Here are the ten things we learned from the second legs of the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Semifinals from this past weekend:
1. More Thrills
This has been an unusually good postseason so far in MLS, and with four games back-to-back-to-back on Sunday, there were plenty more thrills and spills.
There were enjoyable aspects to Red Bulls-DC game – Jon Champion, Jon Champion, and Jon Champion – and the Vancouver-Portland game – a Timbers team that is firing on all cylinders and playing some of the best soccer in the league, but it was the two matches in the middle of the day that really delivered.
The game between Dallas and Seattle played was an instant classic, somehow approaching the unapproachable levels of the Wild Card game between the Timbers and Sporting Kansas City. The balance of the tie swung four times in the final ten minutes, with penalties possibly marking the end of this Sounders team and the beginning of a Dallas reign.
There was plenty of drama out East in Columbus as well, when extra time was needed to separate the Crew and Impact. In the end, it was Kei Kamara who sent Gregg Berhalter’s team through and Montreal out.
The crowd at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus was terrific, and between a huge gate in Vancouver, a sellout at Red Bull Arena, and a raucous atmosphere in Frisco, it’s clear that the playoffs sell.
Despite the fact that the two highest paid players left in the competition are Federico Higuain and Liam Ridgewell, and the fact it’s all small-market teams in the final four, this drama has been fantastic for MLS.
All of the conference finalists this season took very different paths and overcame very different obstacles to reach this point, but all four have something in common: They are led by a young, American coach.
Oscar Pareja, Gregg Berhalter, Jesse Marsch, and Caleb Porter are the thrust of the finest managerial talent in the league and in the country – and in a week where Patrick Vieira replaced Jason Kreis as NYCFC’s manager, that’s worth noting.
All four own the success that their club has won this year. Pareja’s youth development in Dallas has been the envy of the league, Marsch’s system and spirit turned the situation in New York on its head, and Porter and Berhalter, with enthusiastic ownership backing, have developed teams and styles light-years ahead of what their clubs had before they came on board.
Watching Porter and Pareja battle in the Western finals will be especially interesting, as there’s plenty of animosity already between the two coaches and Porter has to deal with two key suspensions for the first leg, while Berhalter will have to overcome a similar challenge in two weeks time against the Red Bulls.
The bottom line is that any of these four managers would be well suited to take over the USMNT – far better suited than the current boss – and that the state of American coaching is stronger than ever.
3. Mauro Diaz
Mauro Diaz is, unquestionably, one of the league’s funnest players. Because he’s drifted in and out of Dallas’ lineup with injury over the last two years, and because Dallas always flies under the radar, most of the country is just watching him for the first time.
Sunday night against the Sounders, Diaz put on a show. His style is unparalleled across the league – while many excellent South American playmakers use pace, drive forward, and take risks, Diaz carries himself with an almost untouchable grace.
Perhaps he should take more chances – Dallas still very much lacks a killer instinct that would have seen them annihilate Seattle – but watching Diaz pull the strings is a treat. As long as he’s healthy, the Hoops won’t be out of any game.
4. Portland Makes It Look Easy
Vancouver’s first-ever home playoff game should have been an occasion to remember in British Columbia. But it wasn’t.
That’s because the Portland Timbers absolutely dismantled the Whitecaps in one of the most professionally executed aggregate series victories you could ever hope to see.
Playing on two days rest after the marathon against Sporting last week, the Timbers held Vancouver in a 0-0 draw in Portland to set up this Sunday’s 2-0 win which, in truth, was one of the Timbers’ most comfortable wins of the year.
The ‘Caps can bemoan the loss of Kekuta Manneh – which was probably the fatal blow – but even Carl Robinson acknowledged after the game that Vancouver could have played another 90 minutes and failed to score.
Portland was too good on Sunday. You get they feeling they could have pummeled the Whitecaps if they’d have wanted to, but there was no need. The Timbers’ defense is clearly one of the league’s best units, and with Diego Chara back, wrecking havoc, and even scoring goals in front of them; it’s going to be hard to beat Porter’s team. Vancouver didn’t even come close.
5. Chaos in Columbus
The Crew-Impact series promised to be a slugfest full of controversy and histrionics, and it sure delivered in the second leg in Columbus.
The Crew took the lead early through Kamara, only to see Dilly Duka score an equalizer that referee Armando Villarreal refreshingly admitted shouldn’t have counted.
