Friday October 28th, 2016

The Seattle Sounders’ magical late-season surge continued on Thursday night, as a late goal from Nelson Valdez led the team to an emotional 1–0 win over Sporting Kansas City in the knockout round of the MLS playoffs. 

Valdez’s goal came after 88 minutes of physical and at times emotional soccer, with both teams alternating long stretches of dominance with periods of shaky play. Kansas City had the better of Seattle through most of the game, controlling possession, stopping Sounders attacks, and generating dangerous opportunities. In the first half alone, midfielder Paulo Nagamura had two good chances saved by Stefan Frei and Graham Zusi hit the post. 

However, that hit off the post was a mere footnote in a game that had plenty of drama to follow. Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso was at the center of much of it, earning a yellow card for a harsh tackle on Roger Espinoza, then drawing the ire of SKC midfielder Benny Feilhaber for another hard challenge in the second half. Then there was a disallowed goal from Matt Besler, followed by an eerily similar chance that Valdez buried to put Seattle through. 

The result is SKC's third straight heartbreaking loss in the knockout round after winning MLS Cup in 2013, having lost in 2014 on a 90th-minute goal against the New York Red Bulls, and in 2015 in a historically-epic penalty shootout against Portland Timbers

Seattle will face a formidable but familiar foe in the next round, as Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup winners FC Dallas awaits in the conference semifinals. Seattle and Dallas have met at the same stage of the playoffs in the last two seasons, with FC Dallas advancing on penalties in 2015 and Seattle going through on the away-goal tiebreaker in 2014. 

For now, though, here are three thoughts on a wild night at CenturyLink Field: 

A tale of two offsides

Besler thought he had the opening goal for Kansas City in the 52nd minute, heading home a well-placed free kick from Feilhaber and wheeling off in celebration. Not so fast. The assistant referee waved his flag, indicating that Besler was offside when the ball was played. 

As regulation time drew to a close, Valdez made CenturyLink Field explode with his first goal of the season, and his first in nearly a full calendar year. He scored it by running on to a cross from Joevin Jones during the run of play, leaping in front of Tim Melia to head the ball into the back of the net. 

When complaints about MLS referees get made, one word continually comes up: Consistency. Why? Just look above. Valdez is just as offside (if not more so) than Besler, yet his goal went on to win the game and end Sporting KC’s season. 

The margins are often narrow in playoff games, and it is incumbent upon both teams to win outside the margin of human error that soccer naturally displays. But that doesn’t make this loss any less brutal for SKC, nor should it mask yet another massive mistake in a key moment from the league’s officials.

This was the best game of the MLS playoffs so far 

In past years, the MLS playoffs have proven to be a reliable source of all sorts of drama. However, that drama was notably absent through the first three games in the knockout round, with Toronto brushing aside Philadelphia with ease, the Galaxy outworking Real Salt Lake, and D.C. United simply falling flat at home in a loss to Montreal.

There were no such problems in this game. Kansas City and Seattle each traded strong runs of play, and both showed equal commitment to attack and to strong defense. There were testy moments, including scuffles after Alonso came through with hard challenges on Espinoza (in the first half) and Feilhaber (in the second half).

Feilhaber, for his part, let the emotions get the better of him, exploding at referee Ismail Elfath both in the immediate aftermath of Alonso’s foul and after the final whistle. He also channeled that energy into several fine plays made while the crowd booed his every touch. That includes this mazy run and saved shot, which might have gone down as one of the better goals in MLS playoff history had Stefan Frei not made one of his several big stops on the night: 

On the other end, Valdez looked to be in tears immediately after scoring what would become the game-winning goal. But as intense as things were, the scuffles and emotions never overshadowed the game itself. There was balance and grit. It’s cliché to say that both teams “wanted it” (what playoff team doesn’t?), but…well…both teams wanted it.

Then there was the matter of the atmosphere (Seattle fans were loud and boisterous as always), the rain, and the prime-time TV slot. From appearances alone, this was a game that called out for the viewer to become invested in its proceedings. The play on the field justified those appearances. This year's playoffs hadn’t had enough of that. 

