Decision Day: Four teams vie for two places in MLS conference finals

New England schemer Lee Nguyen and Columbus playmaker Federico Higuain will both have parts to play in their meeting on Sunday. 

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Eastern Conference semifinal: New England – Columbus

New England leads 4-2 on aggregate, Sunday, 5:00p.m. ET

The home side enters the return leg at Gillette Stadium in commanding position. Columbus needs to score a minimum of three goals in order to harbor any chance of booking a place in the Eastern Conference final against New York. It is a tall order in any circumstances, but the magnitude of the feat is exacerbated by the Revolution’s demonstrated proficiency on the break.

It is a strength the Revs plan to use during this second leg. New England isn’t a side content with shutting up shop. This match — particularly with Columbus expected to commit numbers forward in a bid to close the deficit — will provide plenty of opportunities to counter. The onus will fall on the Revs to choose them wisely, according to coach Jay Heaps.

“There’s no team I know of that wants to go onto the field and sit back for the first 15-20 minutes,” Heaps said. “Both teams are going to be going forward, both teams are going to be pushing. You prepare as if anything, but I think they’ll be more advanced in certain areas. We have to take advantage of that. I like our chances if the game does get open, if there are opportunities for us going the other way.”

If one or two of those opportunities fall in favor of the Revolution, then the tie is all but settled. Columbus must figure out a way to attack prudently in the early stages and survive those inevitable forays. Reckless abandon will have its place at some stage, but the Crew must maintain its composure long enough to construct a viable route back into the series. Only then can this group construct a platform sturdy enough to mount a staggering comeback.

"We can improve on everything," Crew defender Michael Parkhurst told the club’s official website. "Luckily, we scored a couple goals, so we’ve given ourselves a chance, but it’s going to take a perfect game. That’s the situation that we’ve put ourselves in. By no means do we think that we are out of it, but we also know that it is a huge task in front of us. We’ll be ready to give it our full effort.”

Western Conference semifinal: LA Galaxy – Real Salt Lake

Series tied 0-0 on aggregate, Sunday, 7:30p.m. ET

Both teams exhibited the expected caution during a competitive and tight first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium. Real Salt Lake enjoyed the better of the fare on the night by limiting the Galaxy’s ability to play between and through the lines, but the home side failed to find a way through Jaime Penedo and secure a tangible advantage to take back to Carson.

RSL will not fear this particular trek, though. Jeff Cassar’s side is the only visiting team to triumph at StubHub Center this year. The circumstances here offer further encouragement about the rewards ahead if RSL can snatch a goal and take the initiative in the tie along with it.

Landon Donovan and the Galaxy must hold off Kyle Beckerman and Real Salt Lake to advance to the Western Conference final.

“It would be fantastic,” RSL coach Jeff Cassar told MLSsoccer.com. “Obviously, a goal early would really put the pressure on them to open up, and then you can always sneak one more. And that’s always a good thing. There’s going to be a lot of chess play when it gets toward the end of this game, whether we’re up one, whether we’re losing by one. There’s going to be definite moves to be made within this game and we’ll see how it unfolds.”

It is not beyond them. This Galaxy outfit relies on its deft combination play, its overlapping fullbacks and its work in possession to carve open the opposition. Those tactics have not worked in the past two matches (the season-ending 2-0 defeat at Seattle, plus the first leg draw in Sandy), but Galaxy manager Bruce Arena said he believes his side will sort things out in time to advance.

“I think we’re fine,” Arena told LAGalaxy.com. “No concern at all. We just played four playoff games in a row, so the games are a little bit different against teams that have taken a fairly defensive approach. That’s not to say that’s what Salt Lake did, but we’re fine. We’re going to be fine.”