MLS Conference finals: The road to the play-offs

Houston Dynamos midfielder Tomas Martinez
Image: Houston Dynamos midfielder Tomas Martinez

The first legs of the MLS conference finals get underway on Wednesday, but which teams have made it there? And how did their road to the final unfold?

Eastern Conference

Toronto FC

Last season's Eastern Conference champions enjoyed a stellar campaign in 2017, with their September Supporter's Shield triumph securing a favourable draw as the play-offs' top seed last month. A draw with Atlanta United on the final day of the regular season secured a MLS record-breaking 69-point haul, though the Reds had to rely on the away goals to extend their season.

Goals from Víctor Vazquez and Sebastian Giovinco gave Toronto a 2-1 first-leg win over New York Red Bulls in the conference semi-finals, but though Bradley Wright-Phillips' 53rd-minute goal earned a 1-0 win, the Canadians progressed.

A win in the Eastern final would not only prolong the most successful season in the club's 12-year history, but it could also provide an opportunity for head coach Greg Vanney to set the record straight after a 5-4 defeat to Western Conference finalists Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup final.

Columbus Crew opened a three-goal advantage in the MLS play-offs as they defeated New York City 4-1 in the first leg of their semi-final

Columbus Crew

Between April and August, a dreadful run of 11 defeats from 18 left Columbus Crew within touching distance of a second successive season outside of the MLS play-off picture.

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But Gregg Berhalter's squad hit a purple patch, with an unbeaten final ten games earning a fifth-place finish in both the conference and the overall standings. When Columbus sauntered to a 4-1 victory at home to New York City in the first leg of their semi-final on Halloween, it looked as though it their journey to the final would be plain sailing. How wrong they were.

Former Barcelona striker David Villa added to his goal in the first leg with an early penalty at Yankee Stadium, before Andraz Struna struck a second eight minutes into the second-half to double the Bronx Blues' advantage, to give the retiring Andrea Pirlo hope of concluding his career with silverware. One further goal would have ensured an away-goals victory, but the Black and Gold hung on by the skin of their teeth.

MLS Conference finals schedule

Wednesday 22 November
Columbus v Toronto FC 1am – Sky Sports Football
Houston v Seattle 2.30am - Sky Sports Football

Thursday 30 November
Toronto v Columbus 12.30am - Sky Sports Football

Friday 1 December
Seattle v Houston 3.30am - Sky Sports Football

Sat 9 December – MLS Cup final
TBC v TBC 9pm

Western Conference

Houston Dynamos

Two-time MLS Cup winners in their first two seasons of existence, this is the first time Houston have given themselves a shot at the play-offs since 2013.

Dynamo finished fourth in the conference standings and were carried through the knockout round after a slim 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas, thanks to Alberth Elis' extra-time goal. Their place in the final also went right to the wire, following a goalless draw in the semi-final first leg against Portland Timbers. It was all-square at 1-1 in the second until Mauro Manotas came off the bench to fire the winner 13 minutes from time.

In four meetings between the two sides, Dynamo are yet to lose to the Sounders at the BBVA Compass Stadium, but with a win apiece in two regular season meetings this campaign, the tie looks to be wide open.

Seattle Sounders

Leapfrogged in August by LA Galaxy as the MLS's most-valuable team according to Forbes, the Sounders finished behind Houston's semi-final opponents Portland, avoiding the knockout round by just a point.

Vancouver Whitecaps were the team who fell short of the initial semi-final spot by that one point, but they trounced San Jose Earthquakes 5-0 to cement their place at the second attempt. As impressive as the thrashing was, the Whitecaps were no match for the defending champions. The two sides were locked at 0-0 after the first meeting in British Columbia, but former Premier League star Clint Dempsey's second-half double paved the way to the conference final.

The final berth not only creates an opening for a potential second successive MLS Cup victory for Brian Schmetzer and his squad, but marks the a fourth conference final in the club's last six seasons.

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