Seattle’s incredible revival continues

The Sounders have experienced more upheaval throughout the season than just about any other team in Major League Soccer. Among the Cup favorites in preseason, the Sounders then lost striker Obafemi Martins to a massive offer from China, then started the year terribly, lost their tenured and well-liked coach Sigi Schmid as a result, then lost striker Clint Dempsey to a heart condition (Dempsey was reportedly slated to be at the stadium for Thursday’s game, according to the FS1 broadcast). 

But instead of folding, Seattle went 5–2–3 in its last 10 games of the regular season, rocketing up the standings to such a degree that it earned the right to host this playoff game (which undoubtedly worked in their favor on multiple fronts).

Not coincidentally, that run coincides with the arrival not only of Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro, but also the return from injury of central defender Roman Torres. Together with Chad Marshall and goalkeeper Stefan Frei, Torres has helped the Sounders become one of MLS’ best defensive units, while Lodeiro has given the team the ingenuity in the final third it lacks without Dempsey or Martins up top. There are still flaws with this roster, but the difficulties of this season have seemed to pull this Sounders team closer together than ever, and it’s showing with the on-field results. FC Dallas will have a challenge on its hands. 

Elsewhere in the MLS playoffs knockout round:

Friday October 28th, 2016

WASHINGTON — Didier Drogba traveled to Washington after all and was in the RFK Stadium mezzanine on Thursday evening, which his teammates probably appreciated. It’s been an awkward couple of weeks. What they needed from the famous forward was a gesture that might ease the speculation about a rift between the club and its leading celebrity. What they didn’t need were his contributions on the field. In Thursday evening’s MLS Cup knockout round game, the best players—by far—already were wearing Impact white.

Both D.C. United and Montreal benched their starters during Sundays regular-season finales, preferring rest to familiar ground. Both lost heavily. United backed into home-field advantage. The Impact didn’t need it. They pulled off an emphatic playoff smash-and-grab on Thursday in the U.S. capital, hammering United, 4-2, behind the exquisite Ignacio Piatti and Matteo Mancosu and a suffocating defense.

Both United goals came in match’s final minutes, when the outcome wasn’t in doubt.

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New York Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch also was in attendance Thursday. He wasn’t too far from Drogba. What he saw was a well-organized Montreal team comfortable sitting back and quick on the counter—perhaps the sort of squad that could trouble New York and its vaunted press. With or without Drogba, the Impact won’t be an easy out for the top-seeded Red Bulls in the conference semis.

Here are three thoughts from venerable RFK Stadium, where there was no home-field advantage Thursday:

Montreal played the perfect road game

It was midway through the first half, and the Impact were already employing some road-team gamesmanship. The loudest among the 12,773 fans at RFK became frustrated and began counting out the seconds as goalkeeper Evan Bush took his sweet time on a goal kick. Montreal didn’t hurry its throw-ins either.

It was, in every detail, a perfect road game—which shouldn’t come as that big of a shock from a team that acquired some knockout-round seasoning during last year’s CONCACAF Champions League run and which lost only six times this season away from Stade Saputo. Only one MLS club (LA Galaxy) suffered fewer defeats on the road.

A key component of the perfect road game recipe is an early goal, and the Impact got it in just the fourth minute. Center back Lauren Cimant scored his first of the year as he broke free from D.C. midfielder Rob Vincent and volleyed home a corner kick.

United had yielded only one goal in the first five minutes of a game this season, and that came back in April. This was a new challenge that played directly into Montreal’s hands.

Piatti, Mancosu and Oduro are so good on the counter that the Impact were able to commit all three midfielders to defense. United playmaker Luciano Acosta was harried and stifled, and chances were hard to come by as the hosts failed to find any space behind the Impact’s back four (or sometimes five). D.C. won the first-half possession battle, 55%-45%, but barely challenged Bush.

“If you give up a goal against them, you’re in trouble,” United coach Ben Olsen said afterward.

Montreal’s second goal came in the 43rd and was a backbreaker. Piatti threaded a perfect cross toward Mancosu, who ghosted behind D.C. captain Bobby Boswell and beat a helpless Bill Hamid.

It was high-class attacking soccer from talented players on a team with a plan.

