MLS Conference semifinal hokey pokey: Pull your second leg out
With one game oddly scheduled for last Thursday, the other three played out Sunday, MLS goes into the international break with its semifinal matchups set.
Thursday, November 2nd
#2 Seattle Sounders 2 (2-0) 0 #3 Vancouver Whitecaps
Ten days have passed since the first leg in this Cascadia Cup rivalry and I still have no idea what Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson was thinking. Actually, I know what he was thinking because, after his side intentionally parked the bus in their own driveway, the Welshman explained his odd rationale. He honestly felt it was more important not to concede an away goal than attack with the home support's backing.
How Robinson imagined it would be easier to score against Seattle south of the border, with nearly 40,000 Sounders faithful lined up against them is a mystery. Unfortunately for fans at Puget Sound's northern end, it's a mystery that will remain unsolved unless the Vancouver coach is given another chance next season and tries the same strategy again.
Robinson's approach is even more astounding when you consider Seattle's firepower. Veterans Clint Dempsey and Will Bruin feature for the Emerald green, the pair having scored 12 and 11 goals on the season respectively. Meanwhile, Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro assisted on nine goals and added seven of his own. Yes, Dempsey was more dangerous away, where he notched seven, but Bruin was just as deadly on familiar ground. All things being equal, one would have expected the Whitecaps to be more aggressive at BC Place. They were not. Predictably, they paid the price.
Seattle boss Brian Schmetzer put up no parking signs at Century Link Field. His squad dutifully went out and took the match offered them on a platter emphatically, with a 2-0 victory. It was Dempsey who did the damage, however, rather than Bruin. His brace left the 34-year-old equally formidable at home and away for the season.
The defending MLS Cup champions are two matches away from a chance to repeat. Back to back titles haven't been won since Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy managed the feat in 2011/2012.
Sunday, November 5th
#1 Toronto FC 0 (a*2-2) 1 #6 New York Red Bulls
With the more confrontational Donald Trump offset by an always effervescent Justin Trudeau, US/Canadian relations have been as cordial as ever, despite the simmering political climate below the 49th parallel. Then came the second leg between NYRB and TFC. With the visiting New Yorkers having conceded two away goals at the Red Bull Arena, they arrived at BMO Field in a testy mood.
Clashes on the pitch led to a stadium tunnel confrontation in which TFC's Jozy Altidore alleges Red Bulls playmaker Sacha Kljestan came up from behind and put him in a choke hold before the hulking center forward slammed his US national teammate against the wall. When the red mist cleared, cards of the same colour awaited the pair.
Despite the Reds carrying play, as they have done against all comers throughout 2017, the lone goal came from Bradley-Wright Phillips, who knew little about Daniel Royer's volley caroming off his thigh to wrong-foot Toronto keeper Alex Bono.
With a second New York goal threatening to turn the tie on its head, tempers continued to flare. The goal never came, but Sebastian Giovinco drew a yellow card on 80' that rules him out of the first Eastern Conference final leg against Columbus, alongside Altidore. Toronto haven't struggled to find goals against the Yellow and Black even without their two strikers. Whether they can against a Columbus side that notoriously raises its game in the post-season remains to be seen.
Sunday, November 5th
#2 New York City FC 2 (3-4) 0 #5 Columbus Crew
After falling behind 4-1 in Ohio, there would be no Barcelona-esque fightback in the second leg at Yankee Stadium for Patrick Vieira and NYCFC. The North American Sky Blues gave it their best effort and the referees appeared keen to help. It was not to be, however.
On the half-hour, Rodney Wallace conveniently tripped over Josh Williams as he tried to nick the ball away from the defender in the box. There is no evidence to suggest the league was concerned that television ratings would suffer without David Villa and company in the playoff picture. Nevertheless, a penalty was given and the Spaniard duly put it home.
Then the football gods involved themselves. On 52', Andraz Struna uncorked a long volley. Columbus center half Jonathan Mensah attempted to chest it wide, but found the near corner instead. The own goal put the match on a razor's edge for the final 38 minutes. Yet, City could not find the third goal that would have put them through. The next behemoth in the giant-killing Crew's path is Supporters Shield-winning Toronto.
Sunday, November 5th
#1 Portland Timbers 1 (1-2) 2 #4 Houston Dynamo
If Seattle is going to repeat as champion, they will have to go through one of the other three teams who have successfully defended the MLS Cup.
Houston Dynamo gave Vancouver's Carl Robinson some ammunition by going into hostile Providence Park and defeating 2016 Champion Portland 2-1, with a goalless first-leg draw at BBVA Compass Stadium in their wake. Yet, Robinson has no real argument here. The Dynamo played an open attacking style in both legs, as did Portland. The goals just didn't arrive until the second leg.
The two sides traded strikes late in the first half. Dairon Asprilla smartly dropped off his marker in the box to create space, then roofed a volley into goal. Four minutes later, Dylan Remick equalised when a cross was headed down for him to smash past Jeff Atinella. Finally, as Portland pressed for a late winner, Houston was able to strike against the run of play.
[Oh, just stop, Carl. You were wrong.]
Eric Alexander collected the ball in the center circle and quickly found Mauro Manotas. The Columbian gathered a head of steam, then unleashed a cannonball from thirty yards that a desperately stretching Atinella couldn't reach.
The Dynamo go into the Western Conference final hoping to keep holders Seattle from a rematch with Toronto that could replicate Houston's 2006/2007 MLS Cup twofer against the New England Revolution.