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Grant Wahl: Toronto FC is my pick to win MLS Cup
1:31 | Planet Futbol
Grant Wahl: Toronto FC is my pick to win MLS Cup
Monday October 31st, 2016

Just a handful of days ago, Seattle Sounders were facing questions about how fit they were to advance in the MLS playoffs, after a controversial winner lifted the team over Sporting Kansas City despite them being vastly outplayed in the knockout round. 

Nobody will be asking those questions now. 

The Sounders pulled off the biggest surprise of the MLS playoffs so far, earning a dominating 3–0 win over Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup winners FC Dallas in the first leg of the teams’ Western Conference semifinal.

Nelson Valdez continued his role as unlikely playoff hero, opening the scoring in the 50th minute with a header after Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz failed to gather a cross from Joevin Jones. Jordan Morris set up Uruguayan playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro with a brilliant run five minutes later, then Lodeiro doubled his goal tally with a breakaway, also assisted by Jones, in the 58th minute. 

That eight-minute outburst could be the beginning of the end of a brilliant FC Dallas season, one that has not only brought the team the aforementioned trophies but also renown throughout the league. However, Sunday was the team’s most high-profile test after losing playmaker Mauro Diaz to a torn Achilles on the second-to-last game of the regular season. It was one that it failed.  

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To make up for Diaz’s absence and provide more defensive cover, coach Oscar Pareja elected to set up Dallas in a 3-5-2 formation, with wingbacks Atiba Harris and Ryan Hollishead supporting a three-man central defense of Maynor Figueroa, Walker Zimmerman, and MLS Defender of the Year candidate Matt Hedges. The changes did not work, as Seattle found plenty of room to operate on the flanks, and Dallas never appeared totally comfortable on the attack.

Here are three thoughts on how the first leg of this series went down: 

FC Dallas showed its “Mr. Hyde” side 

A year ago, FC Dallas was able to get a late away goal in a 2-1 loss at Seattle in the first leg of the team’s conference semifinal. It was able to survive, earning a 2–1 win of its own at Toyota Stadium before topping Seattle on PKs. Now, meeting again at the same stage, having earned the exact same seeds, the Sounders knew they had to put the Texas side in a bigger hole should they take the lead. That’s exactly what they did. 

Valdez’s opening goal took the pressure off Seattle, then Lodeiro followed with the second. But the most important strike came three minutes after that, with Lodeiro streaking all alone through a suddenly-hapless FC Dallas defense to put the Shield winners in a 3–0 hole. 

One of the great paradoxes of this FC Dallas season has been that for as good as the side has been through the majority of the year, it has also shown a tendency to let bad situations get much worse than they ever should. At various points in 2016, Dallas lost 5–0 to Houston, 3–0 to Vancouver, 4–0 to New York Red Bulls, and 5–0 to Seattle. That last result was the last time the team suffered that type of collapse, and it was all the way back on July 13th. However, the teams’ self-destructive tendencies showed up again at the worst possible time on Sunday. Valdez’s opener left Dallas stunned, and Lodeiro’s seemed to sap whatever desire Dallas had left. That set the stage for the final goal, in which Lodeiro took advantage of a Dallas defense that seemed to be entirely asleep. 

In the regular season, Dallas could mask bad losses like this with a few more stylish wins. Now, the team has only one game to make up for its failings on Sunday, and it has no margin for error. 

 

Jordan Morris was fantastic

Valdez will grab many of the headlines from this game, and that won’t necessarily be undeserved. Having struggled through a nightmare of a season and a scoring drought that reached almost exactly one calendar year, the Paraguayan striker hit his first goal of the year earlier this week against Kansas City in the knockout round, then made his second of the season another playoff winner against Dallas. 

However, in Sunday’s game, the real star of the attacking show was Morris. After all, it was the American rookie’s near-post run that drew two defenders on Joevin Jones’s cross, leaving Valdez all alone with a matchup advantage over Maynor Figueroa to capitalize on Seitz’s goalkeeping error. 

Then, of course, there was Seattle's second, set up by a brilliant run and pass from Morris that gave Lodeiro an easy tap-in. Receiving the ball at midfield, Morris not only recognized that he’s been given acres of space on the flank, he then ran full-speed into that space, scanning the field with his head up and keeping ridiculously close control of the ball despite his blazing rate of speed. He capped the sequence with an inch-perfect final ball across the face of goal. 

All of that is to say nothing of Morris’s tremendous work rate throughout the match, all the way to chasing down Seitz to apply pressure for a harmless clearance in stoppage time. With Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey each unexpectedly leaving the team this season, a lot of attacking responsibility has fallen on Morris throughout 2016. He appears to have learned from it. 

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Seattle is playing with palpable belief 

While Seattle may have advanced out of the knockout round in controversial circumstances, it looked like a team with all the confidence in the world against the regular season’s best team on Sunday. Even in the first half, the Sounders enjoyed more meaningful possession, worked harder off the ball and was first to nearly every tackle in defense.

