With two playoff rounds down, only two matches stand between the remaining teams and an MLS Cup final. Only the New York Red Bulls cruised through their league quarterfinal matchup, though, and the conference finals should be even tighter than the previous series.
The league regular-season champion Red Bulls won both legs over D.C. United by 1-0 scores, holding their opponent to two shots on target across 180 minutes. Top Western Conference seed FC Dallas had a harder time against the Seattle Sounders, taking them to a penalty shootout on Sunday and prevailing after a wild ending to regulation.
The Columbus Crew scored in extra time to defeat the Montreal Impact, 4-3 on aggregate, while the Portland Timbers won 2-0 on the road to take their series against the Vancouver Whitecaps by the same tally. The Whitecaps became the only team to lose against a lower-seeded opponent in the 2015 postseason.
Based on the Supporters’ Shield standings, only Portland cannot host the final. Among the semifinalists, Columbus and Dallas have hosted a final in the past, though neither home team participated in the predetermined neutral-site games.
The highest-spending teams are out, so it’s no surprise that the four remaining franchises are probably the best overall teams in the league. Those that spend only in certain areas on big-name Designated Players normally end up with an obvious imbalance to exploit, but these teams have largely avoided those issues.
Here’s an early first look at how the conference finals break down:
FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers
All four remaining teams have unique identities, but FC Dallas’ is one of the more intriguing in the entire league. Manager Óscar Pareja used to be director of player development for the club, and he’s carried that same focus on youth into the first team.
Only three of the Dallas players who defeated Seattle on Sunday were older than 25, and the shootout hero ended up being 20-year-old goalkeeper Jesse González. The team set a record by starting five homegrown players a 3-0 win over Columbus in September.
On the other end, Portland has enjoyed a revival of Caleb Porter’s style that saw him win MLS Coach of the Year in 2013, his first season as a professional coach.
Darlington Nagbe’s move into central midfield gave the team a more consistent outlet for possession and earned the 25-year-old his first United States call-up, two months after earning citizenship.
The frequent discussion surrounding Porter and his team this year has been one of pragmatism versus idealism. If they’ve shown anything along that spectrum, though, it’s that they can win through either dictating possession and tempo or defending deep and counterattacking.
It was the former against the counterattacking Whitecaps, but especially on the road against an energetic team such as Dallas, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a more conservative approach from Portland this round.
Dallas’s youth can be positive or negative, as the series against Seattle showed. The players showed no fear at any stage, but they also displayed some naïvety in their reaction to taking the lead on the road.
Portland and Dallas split their two-match regular-season series, with the Timbers winning 3-1 at home in April and Dallas taking the rematch in Texas, 4-1 in July.
Expect another close pair of games and plenty of tactical intrigue between two of the better footballing sides in MLS this time around.
Pareja and Porter are also a couple of the more entertaining sideline attractions. Beyond the on-field headlines, who could forget the tissue-tossing incident after their early-season match?
New York Red Bulls vs. Columbus Crew
After first-round byes, both New York and Columbus came through their first playoff tests, though they did it in contrasting ways.
The Red Bulls didn’t have much trouble at all against D.C., while Columbus needed an extra half-hour for leading scorer Kei Kamara to make the difference with his second goal of the game on Sunday.
The Red Bulls showed that they’re more than a high-pressing machine by carrying the game for all 180 minutes against D.C. Jesse Marsch has built a well-rounded team that scored a goal every 49 minutes in the regular season and conceded just once every 71 minutes.
Columbus should offer a tougher test than D.C., though.
Between Kamara, Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuaín running the Crew attack, Gregg Berhalter’s team has multiple ways to create goalscoring opportunities. Again, it’s about balance—whether it’s through crosses or central build-ups—rather than hoping a selection of individuals can carry the team.
Berhalter’s team often tries to play out of the back, which could play into the Red Bulls’ preferred pressing system. However, if the Crew can get past the initial line of pressure, the game should open up with a Columbus attack that could take advantage of the shake-up in New York’s back line.
Ronald Zubar replaced the injured Damien Perrinelle in central defense, and he could have easily seen a straight red for a poor challenge soon after coming on in the first leg against D.C.
The Red Bulls will have to lean on their midfield, which has a slight advantage with Dax McCarty and Sacha Klještan running the show, to protect a vulnerable defense.
The season series between these two was also tight. New York won twice, including once on the road, while Columbus won the middle match. All games were decided by 2-1 scores, though Bradley Wright-Phillips only scored in the opening game, and Kamara was held goalless.