10 things we learned from the 2017 MLS Conference Semifinals

Photo credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Here are the ten things we learned from the 2017 MLS Conference Semifinals.

1. Toronto Loses Its Cool

Jozy Altidore is great player, but his conduct in the first half of Toronto’s game on Sunday against the Red Bulls was phenomenally stupid.

Whatever the particulars of the tunnel incident with Sacha Kljestan were, Altidore was so easily wound up in the first half, so willing to instigate, it was just matter of time before he ended up in the serious disciplinary trouble.

It wasn’t just Altidore. The sequence in which the forward and Kljestan first quarreled started with an ugly and completely unnecessary foul from Giovinco – who, unsurprisingly, would later draw a booking for dissent and is now suspended for the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final.

All game long, Toronto chaffed. Michael Bradley got a yellow for dissent, Victor Vazquez swung out at Tyler Adams, Greg Vanney got into it with Jesse Marsch. It was a total meltdown for the leaders of a team that had, until Sunday, faced virtually no adversity this year.

Passion is good, but that was a display of pure idiocy. The Red Bulls had everything to gain by making the game a mess, and TFC had everything to lose. Now, the Reds will go into Columbus with two of their biggest players.

If Toronto is going to lose in these playoffs, they’re going to contribute heavily to their own downfall. That process has begun.

2. US Failure Taking Its Toll?

You have to at least ask the question. Altidore and Bradley have been booed relentlessly in opposing stadiums in recent weeks, and the pressure to bring Toronto MLS Cup is immense.

We saw Altidore crack on Saturday, and we saw signs of the same from his captain teammate.

The psychological weight of the U.S.’s failure to qualify for Russia will be felt for a long time – for the soccer in this country, for the program, and especially for the players involved. We might be seeing signs of that too.

3. Red Bulls Come Up Just Short

This playoff failure won’t sting as badly as a myriad of others for the Red Bulls, but the manner of how they ended up succumbing to TFC will sting.

The Red Bulls got just about everything they needed on Sunday. They were under Toronto’s skin. They kept a clean sheet. They even got an improbably lucky opening goal. And nonetheless, they were bounced out of the playoffs again.

Bradley Wright-Phillips had the golden chance to fire New York into the East final when he went clean through on the hour mark, but his effort was meek and saved by Alex Bono.

After what transpired in the first leg, New York would have done just about anything to get their 100-goal striker a chance like that with the series on the line.

Wright-Phillips did officially get the one goal – though he didn’t know much about it – but his failure to put that chance away was in equal parts devastating and familiar. For the Red Bulls, the wait for playoff triumph stretches on.

4. The Crew March On

Don’t look now, but Columbus keeps coming up aces.

The Crew survived a nervy performance at Yankee Stadium on Sunday night to see off New York City FC 4-3 on aggregate and advance to the Eastern Conference Final – where they’ll get a suddenly shorthanded Toronto FC.

Things continue to set up perfectly for Columbus. They’ll host a Toronto team down Altidore and Giovinco in their next game, and if they win that series, they’ll host MLS Cup in December.

Team of destiny is cliché, but the Crew believe. They’re playing for much more than a championship.

5. Playoffs Sting City Again

New York City got its first playoff win on Sunday night, but it came up one goal short of overturning the 4-1 deficit it left Central Ohio with on Tuesday.

For NYCFC, the problems at the end of the season were myriad. The attacking players around David Villa went cold, the defense struggled to overcome the loss of Maxime Chanot, and the discipline in the playoffs – again – was lacking.

The second half they had in Columbus, culminating in Harrison Afful’s goal and Patrick Vieira kicking a water bottle, will knock you out of the playoffs nine times out of ten.

NYC will have Andrea Pirlo’s DP spot to play with next year, and they’ll have to battle to hang onto the likes of Yangel Herrera and Jack Harrison. If those processes go well, they should be right back here next year.

6. Wilmer Cabrera For Coach of the Year

One year removed from finishing bottom of the Western Conference, the Houston Dynamo are two games away from MLS Cup.

The Dynamo went into Portland on Sunday night and won 2-1 without four of their five backline regulars. The decisive goal? It was scored by backup fullback Dylan Remick, and set up by backup fullback Jalil Anibaba.

