Here are the 10 things we learned from the first legs of the Major League Soccer conference semifinals.
1. Having fun yet?
For the four teams that advanced through the initial knockout round– and one in particular – there was hardly time to breathe before the conference semifinals started on Sunday. That, plus this being a two-legged series instead of a one-game playoff reduced the drama of the weekend’s action. Still, there was plenty of excitement, and, at a minimum, there’s everything to play for in three of the four series.
The first legs on the conference semis are usually the most subdued of the playoff games. From here, the pressure gets ratcheted back up again.
2. Seattle saves itself
At halftime of the first leg of their tie with FC Dallas at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders appeared to be in serious, serious trouble. Down 1-0 at home, haggard, injured, old, and fatigued, Seattle’s back was against the wall in a way it never was against the LA Galaxy on Wednesday – a game the Sounders never once trailed.
But Seattle responded. They did so thanks to Andreas Ivanschitz, the Austrian winger who is finding his feet in MLS, and a tactical switch which brought on Nelson Valdez to play with Obafemi Martins and moved Clint Dempsey wide.
It was individual brilliance – first Ivanschitz’s run and finish, and then Dempsey’s free kick – that won the game, but the Sounders’ ascendency in the match’s final half-hour wasn’t accidental. This team has now won back-to-back games over tough competition without Osvaldo Alonso, and then without Alonso and Brad Evans, and now belief is starting to build.
Sigi Schmid has certainly shored up his prospects for employment next season, even with Jason Kreis on the open market, and he has acknowledged openly that this might be the last chance for the Sounders’ current core group of players.
If it is, they’re not going down without a fight. This is Seattle’s seventh playoff run, and many of their players – including, first and foremost, Zach Scott, who put in a terrific shift on Sunday – know the drill. Seattle isn’t the perfect machine they were last year, or early this year, but they’re playing gutsy soccer right now.
It sure looks like we’re headed towards a Timbers-Sounders derby with a trip to MLS Cup on the line, doesn’t it? With Seattle winning their first leg, and Portland getting a more-than-satisfactory 0-0 draw against Vancouver, the odds are more favorable that North America’s best club rivalry will get it’s biggest stage yet.
For neutrals everywhere, it’d be something to savor. For partisans, it would be close to unbearable. This is the matchup everyone outside of Dallas and Vancouver is most likely rooting for. It’d be one of the best shows in league history.
Vancouver-Seattle wouldn’t be bad either, of course, and as if there wasn’t enough for Cascadia to be smug about, it should be pointed out that all of the Northwest teams are still playing in the Western Conference. Only one of the conference’s seven other teams is.
4. DC United should be embarrassed
DC United was historically bad in on Sunday, becoming the first home team in MLS playoff history not to register a single shot on goal. They only completed 54 percent of their passes, easily the worst mark in any league game this year.
The odds were never in DC’s favor against the Red Bulls without Bobby Boswell, Chris Pontius, and Davy Arnaud – and that’s operating under the assumption that the series isn’t a mismatch anyway – but that effort was especially abysmal. That DC only lost 1-0 on a set piece goal from Red Bull captain Dax McCarty shouldn’t serve as much consolation. United now has to win in Harrison, N.J., next Sunday, and, obviously, you can’t win in the playoffs with such an anemic and ugly attack.
Ben Olsen has gotten plenty out of this team in the last two years, but there’s simply no way DC is getting anywhere big with their current system and crop of players. The team should be embarrassed by its display on Sunday. It wasn’t befitting of one of the league’s most storied clubs.
5. Does Dallas have a killer instinct?
FC Dallas’ attacking trio of Fabian Castillo, Mauro Diaz, and Michael Barrios could go pretty much anywhere they wanted to Sunday night in Seattle, but they only put up one goal and were left watching helplessly as the Sounders battled back to a 2-1 win and take control of the series.
To put it simply, Dallas wasn’t ruthless enough in the first leg. Their speed had the Sounders’ defense – playing without Alonso and Evans – reeling, but far too often, heavy touches, careless passing, and a lack of urgency killed promising attacks.