With the home crowd behind them, the Sounders looked like they have so often under Brian Schmetzer: a team with belief in itself, willing to do all the little things throughout a 90-minute game and with more than enough creative talent to back that up. If the Sounders can avoid a historic upset next week at Dallas, they’ll be a tough out for either LA or Colorado in the next round. 

Elsewhere in the first legs of the MLS conference semifinals:

Monday October 31st, 2016

Toronto FC had every reason to lose its collective composure. It was playing on less than four days rest against a fresh opponent content to grind out a scoreless draw in Sunday’s first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. There were fouls galore, six yellow cards and next to no room for TFC’s attack to operate. With 10 minutes remaining, it appeared as if New York City FC would return to the Bronx for Sunday’s decider level on aggregate.

If a game this ugly was going to be decided, it was going to be by an ugly goal. And Jozy Altidore was happy to oblige. The American forward made the most of a fortunate bounce and pounded a shot into the roof of the NYCFC net, giving TFC a long-awaited and deserved lead in the 84th minute. Then in stoppage time, substitute Tosaint Ricketts scored what may prove to be the back-breaker when he knocked home a rebound from close range.

Toronto and NYCFC were separated by only one point after 34 regular season games. TFC’s 2-0 triumph represents a much wider gap, and second-seeded NYCFC has a lot of work ahead of it in next Sunday’s second leg.

Here are three thoughts on TFC’s win at BMO Field:

Experience, such as it is, makes the difference

This was only the third playoff game in Toronto’s history. But compared to NYCFC, those previous two contests represented a massive difference in experience. Not a single one of coach Patrick Vieira’s starters had appeared in an MLS postseason match, and although big-game credentials hardly are lacking on the second-year squad, its approach Sunday didn’t exactly scream self-confidence. NYCFC (15-11-9) came in unbeaten in five previous games against Toronto (16-9-11) but played a somewhat scared, cynical game hardly befitting the second seed. NYCFC was not playoff ready.

The visitors committed 19 fouls, drew five yellow cards and didn’t appear to have an offensive plan beyond hoping Jack Harrison would dribble through the entire TFC rearguard. NYCFC arguably was fortunate to have 11 players on the field at game’s end. TFC’s Sebastian Giovinco was the primary target, and the strategy worked for the most part. He was less effective than usual (although he took a game-high eight shots) and Toronto was unable to make NYCFC pay for fouling due to poor set piece delivery. The hosts got a bit physical too (12 fouls, one yellow), but never lashed out or lost their heads. The tension ramped up, but TFC improved as the game wore on, found ways to maneuver through the clogged offensive third and eventually got the goals they deserved. For a team that rarely has been on this stage, Toronto looked quite comfortable.

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“The experience of having played in this game, a one-off, a do-or-die game... it's invaluable,” TFC captain Michael Bradley said after Wednesday’s knockout-round win over Philadelphia. “New York City doesn't have that. If we can use the momentum, build on the energy inside the stadium... there's not going to be any team that wants to play us.”

Altidore and Bradley are the stars who come through

TFC and NYCFC are billed as two of MLS’s most high-profile, star-studded clubs. But the only stars that showed up Sunday wore red. Altidore and Bradley were the men of the match for TFC. There was a time in his career when Altidore might drift out of games when the ball wasn’t coming his way. No longer. He was relentless on Sunday and in the second half especially showed a willingness to retreat, track back and do whatever he could to find the ball. The bounce that led to his goal was fortunate—it followed a scrum in front of the goal and a poor clearance—but the fact he was standing there was a testament to his work rate. He now has two goals and an assist in two playoff games and four goals in his past five matches overall.

Bradley’s influence can’t be measured by statistics, but it was obvious. The U.S. national team captain was everywhere, constantly involved in all phases of the game and making his presence felt on both sides of the ball. His free-kick delivery should have been better, but from open play he was a force. The field tilted Toronto’s way, especially in the second half, thanks in large part to his effort. He kept it clean in back, missing only one pass in his defensive half, and, according to MLS, Bradley had more tackles Sunday than in any previous game this year.

Contrast that with NYCFC’s stars, who were either unimpressive or not on the field. David Villa’s most notable contribution was not getting ejected for kicking out at Toronto’s Armando Cooper in the first half. Frank Lampard saw yellow for scything down Bradley in the second and Andrea Pirlo missed the game altogether with what Vieira said was a calf injury suffered in training.

It certainly took TFC a long time to get it right, and NYCFC’s improvement in year two should be lauded. But if the big names don’t come through in crunch time, a case can be made that they’re not worth all that money.

