Here are the ten things we learned from the 2017 MLS Wild Card games.
1. Glory To Columbus
No one gave Columbus much of a chance on Thursday night in Atlanta.
But thanks first and foremost to a stupendous performance from young goalkeeper Zach Steffan, the Crew held the high-flying MLS debutants off for 120 minutes and then knocked them out 3-1 on penalties.
It sets up on Tuesday night what promises to be one of the most extraordinary, surreal spectacles in MLS history.
Columbus owner Anthony Precourt waited until after the Crew’s final regular season home game of the season to announce that he was pursuing a deal to move the club to Austin.
Now, though, the Crew have forced their way home. They’ll play New York City FC at all-but-condemned MAPFRE Stadium on Tuesday night in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal.
Will Precourt dare show up? The move he’s been so duplicitously seeking hasn’t happened yet. Fate still has time to intervene. For the Crew’s desperate fans, Wednesday night’s victory must have felt nearly divine.
Precourt has had his say over the last week. Now though, thanks to one of the most incredible MLS playoff victories in recent memory, the city of Columbus is going to take center stage.
2. And Heartbreak For Atlanta
It was a special, special season in Atlanta. They did this bigger and better than just about any MLS team ever has. The heartbreak they experienced on Thursday night, though, is part of the bargain.
Tata Martino will have plenty to answer to for this first heartbreak. For all he did so well this year, two career-long weaknesses – squad rotation and substitutions – came back to bite him at the end of the season.
Martino didn’t rotate his team all year, and that lack of rest showed down the stretch as the Five Stripes – frequently playing twice a week due to their back-loaded scheduled – failed to win any of their final five games.
Martino’s substitutions on Thursday night, meanwhile, were just bizarre. He put on a defender for an attacker midway through the second half, changed both of his fullbacks, and then took off the team’s primary penalty taker Josef Martinez right before the shootout.
Just as bizarre, meanwhile, was Martino’s reliance on rookie midfielder Julian Gressel – who, despite barely being able to move by the end of the game, wasn’t removed and was instead asked to take the first penalty, which he missed.
3. How Good A Game Was It?
For quality and drama, it was an all-timer. Per ESPN’s Paul Carr, Atlanta-Columbus had the most expected goals in a scoreless MLS game since at least 2012.
Throw in the largest crowd ever to watch an MLS playoff game, Michael Parkhurst’s game-saving goal-line clearance, the stakes for the Crew and the stakes in general, and you have a game that will be remembered for a long time to come.
Give Atlanta all the credit in the world. The MLS world might be jealous of all the adoration they’ve received over the last eight months, but they earned it week in and week out.
But this was the Crew’s night. Greg Berhalter coached an excellent game, and his team gave as good as it got. Columbus easily could have won the game in normal time.
Now, unbeaten in eleven, the Crew heads into a matchup with NYCFC – a team that they just played to a 2-2 draw in Queens on Decision Day. This storybook run might just be getting started.
4. Red Bulls Impress
The Red Bulls haven’t had a lot of big results go their way this season, but from the summer on, they’ve mostly been the same well-drilled, athletic, dangerous unit they were in 2015 and ’16 under Jesse Marsch.
They came into Wednesday night’s Wild Card game in Bridgeview against the Chicago Fire well rested, having been locked into the sixth seed for weeks, and they more or less ran the Fire off the field in a 4-0 rout.
If the game was a referendum on the Dax McCarty trade, the Red Bulls came away looking just alright. Sean Davis was solid in central midfield, and Tyler Adams continued his standout play at fullback.
Going forward, though, is where the Red Bulls can really hurt you. Daniel Royer has gotten healthy, Gonzalo Veron has found his feet, and Sacha Kljestan has hit his 2016 form. Bradley Wright-Phillips was amongst the goals on Wednesday night too.
The Red Bulls get one of the all-time great MLS teams in Toronto FC in the next round, but they have a puncher’s chance. As far as TFC goes, it will be a rude welcome to their Eastern Conference title defense.
5. Letdown For Chicago
The 4-0 defeat was, to say the least, a disappointing end to the Fire’s year. They didn’t look ready to play.
But the truth is that Chicago weren’t particularly good at any point during the second half. They lost seven of eight starting in July, and then lost Bastian Schweinsteiger for an uneven last two months of the season.
