Houston, Nov 2 (EFE).- The fight for the 23rd Major League Soccer Cup will showcase both young talent who represent the development of the sport in the United States and top-tier international players.
The Eastern Conference semifinals include only one club, the Columbus Crew, with an MLS title to their credit, while all four of the Western Conference semifinalists have won the Cup.
People who follow the league expect the team that emerges from the Eastern Conference – Columbus, New York Red Bulls, Atlanta United or NYCFC – to hoist the Cup this year.
In the West, two-time winners Sporting KC (they won their first title as the Kansas City Wizards) will vie with the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake.
The surprises of the Knockout Round, above all the elimination of four-time champions D.C. United, demonstrated that the league has come a long way toward achieving parity.
D.C. United could not beat the Crew, a team with a history of epic away wins, despite the presence on the Washington roster of Manchester United icon Wayne Rooney.
Columbus were led by veteran Argentine striker Federico Higuain, older brother of AC Milan’s Gonzalo Higuain, who scored both of his side’s goals in the 2-2 draw and converted from the spot in the penalty shootout as the Crew prevailed 3-2.
Rooney, meanwhile, was held scoreless in regulation and missed from the line in the shootout.
The other upset of the Knockout Round was in the West, where favored Los Angeles FC, with 14-goal Mexican forward Carlos Vela, fell 3-2 at home to Real Salt Lake.
Starting with the conference semis, the format shifts from single-match elimination to a two-game series.
The Red Bulls, who set a new MLS record for points this season with 71, can also boast one of the league’s best players, US international Tyler Adams, a 19-year-old product of the Red Bull Academy.
Even so, the Big Apple side must be careful not to underestimate Columbus.
The other East matchup, between Atlanta United and NYCFC, is expected to see plenty of scoring from the likes of Spaniard David Villa and Venezuela’s Josef Martinez.
Villa, with 77 goals in 117 appearances for NYCFC, is the team’s all-time leading scorer, while Atlanta’s Martinez won the MLS golden boot last season with 31 goals.
Sporting KC, the best side in the Western Conference in the regular season, are expected to prevail over Real Salt Lake with a lineup anchored by the midfield trio of Ilie Sanchez, Brad Evans and Roger Espinoza.
The contest between Seattle and Portland is shaping up as the most competitive duel of the semifinals.
The Sounders, MLC Cup winners in 2016, were expected to struggle following the retirement of Clint Dempsey, tied with Landon Donovan for most goals with the US national team, but Uruguay’s Nicolas Lodeiro has emerged as the team’s on-field offensive mastermind.
This season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Portland under new coach Giovanni Savarese, yet the 2015 MLS champions have beat expectations thanks to great performance by players such as Argentine midfielder Diego Valeri, author of both goals in the 2-1 Knockout State victory against FC Dallas.