Dallas is clearly capable of the sensational – see Fabian Castillo’s opening goal – but they need to take greater advantage of their opportunities. Clint Dempsey buried his, and that’s why Seattle is on top in the series.
If Dallas goes out, it won’t be because they didn’t have the talent to beat Seattle. It’ll be because they use it well enough.
6. Is Columbus too soft?
It’s been a theme all year for the Crew, and it struck again on Sunday afternoon in Montreal as Columbus blew a 1-0 lead in dramatic fashion. The decisive moment and exclamation point on their defeat was Michael Parkhurst going down and letting in Johan Venegas for the game-winner, but that play was one of many that spelt the downfall of Gregg Berhalter’s team.
After starting very brightly and taking the lead through Federico Higuain, the Crew faded quickly. Mentally, they appeared to come apart. Gaston Sauro couldn’t lay off fouling and bickering with Impact players and easily could have been sent off, Steve Clark made several questionable calls in goal, and the team got nothing from their substitutes.
This was a big chance for the Crew. Montreal looked slightly subdued after their big Thursday victory over Toronto, and Didier Drogba, for all his shenanigans, was mostly a non-factor.
To be clear, Columbus still has every chance to win the series. They got an away goal, and will be confident enough in their ability to beat the Impact at home. Still, this team is hard to get a read on. They’re always found lacking when the going gets tough, and in the playoffs, the going is almost always tough.
7. Does Vancouver have a prayer?
Columbus let their game slide, but the Whitecaps missed a major opportunity of their own in a different way on Sunday in Portland in a 0-0 draw.
The Timbers team that Vancouver played was clearly exhausted from the historic and heroic exploits on Thursday night in the knockout round game against Sporting Kansas City. Of Portland’s 10 starting field players, seven played the full 120 minutes against Sporting ,and the others were subbed off after 83, 97, and 105 minutes, respectively. To add to the situation, starting goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey missed the game with the flu, and Diego Chara was a scratch as well. But the Whitecaps never threatened the Timbers, with Portland dominating much of the game, and a spectacular effort from David Ousted and his right post were the only things keeping the tie within reach for Vancouver.
With Pedro Morales and Mauro Rosales working their way back from injury, the Timbers’ excellent defense was rarely threatened. If Carl Robinson decides to start either of those skill players at BC Place next weekend, all kinds of space will open up for Chara and Darlington Nagbe to attack.
This doesn’t look good for the ‘Caps. They need to win outright on Sunday, but they’ve only ever beaten the Timbers once at home, and they’ve never shut them out. Caleb Porter has ever reason to be confident.
8. Thumbs up for the referees
After the Mark Geiger debacle in DC opened the playoffs, PRO has bounced back and had a good showing thus far. While Ronald Zubar should have been sent off in the first game last Sunday, the fact that there have been no red cards and no suspensions thus far in the tournament reflects well on the officiating.
Mostly, referees have done a good job keeping intense games under control. Look for the A-list refs to get assignments next weekend and the trend to continue.
9. The major injury
It always sucks to see players go down with major injuries, but it especially sucks at this time of the year. Unfortunately, the Red Bulls’ Damien Perrinelle appeared to badly hurt his knee in the New York–DC game, and he could be out long term.
Hopefully, Perrinelle’s prognosis is good and he plays a further part in New York’s season, but if the Frenchman is out, the complexion of the Eastern Conference bracket changes. Perrinelle to Zubar is a huge downgrade. Massive. Perrinelle has been great this season next to Matt Miazga, and those two have made a defense that has a major hole at Sal Zizzo’s fullback position look pretty damn good.
If Zubar plays, that advantage goes away, and either Kei Kamara or Didier Drogba gets a lot more chances. Considering that both Montreal and Columbus can score, Perrinelle’s status is the story to watch in the East.
In the East, Montreal draws Columbus 2-2 and goes through. New York downs DC 3-0 and moves on decisively.
In the West, Seattle gets a 1-1 draw and knocks out an Oscar Pareja team for the third year running. Portland beats Vancouver 2-0 at BC Place.
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