Monday November 7th, 2016

There will be no domestic treble winner in U.S. soccer this year. The Seattle Sounders advanced to the MLS Western Conference finals on Sunday after completing a 4–2 aggregate victory over FC Dallas, eliminating the winner of the U.S. Open Cup and MLS Supporters' Shield from contention for the MLS Cup title.

The score on Sunday was 2–1 Dallas, but Seattle’s 3–0 advantage from the first leg made the difference.

Seattle will meet Colorado in the Western Conference finals, with Toronto and Montreal facing each other in the East.

Here are my three thoughts on the game:

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Piatti stars as Impact down Red Bulls to advance to Eastern finals

Seattle got the away goal. Game over

The Sounders knew that if they got one away goal, Dallas would need to score five times on Sunday. The Seattle away goal came from Nicolás Lodeiro, who continues to be terrific, and Dallas’s five goals did not materialize. Give FCD some credit for scoring twice and refusing to capitulate in the way that NYCFC did against Toronto, but Seattle won this series during its 10-minute rampage for three goals in the first leg. The Sounders came into this game simply trying to hold serve and were able to achieve that to advance.

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Seattle’s injury issues are a concern

The Sounders had two forwards go off early with injures: Jordan Morris played 45 minutes before leaving with a leg muscle injury, while Nelson Haedo Valdéz came off with a non-contact injury early in the second half. While there will be a two-week break until the next playoff round for the international window, it’s still worrying for Seattle to see two forwards dinged up—and for U.S. fans to see Morris hobbling the day before he’s supposed to join the national team.

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Rapids advance to Western finals with shootout win vs. Galaxy

Dallas missed Mauro Díaz and Fabián Castillo

It’s one thing for a star player to leave a team in midseason due to transfer—and at least Dallas will be getting something out of Castillo’s departure to Turkey. But the Achilles injury to Díaz, which removed perhaps the league’s top playmaker, gave Dallas a handicap that it couldn’t recover from. This was a team that fully earned its two trophies this season, and we’ll always wonder what this Dallas team could have done in the MLS Cup playoffs if Díaz had been involved.

Monday November 7th, 2016

NEW YORK — Sebastian Giovinco’s brilliance knows no bounds. And the buzz saw that Toronto FC suddenly is seemingly knows nothing of the club’s historic futility.

Behind a hat trick from Giovinco and a smashing volley from his American strike partner, TFC stormed into the Eastern Conference finals with 5–0 victory over New York City FC at Yankee Stadium Sunday evening. That completed a 7–0 thrashing over two legs.

The diminutive Italian forward sucked all the energy out of the first-ever MLS playoff crowd at Yankee Stadium before it could seep into the game. He spun and fired a 6th-minute goal into the bottom corner, then won and converted a 20th-minute penalty to all but put the conference semifinal tie to bed.

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Jozy Altidore then slammed an emphatic half-volley past a helpless Eirik Johansen from a tight angle to make it 3–0. The traveling Toronto fans bounded up and down with joy in the second deck. Jonathan Osorio added a fourth goal five minutes into the second half, and Giovinco hit home a fifth for good measure late on.

It was as comprehensive a two-leg playoff beatdown as Major League Soccer has seen. It was also a message from TFC to the other three conference finalists: We are your team to beat. The road to a title, for the first time, runs through Toronto.

Here are three takeaways from a chilly night in the Bronx:

One of the best strike partnerships in league history

Moments after Giovinco raced to the corner to celebrate his opener, the chants began to rain down from the opposite end of the stadium: “MVP! MVP! MVP!” They came again after he slotted home the penalty, and throughout the second half.

The irony, of course, is that Giovinco is not one of the league’s three MVP finalists, announced earlier this week. And that’s laughable.

Timing is right at last for Jozy Altidore to lead Toronto FC, USA

The Atomic Ant, as he’s known, is playing at an absurdly high level. It wasn’t just the goals. It was the confidence to try an audacious 25-yard half-volley from wide of the penalty area. It was the movement, which led to another glorious first-half chance from close range.

