MLS is down to its final four teams–and one of the two Eastern Conference finalists is assured of hosting MLS Cup.

By Brian Straus, Luis Miguel Echegaray, and Avi Creditor
November 05, 2017

MLS is down to its final four.

Toronto FC and the Columbus Crew will meet in the Eastern Conference final, with both knowing that the winner will earn the right host MLS Cup, by virtue of having more regular-season points than either of the two Western Conference finalists. 

Those teams are the defending champion Seattle Sounders and the Houston Dynamo, with Clint Dempsey's heroics propelling the Sounders to the cusp of another title game, while Houston returns to the final for the first time since losing consecutive title matches to the LA Galaxy in 2011 and 2012. 

The conference finals will take place after the FIFA international window, with the first legs slated for Nov. 21. Here is how the four conference semifinals were decided:

Two high-profile clubs loaded with decorated veterans, postseason experience and international pedigree combined to put on an MLS Cup playoff circus for the ages on Sunday afternoon in Toronto.

After 90 minutes of petulance, immaturity and odd bounces at rainy BMO Field, the 10-man New York Red Bulls defeated 10-man Toronto FC, 1-0, thanks to an accidental goal from Bradley Wright-Phillips. But the setback wasn’t enough to keep the hosts from their second straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals. TFC’s 2-1 win in last week’s semifinal opener at New York helped see the Supporters Shield winner through, thanks to the away goals tiebreaker.

The Reds’ advancement was expected, but Sunday’s theater of the absurd certainly wasn’t. Here are three thoughts from a strange day in Toronto.

Odd bounces, behavior steal the show

There definitely was something in the air. Sunday’s game was chippy early, and then just after the half-hour mark, it got ridiculous. The silliness started with an unnecessary, hard and late tackle by Sebastian Giovinco, of all people, on New York midfielder Tyler Adams. The whistle blew, and TFC’s Jozy Altidore immediately stepped in to confront and admonish Adams, whose sin was unclear.

Players gathered, protested and postured, and then somehow New York captain Sacha Kljestan and Altidore came together. Kljestan gave his USA teammate a light shove as the distance between them disappeared, and Altidore—one of the biggest men on the field—hit the turf dramatically. Referee Chris Penso cautioned them both and the game continued.

Neither player came out for the second half. ESPN’s cameras showed New York coach Jesse Marsch and defender Aaron Long involved in some kind of fracas in the tunnel, but apparently, Kljestan and Altidore were at the center of it. Both were ejected.

NYRB leveled the aggregate score on a 40-yard shot by midfielder Daniel Royer that bounced in off Wright-Phillips, and Toronto had a late goal called back—it would’ve been an own goal on goalkeeper Luis Robles—on an offside call.

In the 80th minute, Giovinco chased Penso after getting dispossessed deep in the New York end and was shown a yellow card for dissent. It wasn’t the first time the Italian lost his cool on Sunday, and this time it cost him. It was Giovinco’s second yellow of the series—the first was for time wasting—and he’ll now be suspended alongside Altidore for the opener of the conference finals.

There were storylines and subplots galore and plenty of drama, but this is a game and a series that will be remembered for events that had little to do with soccer. And they’re events short-handed TFC (21-6-9) might regret when the playoffs resume.

New York makes it close

The Red Bulls (16-13-8) have suffered more than any team’s fair share of playoff disappointment, but the expectations were different this time around. Marsch introduced some younger talent, like Adams, and New York qualified for the postseason as the sixth and final team in the East. After an overwhelming win over Chicago in the knockout round, March’s squad faced the top seed in rare position—with no pressure and nothing to lose.

“We are now like the 1980 [Olympic] hockey team times five,” Marsch said after losing the semifinal opener.

Apart from whatever Kljestan did to get sent off, New York handled the occasion relatively well on Sunday. Marsch mixed things up, sending his team out in a rare 4-4-2 with Adams behind Wright-Phillips and Gonzalo Verón instead of on the wing, and Kljestan and Royer running behind him. TFC found their way through on a couple of occasions early—both Altidore and Giovinco had good first-half looks—but New York never let the hosts establish much possession or momentum.

The visitors’ go-ahead goal in the 53rd minute was credited to Wright-Phillips—it was his 100th for the club—and the Englishman nearly gave his side the aggregate lead when Adams played him through in the 62nd. But TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono rushed out and made an outstanding save.