Vieira will be questioned

The Frenchman surprised many when he started 24-year-old Norwegian Eirik Johansen in goal instead of Josh Saunders, who was in net for 33 of NYCFC’s 34 regular season games. Johansen wasn’t at fault for the loss, and his first-half save on a breaking Giovinco was spectacular. But messing with defensive chemistry in such a big game typically is a no-no, and it’s one of several decisions made by Vieira that NYCFC fans may be wondering about in the week ahead.

Lampard, who returned from injury last week and played 17 minutes in the regular season finale, was left on the bench Sunday until the 61st. Tommy McNamara, who had five goals and nine assists in 28 starts this season, didn’t come in at all. He would have provided NYCFC with another outlet beside Harrison. Khiry Shelton was another attacking option left on the bench. He entered with a little over 10 minutes left. 

Instead, Vieira—who’d stressed pretty, possession soccer all season—seemed committed to stripping the game down and getting out of Toronto with a scoreless draw. NYCFC’s struggled to string passes together and struggled to pressure TFC higher up the field. As a result, the visitors were clearing the ball and hanging on for dear life more than they were building from the back. The responsibility put on the shoulders of midfielders Mikey Lopez (six regular season starts) and Federico Bravo was too much.

NYCFC will hope it’s a lesson learned. This wasn’t a team set up Sunday to play the way Vieira has wanted it to play this season. Familiar faces were missing and the plan was going to fail if Toronto found solutions. And it did, emphatically, at the end.

Sunday October 30th, 2016

The LA Galaxy beat Colorado 1-0 in their first leg of the MLS Western Conference semifinals behind a second-half goal by Giovani Dos Santos. The goal came after center back Jelle Van Damme made a terrific move on the ball in the box to set up his teammate, whose shot was deflected into the goal by Colorado’s Axel Sjöberg.

The Galaxy will take that 1-0 edge to Dick's Sporting Goods Park next Sunday, looking to oust the second-seeded Rapids and advance to the conference final, though there's plenty of soccer to be played in Colorado in the second leg before this result is decided.

Here are three thoughts on the first leg:

Van Damme flashed the skills we’ve seen before

More than any center back in MLS today—and just about any in the league’s history—Van Damme can change games with his technical skills on the attacking end of the field. We’ve seen it in other games this season when Van Damme has skillfully set up his teammates for goals, but his deft move in the box that led to LA’s goal was a thing of beauty.

Van Damme has played as a midfielder in his career, and you can tell. He has composure on the ball in the places that matter to help create goals. Combine that with his ability on the defensive end, where Van Damme was stellar on Sunday, and you have one of the best acquisitions the league has seen in a long time.

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Colorado can still win this thing

The Rapids are only one goal down heading back home, where they haven’t lost a game all season, and they were a better team in the second half once Jermaine Jones entered the game. As Jones showed, his intensity at both ends of the field is key for Colorado, and it’s the kind of approach that’s tailor-made for playoff soccer.

I’d also like to see Marlon Hairston get the start in the return leg after not doing so on Sunday, not least because he’s capable of providing the spark that can lead to goals. Colorado will need to get more from Shkelzen Gashi, who was largely anonymous on the attacking end against the Galaxy Sunday.

Gordon deserves to continue starting

Robbie Keane isn’t quite fit enough to start yet post-injury, and for that matter Gordon’s skill set—he’s a true, old-fashioned center forward, a No. 9—is a better fit to draw the most out of Dos Santos. We’ve seen all season that Dos Santos and Keane have yet to get totally on the same page, and given the current circumstances, Gordon is a better option right now to start up top and work with Dos Santos.

Gordon has scored some important goals recently, but even when he doesn’t score (as was the case on Sunday) he can have a significant influence on things. Gordon’s presence near the goal helped draw the attention of Colorado defenders on the play Dos Santos scored.

Sunday October 30th, 2016

Matteo Mancosu continued to make Didier Drogba’s absence less of an issue for the Montreal Impact—and less of a storyline for everyone else—as the MLS Cup quarterfinals opened Sunday. The Italian veteran, who moved to Montreal over the summer, scored a gorgeous second-half goal—his third in two playoff games—to lift the Impact to a 1-0 win over New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Technically, the setback ended New York’s 20-game unbeaten streak, which dates back to early July and comprises 16 MLS games and four CONCACAF Champions League contests. But winning isn’t important in the conference semis and finals. It’s about aggregate goals, meaning the top-seeded Red Bulls (16-10-9) will head home next weekend with 90 minutes to level the two-game series.

But Montreal (13-11-12) is proving a tougher out than their .500 regular season record suggests. This is a veteran team built for knockout soccer, and New York will have its hands full next Sunday.

Here are three thoughts on Montreal’s triumph at Saputo Stadium:

This game was won in the penalty areas

Some contests are decided in midfield. This one was won by the players who came up big near goal—Mancosu and Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush. It was always going to be the case Sunday that New York would have most of the possession while Montreal, playing its second game in four days, would try to slow down the game and counter. That put a premium on the Impact’s performance near goal, and both Mancosu and Bush came through.

