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MLS Conference semifinal hokey pokey: Put your first leg in

Wednesday 1st November 2017
Sunday through Tuesday, the first legs in the four MLS conference semifinals took place. Here's a quick review for each seeded fixture.

Sunday



Western Conference

#3 Vancouver Whitecaps 0-0 #2 Seattle Sounders



To be fair, only two franchises averaged better than two goals per match across the 34-game regular season. Toronto FC scored 74, Atlanta United 70. No one else approached the required 68 goals. Expecting 52-goal Vancouver to replicate its 5-star performance against San Jose in the wildcard round would therefore define the word unrealistic. They could go scoreless in both halves of this tie and still post a better scoring average than over the regular season.

Still, the paying fan came to BC Place expecting them to try against Puget Sound rival Seattle Sounders. Coach Carl Robinson had other ideas.

It was important we didn't concede today. In two-legged ties, conceding at home is a no-no. I learned that years ago. That was the mindset.

Does Robinson think it will be easier to attack in Seattle with 40,000+ fans in emerald green hurtling abuse at his squad? Yes, it's dangerous to concede an away goal in the first leg. That's something to worry about after securing an advantage, however. This is the same team owned by retired NBA point guard Steve Nash, who carved a Hall-of-Fame career from letting it all hang out. You don't park the bus at home. You just don't. Robinson has essentially said his side will defend for 210 minutes, then gamble their season on penalties. Pathetic.
Sounders came into the match rested after a first-round bye. Untested after Vancouver failed to register a shot on target at home, Brian Schmetzer's MLS Cup holders are in the cat bird's seat for the return leg on Thursday.

Monday



Eastern Conference

#6 New York Red Bulls 1-2 #1 Toronto FC



Jesse Marsch's Red Bulls left themselves with no option but to attack. The faux-New Yorkers fell behind in the eighth minute at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. Jozy Altidore nutmegged Damien Perrinelle, then outran him to the touchline, sending a low whizzing cross into the six-yard box. The usually reliable Luis Robles parried the ball to the top of the eighteen. Victor Vazquez collected it. The 30-year-old Catalan then made no mistake, coolly positioning himself to shoot, then blasting it into the side netting to give TFC the lead.

The Red Bulls fought back. In first-half injury time, Bradley Wright-Phillips hacked a defender while fighting for possession, then went down easily himself. Daniel Royer converted the penalty to level terms.

Unfortunately, all New York's hard work was undone by yet another piece of magic from Sebastian Giovinco. The diminutive Italian mimicked Wright-Phillips, flopping just outside the penalty area to earn a free kick. Then he buried it.
It's not as though the Red Bulls hadn't seen footage in which Giovinco curled in the same ball. It's not as though they weren't prepared. Robles set up his wall to make it difficult for the former Juventus man to get the ball up and down. Michael Murillo peeled off to try to get a head to it. Robles scrambled madly back across goal to cover. The ball was just inch perfect. Five foot, four inch, to be exact.

Toronto head home up a goal and in possession of two monumental away goals. Greg Vanney's mission to give his squad a second consecutive crack at the MLS Cup is progressing according to plan. Step two comes Sunday.

Western Conference

#4 Houston Dynamo 0-0 #1 Portland Timbers



Another Dilbert scoreline. This time, it wasn't for lack of effort. Both teams attempted nine shots and put two on target.

Houston may have even come away with a slight edge were it not for video review. Larrys Mabiala took down Alberth Elis to the left of goal with a sliding scissor tackle. His lead foot appeared to reach the ball before he clipped down the Honduran. Outside the box, such follow-through is frequently designated as a foul. Given a second look, match official Robert Sibiga elected to leave the game in the player's hands.
On the one hand, I agree. The players should decide the outcome. On the other, a converted penalty might have opened the match a little more, making for better entertainment.

The clubs head to Portland for a winner take all ninety minutes on Sunday.

Tuesday



Eastern Conference

#5 Columbus Crew 4-1 #2 New York City FC



Despite turmoil surrounding a possible move to Austin, Texas, Columbus Crew gave home fans at MAPFRE Stadium everything they could ask in manhandling 10-man NYCFC.

Ole Kamara scored early, as Columbus swarmed the final third, sweeping home a parried save from Sean Johnson. David Villa attempted to answer for New York. He shot wide on one attempt then hit the post after isolating Crew keeper Zack Steffen.

The entire match turned, however, when Alexander Callens elbowed Justin Meram in the face while battling for position in the box. Video review led to Callens being sent off. Columbus took full advantage, scoring two more.

Meram gained revenge bouncing a low shot under Sean Johnson, who should have made the save. Overall City's defence was ragged and desperate throughout the period they were disadvantaged. Villa gave City hope with a 78th-minute strike but Harrison Afful scored in added time to make their task on Sunday at Yankee Stadium monumental.
Villa's away goal will help, but scoring three while keeping a clean sheet themselves against this Crew team that traditionally raises its game for the playoffs is a very difficult proposition.

Columbus seems intent on an MLS Cup run in what could be its penultimate season in Ohio. Of course, another title might just be enough to convince politicians who think young people don't vote to pony up to keep the club where it is.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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