It was also the combinations with Altidore, who is hitting his stride at just the right time. Both can stretch defenses. Both are menacing on the break. Altidore’s strength as a target forward allows Giovinco to seek out space in midfield or wide. When he does, he terrorizes opposing fullbacks in 1-v-1 situations. He seemed darn near unstoppable Sunday.

The Giovinco-Altidore pairing not only gives Toronto the best attack in MLS, it has also allowed the nine players behind it to form one of the league’s most cohesive units.

TFC has found its formula

Toronto manager Greg Vanney started the exact same 11, in the same formation, for the fourth consecutive game Sunday, and it led to a fourth consecutive win.

It’s a setup that isn’t dependent on game state, nor opponent, nor anything else. Toronto had success with it in a 2–0 first-leg win last Sunday as it pressed and took initiative. Those two late goals put it in position to play on the break in New York this Sunday, and it thrived doing just that.

Planet Futbol
Piatti stars as Impact down Red Bulls to advance to Eastern finals

Vanney’s 3-5-2 isolates Giovinco and Altidore, but it also can block up midfield. Michael Bradley wasn’t often a noticeable force in either game, but he protected Toronto’s three center backs nearly flawlessly. Armando Cooper and Osorio also did well with and without the ball. In their respective positions in this specific system, there didn’t appear to be a single weak link wearing red this Sunday or last.

Whereas other leagues around the world are about the totality of an eight- or nine-month season, MLS merely requires that a team get hot at the right time. Toronto is doing just that.

Rapids advance to Western finals with shootout win vs. Galaxy

Oh, Canada

It’s on to Montreal for Toronto FC. With the Impact’s 3–1 aggregate upset of the New York Red Bulls, the two Canadian teams will do battle at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium to open up the Eastern Conference finals.

Entering Sunday, since MLS expanded north of the border in 2007, no Canadian team had ever won a two-leg playoff series. No Canadian team had ever advanced to the conference finals in either the west or the east. And, thus, no Canadian team had ever played in an MLS Cup final.

Suddenly, that history has been turned on its head. The two Canadian clubs simultaneously ruptured that streak. One will head to the MLS Cup final. But first, the rivalry will give us two intense, heated conference final matches.

Monday November 7th, 2016

The Montreal Impact are a tried and tested team in cup competition. The New York Red Bulls somehow still haven’t found the formula. And that was evident Sunday afternoon in Harrison, NJ, where the underdog Impact put together a third consecutive (almost) perfect playoff performance in a 2–1 victory that eliminated top-seed New York from the MLS Cup playoffs. The Impact won the two-game Eastern Conference semifinal series, 3–1, on aggregate and will advance to the league’s final four for the first time.

Argentine forward Ignacio Piatti did the damage on the offensive end and scored both Montreal goals. The stifling Impact midfield and defense did the rest.

Here are three thoughts on a game that enhanced Montreal’s cup soccer credentials and furthered New York’s almost incomprehensible playoff misery:

This was a gut-wrenching loss for New York

Top to bottom, from the academy through the USL champion reserve squad and on to coach Jesse Marsch’s MLS team, the Red Bulls have evolved from an organization without much direction to one of the best-run on the continent. But that evolution—which has produced an effective and recognizable style of play, two Supporters Shields, three first-place finishes in the past four seasons (and four in seven) and two 2016 MLS MVP finalists—still hasn’t reversed the club’s playoff curse. And with each successive failure, each loss to a lower-seeded team and each elimination on home soil, it just gets more painful.

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Rapids advance to Western finals with shootout win vs. Galaxy

New York has made the MLS playoffs in 17 of its 21 years. Only the LA Galaxy have more appearances. But LA has advanced to nine MLS Cup finals while the Red Bulls have played in only one—and that 2008 team really had no business getting that far.

Somehow, the statistics, trends and trajectory become meaningless when the Red Bulls’ playoff run begins. They entered the 2016 postseason on a 20-game unbeaten streak in all competitions and were the second-highest scoring team in the league. Bradley Wright-Phillips led MLS with 24 goals. Sacha Kljestan became only the second player in league history to hit 20 assists. The defense ranked second in the East.