From there, Kamara missed a penalty, Ethan Finley scored to send the game into extra time, and Kamara redeemed himself by scoring a majestic headed winner in the second half of the added thirty.
It was a spectacle, and for the Crew, redemption. All season, this Columbus team has been called soft – and that softness was killer in the first leg when Montreal came from behind to win 2-1, scoring the winner on a slip from Michael Parkhurst.
But in this game, the Crew hung tough. Both Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti were hardly heard from, as Parkhurst, Gastón Suaro, and Wil Trapp allowed the attackers the chance to go win the game.
For this upcoming bout with the Red Bulls, time will tell if Columbus simply conjured something for a single game or turned their team culture around. But make no mistake, that victory made the season. From here, the Crew is playing with house money.
6. An Ending in Seattle?
There were some great moments at CenturyLink Field for the Sounders in these playoffs, both in the 3-2 Wild Card win over LA Galaxy and the 2-1 Conference Semifinal first leg win over FC Dallas, but all the way through, Seattle had to battle and scrap for everything.
They needed assists from the Galaxy’s circus defense and individual brilliance from Andreas Ivanschitz and Clint Dempsey to get to Sunday night in Dallas with their season – teetering on the brink of collapse since June – alive.
But in Frisco, as it was throughout the second half of this season, Seattle looked slow. They looked motivated, but they looked old. Dallas ran circles around the Sounders, and for all that fight, there was no postponing what feels like a changing of the guard in the Western Conference.
Seattle openly acknowledged their need to win now with a group whose nucleus was first assembled in 2009, but without Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans, they didn’t have enough juice. No amount of heroism from Chad Marshall could change that.
The Sounders didn’t deserve to beat Dallas, and after knocking Oscar Pareja out of the playoffs in 2013 and 2014, that feels about right. Outside of Oniel Fisher, everyone Seattle played in Texas was at or around 30. The championship window, upsettingly enough for Sounders fans, has closed.
Seattle will replenish – probably very quickly, maybe with Sigi Schmid still at the helm – but this team will look different going forward.
7. Jon Champion!
ESPN made a brilliant call in bringing in English announcer Jon Champion to call the second leg of the New York-DC series, and Champion was as good as ever. Seemingly at ease in the unusual position of handling a MLS commentary, Champion was the most compelling part of what was a miserable series.
Viewers would have been better served had Champion been in Columbus, Frisco, or Vancouver. But regardless, it was fun having Champion involved, and a memorable quip about referee Ted Unkel and the carpet will live on.
Here’s hoping we get to hear more of Champion at the upcoming European Championships in France next summer.
8. The Dud
MLS’ Matthew Doyle said on Twitter that New York-DC might have been the ugliest two-leg series in MLS history. No one who watched both games will be willing to challenge him.
The presence of DC United at this stage of the playoffs bordered on embarrassment. Unable or unwilling to string passes together and play coherent soccer, head coach Ben Olsen mostly sat on his hands and hoped his side could somehow scrape a goal in New York and head to extra time.
Despite several decent looks, DC never came close to scoring. They only registered their first shot on goal in the series in the fourth half of play, and completed just over half their passes.
The Red Bulls, usually reliable for good soccer, weren’t free of blame. Their performance at home on Sunday was meandering and mostly aimless, with several beautiful chances going begging until Bradley Wright-Phillips finally scored in stoppage time to put the tie to bed.
To DC, it’s so long and good riddance. To truly compete for a title, they need a ton of help in the offseason. New York moves on, but they do so knowing full well that they’ll have to muster something better to beat Columbus.
9. Teams Win, Not Stars
The message is being heard loud and clear today. Big name DPs aren’t necessary for success in this league, but balanced cohesive teams who find under-the-radar talent and have players in their prime are going to be successful.
The four remaining sides have plenty in common – and the New York Red Bulls’ conversion to the style outlined above continues to be one of the best stories of the season.
10. Conference Championship Picks
FC Dallas-Portland is a toss-up, but defense is huge at this point in the year – so it’s the Timbers who have the advantage.
Defense, and consistency, is the same reason I’ll take New York to beat Columbus. The Red Bulls have been the best team all year, and they’ll have the chance to win their first MLS Cup on home soil in December.
The first stage of the playoffs is over. Now, after a week off for the international break, the business end of the tournament commences.
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