D.C. was stuck in neutral

United under Olsen has been blue-collar team in a white-collar town, forced to outwork and outsmart foes while waiting for the revenue that would accompany the long-awaited new stadium. Olsen and general manager Dave Kasper built teams through trades, free agency, castoffs and spare parts and managed to grind out the results necessary to make the playoffs four of the past five seasons.

But they’re not good enough to truly contend, and that was highlighted despite the fabulous fashion in which United closed out the regular season. The phrase “Benny Ball” had come to symbolize D.C.’s gritty commitment to winning ugly, but it was abandoned this summer when Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam were acquired and Acosta was pulled back into midfield. Suddenly, United played with style. They went 6-1-6 before playing reserves in Sunday’s game at Orlando City and entered the playoffs having scored at least two goals in nine straight games. United was fun to watch, and effective.

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But at playoff pace and under playoff duress, D.C. didn’t have enough to break down Montreal. Ciman is a world-class center back, and the Impact were resolutely compact and disciplined. Something special is required to create in that environment, and Acosta—the only player on D.C.’s roster who’s consistently capable—was harassed and hounded and couldn’t find his rhythm.

What Olsen and Kasper have done under significant constraints in D.C. should be commended. They’ve gotten a lot out of a little. D.C. was ousted in the conference semis in 2014 and ’15 and couldn’t get that far this year. More is required if United (11-11-13) is to add to its receding championship tradition.

Didier Who?

That part about ending the speculation regarding Drogba—we know that’s wishful thinking. He’ll be the story for at least the next couple days as Montreal (12-11-12) prepares to host the Red Bulls in the opening leg on Sunday. But as many have pointed out this week, Drogba has not had the same impact on the Impact as he did in 2015. He does have 10 goals and six assists this year—good for second on the squad—but his presence hasn’t necessarily translated to results.

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During the regular season, Montreal was 5-8-9 with Drogba and 6-3-3 without him. It scored more goals absent Drogba and yielded fewer. Mancosu is more mobile on both sides of the ball and obviously has a good understanding with Piatti—not to mention the ability to finish. Mancosu, who joined Montreal in July, already has five goals and five assists. He had two goals and an assist on Thursday. 

Good MLS teams often are better than the sum of their parts. D.C. certainly has been that this year. And Montreal appears to be that without Drogba. The Impact said this week that a bad back prevented the Ivorian from playing Thursday. If it heals by Sunday, tactics and form may be the reason he sits against New York.

Henry Bushnell
Thursday October 27th, 2016

Breath, Toronto. Exhale. The wait is finally, mercifully over.

It took 10 years, eight managers and a whole lot of frustration, but Toronto FC won its first MLS playoff game in franchise history Wednesday night with a 3-1 defeat of the Philadelphia Union. It vanquished a streak of historic futility and, in doing so, immediately announced itself as an Eastern Conference contender.

Nerves and the weight of the drought were apparent early on, as the Union ran TFC out of any rhythm, and cut off all avenues into Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. But some shambolic Union defending gifted the hosts the breakthrough, along with the release of emotion and tension that they desperately craved.

More haphazard defending three minutes after halftime quelled any lingering worries. A Michael Bradley corner skipped into some alarmingly open space at the back post, where Jonathan Osorio pounced and smashed a bouncing ball past a helpless Andre Blake to make it 2-0.

The visitors’ introduction of Ilsinho as a substitute brought signs of life, and then a lifeline, as Toronto returned the favor by failing to clear a corner. The Union won three consecutive headers, and the third fell to an unmarked Alejandro Bedoya, who made it 2-1.

Bedoya’s strike brought all those ominous thoughts flooding back. But a two-man Giovinco-Altidore break and some more calamitous play from Union center back Ken Tribbett sent Altidore into a scrum of home fans to celebrate, and sent TFC to the conference semifinals.

With the proverbial monkey of Toronto’s collective back, the focus now turns to a two-leg showdown with New York City FC. And that leads to the first of our three thoughts:

TFC can’t be discounted as MLS Cup contenders

They were by no means rampant or overly impressive Wednesday, but the Reds are what we already knew they were. At times they can look disjointed. At times they feel like an incomplete puzzle. But they have the league’s best player, and two others that aren’t far behind. They’ll rarely, if ever, face a talent deficit–although NYCFC matches them in the DP department–and especially against a suspect NYCFC back line, Toronto is dangerous.