What Wilmer Cabrera has done with the Dynamo this year has been incredible. Houston has a maturity and grit that is well beyond its experience. All of the players who have contributed this year – and there are plenty – have proved that time and again.

A few deserve special praise. Eric Alexander, an old favorite of Thierry Henry’s, was composure defined in central midfield. His moxie on the ball worked the Dynamo out of a number of tough spots.

Equally important was Alexander’s central midfield partner Juan David Cabezas, who did an excellent job on Diego Valeri. Then there’s Phillipe Senderos, who took the armband on Sunday night and was excellent. He’s playing his best soccer in years.

Houston has come through its share of peaks and valleys, plus Hurricane Harvey, to get to this point. With nods to Vanney and Tata Martino, Cabrera should be Coach of the Year.

7. Injuries Derail Portland

Take nothing away from Houston, but here’s what Portland was dealing with injury wise during this series:

– Fanendo Adi was out long term.
– David Guzman sprained his knee on Decision Day.
– Sebastian Blanco burned a layer of skin off of his foot.
– Larrys Mabiala hurt his hip.
– Diego Chara broke his foot.
– Darlington Nagbe tweaked his hamstring.
– Roy Miller ruptured his Achilles in training.
– Darren Mattocks was concussed.
– Vytas hurt his ankle.

This wasn’t the Timbers. This was a team that relied in its season finale on the likes of Jack Barmby, Jermey Ebobisse, and Amobi Okugo. They gave it a good run, but Houston had all the daylight they needed to knock Portland out.

Had the Timbers stayed healthy, they would have won the West. They would have had too much offense for Seattle, and a defense that was good enough from August on to see that series out.

But luck is a kingmaker as much as anything else at this time of the year, and as much as it was meant to be for this club in 2015, it wasn’t meant to be this season.

8. Dempsey Still Key For Seattle

The Sounders had the third best defense in the league this year behind Sporting Kansas City and Toronto, and they’ve kept six clean sheets in their last eight games. They haven’t conceded at home in nearly two months.

The big question for Seattle then, is whether they’ll have enough offense – and that’s why Clint Dempsey, one of the best goalscorers in the history of U.S. soccer, remains vital.

The second leg of the West’s all-Cascadia semifinal on Thursday night at CenturyLink Field was Dempsey’s. His first goal, the series-winner, was sensational. His second was instinctual.

The Sounders are the favorites in the West, and, apart from the outstanding defense, Dempsey is the biggest reason why.

9. Disgrace for Vancouver

It’s impossible to overstate how badly the Whitecaps played in this series. In 180 minutes, they managed one shot on target. They

The crime of it is that the Whitecaps aren’t simply without good attackers like the Colorado Rapids were on their playoff run last year. As the five-goal outburst in the Wild Card game showed, Vancouver was plenty capable of creating offense.

That they didn’t falls on Carl Robinson, who set his team up so conservatively in both legs they hardly had a chance. Even after Clint Dempsey’s goal gave the Sounders the lead on Thursday night, Vancouver was still attacking with three players. The ‘Caps looked like a poorly, cowardly coached team.

In fact, Robinson’s management over the last month in total was bizarre. He benched longtime starting goalkeeper David Ousted, replaced Tony Tchani with a player in Nosa who made his debut on Decision Day, and continuously seemed content or downright giddy with negative results.

Under Robinson’s leadership, Vancouver is a small club. They’re not anywhere close to winning a championship.

10. Conference Championship Previews

Right now, both of these ties feel like tossups.

As great as Toronto is, karma is playing for a Columbus team that wasn’t half bad even before Anthony Precourt announced his plans to move the club to Austin.

The Crew get the first leg at home, and if they can keep the Reds – down Giovinco and Altidore – off the scoreboard, they’ve got enough offense to get the kind of scoring draw or result at BMO that could get them through.

That said, there’s every chance that Toronto could regroup and make a statement against the Crew. They’ve won without Giovinco and Altidore a number of times this season, and those two will be chomping at the bit to play in the second leg.

In the West, meanwhile, Houston has every chance of knocking out Seattle. The Dynamo are unbeaten in nine and – shockingly, considering all the injuries they’ve suffered – playing lights out defense.

The Sounders need a goal in Houston, a place where they haven’t historically played well. If they don’t get that, they could suffer the same fate as their southern rivals did last night.

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