You want to go into the postseason playing your best soccer – as Columbus is – and the Fire didn’t do that.
In total, though, this was still a great year for Chicago. Between Schweinsteiger, the All-Star Game, Nemanja Nikolic’s Golden Boot, and the playoff appearance, the club made itself relevant again. Next season should be even better..
6. Vancouver Gets First Playoff Win in Style
The Whitecaps’ failure to lock down a top two seed in season’s final weeks had a silver lining: it meant that Vancouver got to open the playoffs with a gimme – a home game against San Jose.
It might have been just what the ‘Caps needed. This was a franchise, remember, that had scored two goals and no wins in their previous four playoff games. They could have done with some positive postseason experience.
On Wednesday night at BC Place, that’s exactly what they got. Vancouver smacked the Earthquakes 5-0, scoring four times in the second half, for their biggest win of the entire season.
Fredy Montero broke his playoff duck, new goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic played well and kept a clean sheet, Christian Techera scored a fabulous free kick, and just about everyone else contributed. It was a good night.
Vancouver has had much more success against Seattle in recent years than they have against Portland, and though the Sounders will be favored in that series, the ‘Caps will like their chances.
7. San Jose Shouldn’t Have Been Here
You likely know the numbers by now, but here they are again: San Jose finished the season with a -21 goal differential. They lost more games than they won. Their road goal differential under Chris Leitch was -24.
That’s not a playoff team. That’s a bad team.
Since Leitch took over in late June, they’d lost 5-1 at the Red Bulls, 4-0 at Real Salt Lake, 4-0 at Toronto, and 4-0 at DC United. They’d lost 3-0 at Houston and Seattle too.
Regardless of competition and regardless of the formation they played, San Jose wasn’t able to keep road games close all year. So it wasn’t a surprise, when, on the biggest stage of their season, the ‘Quakes were blown out 5-0 at Vancouver.
They might have snuck into the playoffs this year, but Leitch and GM Jesse Fioranelli have a ton of work to do to make San Jose a competitor going forward. They’re not close right now.
8. Houston Sees Off Sporting
Sporting have played some great Wild Card games in recent years. This wasn’t one of them.
As good as the Atlanta-Columbus game was, this was the polar opposite – slow, physical, and totally devoid of quality for a full ninety minutes and about twenty-nine minutes after that.
In the end, three minutes into extra time, it was Houston’s evergreen 37-year-old playmaker Vicente Sanchez who set up Alberth Elis for the game-winner to take the Dynamo into a matchup with Portland in the West semis.
That Sanchez missed a penalty with the last kick of the game was fitting. Good for Wilmer Cabrera and his team to continue a remarkable turnaround season, but the Timbers are heavy favorites next week.
9. The End For SKC?
Sporting has now lost in the Wild Card round four years in a row – at New York, at Portland, at Seattle, and this year at Houston – and again this year, they ran out of gas down the stretch.
After winning the U.S. Open Cup on September 20 and beating the LA Galaxy that weekend, Kansas City failed to win any of its last five games.
Maybe that’s Peter Vermes’ punishing pressing system talking. But the New York Red Bulls, the league’s other foremost pressing team, are showing no sings of slowing down.
More likely, it’s Sporting’s lack of quality showing. Early in the year, when most teams are trying to figure themselves and their systems out, Kansas City takes advantage. At the end of the year, when the good teams have figured it out, SKC gets caught short.
Expect big changes in Kansas this offseason. Sporting’s core is aging, and they haven’t gotten the job done since the MLS Cup win four years ago. It’s likely the end of an era.
10. Bad Crowds
Chicago drew a paltry 11,647 to Toyota Park for their game on Wednesday night. The Fire’s performance obviously didn’t help, but the stadium felt dead. It felt like an early round U.S. Open Cup game.
For Chicago, and MLS in general, these Wild Card attendance woes aren’t new. In 2012, for a similar weeknight Wild Card playoff game, the Fire drew an announced crowd of 10,923.
Those numbers tell you a couple of things. One is that MLS shouldn’t be holding its Wild Card games on weeknights – when suburban stadium locations make it that much more difficult for fans to get to games.
The other is that the league still has a ton of work to do. For all the success stories, there are clubs in big cities like Houston and Chicago who are struggling, and – by this one metric at least – have made little progress from where they were in five years ago.