Match Previews

Impact players, highest stakes: 5 questions to preview the MLS weekend

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Finales of the conference semifinals come at you back-to-back ... to-back-to-back on Sunday. Here are Scott French and Paul Tenorio with 5 answers that will define the MLS weekend.

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Q: Who will be the weekend's most influential player?

Scott: Sacha Kljestan. MLS' top assists man is the one who makes the Red Bulls go -- he's the MVP of that team, as far as I'm concerned -- and they're going to be tough to hold down in Harrison. How many chances will he create for Bradley Wright-Phillips? One or two ought to be enough to pull even with Montreal, and given the Englishman's form, would anyone be surprised with a hat trick? It's going to require big games from Dax McCarty and Felipe Martins behind Kljestan, but they're every bit as good as Dallas' and Colorado's holding tandems.

Paul: I definitely agree with Scott here, mostly because I think New York has so much on the line to come back in the series and win. They’re still the favorite, to me. But to take things in a different direction, I’m going to say Jermaine Jones. LA goes into Colorado with a one-goal lead, but the Rapids haven’t exactly been the most threatening offensive team in the league this year. That changes when Jones is on the field. He turned the pace of play when he entered in the first leg, and I could see him putting in a full 90 minutes and sparking Colorado to a win on Sunday -- in both the second leg and the series.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Q: Which road team is most likely to give up its lead?

Scott: Seattle is safe, which is really too bad for Dallas -- losing the should-be league MVP was too heavy a toll, and you've got to stop Lodeiro, if that's possible -- and I think Toronto should go through, especially on Yankee Stadium's tight confines. The Galaxy's task is tough, with Denver's altitude and the Rapids' home record, but it's doable. But I'd be surprised if Montreal holds onto its lead. New York's got too much attack to get shut down, and Kljestan feeding BWP ought to be worth at least a goal or two. The Impact have done a 180 in the playoffs and take great confidence into the second leg, and that can't be discounted. Maybe it's Didier Drogba's big contribution this year: He did more for his team by refusing to suit up than he would on the field. Montreal has more to prove, it seems, than everyone else still alive; an aggressive approach, with appropriate cover, will be crucial. It ought to be fun to see, but I think it's a mountain too high to climb.

Paul: Montreal, no doubt. The Red Bulls are the better team, and I think that often shows itself over the course of a two-game series. The Impact’s midfield was superb in the first leg and I thought it changed the game, but I don’t see them winning a second straight duel with Sacha Kljestan, Felipe and Dax McCarty. As Scott said, Kljestan could be the one to turn this whole series around, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see McCarty put in one of those performances that make him such a favorite among league observers. He has the ability to set the tone on so many levels -- from the emotion on the field to the defensive identity to how quickly Red Bulls transition forward. The only other team I see potentially giving up the lead is the Galaxy, but I think Robbie Keane is going to lead them to a win.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Q: Which team would be most disappointed to go out this round?

Scott: Truthfully, all of them. Except perhaps Montreal, the only real underdog left in the field. Losing a lead against the Red Bulls would sting, sure, but no shame in that. Everyone else would be supremely disappointed, but let's narrow that down a bit. The biggest, given the circumstances, would be the Sounders. If they fall, it's disastrous, not that brass would be rethinking its decision on Brian Schmetzer or anything. Nobody's going to be more dissatisfied than Dallas, which looked like a decent bet to complete the first U.S. “treble” until Mauro Diaz's Achilles snapped. But that's the first leg's biggest disappointment. So I'll go with the Red Bulls. They have that “destiny” look about them.

Paul: It's the Red Bulls. Yes, FC Dallas has won two trophies so far, but they also lost Mauro Diaz for the season and that's too difficult to overcome in such a short window. Plus, there’s a reason no team has ever won the treble. It’s not easy. If Dallas had won the Cup, it would have been historic. To fall short to Seattle without your best just doesn’t have as much sting. New York, meanwhile, was the best team in the Eastern Conference last year and fell short against Columbus. They were the best team in the Eastern Conference again this season. To fail to reach even the conference finals would be a massive disappointment.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Q: Which game is your absolute 'I refuse to miss this' matchup?

Scott: It'll likely be the least entertaining of Sunday's quartet, but the day's first game can't be missed. Colorado-LA is the most intriguing of the matchups, given the histories of the clubs, their approaches to roster-building and style of play, and the impact the environment is going to have. The Rapids don't score many goals, but their likeliest path to the conference final requires just one. They've surrendered just seven goals in 17 MLS matches at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, so an 11th home shutout would force overtime and, the storyline follows, the Galaxy would increasingly wilt in the mile-high elevation, leading to a second goal and the win. It happened three years ago, when Real Salt Lake, at nearly 4,500 feet, overcame a 1-0 first-leg deficit with an overtime winner. LA can nix it with a goal -- the Rapids would then need three to advance, and that's unlikely -- and a 0-0 draw would work. The only goal Bruce Arena's bunch has conceded in the last four games was a penalty kick that shouldn't have been called.

Paul: There are good storylines in most of the games -- even Seattle and FC Dallas could be entertaining because Dallas has to throw everything forward. I’m also excited to see NYCFC-Toronto for the same reason. But my can’t-miss game is the Red Bulls game, and it’s purely for the reason above: It’s all about the stakes in the playoffs, and you have one of the MLS Cup favorites playing for their lives at home against a Montreal team that is quite effective at defending and countering. New York knows how to create goals, and I think the Kljestan-BWP connection will create at least two. But with Ignacio Piatti on the other side of the field and Didier Drogba potentially returning to the field, Montreal might be able to hit back. Just one goal from the Impact turns this game into a thriller. Of course, it’s a different answer if you ask me what the TV executives would say. (Probably NYCFC-Toronto.)

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Q: Which team does the league office secretly want to go through?

Scott: It's a 50/50 shot that one of the New York teams will play in the MLS Cup final, right? At least before Toronto scored twice. The Red Bulls need to overcome their deficit against Montreal, of course, but that's expected. They're the East's best side, and more so than any other -- even the Shield-winning seasons -- this feels like it's their year. Every league in every sport would kill for a title-game faceoff between the two biggest markets, so get the Red Bulls through, or, less likely, NYCFC, and that leaves the Galaxy and their task in Denver. MLS' fans might be cheering on the Rapids, but league brass is praying LA, with its star power and trophies and Bruce Arena, holds on.

Paul: This is a tough question, because I think there are four teams left in the playoffs that would thrill league and TV executive alike if they advanced: LA and Seattle in the West and the two New York teams in the East. Conspiracy theorists would say MLS already showed its hand when it gave NYCFC a boost by not suspending David Villa. To some degree that’s true. Had the Villa kick been delivered by Ronald Matarrita the decision likely would have been a different one. I think MLS will be happy if Seattle and LA advance in the West, because that guarantees them either a loyal fan base that will tune in to MLS Cup or a big market. In the East, the Red Bulls or NYCFC advancing would put MLS Cup in the biggest market in the U.S., so there has to be some cheering going on there. But MLS could absolutely sell a Toronto-Seattle or L.A.-Toronto final with Giovinco, Jozy and Bradley.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.

Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.