Columbus Crew vs. New York Red Bulls
Red Bulls player to watch: Ronald Zubar
Zubar was forced to step up in place of starting center-back Damien Perrinelle against DC United a couple weeks ago, and did a better job than originally assumed while helping the Red Bulls to a hard-fought victory over DC.
Now he has to face the dangerous Crew attack, which features goalscoring upstart Kei Kamara and expert midfield distributor Federico Higuain, as well as a pair of constantly overlapping fullbacks and creative wingers. The constant crosses sent in by Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram are a challenge for any center-back to deal with.
The sturdiness of his partner in central defense, Matt Miazga, certainly helps, but he remains crucial to the New York backline. Whether or not it breaks relies on the ability of Zubar to deal with the always-potent attack.
Crew player to watch: Wil Trapp
The signature of the Red Bulls' Supporters' Shield-winning team was its high-pressing, overwhelming central midfield. Featuring Dax McCarty, Felipe, Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella, among others, the midfield is why Jesse Marsch's side had so much success.
That's why the Crew need to combat this first and foremost if they are going to win the Eastern Conference. The key to doing this is Wil Trapp.
Being the main passer out of the back for Columbus (in other words, he's the one who gets it to the offensive talent), Trapp can't fall victim to the same thing his team seceded to the last few times they faced the Red Bulls: an inability to get past the midfield and into the final third. Distributing the ball to the talent up front is paramount to the Crew's success.
Portland Timbers vs. FC Dallas
FC Dallas player to watch: David Texeira
Dallas are pretty solid in every facet of the game, but if you had to pick out one weakness, it would be at forward. David Texeira, the incumbent starter at the position, has scored six goals this season, just one against a team currently in the playoffs; that club was the Crew, who employed a leaky defense pre-Gaston Sauro.
It's important to note that Texeira will almost certainly be subbed off at some point (he has played a full 90 minutes only three times in 22 games this season), meaning either Tesho Akindele or Blas Perez will enter.
Even though he probably won't go the full distance, Texeira needs to accomplish something in this match. If he scores, it means it was a good day for Dallas; all six of his goals this year came in a win.
Timbers player to watch: Fanendo Adi
Another number-nine, Adi plays a much different role than Texeira. The Nigerian has been the focal point of the Timbers offense these last couple of months; at first glance it may seem like Darlington Nagbe played that role, but truthfully, it's Adi that has been huge in the goalscoring department.
That's not to take anything away from Nagbe, who has been sensational, but Adi's strong hold-up play and flick-ons have opened the door for a lot of the goals Portland has scored. The problem is, the main targets for the flick-ons, Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace, are both out due to yellow-card accumulation.That means Adi will have to either use guys like Will Johnson and Lucas Melano or play like Kenwyne Jones of Trinidad and Tobago and use his physicality for his own goals.
If he can bully defenders and put the ball in the net like he has been able to do for a lot of the season, the Timbers could come up with a huge road win in the first leg.