MLS Conference Semifinals Leg 1 Preview

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by RYAN BRISTER
Staff Writer

With Major League Soccer’s knockout round over and done with, the two-legged ties begin. For the first time this year, MLS is using the away-goals rule, which is the source of some controversy. If it had been in place last year, New York would have won their tie against Houston. The rule puts pressure on the home sides in the first leg—the lower seeds—to put forth a good defensive performance.

Columbus Crew vs. New England Revolution, Saturday at 4 p.m. on Univision Deportes

Those who wish to watch this game in English will be able to do so locally or for free on MLSSoccer.com

New England enters the playoffs with the best form in MLS: 9-1-1 over their final 11 regular season games, and many people have them as the hip pick to win the Eastern Conference. After an eight-game losing streak in the summer, Jay Heaps found a way to turn around the fortunes in Foxboro, bringing them to the playoffs for the second year in a row. The signing of Jermaine Jones grabbed the headlines, but the Revolution are powered in truth by Lee Nguyen. His 18 goals on the season are the most for a midfielder in MLS, and they’ve been especially useful to a Revs’ side whose forwards have often struggled. 19-year-old Diego Fagundez has been the most prolific of those forwards with five goals, but that’s a sharp dropoff from the 13 he scored a season ago.

The last time the Revolution lost, it was in Columbus against the Crew. Columbus is on a good run of their own, going 6-1-1 to finish the season, and naturally that one loss was in New England. It’s the Crew’s first trip to the playoffs since 2011, and they’ve accomplished it in the absence of any outright stars. Ethan Finlay and Frederico Higuain lead the team with 11 goals and seven assists; Finlay has done so on fewer shots and without taking penalties. Higuain serves as the point in midfield, playing in front of the staunch duo of Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani. In defense, Tyson Wahl has filled in quite nicely since the sale of Giancarlo Gonzalez, as part of a center-back pairing with Michael Parkhurst.

Previous matches:

All three games have been evenly matched so far, but there were no draws. Columbus provided the final loss of New England’s eight-game skid when the two met in Foxboro in late July. Ethan Finlay scored the winner in the 84th minute after getting in behind the back line. Frederico Higuain’s free kick was the only goal of the game in Columbus on Sept. 20, and Steve Clark made a huge save to preserve the win. New England finally got the edge at home two weeks later, with Jones heading in a bouncing free kick for the winner. The game was contentious; seven yellow cards were handed out, and Waylon Francis was sent off.

What to watch for:

The battles in midfield. Both teams rely on their midfielders and typically set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. 21-year-old Wil Trapp will have his hands full trying to close down Lee Nguyen, who presents a threat to score or assist from distance. On the other side of the ball, Trapp likes to spread the ball around from deep, but most of Columbus’ creative work is handled by Higuain, who will be faced off against Jones. Higuain has two goals against the Revs this year, both from free kicks.

Real Salt Lake vs. LA Galaxy, Saturday at 8 p.m. on NBCSN

Real Salt Lake are  back in the playoffs, as always. For the second straight year, they’ll face LA in the conference semifinals. But it hasn’t all been business as usual for RSL. Jeff Cassar has taken over as head coach for Jason Kreis, who left after 7 seasons to take command of NYCFC. On the pitch, 22-year-old Joao Plata has come into his own, with thirteen goals on the season. He was vital during the injury absence of Alvaro Saborio. But RSL’s success has stemmed largely from one of the league’s best defenses, and that’s where stability has reigned. Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Chris Schuler, Tony Beltran, and Chris Wingert have all been with the club since at least 2010.

The Galaxy haven’t won in their last three games, but then Dallas and Seattle aren’t easy. Over the course of the season, the Galaxy were often the best team in MLS, and their goal difference dwarfs the rest of the league. The trio of Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, and Gyasi Zardes combined for 45 goals and 35 assists, a better output than many entire teams. Against most opponents, LA dominates possession, thanks to the less-heralded work of midfielders like Marcelo Sarvas and Stephen Ishizaki. This possession, in addition to fueling their attack, helped the Galaxy defense allow the fewest goals in MLS. Bruce Arena will be very upset if his team isn’t lifting the MLS Cup in December.