In the end, the Red Bulls held TFC to only one shot on target and became only the second visitor to win at BMO Field this year. It was a decent performance, and it will not go down on the list of New York playoff chokes. But it still wasn’t enough to move on.

Trying times for Altidore

Altidore emerged from the first leg as a sympathetic character after the abuse he suffered for his role in the USA’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup reportedly crossed the line at Red Bull Arena. Altidore said his religion (he’s a Jehovah’s Witness) was raised by a fan toward the end of the first leg.

Altidore told the Toronto Sun, “There were comments being said that my beliefs have no place in this country. It’s ridiculous.”

During the week, TFC coach Greg Vanney filed a complaint with MLS and told reporters that ahead of Sunday’s decider, “Jozy is focused. If nothing else a little more motivated, which is a good thing for us.”

Altidore’s motivation wasn’t channeled properly, however. He came close to giving TFC the lead in the 10th minute. The forward ran onto a pass from Víctor Vázquez, held off a New York defender and slipped his shot across the face of goal and just wide of the left post. But everything after that was a disaster—the confrontation with Adams, the showdown and flop next to Kljestan, and then the halftime tunnel red card. Altidore, who turns 28 on Monday, now will have to hope that he’s suspended for only the opener of the conference finals. MLS surely will investigate and rule on the events.

It’s a sad, bewildering turn for a player who was riding a whole lot higher just a few weeks ago. First the World Cup failure, and now a potentially significant and unnecessary blow to TFC’s championship hopes.

The Columbus Crew’s captivating MLS Cup playoff run—which is taking place in the shadow of owner Anthony Precourt’s dalliance with Austin, Texas—will continue. But only just barely.

The Crew labored on Sunday at Yankee Stadium, which they entered with a three-goal aggregate advantage and exited as lucky second-leg losers. Host New York City FC could’ve—and probably should’ve—scored more during its 2-0 win. But the lack of a finishing touch that coach Patrick Vieira lamented after last week’s loss continued to plague the Bronx Blues in Sunday’s Eastern Conference semifinal decider. 

As a result, Columbus won the two-game series, 4-3 on aggregate, and advanced to the Eastern finals for the second time in three seasons. They’ll play top-seeded Toronto FC. But first, here are three thoughts from the Crew’s victorious defeat.

Shaky Crew defense gives NYCFC life

Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter promised following the 4-1 rout in the series opener that was “no chance” his team would play with “11 guys inside the penalty box” in NYC. His intentions were good. But the Crew’s poor execution at the back rendered Berhalter’s plans irrelevant. Save a couple brief stretches, it was all hands on the defensive deck for the visitors, whose inability to make a few basic plays left them scrambling.

“It was an onslaught for the most part,” Crew captain Wil Trapp told ESPN afterward.

NYCFC (17-10-9) grabbed the momentum and took a vital 15th-minute lead when Crew center back Josh Williams misplayed a clearance then clipped winger Rodney Wallace inside the penalty area. David Villa then beat goalkeeper Zack Steffen with a perfectly-hit spot kick. In the 53rd, NYCFC took advantage of another defensive error. The Crew’s Jonathan Mensah slipped, which gave Wallace the space to find right back Andraž Struna in space. The Slovenian took a shot that Mensah tried to clear with his head. Instead, the ball flew backward past Steffen and left NYC a goal away from advancing.

The Crew (17-13-7) finished the regular season with the worst defensive record among the six Eastern playoff qualifiers, and they looked like it.

Mensah was bypassed on a 67th-minute counterattack by Jack Harrison, but the Englishman chose to test Steffen instead of passing and saw his bid saved. The Crew continued to struggle. They were unable to pass their way out of pressure and had difficulty defending crosses from open play. NYC’s Maxi Morález beat Trapp to a close-range, back-post header but failed to connect, and then Wallace hit the post in the 70th.

Berhalter inserted an extra defender, Lalas Abubakar, in the 88th, and that helped Columbus grind out the two-goal defeat it needed.

“I don’t think we did a good enough job to really balance the game,” Trapp said.

It was barely enough to win the series.

New York playoff failure

The Red Bulls, eliminated earlier in the day by TFC, aren’t the only New York (area) team now saddled with an unwanted label. No Big Apple outfit wants to look small under the spotlight. But at the end of its third season, NYCFC may be unwittingly establishing a tradition of stumbling in the clutch.

