After a breakneck set of one-off elimination matches, MLS is down to its final eight teams. The wildcard round featured a pair of routs and two wildly different scoreless slogs through 90 minutes, with one decided in penalties and the other on a single moment of magic in extra time. Now, get set for a shift in strategy.
The two-game ties alter how teams prepare and approach each leg and are essentially 180-minute games, with away goals looming as the deciding factor. Regardless of whether you agree with that set-up or the lack of advantage the higher seeds have, those are the cards the remaining teams are dealt, and they'll adjust as necessary.
We're left with six of the eight top seeds after the regular season, with the Western Conference holding to form while No. 3 Chicago and No. 4 Atlanta bowed out at home in the knockout round. That makes for some intriguing pairings in the conference semifinals. Here's how they stack up:
1. Toronto FC vs. 6. New York Red Bulls
SEASON SERIES: Toronto holds a 1-0-1 edge, with the two playing to a 1-1 draw in May at Red Bull Arena before TFC claimed a 4-2 win at BMO Field in September.
WILDCARD: Gonzalo Veron and Daniel Royer. Everyone knows that the Red Bulls hinge on the production of Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan, but Toronto is going to score, and the Red Bulls need to be able to go blow-for-blow. Since Royer came back from an awfully timed midseason injury–when he was in peak form and so were the Red Bulls–he's had three goals and an assist in four games. The oft-criticized Veron, meanwhile, has five goals in his last seven games. Toronto had a record-setting season, the league's best attack and its second-best defense, but New York can match up and compete more than your average six-seed. How absurd would it be if these Red Bulls, the one with no expectations and no real pressure (well, aside from a history of playoff and knockout competition failure), knocked off the class of the league?
PREDICTION: Toronto FC advances 6-2 on aggregate.
2. New York City FC vs. 5. Columbus Crew
SEASON SERIES: NYCFC holds a 1-0-1 edge, winning 3-2 in April before the teams drew 2-2 in their season finale at Citi Field.
WILDCARD: The mystique motivating Columbus. The club continuing to advance in the postseason while reports swirl over a potential relocation to Austin, Texas, should make for some excellent theater, especially in the first leg at Mapfre Stadium. Will owner Anthony Precourt even show? The club certainly has a "team of destiny" feel to it, though it's an awkward one due to it emanating from its own front office. Oh, and it has some battle-tested, excellent players as well. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen has the stage he needs to launch himself into the U.S. men's national team conversation–but it won't happen in November if he helps keep the Crew's storybook run going. Columbus is unbeaten in 11 matches, while NYCFC quietly sputtered into the playoffs, winning one of its last seven games. This is going to be one heck of a series.
PREDICTION: Columbus advances 5-4 on aggregate.
1. Portland Timbers vs. 4. Houston Dynamo
SEASON SERIES: Portland holds a 1-0-1 edge, winning 4-2 at home in March before drawing 2-2 in Houston in July.
WILDCARD: The first leg. Houston was atrocious on the road, and that's putting it mildly. A 1-9-7 mark away from BBVA Compass Stadium is what kept the club from a first-round bye. But it's been amazing at home, going 12-1-4. While the neighboring Astros are working on a World Series run, the Dynamo could propel themselves to a run of their own, but they'll need to stake themselves out to a big lead, because, simply put, the Timbers won't capitulate at home. Not this edition. Will Caleb Porter opt for a more conservative approach in the opening leg, fully confident of a win in the second? The Timbers are set up perfectly to succeed in this matchup, but being a bit open and allowing Houston to strike on the counterattack could result in a surprise end result.
PREDICTION: Portland advances 5-2 on aggregate.
2. Seattle Sounders vs. 3. Vancouver Whitecaps
SEASON SERIES: The teams were both 1-1-1, with Vancouver winning 2-1 at home in April, the two playing to a 1-1 draw in Vancouver in August and Seattle winning 3-0 at home in late September
WILDCARD: Who is actually available for Seattle? Clint Dempsey will miss the first leg after receiving a red card in the club's regular-season finale. Osvaldo Alonso hasn't played in a month because of injury but appears to be on his way back. Jordan Morris, Victor Rodriguez and Gustav Svensson are all on the mend. The Sounders have depth, and the bye they earned will have certainly helped those players in recovery, but it certainly appears that a MASH unit is taking the field against a deep Vancouver side that restored some momentum by thrashing San Jose in the wildcard round. That Vancouver gets to open at home and build on that momentum is a bonus for the lower seed.
PREDICTION: Vancouver advances 4-1 on aggregate.