(AP) — A revival of the Atlantic Cup in the postseason, a Cascadia rivalry showdown and the stardom of Montreal’s Didier Drogba at age 37 highlights the conference semifinal round of the MLS Cup playoffs that begin this weekend.
The two-game, total goals series begin on Sunday, led by Supporters’ Shield winners the New York Red Bulls facing D.C. United in one Eastern Conference semifinal, while Portland — after its dramatic knockout round win over Sporting Kansas City — faces Vancouver in a showdown of Cascadia rivals in the Western Conference.
Portland capped a wild knockout round by outlasting Kansas City in 11 rounds of penalty kicks after the game finished 2-2. The PKs were capped by Portland goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey scoring and saving the final penalty to send the Timbers onward.
Also in the West, Seattle knocked out defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles 3-2, while D.C. United beat New England 2-1 and Montreal continued its torrid late-season charge by routing Toronto 3-0 in the East.
The other Eastern Conference semifinal features Drogba — with goals in four of the past five matches — leading surging Montreal against Columbus, while out West, the Seattle Sounders face No. 1 seed FC Dallas.
Here’s a look at the four semifinal matchups with the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds on the road for the first weekend before hosting the return leg on Nov. 8.
1. FC Dallas at (4) Seattle Sounders
FC Dallas quietly proved to be the most consistent in the Western Conference. Dallas was unbeaten in its final five games of the regular season, including four victories to pull away and claim the top seed. Dallas is led by the duo of Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz, but how far it goes in the postseason will be determined by its defense that allowed just two goals in its final five games.
Seattle finally got past Los Angeles in the postseason, beating the Galaxy in the knockout round, and stars Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins make the Sounders dangerous. But Seattle is beat up, with injury concerns about midfielders Marco Pappa, Osvaldo Alonso and defenders Leo Gonzalez and Brad Evans.
1. Vancouver Whitecaps at (3) Portland Timbers
How does Portland top the drama from its knockout round win over Kansas City? Do the Timbers have anything left after 120 minutes and 11 rounds of penalty kicks?
That’s going to be the biggest question for Portland making the quick turnaround from Thursday’s memorable victory to hosting the Whitecaps on Sunday afternoon. The Whitecaps and Timbers played to a pair of draws in their two matches in Portland this season.
“We’re not satisfied. We want more,” Portland coach Caleb Porter said.
For most of the season, Vancouver was the best team in the Western Conference before fading over the final eight weeks. Vancouver had just one win in its final six matches. If there is optimism for the Whitecaps it comes from their response in the regular-season finale, a 3-0 win over Houston that ensured them the No. 2 seed.
1. New York Red Bulls at (4) D.C. United
New York won the Supporters’ Shield for the second time in three seasons by winning four of its final five matches. This is not the star-laden Red Bulls of previous seasons with the likes of Thierry Henry leading the attack. But they still have Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has 44 goals over the past two seasons, and the Red Bulls’ most important offseason addition proved to be midfielder Sacha Kljestan. Kljestan was a perfect fit for New York, finishing with eight goals and 14 assists.
“Now a whole other season starts and we want to go for another one of our goals which is MLS Cup,” Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty said.
D.C. United struggled down the stretch but was the dominant side in its win over New England behind goals from Chris Pontius and Chris Rolfe. The Red Bulls dominated D.C. in the regular season with two wins and a draw.
1. Columbus Crew at (3) Montreal Impact
Columbus will be rested, but there is no one hotter than Montreal and specifically Drogba.
Montreal got 23 points from its final 11 regular-season games and continued that roll into the postseason by routing Toronto. Drogba added his 12th goal in 12 games as the capper of the Impact’s first postseason win.
Taking out Columbus won’t be easy. For as hot as Drogba has been late in the season, Kei Kamara tormented the Eastern Conference all season. Kamara had 22 goals and the Crew’s defense, a liability earlier in the season, posted consecutive shutouts to close out the regular season.
AP Sports Writer Anne Peterson contributed to this report.