Sunday was NYCFC’s first MLS playoff win. But that’s a technicality. It’s showing in Columbus was so poor—from center back Alexander Callens' silly red card to the lackadaisical defending that set the table for Harrison Afful’s (eventual) series-winning goal—that the second-leg result will do little to change the overall narrative. NYCFC couldn’t finish when it mattered most and made the series’ biggest mistake.

The Blues were the higher seed in last year’s conference semis and got blasted, 7-0 on aggregate, by TFC. There was the 4-1 loss in Columbus. And in the three U.S. Open Cup games in club history, NYC is winless (0-2-1). Two of its eliminations came at the hands of the NASL’s New York Cosmos.
That's not good enough for a club with so much talent and in which so much is invested. Entering season No. 4, NYC’s misfortune in cup competition is likely going to become a bigger story.

Columbus has a real shot at this

TFC was such a massive favorite to make the MLS Cup final when the playoffs began, but its performance against the Red Bulls was shaky and it’ll now be missing the suspended Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore in the opening leg against the Crew on Nov. 21.

And that game will be in Columbus, where fans will be backing their team for 90 minutes, as well as the effort to save the club from moving to Austin in 2019. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

“We repurposed our mission right now, and it’s solely to play for the fans and give them as many home games as we can and let them enjoy something,” Berhalter said after the first-leg win over NYC.

They’ll have at least one more and, if they can get past TFC, two—the Eastern champ is guaranteed to host the MLS Cup final. Is this a team of destiny? Clubs with their “name on the cup” tend to get breaks like Callens’ red card, the Giovinco and Altidore suspensions and the five shots that have struck the woodwork behind Steffen so far during this playoff run and bounced away.

They’ll need to be better defensively, obviously, but have the opportunity to build an advantage against short-handed TFC in the first leg. If they do, maybe they’ll have learned some lessons from Sunday.

The Houston Dynamo won one game on the road all season, struggling mightily away from BBVA Compass Stadium. Come playoff time, that apparently does not matter.

The Dynamo answered the Portland Timbers' opener through an unlikely source and then secured their place in the Western Conference final through Mauro Manotas's second-half thunderbolt, ousting the 2015 MLS Cup champions on their own turf with a 2-1 victory. Houston had been 1-9-7 away from home all season–a paltry 10 points in 17 matches. But as we learn in every MLS postseason, regular-season exploits hardly matter.

Dairon Asprilla's goal in the 39th minute supplied the breakthrough after the two sides played to 0-0 draw in the first leg in Houston, but it was answered almost immediately by Dylan Remick. Manotas supplied the insurance goal in the 77th minute, sending his side through.

The Dynamo, hoping to follow in the footsteps of their neighboring World Series champion Houston Astros, are seeking their first title since 2007 and their first final appearance since 2012. They split the season series with the Sounders, winning 2-1 at home on opening day before falling 1-0 in Seattle in March.

Here are three thoughts on the Dynamo's impressive triumph, which took place without suspended goalkeeper Tyler Deric and injured veteran DaMarcus Beasley:

Former Sounder takes down Timbers

Dylan Remick had one career goal in 58 MLS matches, but the former Seattle Sounders midfielder stayed true to his roots in saving his biggest moment for the Timbers. This well-taken volley gave Houston the away goal it needed to tilt the scales in its favor. It was Manotas's goal that really put Portland to the sword, but Remick being able to answer Asprilla's opener so quickly, and just before halftime, was absolutely deflating for the Timbers.

His efforts did not go unnoticed by his former teammates, who will now be hoping to shut Remick and his new teammates down:

Manotas no stranger to spoiling Timbers' season

Last year, it was a hat trick from the relatively unknown Manotas that helped prevent the defending champion from making the playoffs. Portland missed the postseason by two points, and that result vs. Houston kicked off an 1-3-0 slide to end the season. The hat trick accounted for half of Manotas's goals in 2016. In 2017, Manotas, the 22-year-old Colombian, became more of a scoring fixture for the Dynamo, with 10 goals and added five assists in the regular season. Striking against a side that has been known for cultivating its own young, South American talent, Manotas beat Jeff Attinella from distance with a long-range dagger. Given the away-goal advantage, this go-ahead strike made Portland need two goals in the final 20 minutes, which never came.

Go back to the early stages of the first leg in Houston, when Darlington Nagbe missed his chance to put the Timbers on top. You have to wonder how much of a series-changer that moment would have been, both in terms of the psychological impact of that match, and the away-goal scoreboard that ultimately went Houston's way.

