity they're going to press us with.”

The Red Bulls need to score at least three goals and hope they don't give up a goal to have any chance. Winning 3-0 will be hard enough. Winning 5-1? If Atlanta United scores once, it will be all but over.

“With this scenario," Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said, "it’s really important to balance it out and to not get too ahead of ourselves and understand how to put out some fires and mitigate and what we're trying to do up there."

Changes? The Red Bulls would love to have Best XI defender Kemar Lawrence back for the second leg, but the Jamaican is still listed as "day-to-day" with a knee injury picked up in practice at the end of last week. It's hard to imagine Lawrence will be ready, which means Connor Lade will again start at left back.

What history says ... No team has ever come back from a three-goal deficit after the first leg of a two-game series and advanced.


First Leg. Most first legs have been cagey affairs -- which is one reason MLS will likely dump them after this season -- and Sunday's game at Providence Park was no exception. When an early goal didn't -- Jorge Villafana had a great chance but hit the post in the 6th minute -- both teams were content to avoid breakdowns, producing the first scoreless draw of the 2018 playoffs. (There were four in 2017.)

Second Leg. The series moves to Children's Mercy Park with no clear favorite. Sporting Kansas City has been great at home in recent years -- 10-1-6 in 2017 and 11-2-5 so far in 2018, including a 3-0 win over the Timbers in August -- but the 0-0 tie from the first leg means Portland only needs a draw with goals to advance. Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese wants a victory.

"We have to go there and try to get a win," he said. "We have to go there with the mentality that it's one game, like it is in the regular season, and we have to go there and try to get a win."

But Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes likes his team's chances at home, particularly with the support of the KC fans.

"Every team in the world would say playing at home is better than playing away in any sport," he said.

Changes? Sporting KC will get Chilean forward Diego Rubio back in place of Khiry Shelton. He served a yellow-card suspension in the first leg and was missed. He scored in both legs of the conference semifinal series against Real Salt Lake.

The Timbers started the first leg without winger Andy Polo (calf strain) and lost center back Larrys Mabiala (lower leg injury) early in the first half at home. Samuel Armenteros, who did not dress for the first leg because of back spasms. Polo and Mabiala are questionable for the second leg. If Polo and Mabiala can't go, Dairon Asprilla and Bill Tuiloma should start in their places.

What history says ... Only twice has the first leg of a conference final series ended in a scoreless tie. Both times the home team in the second leg has won -- and also gone on to win MLS Cup. Sporting KC did it in 2013 and Toronto FC won in 2017.
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