MLS Conference Semifinals Preview, Leg 1

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by RYAN BRISTER

Major League Soccer’s playoffs start in earnest this weekend with the first legs of four quarterfinal ties. Of the eight remaining teams, only two—DC and Columbus—have won MLS Cup before. None of them have even reached the final since Dallas in 2010. With the Galaxy eliminated, there promises to be a very fresh champion in a month’s time.

DC United vs. New York Red Bulls, Sunday at 3 p.m. on ESPN

Across all competitions, no two MLS teams have played each other more often over the last 20 years than DC and New York. They meet in the playoffs for the second year running.

DC had to navigate a tough challenge in the knockout round on Wednesday night to get here. They fell behind early to New England, but came back to win without needing extra time. Bobby Boswell is suspended for an off-the-ball incident with Juan Agudelo in that game. Boswell has started all but one MLS game for DC over the last two years, and he came off the bench in the other. They will have to make do with an unfamiliar center-back pairing on Sunday.

Jesse Marsch led the Red Bulls to the Supporters’ Shield in his first season, thanks in large part to the league’s highest-scoring attack. Bradley Wright-Phillips “only” scored 17 goals this year, but had less of the burden on his shoulders than in 2014. Lloyd Sam bagged 10 goals, and Mike Grella was among the league’s most surprising players, with nine goals and seven assists. The spark plug for all this has been Sacha Kljestan, whose 14 goals were fourth-most in the league. The Red Bulls’ back line is young and sometimes shaky, but the high pressure they employ tends to win the win the ball back further up the field.

Previously this season: The Red Bulls have had the upper hand on the rivalry stretching back to last year’s playoffs. In the edgy atmosphere of their first home game, New York dominated DC and won 2-0. United took a 2-0 lead at RFK Stadium in April, only to watch it slip away and end in a 2-2 draw. The final game of this year’s Atlantic Cup took place at Red Bull Arena in August, and it was even more lopsided than the first meeting. The Red Bulls marked first place as their territory with a 3-0 win.

It’s hard to see DC getting much out of a second leg at Red Bull Arena, so the impetus is on them at home. They aren’t the sort of team that’s comfortable controlling possession and pushing the game, though. At the same time, the absence of Boswell presents a vulnerability that the Red Bulls will surely want to exploit while they can. Expect the visitors to have much of the ball early on, and DC to wait before pushing for a goal. United has made a habit of giving up early goals, particularly at home this year.

Portland Timbers vs. Vancouver Whitecaps, Sunday at 5 p.m. on ESPN

Speaking of old rivals, two teams from Cascadia will meet in the Western Conference semifinal.

Portland played 120 minutes and then a seemingly endless shootout on Thursday night, so it will be interesting to see if tiredness shows up against Vancouver. Another mystery is the health of Diego Chara, who left their final regular season game and did not play against Kansas City. That’s not a question Caleb Porter would like to have heading into an important game. One thing we do know is that they will have a raucous, sold-out crowd in support.

Part of that crowd will be clad in white and blue, traveling down from Vancouver to

Previously this season: Not much has separated Portland and Vancouver in three games this season. At BC Place in March, Robert Earnshaw’s stoppage time goal gave Vancouver three points—which would prove vital in the tight Western Conference at the end of the year. Darlington Nagbe had a penalty go off the post (just one post) in a scoreless draw a month later. Their most recent meeting was in July, a 1-1 draw at Providence Park.

Vancouver posted the best away record in MLS this season, in part because they naturally play best on the counter. Kekuta Manneh needs space in front of him to run into. The absence of Chara is particularly important because he very rarely loses the ball in dangerous areas that can lead to a counter. Going forward, the question for Portland will be whether they can turn chances into goals against David Ousted, one of the league’s best goalkeepers.

Montreal Impact vs. Columbus Crew SC, Sunday at 7 p.m. on Fox Sports 1

Columbus’ reward for finishing second in the East is a date with red-hot Montreal.

Of the four teams who played in midweek, Montreal had the easiest go of it. They thumped Toronto before halftime, and didn’t need to stress themselves too much in the second half. The Impact have been a changed team since Didier Drogba took the field, and not just because he can’t stop scoring goals. Drogba’s presence frees up space for their playmaker, Ignacio Piatti, who opened the scoring Thursday. Piatti had two assists to Drogba in their final regular season game. This is a team that appears very dangerous right now.

Montreal will host Columbus, who have been dangerous for much of the season. Kei Kamara was tied for the league lead in goals, but he’s not the only bit of attacking talent for the Crew. Ethan Finlay amassed 12 goals and 13 assists, and Columbus’ fullbacks were constantly pushing forward to provide Kamara with service. Frederico Higuain is to the Crew what Piatti is to the Impact. At the other end, the Crew have the leakiest defense of any team remaining in the playoffs, a fact that must make Drogba salivate.

Previously this season: Montreal won against Columbus both home and away during the regular season; they are the only team who can say that about their semifinal opponent. Jack McInerney opened the scoring in June; he was a visitor with the Impact at the time but now wears yellow. Montreal won 2-1, the first away win of Frank Klopas’ tenure. Former Crew forward Dom Oduro scored twice in a 3-0 victory in July.

There is every reason to expect goals when Columbus and Montreal meet. Both teams have plenty of creative and finishing talent, and defenses that lag behind their attacking prowess. Columbus’ midfield might be enough to establish an edge in possession, but I expect this to be a back-and-forth affair.

Seattle Sounders vs. FC Dallas, Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on Fox Sports 1

In another repeat of one of last year’s semifinals, Seattle and Dallas will face off.

Cascadia’s other team might, just might, be building up steam at the right time. The Sounders are undefeated in their last ten games in all competitions, and finally found a way past the Galaxy on Wednesday night. With their traditional kryptonite out of the way, would you bet against a team with Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins in good health? Injuries, not quality, has been the problem for Seattle this year. One lingering one has Osvaldo Alonso a doubt for the game against Dallas.

Dallas has more than a little motivation heading into this one. Seattle eliminated FCD a year only on away goals after draws in both legs. And while Dallas was the West’s best team in the regular season, the struggles of teams like Seattle and LA have garnered more national attention. Here is a chance on national television for Dallas to prove that they are as good as their record suggests. Young talent like Mauro Diaz and a bevy of homegrown players have a chance to emerge as starts with success in the upcoming month.

Previously this season: In March, Seattle and Dallas played a game most notable for not having a single shot on goal. Dempsey, Martins, and Diaz were all absent for that one. The 3-0 Sounders victory at CenturyLink Field was not as lopsided as the scoreline would suggest. The game was scoreless at halftime, with Dallas having gotten the better opportunities. But Seattle took the lead early in the second half and added a couple late goals as insurance.

Dallas and Seattle both do their best work on the counter, which can lead to stunted games when they face off. It will be interesting to see who takes control of the ball and who opts to parry. If Alonso isn’t available, I think Dallas will handle possession and go right at Andy Rose. Mauro Diaz could enjoy himself in that scenario.

 

  • Justin

    Red Bulls 3 DC United 0
    Timbers 0 Whitecaps 0
    Impact 2 Crew 1
    Dallas 2 Sounders 1