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Toronto’s 5-3-2 is intriguing

Let’s call it what it is. It’s not a 3-5-2. It’s a true five-man back line, with the traditional fullbacks, Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour, both given license and responsibility to give the attack width. Toronto doesn’t need invention or creativity from those two going forward. It just needs their presence.

Their presence, when the scheme functions as TFC boss Greg Vanney hopes, stretches an opponent horizontally, and occasionally allows Toronto to isolate Altidore and Giovinco against opposing center backs—or, if an opposing midfielder goes to a TFC wingback, Giovinco can drift wide and feast on a fullback.

Assuming Vanney sticks with this relatively new system, TFC won’t appear to dominate any games from here on out. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be more solid at the back with the extra numbers while still being just as dangerous going forward.

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Tribbett's nightmare, and a fitting end for Philadelphia

One of many surprising aspects of the form that took the Union to the top of the Eastern Conference in June was the competence of their center backs. But over the second half of the season, compounded by the loss of rookie Joshua Yaro to injury, that competence disappeared. That was blatantly clear on Wednesday, with Tribbett at fault for two of TFC’s goals. He volleyed a clearance attempt backwards and was beaten by Altidore, who lobbed an assist to Giovinco for the opener. Then he made a mess of what should have been a simple touch, allowing Altidore to finish off the game.

It seems pretty safe to say that it’s the early-season performances that were the flukes, not the late struggles. Philly’s center back tandem of Tribbett and Richie Marquez is a pairing of two unheralded college products, one from Drexel, the other from Division III University of Redlands, and while Marquez has shown promise, Tribbett was unheralded for a reason.

The Union won early on because they gelled as a unit and outworked teams, not because of their revamped roster. Both those advantages wore off by season’s end, and although a playoff appearance is nice, the immediate feeling among the fan base has to be disappointment.

Thursday October 27th, 2016

In 2005, the LA Galaxy won an MLS Cup title after finishing the regular season eighth out of 12 teams. That was 11 years ago, and although Bruce Arena wasn’t yet in charge, Landon Donovan and Alan Gordon were on the squad. Seven years later the Galaxy finished eighth overall again. Gordon was in San Jose but Donovan—joined by David Beckham and Robbie Keane—helped power LA to another championship.

The Galaxy have won titles as favorites, but they’ve also proven that MLS is all about how you finish. And although this season hasn’t really had a championship feel, LA’s dominant 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake in Wednesday night’s Western Conference knockout-round match should come as no surprise. This is what the Galaxy do.

“This is what it is all about. You still get that excited feeling about trying to win a championship,” Gordon told reporters this week. “We’ve got no excuses and we’re ready to go. We have a lot of veterans on this field. We have a lot of champions on this team.”

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On Wednesday, key veterans included Gordon, who was starting a playoff game for the first time in his career, and Donovan, who was on the field at kickoff for just the third time since he decided retirement was just a phase. Other contributors were less heralded. Emmanuel Boateng tormented RSL during a dominant first half, scoring twice. And Sebastian Lletget, who had an uneven sophomore campaign, was outstanding as a box-to-box midfield conduit.

• WATCH MLS PLAYOFFS LIVE: Seattle vs. Sporting KC on Fox Sports

LA (13-6-16) will face the Colorado Rapids in the Western Conference semis. The second-seeded Rapids boast MLS’s best defense and an undefeated record at their mile-high home. But that was the regular season and Colorado, which lacks the same playoff pedigree as its opponent, will have its hands full with a Galaxy side that, again, seems to be finding answers when the games matter more.

Here are three more thoughts from another Galaxy playoff win:

Boateng takes a star turn

He was signed in January “to add valuable depth,” Arena said. Boateng was a relative unknown, a former UC Santa Barbara player who spent one season in college before moving to Sweden. After two-plus seasons at Helsingborgs, during which he scored all of four goals, Boateng was acquired by the Galaxy. The move was announced the same day as the college draft, guaranteeing it was overlooked.

