New York Red Bulls-Atlanta United conference finals matchup may as well be MLS Cup
It is down to the final four in the MLS Playoffs, with the Eastern Conference's top two seeds New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United squaring off and Sporting Kansas City looking to conjure up some 2013 magic in the Western Conference against the Portland Timbers.
Here is a look at the two matchups.
Eastern Conference Finals: New York Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United
It's not a popular opinion in parts of the Pacific Northwest or America's heartland but this is the de-facto final. The Red Bulls and Atlanta United have been the two best teams in the league this season and that has been reflected further in these playoffs.
Starting with Atlanta United, Gerardo "Tata" Martino's bunch shook off a poor regular-season finale in Toronto and came away with a straightforward 4-1 aggregate win over New York City FC in the conference semifinals. They took a pragmatic approach in the first leg and then turned on the counter-attacking jets in the second to wipe out what some considered to be the top midfield in MLS.
There is an added emotional element to Atlanta's postseason too, with Martino leaving at season's end and playmaker Miguel Almiron and record goalscorer Josef Martinez likely heading off to Europe.
Most importantly, that patented Atlanta United swagger is back now that playmaker Almiron is healthy and Martinez is once again banging in goals, and they'll need every ounce of it against an impressive Red Bulls side.
The Red Bulls continue to amaze, and it's not just thriving amid the midseason coaching change from Jesse Marsch to Chris Armas. Every winter it seems like an important piece leaves the squad (Dax McCarty in 2017, Sacha Kljestan in 2018) and the naysayers say that the end is nigh for the red side of Gotham. Yet every year the Red Bulls defy expectations and force their way into the postseason thanks to the insatiable goal-scoring appetite of Bradley Wright-Phillips and one of the league's best academies.
At a time when the #PlayYourKids mantra is ignored by many teams in MLS, it has become the bread and butter of the Red Bulls. Look no further than academy products Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Alex Muyl and Derrick Etienne, who together have accumulated more than 7,000 MLS minutes on their way to winning the Supporters' Shield.
This is a conference final that pits South American swagger versus homegrown hunger, with all signs pointing to an MLS Cup trophy presentation for the winner.
Western Conference Finals: Sporting Kansas City vs. Portland Timbers
What a long, strange trip it's been for Sporting Kansas City. Ever since their MLS Cup conquest in 2013, playoff success has proved elusive. In the previous four years, Sporting Kansas City were one and done in the postseason.
The constant in those playoff failures was that all four defeats came away from the cozy confines of Children's Mercy Park. But things are different in 2018. As the top seed in the west, Sporting KC have the luxury of being able to close out at home and their 10W-2L-5T record in front of the home fans this season suggests they should benefit from that in this series against Portland.
Head coach Peter Vermes got a lot of flak last year after trading away proven scorer Dom Dwyer in late July, and for the rest of 2017 the critics were backed by Sporting KC's inability to score, with the team tallying just three goals in their final six games.
That changed with the under-the-radar arrivals of Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez, and suddenly only Atlanta and the two Los Angeles teams scored more than the 65 goals that Sporting's balanced attack put up in 2018.
Similarly, the Timbers don't lean heavily on a No. 9, with Argentine duo Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco accounting for most of the goals. While Portland have leaked goals away from home this season (35), they showed tremendous resilience and nerve in overcoming Seattle in that memorable second leg at CenturyLink Field.
It is a given that Portland will be good in the home leg of this series; a close win or a draw is a near certainty. What will be paramount for Giovanni Savarese's team in the return leg at Sporting KC is to avoid the same kind of errors they committed in Seattle. Overall though, there is very much a nothing-to-lose feeling about Portland right now after they already toppled two higher seeds in this postseason, and that could prove powerful in a series in which one goal is likely to be the difference between the two.