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MLS Features: 2013 playoff predictions: Conference final round

3:32 PM, Nov 8, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Welcome back to the final installment of TSN's Major League Soccer postseason predictions.

The semifinals were nothing short of outstanding as the resilient Houston Dynamo pulled some old tricks out of their bag to knock off Red Bull New York, and Sporting Kansas City used its home field advantage to dispatch New England.

Real Salt Lake exorcised some past demons as they eliminated the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy, while the Portland Timbers continued their romp through the playoffs after beating Seattle Sounders FC.

Let's get after it.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(2) Real Salt Lake vs. (1) Portland Timbers

The Portland Timbers continue to be the breakout story of the season in Major League Soccer as first-year head coach Caleb Porter's team earned a 2-1 victory over Seattle at CenturyLink Field in the first leg of their semifinal tie.

In Thursday's second leg, Portland showed its dominance at home as the club opened up a 3-0 and 5-1 aggregate lead by the hour-mark. Seattle showed some fight as it scored twice in less than two minutes to make it somewhat interesting, but Portland was able to see out the result.

Considering the trying season the Timbers endured last term, it's remarkable to see their turnaround just one season later. One year ago, Portland got off to a terrible start and fired then-head coach John Spencer. They finished in ninth place in the West and began their quest to change the culture of the club.

Which they achieved with one signing -- Porter.

Under the former Akron coach, the Timbers were free to play the type of attractive attacking soccer that allowed them to thrive. The team went on an unprecedented 15-match unbeaten streak during the regular season and lost just five times.

As successful a season as the Timbers have had, Real Salt Lake represents a unique challenge for Porter's team.

RSL reached the conference final round after taking care of business against the Galaxy, overturning a 1-0 first-leg deficit with a 2-0 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Many thought RSL would struggle some this year after offseason trades which saw the departure of Fabian Espindola, Jamison Olave and Will Johnson, but the team's young players have stepped up, leading the club to another outstanding season.

Both clubs are about even in just about every position on the field. Up top you see Costa Rica international Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley for RSL, while Portland boasts Ryan Johnson and club talisman Darlington Nagbe, who can be deployed as a forward or midfielder.

In the midfield, RSL plays its trademark diamond formation with star playmaker Javier Morales at the top and U.S. international Kyle Beckerman in the holding role.

That pair could be one -- if not the best -- in the league, but Portland's midfield is right there as Nagbe is deployed out wide with Argentine superstar Diego Valeri in the attacking role.

Defensively, RSL's back four of Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers and Tony Beltran are excellent, but Portland can match it with the "wall of Gambia" -- Pah Moudou Kah and Mamadou Danso in central defense, while Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury man the wings.

In goal, Portland has the probable goalkeeper of the year in Donovan Ricketts, who has had an outstanding season, while RSL's Nick Rimando is always one of the best in the league.

In three regular-season meetings, the clubs drew twice and RSL earned a 4-2 win at home.

When two teams are this evenly matched, it's difficult to find a clear-cut winner, but the difference may come on a mistake, or two.

PORTLAND 3, REAL SALT LAKE 2

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(2) Sporting Kansas City vs. (4) Houston Dynamo

The Houston Dynamo continue to astonish onlookers in the playoffs. After a middle-of-the-road regular season in which they went through spells of horrible form, they somehow manage to pull it together in the postseason.

They easily dispatched a disjointed Montreal Impact side at home by a 3-0 score in the knockout round before meeting the top-seeded New York Red Bulls in the semifinal round.

New York raced out to a quick 2-0 lead at BBVA Compass Stadium in the first leg, but the Dynamo battled back with two goals in the second half to earn a 2-2 draw heading to Red Bull Arena for Wednesday's return leg.

With the home crowd behind them, New York grabbed the lead in the 23rd minute on Wednesday as Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall spilled a Lloyd Sam cross and Bradley Wright-Phillips was there to tap it home for the 3-2 aggregate lead.

But the Red Bulls gave it back 12 minutes later when defender Ibarhim Sekagya misplaced a pass which went straight to Houston's Brad Davis in the penalty area and he fired it home from 12 yards out.

It remained deadlocked at 1-1, 3-3 on aggregate into the second period of extra time, where substitute Omar Cummings gave the Dynamo the lead in dramatic fashion as he got his boot to a loose ball at the near post and squeezed it past Red Bull goalkeeper Luis Robles, sending the club to its third straight conference finals.

Sporting fell behind to a youthful New England Revolution side after a 2-1 first-leg defeat at Gillette Stadium, but rebounded nicely in front of their home fans at Sporting Park.

Aurelien Collin's 41st minute goal put the sides level on aggregate at 2-2, but Dimitry Imbongo gave the Revs the lead again 20 minutes from time.

Sporting, however, equalized nine minutes later through Seth Sinovic and scored the winner in the second period of extra time with Claudio Bieler finding the net in the 113th minute.

If Bieler, who played sparingly in the final months of the regular season, finds his form in the postseason, Sporting has the edge up top with Bieler, Dom Dwyer, Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong.

In midfield, the clubs are fairly even as each side has an All-Star U.S. international -- Graham Zusi for Sporting and Davis for Houston -- both of whom are capable of delivering pin-point crosses.

Defensively, Houston has been strong at the back with Corey Ashe, Kofi Sarkodie, Bobby Boswell and Warren Creavalle or Eric Brunner. The Dynamo specialize in clearing crosses in the air, so Sporting will have to look for a different way to get in behind.

Sporting boasts one of the best central defense pairings in the league with Collin and American international Matt Besler and the club also has the edge over Houston in goal with Jimmy Nielsen a tad superior to Hall.

The clubs met three times during the regular season with Sporting earning a 1-0 win at BBVA Compass Stadium in May to go with 0-0 and 1-1 draws.

Houston, however, may have a slight mental edge in this series having knocked Sporting out of the postseason in each of the past two seasons -- and that may be enough to get the Dynamo to the MLS Cup final for the third straight season.

HOUSTON 4, SPORTING KANSAS CITY 3

Whatever happens, the conference finals are sure to be outstanding spectacles.

Check back later for our breakdown of the MLS Cup final matchup.

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