He wasn’t expected to play too much, not with Keane and Gio dos Santos, Steven Gerrard, Gyasi Zardes, Lletget, Mike Magee and Gordon at Arena’s disposal. But Boateng’s speed and creativity were intriguing, and teammates’ injuries and international commitments ensured he’d get minutes. The Ghana native wound up starting 17 games—half the regular season schedule—and tallying two goals and five assists.

But it was on Wednesday that he broke out. He started on the left wing in LA’s 4-2-3-1 and scored his first goal in the 26th minute, taking a layoff form Gordon and blowing through three RSL defenders before poking a shot under Nick Rimando. It was a spectacular, explosive individual effort.

His second goal came in the 34th. Gordon was the provider again. Boating tore past RSL left back Demar Phillips and beat Rimando to the far post.

Boateng had doubled his regular season goal total in just over half an hour (both those goals came against RSL as well). LA has been known for signing big stars, but its championships also have depended on supporting players like Boateng—players who lift their game in the playoffs. Boating faded in the second half, but there was nowhere to go but down after a scintillating first.

Arena gets it right following a strange season

Arena is in the last year of his contract, and there’s been speculation about his future. The recent additions of aging European veterans like Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong were not the sort of moves made by a team planning to build for the long term. There was a “win now” tenor to this season, but it was apparent early on that games wouldn’t be won on paper. De Jong was a fearsome presence, as expected, but he wound up leaving for Galatasaray over the summer. Gerrard couldn’t stay healthy and wasn’t very impactful when he was, and Keane and Dos Santos never found optimal chemistry. In August, Zardes broke his foot.

“To be still standing, having our heads above water at this point proves that we’ve been able to cope with the different injuries and issues that we’ve had. So that’s a positive,” Arena said this week. “But it doesn’t matter now. We’re down to one game.”

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If Arena made a mistake or two building his team this year, he also did a decent job going about fixing them. Bringing Donovan out of retirement was a bit of brilliant, out-of-the box thinking, and the returning legend’s work on the flank against RSL (in only his third start) was tireless and influential. RSL’s wide attacking players, Joao Plata and Juan Manuel Martínez, offered little going forward and often were chased down—when they weren’t pinned back themselves.

On Wednesday, Arena got the tactics right. There wasn’t much bite in the LA midfield, but the mobile trio of Dos Santos, Lletget and Baggio Husidic overwhelmed RSL and gave playmaker Javier Morales almost no room to breathe. Up front, Gordon started in place of Keane (hip flexor) and was a constant problem for RSL’s makeshift back four. He scored the opening goal with an easy volley at the back post and set up Boateng on LA’s second and third. It was only the second time in Gordon’s 13-year career he tallied a goal in two assists in the same game.

This team may not be the one Arena envisioned at season’s start, but as Keane gets healthy, Donovan gets fit and Boating gains in confidence, it’s one that may wind up taking the veteran coach where he wants to go.

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RSL faces a reckoning

Jeff Cassar also is in the last year of his contract, but the RSL coach doesn’t have tenure like Arena. He was club owner Dell Loy Hansen’s preferred replacement for Jason Kreis, but he’s yet to win a playoff game in his three seasons in charge. RSL was dismantled by LA in the 2014 conference semis, missed out altogether last year and then limped into this postseason on a 0-4-3 skid. This was the opposite of a team in form, and it was unable to put up a fight before Wednesday’s game was out of reach. Salt Lake’s only goal against the Galaxy came on a very questionable first-half penalty kick drawn by Morales.

The Argentine playmaker will turn 37 in January. Kyle Beckerman, who played in his record 439th MLS game, will be 35 next spring. The back four, which was absent fullback Tony Beltran (back) on Wednesday, is in tatters. And Martínez’s flameout in the second half of the season—he’s had only one goal and one assist since the beginning of August—doesn’t bode well for his future. He was yanked by Cassar in the 58th minute and wasn’t happy about it.

RSL (12-13-10) had injuries, notably to striker Yura Movsisyan, but so did the Galaxy. There are quality pieces for sure, but the heart and soul of the team—Beckerman, Morales and Cassar—may be past its championship window. It’ll be a winter of tough questions along the Wasatch Front.

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