Yet New York was bottled up and lost last week’s first leg to the fifth-seeded Impact, 1–0, in Montreal. The Impact took that slim lead to Red Bull Arena with a 0-7-1 record all-time in Harrison, NJ. No matter. The Red Bulls’ curse continued Sunday. Kljestan missed a 21st-minute penalty kick—goalkeeper Evan Bush made a nice save—and New York was unable to find its way through until the 77th minute of a frantic second half. Wright-Phillips did the honors on a deflected shot from close range, but it was too late by then.

New York (16-11-9) was eliminated on home turf for the fifth time since 2010, and it’s only 4-5-1 in playoff games at Red Bull Arena. In each of the past two seasons, the Red Bulls’ run ended in the conference finals. This time, they didn’t even make it that far. It’s the same old story, one that’s getting tougher to stomach as the years go by. No matter how much progress the Red Bulls make, “Metro Playoff Failure” simply won’t die.

• Klinsmann tabs roster for USA World Cup qualifiers vs. Mexico, Costa Rica

Ignacio Piatti is an unsung superstar

Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t an immediately-recognizable name when he joined Montreal in the summer of 2014. Piatti had never played for his native Argentina and his previous two clubs were Lecce and San Lorenzo. Or perhaps it’s because he plays in Montreal. But either way, there’s little question the 31-year-old attacker deserves more acclaim than he receives. He’s as skillful and creative a player as there is in the league, and he was spectacular on Sunday.

Montreal’s style of play demands patience from its three attackers. The Impact sit back and absorb pressure and then rely on Piatti’s skill and Dominic Odoru’s speed to unlock the opposition. Chances may come few and far between, so efficiency and ruthlessness is critical. Piatti has it to spare. His first goal Sunday was massive, as it forced New York to score three thanks to the away goals rule. And it came from almost nothing. A goal kick was flicked toward Oduro, who cut past New York’s Dax McCarty and slid the ball across to Piatti on the left. Red Bulls defender Chris Duvall was in good position, but Piatti’s change of pace left Duvall grasping. The ensuing left-footed blast confused goalkeeper Luis Robles and went in off the underside of the crossbar. It was Piatti’s second goal of the playoffs and 18th of the season.

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Timing is right at last for Jozy Altidore to lead Toronto FC, USA at key junctures

New York tied the game late but still trailed on aggregate when Montreal countered again in the 85th. Oduro found star substitute Didier Drogba in the middle. He slipped it to the right, where Piatti emerged on a late run and slipped a quick shot through Robles’s legs.

Montreal can focus on defending because Piatti is so lethal. He allows the system to work. The Argentine may not be a household name, but Montreal coach Mauro Biello is well aware of his value.

“Phenomenal,” Biello told ESPN after the match when asked about Piatti. “In my opinion, he’s one of the best in the league and he showed it today. These are big moments and big players show up in big moments.”

Montreal continues to follow its playoff script

It was honed on treacherous ground in Mexico and Costa Rica during last year’s stunning run to the CONCACAF Champions League finals, and now it’s part of the Impact’s DNA. Knockout soccer is different.

“You see these little details, they make the difference,” Impact captain Patrice Bernier told SI.com following Montreal’s 4–2 defeat of host D.C. United in the knockout round. “The playoffs, everybody thinks it’s going to be aesthetic. No, it’s about efficiency. It’s about making the least mistakes possible … It’s about being a bit cynical. You’ve got to be realistic. When it has to be dirty, not pretty, you kick it in Row Z.”

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The Impact (14-11-12) did make one mistake Sunday. Defender Victor Cabrera was caught in possession by New York’s Gonzalo Verón in the 20th, and Bush wound up bringing the Red Bulls midfielder down in the penalty area. But New York failed to capitalize as Kljestan’s penalty kick was saved, and Montreal locked it down after that.

Montreal’s four defenders and three veteran midfielders function as a unit, clogging passing lanes and swarming the focal point of an opponent’s attack. They erased D.C.’s Luciano Acosta in the knockout round and made life miserable for Kljestan in this series, forcing the playmaker to pass to the side or back and disconnecting him from Wright-Phillips.

Montreal committed 22 fouls on Sunday and 18 in the opener, compared to New York’s combined 21. But the series’s only red card went to the Red Bulls. Montreal toes the line. The Impact are a team that knows its strengths and they have the discipline to stick with a demanding and rigorous game plan. But it’s proven successful. If it works in Mexico City, it’ll work on I-95. The Impact will be the underdog again in the conference finals. But they’re on a roll, in rhythm and won’t be an easy out.