Previous matches:

LA and RSL haven’t played since July 12th, and the two sides have split their three games with a win, a draw, and a loss for each. RSL took a 1-0 win from the StubHub Center on the opening night of the season, thanks to Joao Plata’s late goal. Saborio and Keane traded first-half goals in Utah two weeks later, in a 1-1 draw. Gyasi Zardes scored the lone goal in LA’s 1-0 win in July. The Galaxy are a much better team than they showed in March.

What to watch for:

Kyle Beckerman stopping the service. RSL uses a diamond midfield, which has Kyle Beckerman sitting in front of the back four. His task will be to close down the Galaxy midfielders and prevent them from playing passes into the feet of Keane and Zardes. If he can’t, it will be a long night for Nick Rimando.

New York Red Bulls vs. DC United, Sunday at 4 p.m. on Univision Deportes

A year removed from a historically bad season, DC United finished 2014 with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Ben Olsen will almost certainly win MLS Coach of the Year for his part in the turnaround, but he’s not the only one deserving of credit. New signings Fabian Espindola, Luis Silva, and Chris Rolfe have all contributed to shoring up DC’s attack, which was so miserable in 2013. On defense, the additions of Bobby Boswell from Houston and Steve Birnbaum from the draft have produced a back line that has allowed the fewest goals in the East. About the one constant from 2013 is Bill Hamid, who has emerged as one of the USA’s best young keepers.

On their fifth try, the Red Bulls won a playoff game in Harrison. After coming back to knock out Sporting Kansas City on Thursday night, the New York will now have their fifth try to win a playoff round against DC. If they win on Sunday, the Red Bulls will have their first three-game winning streak of an inconsistent 2014 season. They boast the obvious threats of Thierry Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips, but can the defense hold up? They’ve been better since Mike Petke went with both Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander in front of the back four in September.

Previous matches:

In April, Davy Arnaud scored in the 4th minute and New York couldn’t find the target. Bill Hamid stood tall and two second-half goals gave DC a 2-0 home win in late August.  The Red Bulls’ only goal against DC this season came late on September 10th. Mark Geiger gave out a controversial red card to Espindola in the first half, but New York couldn’t break through until Lloyd Sam’s 90th minute winner.

What to watch for:

Bradley Wright-Phillips vs. Bill Hamid. BWP will find a yard of open space with a chance to score on Sunday. That’s what he does. Can he put the ball past Hamid and into the back of the net? He’s yet to do it this season, despite 10 shots in three appearances against DC. If United gets a positive result at Red Bull Arena, Hamid will almost certainly have played a big role.

FC Dallas vs. Seattle Sounders, Sunday at 9 p.m. on ESPN2

FC Dallas are in the semifinals thanks to a controversial handball penalty in their knockout-round win over Vancouver. Tesho Akindele scored against the Whitecaps, and along with Blas Perez, he’ll provide a scare to Seattle’s back line. Dallas likes to attack on the counter; they had the 4th-least possession in the league during the regular season. Against the Sounders, they won’t expect to have much of the ball, so the pressure is on Walker Zimmerman and Matt Hedges to step up against one of MLS’s most-deadly attacks.

For Seattle, there’s just one trophy left to claim. The Sounders have already joined the 2003 Chicago Fire as the only teams to win both the Supporters’ Shield and the US Open Cup in the same season. The Fire made it all the way to MLS Cup before losing to San Jose, can Seattle complete the treble? Last year, Clint Dempsey never fully meshed with the Sounders; this year, he and Obafemi Martins have been a dynamic duo. Martins had 17 goals and 13 assists in the regular season, and now has a contract extension. If Seattle falls short, it’ll probably be because of a defense that has allowed 50 goals on the season. The Red Bulls are the only other playoff team to have allowed that many.

Previous meetings:

Eight yellow cards were handed out, and Seattle came back to win 3-2 on the road in April. Clint Dempsey scored the winner in the 85th minute, after a Dallas own goal leveled the game at two goals apiece. In May, it was another comeback for the Sounders. Michel’s penalty gave Dallas an early lead, but Lamar Neagle and Kenny Cooper scored second-half goals to turn the result around. Dallas finally stood up to the Sounders in September. Neagle equalized in the 58th minute, but David Teixeira and Blas Perez put the game away for Dallas.

What to watch for:

Fabian Castillo vs. DeAndre Yedlin. This is what they call a track meet. We all know about Yedlin and what his pace can provide from right back, but Castillo is capable of matching him step for step. If Yedlin and the Sounders are pushing forward in pursuit of a goal, Castillo will give Dallas a quick outlet on the counter.