One leg of the Western Conference final separates either the Colorado Rapids or the Seattle Sounders from the MLS Cup. Today, the first team to land in the MLS Cup will be decided (with the second being decided in the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday). After a 2-1 Sounders win in the first leg, both sides head to Colorado feeling they can emerge the two-leg victor. With the winner decided on an aggregate scoring and away goals serving as the tiebreaker, this series could easily go either way. But here is a look at some of the major talking points heading into the deciding leg.
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What will the Rapids do without Sam Cronin?
He's not the biggest name or the flashiest player, but Cronin has been a big part of keeping the Rapids midfield covered defensively and organized in transition. But he picked up another yellow card in the first leg and will be forced to miss Sunday's match. Without his ability on both sides of the ball, the Rapids have to re-tool their lineup without sacrificing the defensive presence that got them into the playoffs, nor the attacking bite they will need to overcome Leg 1's 2-1 Sounders win.
The likeliest scenario is probably that Michael Azira will take over for him. The Ugandan international had often played next to Cronin this year, though since Jermaine Jones returned from injuries during the playoffs, Azira has been on the bench. He will probably come off and take Cronin's role in the midfield with Jones. How Azira and Jones work together in the central midfield may decide how effective playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro will be able to be for the Sounders.
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Can Nelson Valdez save the Sounders again?
The high-priced striker went all of 2016 without a goal – until the playoffs started. With his drought ending at the perfect time, Valdez quickly became one of the Sounders' all-time leading scorers in the MLS Cup playoffs, amazingly, with three goals. He saved the Sounders in their play-in match vs. Kansas City to open the playoffs, and the question is whether Valdez can deliver again.
With newfound faith in Valdez to score, coach Brian Schmetzer has been able to put Valdez up top in Clint Dempsey's absence, and put Jordan Morris on the wing. Though Morris has looked his most comfortable as the central striker, he has done well on the wing in this playoffs. That coupled with the prospect of Valdez actually being able to score means the Sounders attack has more fluidity and has benefited from Valdez's resurgence quite a bit.
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Will the altitude be a factor?
When it comes to the playoffs, every advantage counts, and for the Rapids, playing just outside the Mile-High City doesn't hurt. That's why when the Sounders warm up at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Sunday, you'll probably hear an announcement over the loud speaker warning fans to be mindful of the altitude. Nevermind that the fans probably know about the altitude -- it's all about getting in the Sounders' heads.
Being in high altitudes can indeed make it a bit harder for the body to get oxygen and players can feel tired earlier, but if altitude ends up affecting the outcome of Sunday's Western Conference final, it will probably be a psychological effect more than anything.
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Can the Rapids defense hold on?
The Rapids' road to the MLS Cup playoffs was paved with an excellent defensive record. They only scored 39 goals in 34 games this season, the fewest of any team to advance into the playoffs – and they were able to get away with it because they only conceded 32 goals on the season, the lowest in the league.
If the Rapids are going to make it to the MLS Cup, it's going to be their defense that does it again. After all, if the Sounders score just one goal on Sunday, that will force the Rapids to score at least three to guarantee a spot in MLS Cup, or score two to force an extra time period. A 1-0 win is very doable for the Rapids – it would fit their low-scoring, low-conceding style – but if the defense concedes even just one goal, it will be tough.
Can the Sounders complete the biggest turnaround in MLS Cup history?
This summer, the Seattle Sounders hit last place in the Western Conference. Today, they are one game away from their first appearance in the MLS Cup. It's surely not how anyone would've scripted it, and that's what makes it all the more amazing.
With a midseason coach firing and the team on track for their first season missing the playoffs, MLS Cup was the furthest thing from anyone's mind. But with Brian Schmetzer replacing coach Sigi Schmid and newcomer Nico Lodeiro arriving, everything came together, even as Clint Dempsey was sidelined for the season and other injuries worked their way through the squad. The Sounders have never made the MLS Cup before, and if they can do it after the wild, rocky season they had, it would surely be something special.