Sunday November 6th, 2016

The Colorado Rapids won't go away easily. They proved as much on Sunday, advancing to the Western Conference finals with a brilliant (if hard-to-watch) defensive display against the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Shëlzken Gashi scored the game's only goal in regulation, and Tim Howard saved two penalty kicks in the shootout after extra time as the Rapids advanced with a 1–0 win (and a 3–1 win in the shootout).

In an MLS playoff field rife with interesting matchups, this was always bound to be the most cagey and defensive of the conference semifinals. The Galaxy and Rapids are the two stingiest defenses in the league, and the teams showed why over the course of a grueling and ultimately boring 180 minutes over two weekends. On Sunday, defensive shape, strong tackles, and a complete dearth of good scoring chances characterized the day. 

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Timing is right at last for Jozy Altidore to lead Toronto FC, USA at key junctures

Even when there was a goal, it came in circumstances where you would never expect one. Gashi broke the deadlock in the first half with a ridiculous strike from long distance, but that was the only goal in regulation. The malaise carried over into extra time, when an odd and frankly sort of funny confrontation between Sam Cronin and Robbie Keane served as the most exciting action. 

The Rapids' fairytale season will continue in two weeks in the Western Conference finals, where they'll face the winner of the FC Dallas-Seattle Sounders matchup. In the meantime, here are three thoughts on Sunday's second-leg snoozefest.

Shkëlzen Gashi’s goal was a thing of beauty.

The Galaxy and Rapids spent the better part of 30 minutes locked in a chess match-like game that belied the game’s playoff stakes. That all changed with a single spectacular strike from Shëlzen Gashi. The Albanian international was given space and time in the middle of the park, which was understandable given how far he was from the goal. Still, Gashi took advantage of that space by unleashing this vicious curler that flew by Galaxy goalkeeper Brian Rowe and nicked the post on the way in.

Gashi ended up leaving the game with an ankle injury at the end of the first half, and his presence was sorely missed in the second stanza, extra time, and PKs. At least he left on a high note.

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The Galaxy let nerves get to them

For as bad as it played in regulation, the Galaxy still had a chance to advance out of the tie on penalty kicks. However, their weak efforts from the spot assured that they wouldn't. Of LA's efforts, only Gerrard's was taken with any kind of assurance. Dos Santos skied his over the bar, and Ashley Cole's first-ever penalty kick in a competitive game was hit with a predictable lack of venom and was easily saved by Howard. (Indeed, one must wonder why Cole was taking a penalty at all in such a high-pressure situation). 

In the meantime, the Rapids looked fully at home in their own stadium, burying penalties with aplomb and putting all the pressure on holding midfielder Jeff Larentowicz to save the Galaxy's season. His effort, hit to almost the precise spot (and at the precise pace) as Cole's, was again easily saved by Howard.

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Impact's prior experience in challenging environments is key to their playoff success

Both attacks were woeful

The Rapids' M.O. all season has been to slow games down, cut off opponent's attacks, and take advantage of every half-opportunity their attack is given. On Sunday, Colorado did the first two things, but failed to do the last. There weren't many clear-cut chances for the Rapids to score, but the few that they generated were wasted. Dominiqe Badji in particular blew two notable chances. The first came in the 72nd minute, having been put clean through on goal with a nice ball from Jermaine Jones. However, with Galaxy goalkeeper Brian Rowe doing well to cut off the angle, Badji failed to even hit the target. The second came in extra time, when Badji got his head in the six-yard box to a cross from Marc Burch, but couldn't get any power or placement behind it.

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Amazingly enough, the Galaxy were worse. With Landon Donovan removed at halftime with an unspecified injury and Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane starting on the bench, it was all on dos Santos to lead the Galaxy attack. He couldn't conjure much. The Galaxy only managed one shot on target all game, and by the end of the game the whole team simply looked gassed. PKs are always an imperfect way to decide a playoff tie, but in this case it may have been the only way this tie was ever going to be decided. 

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