MLS conference championships open Sunday
The Major League Soccer playoffs re-start on Sunday, with the Portland Timbers hosting Sporting Kansas City and Atlanta United hosting the New York Red Bulls.
The two leg conference championships come following a two-week international break.
For Atlanta coach Tata Martino, the conference final has added meaning: A shot at the MLS Cup in his final season with the team. Martino, the MLS Coach of the Year, will leave United following the season and could become Mexico’s coach.
The MLS Cup final is set for Dec. 8.
A look at the two conference finals:
WESTERN CONFERENCE: Portland Timbers vs. Sporting Kansas City
Sporting KC: Sporting finished the season as the top seed in the Western Conference and earned a knockout-round bye before a 5-3 win on aggregate over Real Salt Lake in the conference semifinals. The team led the Western Conference (and was second in the league) with 65 regular-season goals, a club record. Sporting has won a pair of MLS Cups, in 2000 and 2013. The team has lost in the knockout round in each of the last four seasons since winning the league title. Sporting will be without forward Diego Rubio for the opening leg because of yellow card accumulation.
Portland Timbers: The Timbers advanced to the conference final on penalty kicks to cap a wild semifinal with rival Seattle. Portland is the only team that played a knockout round match to get to this stage. The Timbers won the MLS title in 2015. Last season Portland was eliminated from the playoffs in the conference semifinal against Houston and afterward coach Caleb Porter and the Timbers parted ways. The Timbers are playing their first season under Giovanni Savarese.
Quotable: “Extremely proud that that we continue to go forward and now we are in the final, one of the last four teams surviving still. Credit to the guys, they’ve been working very hard, they work together. Anybody that steps on the field wants to contribute, and it gives us the chance for us the coaches the chance to continue to work, which is what we love,” Savarese said.
EASTERN CONFERENCE: Atlanta United vs. the New York Red Bulls
Atlanta United: Atlanta won a playoff series for the first time by beating New York City 4-1 on aggregate in the semifinals. United was the highest-scoring team in the league during the regular season and was in the race for the Supporters’ Shield up to the final day but fell short after losing at Toronto. United’s scoring prowess is paced by Josef Martinez, who won the Golden Boot with a league-record 31 goals.
New York Red Bulls: The Red Bulls, who have never won an MLS Cup, advanced on a 3-1 aggregate semifinal victory over the Columbus Crew. The Red Bulls captured the Supporters’ Shield this season for the third time since 2013. The previous two times the Red Bulls won Supporters’ Shield they failed to make MLS Cup. New York was knocked out in the conference semifinals by Houston in 2013 and beaten by Columbus in the Eastern finals in 2015.
Quotable: “We’re still getting better. I think that we can still play a little bit better. I think Tata continues to push us. It’s just an extra motivating factor. I think that we all want to win. We all want to be champions. That would be icing on the cake for him for sure.” United defender Michael Parkhurst said.