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MLS Semifinal Writers' Roundtable

A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 17 issue of our newsletter, The Raven. Subscribe HERE.

We are on the precipice of MLS’s semifinals. The first legs kickoff Tuesday, starting with Toronto at Columbus (8 ET, ESPN), followed by Seattle at Houston (9:30 ET, FS1). Two tasty match ups with sneaky narrative (repeats, redemption, Hurricane recovery, and the plot of “Major League” in soccer form). For a quick review of Columbus, Houston, Seattle and Toronto’s (listed alphabetically) seasons, semifinal previews, and a look at what’s at stake emotionally, we’ve enlisted four writers who have been inside the locker rooms and know these teams better than almost anyone. We give you, the Men in Blazers MLS Semifinal Writers’ Roundtable.

Columbus Crew - Andrew Erickson, The Columbus Dispatch -With 10 games to play in the 2017 season, Crew SC sat 10-12-2 and lacked the consistency of a contender. Then midfielder Federico Higuain returned to the lineup, winger Pedro Santos made his debut and center backs Josh Williams and Jonathan Mensah found their form, propelling the Crew to a 12-game unbeaten streak that stretched the last 10 games of the regular season and two playoff games. Another key player for Crew SC in this series is midfielder Justin Meram, who has been dealing with a couple nagging injuries throughout the playoff run but is vital to the Crew’s offensive success. When the 28-year-old left winger scores, the Crew is 11-0-0 this season. Crew SC isn’t known for its defensive prowess but has been carried in key games by goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who has made at least four saves in three of his last four games. The Crew held on for a 4-3 aggregate win over NYCFC in the Eastern Conference semifinals and will face Toronto FC, a team that beat Crew SC 5-0 on May 26. Toronto won two of the teams' three matchups this season. Tuesday’s game will be a sell-out, the club’s second in its last four home playoff games, not including the 2015 MLS Cup. The Crew is unbeaten in its last eight home games and hasn’t lost at Mapfre Stadium since July 1. Advancing to MLS Cup would mean a chance for the Crew to redeem itself after a disappointing loss to Portland in 2015 and a chance for supporters to attract more eyes to their efforts to save the team from relocation.

Houston Dynamo - Corey Roepken, The Houston Chronicle -The Dynamo started fast under first-year coach Wilmer Cabrera, but plateaued through the summer. The team’s lowest point occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. They were riding the high of a stirring comeback to share the points against rival FC Dallas but, three days later Harvey hammered Houston and turned everyone’s life upside down. Most of the coaching staff and front office had to evacuate their homes in between massive thunderstorms, and several players were trapped in their homes because of the rising flood waters. They had to move their training camp to Frisco for a few days before returning to play a home game against the Colorado Rapids. Not only did they lose, but they were shutout in a home game for the first time this season. They picked up steam again in the season’s final two months to get to where they are now – their seventh appearance in the conference finals in 12 seasons - thanks to exciting attacking players like Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto, Mauro Manotas and Alex Lima, as well as a team-record goal contribution from Comeback Player of the Year candidate Erick Torres. While those goal scorers got the headlines, a group of veteran defenders with a couple of sturdy young back-ups created top-notch chemistry just in time for the stretch run. The result has been one of the greatest shows of form in club history. Summer signings CB Philippe Senderos and CM Tomas Martinez have paid off, too. In this semifinal, Seattle will have a big decision to make with its fullbacks. The higher they press, the better chance the Dynamo’s speedy wingers have of finding space in the attacking third. That’s when the Dynamo are at their best. This team has been playing with house money ever since they eliminated Sporting Kansas City in the knockout round. Now that they’re two games away from the MLS Cup Final, they’re dreaming realistically of cashing in on their third championship.

Seattle Sounders - Matt Pentz, Seattle-Based Freelance Reporter - I think the thing that most sticks out to me about this Sounders season is how normal it's been. Last year was such a whirlwind, with Sigi Schmid being fired and Nicolas Lodeiro arriving midseason, dramatic lows followed by the highest of highs. 2017, in contrast, has gone pretty much to plan. No longer the interim coach, Brian Schmetzer eased his veterans back in after such a short offseason, and once things started to click in early July, Seattle has been on a steady roll. Now, it still lacks for consistent scoring, and it could use another creator. But in what has been a down Western Conference, the Sounders have had enough game-changers to edge toward the top of the fold. As far as the conference final against Houston is concerned, Seattle will like its chances. The first goal is going to be vital. Should the Dynamo strike first, it is really good at protecting a lead and attacking on the counter. If the Sounders can grab an away goal at BBVA Compass Stadium next Tuesday, though, Houston is going to have a hard time playing from behind. Lodeiro hasn't been as effective in his first full season in MLS, but the Uruguayan international still possesses a playmaking spark that Seattle otherwise lacks. Clint Dempsey hasn't forgotten what it felt like to watch Seattle win the title with him sidelined with an irregular heartbeat last December, and his two goals in the decisive leg of the conference semis hint that he's a man on a mission. Jordan Morris' injury status could play a factor -- the young forward has been out with a hamstring injury since early September and is questionable for both games of the series. A repeat championship would be warmly welcomed in these parts, but it's going to be hard to live up to the drama of the club's first. Last autumn, the Sounders finally ticked off the final box that had remained empty since they joined MLS in 2009. Now, they're just another team playing for a title. That's both good and bad -- Seattle is playing with greater freedom without the weight of its past postseason letdowns -- but it does feel slightly less weighty somehow.

Toronto FC - Kurt Larson, The Toronto Sun - From a narrative perspective, there are fears that TFC could go down as the greatest MLS team to never win an MLS championship. Will TFC’s record 69-point season even matter if it doesn’t win MLS Cup this season? Will a lack of a major trophy be something that haunts the club’s big players and management if they fall short of playoff expectations? Pressure continues to build, with media personalities standing by to laugh and point and say TFC "couldn't win the big one" again. Toronto FC added two top players to a side that already was the best in the league. Victor Vazquez has been a revelation in midfield. There isn’t another player like him in MLS right now. His vision and passing range has made Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore even more dangerous than before. Adding Chris Mavinga at the back has stabilized things further. Mavinga might be the most underrated defender in MLS right now. Can Toronto FC survive the opening leg in Columbus without its two leading scorers? Furthermore, if they don’t, will fans come back to chastise Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco for picking up silly suspensions that could cost TFC in the end? A return to MLS Cup would further legitimize the sport and league in a city that’s saturated with big time teams and athletes. Few MLS teams receive as much attention as TFC in terms of media coverage and overall interest. Capitalizing on that now is crucial to building TFC’s profile in a top sports market.