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Mancosu, 31, is emerging as one of MLS’s most compelling stories. The Cagliari native played in Italy’s lower divisions before making his Serie A debut with Bologna last year. Bologna’s majority shareholder just happens to be Impact owner Joey Saputo, and this summer Mancosu was acquired on loan by the MLS club. He made his debut in mid July, scored in his second appearance and then scored again in his first start, a 1-0 win over Houston in early August. He finished the regular season with three goals and four assists in 15 appearances (seven starts) and despite a six-game scoreless streak to close the regular season, he’s caught fire in the playoffs.

Mancosu scored twice in the Impact’s dominating 4-2 defeat of D.C. United in Thursday’s knockout round then gave his team the lead over New York on Sunday with a 61st-minute stunner. Fellow Italian Marco Donadel got the play started with a long ball from the right. Mancosu raced behind New York center back Damien Perrinelle and hit a vicious half volley that screamed past goalkeeper Luis Robles. It was a worthy playoff winner.

At the other end of the pitch, Bush kept New York off the scoreboard. The 30-year-old Ohioan isn’t typically mentioned as one of the league’s top goalies, but his performance Sunday certainly was top-class. He denied a breaking Bradley Wright-Phillips in the third minute, leaping to knock down a chip shot after the Golden Boot winner was played through. Three minutes later, Bush dropped to deny a dangerous cross from Alex Muyl. He then stopped Sacha Kljestan from close range in the 67th, shortly after Mancosu scored, and then stuffed a point-blank effort from Red Bulls substitute Omer Damari (who was later red carded) in stoppage time.

This is a very good result for Montreal

Sure, the Red Bulls have 90 minutes on home turf to tie the series. They need just one goal, have the second-most potent attack in MLS and haven’t lost at home since April 9. But the Impact will take some intangible advantages into the second leg as well.

One justification for the knockout-round games, in addition to the fact that MLS wants as many teams (and owners) in the playoffs as possible, is that the teams earning byes supposedly will face a tired opponent in the first/away leg. Theoretically then, the high seed would have leverage in both games.

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But Montreal’s conservative style lends itself to playing games on little rest. The Impact basically attack with three players (Mancosu, Ignacio Piatti and Dominic Oduro) while the midfield trio and back four plug passing lanes, foul when necessary and look to spring their teammates with quick passes. Montreal had only two full days rest after beating D.C., one of which was spent traveling. And it’s not a young team. Nine of the 11 starters are in their 30s.

Now, they’ll have a week to rest. The tough part is over. Montreal isn’t afraid of playing on the road. They play the sort of soccer that’s made for road games. The Impact handled themselves brilliantly last year in CCL matches in Mexico and Costa Rica and were beaten only six times away from home during the 2016 regular season. Only one MLS suffered fewer road defeats. 

Throw in the fact that New York has been a bit star-crossed at Red Bull Arena, and the tension only increases. Since 2010, when the stadium opened, the Red Bulls have lost a heartbreaking five playoff games on home turf. Last season marked the fourth time their season ended in Harrison. The pressure will most certainly be on the favorites, and that’s an ideal situation for Montreal.

There’s a bit of tarnish on the Golden Boot

With great power comes great responsibility. It’s tough to levy any criticism against Wright-Phillips, who’s establishing himself as one of the top forwards in MLS history. But the very best come through in the clutch. Wright-Phillips’ checkered playoff resume unfortunately matches his team’s and ultimately, his performance next month could have a significant impact on his legacy.

Nothing can take away from the raw numbers. He won his second golden boot this season with 24 goals. He has 68 regular season markers over the past three years, a league standard, and he tied the single-season MLS record in 2014 with 27. The Englishman is the only player in MLS history with two 20-goal seasons.

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But the playoffs have been less kind. He was on a tear in 2014 with four goals in four games, but a needless yellow card in the first leg of the conference finals against New England (he tried to prevent the Revs’ goalie from distributing the ball) ruled him out for the decider. Wright-Phillips claimed following the match that he wasn’t aware of the accumulation rules. Then last year, with New York entering the playoffs as Supporters' Shield winners, he scored just once in four games.

He had to do better Sunday at Stade Saputo. But Bush stopped that third-minute chance, and then Wright-Phillips spun a seventh-minute shot wide right. He unsuccessfully appealed for a penalty kick when Bush dove to meet a pass from Kljestan in the 29th, but had no excuses in second-half stoppage time when he failed to lift a point-blank shot over the sliding Ambroise Oyongo.

The stakes are higher in the playoffs and the standards, fair or not, are higher for players like Wright-Phillips. He’s already a Red Bulls legend. To become one at the league level, he’ll have to come through in the biggest games.

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