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Cascadia clash, Atlanta's pressure to win now headline MLS conference semifinals

ESPN's Adrian Healey and Taylor Twellman examine how Mike Petke's tactics were the key to Real Salt Lake's thrilling win over LAFC.
Diego Valeri scored a goal in each half to lead the 10-man Portland Timbers to a Western Conference semi-final clash against Sporting KC.

MLS teams have long had an affinity for playmakers from Argentina. D.C. United's Christian Gomez won the league's MVP back in 2006, and the country boasts the most MLS MVPs save those from the United States: Guillermo Barros Schelotto of the Columbus Crew claimed the award in 2008 and Portland's Diego Valeri won it last season. Schelotto and Valeri were MLS Cup MVP winners, and Real Salt Lake's Javier Morales had his share of stellar moments in RSL's run to the title in 2009.

The love affair got to the point where it seemed like every team built its attack around an Argentine, though teams also cast their collective gaze elsewhere in South America.

The 2018 knockout round was littered with highlight performances from the country's exports. It was Valeri's two goals that keyed the Timbers' 2-1 victory over FC Dallas. New York City FC's Maxi Moralez had a goal and two assists in the Blues' 3-1 triumph over the Philadelphia Union. Thursday belonged to the Crew's Federico Higuain, who not only scored both Columbus goals but also converted in the decisive penalty shootout.

Now all three will get the chance to push their teams further in the conference semifinals, but it's by no means the only storyline.

1. Cascadia clash helps make up for the departure of some star power

D.C. United and Wayne Rooney are out. So are Carlos Vela and LAFC. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy were never in it. This development alone might cause some hand-wringing at MLS headquarters. But have no fear; a Cascadia matchup is here in the form of Seattle vs. Portland.

It's the second time the two longtime rivals have faced off in the MLS Cup playoffs. It was back in the 2013 Western Conference semis that the Timbers prevailed 5-3 on aggregate, and it wasn't really that close.

The personnel have changed considerably since then. On the Sounders roster, only Ozzie Alonso remains, while Portland has a trio of players -- Valeri, Diego Chara and Alvas Powell -- who are still active with the team.

But as is the case with most rivalries, while the names might change, the enmity endures. Seattle is the one flying higher at the moment, having won 14 of its past 16 games thanks in part to the midseason arrival of Peruvian forward Raul Ruidiaz and an airtight defense. Included in that run is a 1-0 road victory against the Timbers back on Aug. 26. But Portland will have no fear, especially with Jeremy Ebobisse finding his form when it matters most. Valeri and the irrepressible Chara will aim to do their bit as well.

The players change but the bad blood between Portland and Seattle is forever.
The players change, but the bad blood between Portland and Seattle is forever.

2. Is Atlanta's championship window closing?

Manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino has already announced that he will depart after the end of this season. Midfielder Miguel Almiron is expected to leave as well. There are also questions about how much longer underrated glue guys like Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz will be able to maintain their current levels.

Granted, the willingness of owner Arthur Blank to spend shows no signs of abating, with River Plate dynamo Gonzalo "Pity" Martinez the hoped-for replacement for Almiron. But every season is different. Each manager and roster bring a different vibe to a given campaign. Momentum can disappear like the wisp of a cloud, so there is bound to be an even greater sense of urgency for Atlanta's title push as it takes on a New York City FC side that appears to be finding health and form at the perfect time.

This is especially true for Martino, who has been a type of nearly man over the past decade. His only trophy in that span is a Spanish Super Cup triumph when he was with Barcelona. He lost a pair of Copa America finals with Argentina -- both on penalties, it should be noted -- and another with Paraguay. You have to go back to 2006 to find the last time a Martino-coached team won a title in league or domestic cup play, when he prevailed with Paraguayan side Libertad. That trend has continued in Atlanta, with the Five Stripes blowing a chance to win the Supporters' Shield on the final day of the season.

There is no doubting that Martino has done great things in Atlanta. The team has played some stylish soccer, and it was in part due to his pedigree as a coach that the club has attracted players like Almiron, Josef Martinez and Hector "Tito" Villalba. A title would add considerable validation, but NYCFC will prove to be formidable indeed.

3. There will be blood -- and cards

The matchup between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake at first glance seems ho-hum, but the two teams have been engaged in an intense rivalry over the years. There was a preseason punch-up back in 2011, and the two squared off in the 2013 MLS Cup final, with SKC prevailing on penalties in freezing conditions. Even this season, a 4-2 victory for RSL on July 4 witnessed two SKC players being sent off, and later in the campaign Real secured a precious road draw that enabled it, in part, to sneak into the playoffs.

Kyle Beckerman remains the man every SKC fan loves to hate, but the knockout-round victory showed off RSL's considerable skill on the ball, in particular that of Damir Kreilach, who has thrived in a false nine role for manager Mike Petke.

Damir Kreilach showed against LAFC that he can be a real difference maker? Can he lead RSL to another upset vs. SKC?
Damir Kreilach showed against LAFC that he can be a real difference-maker. Can he lead RSL to another upset vs. SKC?

But this SKC side might be the deepest team manager Peter Vermes has ever had. Looked at one way, Kansas City doesn't have a go-to goal scorer. An argument can be made, however, that SKC has balanced scoring, with wingers Johnny Russell (10 goals) and Daniel Salloi (11 goals) both reaching double digits. SKC's defense is also stingy, as SKC conceded fewer goals than all but New York Red Bulls and Seattle this season.

4. NYRB looks to finally make its MLS Cup breakthrough

Few teams possess a postseason history as tortured as the Red Bulls. The club, then known as the MetroStars, was on the losing end of one of the biggest collapses in MLS playoff history in 2005, when it squandered a two-goal aggregate lead with 30 minutes to go in the second leg against the New England Revolution and lost 3-2. There was Kenny Cooper's failure to convert a retaken penalty in 2012 against D.C. United. A controversial red card to defender Jamison Olave in 2013 helped oust the Supporters' Shield winners at the conference-semifinal stage against the Houston Dynamo. The list goes painfully on for Red Bulls fans.

This year's edition of the Red Bulls is flying high, having beaten Atlanta to the Supports' Shield tape. It is also a team that has expanded its tactical options under manager Chris Armas, who took over for Jesse Marsch in July. This is a team that will look to build the attack a bit more rather than just press teams into oblivion.

Of course, the Columbus Crew's skill on the ball will test the Red Bulls' ability to high-press. And just like last year, the Crew seem to be reveling in their underdog status.

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