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MLS wildcards once again prove playoffs wholly different than regular season

Sunday 29th October 2017
Four midweek MLS matches produced opponents for the top two sides in each conference's semifinals while re-emphasising the gap between season and playoffs.

While the North American sports media likes to promote any competition's regular season as "setting the table" for the playoffs. the one thing the former doesn't set is precedent.

Major League Soccer is no exception. The two portions of its campaign are entirely different animals.

The regular season is a wolf. It hunts in packs, relentlessly running its victims into the ground.

Each playoff is a bear from which you can't run. It's a quick brutal fight in which a single mistake can kill an entire year's work. If you get past the first bear, another is waiting, wrapping foil and brass knuckles over its paws. As the old saying goes, sometimes a club gets the bear; sometimes the bear gets the club.

MLS Eastern Conference

Atlanta United (1) 0-0 (3) Columbus Crew [FT-pens]

More than 67,000 fans watched as the bear got their new MLS franchise at the Mercedes Benz Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. One of only two teams to score 70 goals in the 34-game regular season, United was held off the scoresheet by Crew keeper Zack Steffen. When the rangy 22-year-old from just outside Philadelphia was beaten, Atlanta's attackers were betrayed by the woodwork.

To be fair, the Crew matched United's shots off the post and crossbar with two of its own and were denied a clear opportunity when the linesman wrongly flagged Pedro Santos offside just as he completed a pass. The cruelest stroke for Atlanta came in the shootout, when they could only find the twine once, their final effort again clanging off the post. Columbus now face David Villa and NYCFC in an Eastern Conference semifinal.
In a long campaign, a skilled attack will bear much fruit. In a one-off match, though, Tata Martino's debutantes learned the truth in the proverb goals win matches, defence wins titles.

Chicago Fire 0-4 NY Red Bulls

The Red Bulls faced former captain Dax McCarty, who was traded in January following another season in which Major League Soccer's biggest club came up short in its quest for a first MLS Cup. The match represented either validation or condemnation for the Red Bull hierarchy's personnel moves.

Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan scored in the first quarter-hour to give the visitors a commanding lead.

For the next hour, the Fire battled gamely to find a way back. McCarty played a key role, nearly flicking in a corner with a header inside the six, only for Luis Robles to make a great reaction save. On 70 minutes, McCarty made that one mistake to snuff out the Fire's season, giving the ball away cheaply in midfield. New York's counter was ragged but held the numerical advantage. Just as it appeared the Fire might recover, Daniel Royer spun away from his marker to bury a shot just inside the far side-netting.
Gonzalo Veron made it four in the 88th minute. The Red Bulls will now face Supporters Shield winners Toronto FC, the reward for having vanquished their ghost.

MLS Western Conference

Houston Dynamo 1-0 Sporting Kansas City [AET]

On its face, Sporting KC's problems in the season's second half can easily be blamed on the decision to trade prolific striker Dom Dwyer to Orlando City midway through the campaign. While the quality varies, MLS is like the Premier League in that there are only so many proven goalscorers to be found. Dwyer's absence was certainly apparent early in this match when Graham Zusi's brilliant service from the right flank was wasted on a tame far post header.

For its part, Houston hasn't exactly set the league on fire in the final third. Its 57 goals were second-best in the conference but fifth overall, paling in comparison to Atlanta's 70 and Toronto's 74. No surprise, then, that this contest came down to defending.

Goalless through 90, Houston extended its late second-half push into added time. Vicente Sanchez dashed down the right flank. Nipping past his man at the last, the Uruguayan only just kept the ball in play. He then found Honduran Alberth Elis in a soft space between three SKC defenders who were all ball watching. La Panterita had the time to perform a two-step shuffle, then fired the ball inside the near post, beyond a helpless Tim Melia.
Western Conference and 2015 MLS Cup champion Portland Timbers await. Houston must hope the bear in the woods does indeed turn out to be censored .

Vancouver Whitecaps 5-0 San Jose Earthquakes

This match was a handicapper's nightmare. On the one hand, the Earthquakes were a woeful -21 in goal difference. On the other, San Jose had squeaked into the playoff with an injury time goal against Minnesota United on the season's final day, timely goals having been a season-long habit. On a third hand--just pretend you're Kali--the 'Quakes had won just three times in 17 efforts on the road. On a fourth, Vancouver were one of two teams in the playoffs without ten home victories. For the curious, the other side was the traveling Red Bulls.

Looking at the data, the Whitecaps were clear favourites. Yet, a sneaking suspicion that San Jose might pull off another stunner if Vancouver let them hang around couldn't help but creep into any punter's mind.

Vancouver didn't let the 'Quakes hang around. In the first five minutes, San Jose forced a leaping save from Stefan Marinovic off a set-piece. Warning bell sounded, the Whitecaps went to work. Just after the half-hour, a corner from the left was headed on to Fredy Montero, lurking at the back post. The Colombian headed it in for the game's first. After San Jose narrowly missed another free kick, Montero demonstrated a more effective method, curling his shot beautifully into the near upper 90 from about 30 yards, just before the hour mark. Eight minutes later, Yordy Reyna kept pumping the ball into the box until his side hammered it in. From there, Vancouver simply toyed with a San Jose XI forced to push bodies forward.
The romp sets up a Puget Sound derby between the Whitecaps and defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders.

Hunting for bear

After a season which saw Toronto and Atlanta force-feed the league positive, attacking football, only two clubs scored in the first 90 minutes of the four wildcard matches.

The Red Bulls demonstrated a will that has been lacking in previous seasons. The next test will be whether Jesse Marsch's group can continue to impose themselves on opponents. Against a loaded TFC squad, that will be difficult.

Columbus is always difficult in the post-season. This year, however, there is the added distraction of an impending move to Texas. With Patrick Vieira and David Villa lying in wait, Gregg Berhalter's Crew need to maintain their focus.

Houston also has its playoff history. This is a new era, though, with a new coach. Wilmer Cabrera will be hard put to find a way past Caleb Porter's dangerous Timbers.
The marquee pairing in the conference semifinals is inarguably Seattle and Vancouver. As the Red Bulls did in dispatching Dax McCarty and the Fire, Seattle must confront its former number ten, Fredy Montero, who displayed his quality and intent in no uncertain terms against San Jose.

If there is a week to watch MLS, this year, it's the one leading into 2017's final international break.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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