Timbers undone by injury

Whatever is in the water or artisanal coffee in Portland had some kind of an impact on the Timbers. Already down Fanendo Adi and with Sebastian Blanco restricted due to a bizarre boiled-water incident, the Timbers lost starters Diego Chara and Larrys Mabiala to injury in the first leg vs. Houston. Earlier in the week, veteran defender Roy Miller reportedly went down in training with a torn Achilles. Less than a quarter of an hour in on Sunday, starting forward Darren Mattocks went down with an apparent head injury. With about a quarter of an hour to go, Asprilla was dealt a head injury after a nasty and bloody collision with Adolfo Machado.

Portland's depth had been tried and tested plenty late this season, but Sunday's test proved to be one too tall for Caleb Porter's side, which would have welcomed the two-plus-week window between rounds to recover. The most telling stat is the one revolving around Chara. Portland is now 0-9-6 in the last 15 games in all competitions it's played without him.

He was suspended for the first leg of this matchup, but in front of his own fans, Clint Dempsey took full advantage of his opportunity as his brace secured a 2-0 victory for the Seattle Sounders against the Vancouver Whitecaps in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals, propelling the defending MLS Cup champions to the next round on a 2-0 aggregate.

The first half was played with pace but also with caution as neither team was prepared to throw many men in the box when in possession.

There was a call for a penalty just after the half-hour mark when Nouhou Tolo went down in the box and, after video review, it did appear that his shirt was tugged, but the referee decided to take no further action.

Dempsey broke the deadlock in the 56th minute after a fantastic passage of play that allowed him to score a great left-footed shot and secure his 13th goal of the season. He also tied Nicolás Lodeiro for most postseason goals in team history.

The 34-year-old forward made it 2-0 in the 88th minute thanks to a great short corner which ended up at the far post for him to put away.

Seattle goes through to the Western Conference finals for the second straight season (third in last four) and will face the winner of Portland and Houston, who play their second leg this Sunday.

Here are three thoughts on the match:

Everything must go through Nicolás Lodeiro

When watching the Sounders and deconstructing their strategy, sometimes (and amazingly) I feel as if Lodeiro’s teammates don’t understand just how good he is. There were many situations, especially in the first half, where Seattle’s fill-in captain demanded the ball in the middle of the park in order to move the chains but his plea was ignored in favor of a long ball which was eventually cleared away by Vancouver.

If Seattle is to repeat last year’s success, it must understand that everything must start and end with Lodeiro. From the simple pass that goes out wide to embarrassing a defender when faced with pressure, the 28-year-old Uruguayan playmaker can do it all.

A perfect example occurred in the first half as, just when it seemed as if there weren’t any options, Lodeiro crossed in a beautiful ball for Clint Dempsey for it to go wide. There aren’t many players in the league who could do that.

When going its way, Seattle’s possession-friendly tactics are a joy to watch. Now all Brian Schmetzer’s players need to do is listen more to their fill-in captain, because they’re incredibly lucky to have him.

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Vancouver needed a Plan B

Against San Jose, one of my biggest concerns about the Whitecaps was that their counter-attacking strategy could only take them so far because keeping the ball is a big problem for them, especially during tense matches. And when they do have the ball, it’s as if creativity is hard to come by, even in the second half when they had more of the possession in the early stages.

Fredy Montero can’t hold the ball, that’s not his strength. Yordy Reyna is not a false nine, and if Robinson observed what Ricardo Gareca does with him with Peru, he could see that he’s best used as a wider option.   

Thursday, Vancouver was without the ball for long periods of the game and once they did get it back, it was difficult to maintain any kind of rhythm. The ‘Caps need a creative midfielder who can hold the ball and dictate play.

That should be the No. 1 target in the off-season because, otherwise, issues with offensive momentum will keep happening.

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Seattle’s defense can be the key to win it all once again

The third-best defensive unit in the regular season (only conceded 39 goals) never looked in danger as everything that went in was dealt with by veteran Chad Marshall and the Panamanian World Cup qualifying hero Román Torres.

Both players are so in sync with goalkeeper Stefan Frei that it’s going to be extremely difficult for anyone to score against them.

This team has not allowed a goal since Sept. 10 (a 1-1 draw against LA Galaxy) so it’s going to take something special to break down this wall.

At this point I can’t see anything else but a repeat of last year’s MLS Cup and for Seattle to be facing off against Toronto once again. And if Seattle’s backline can maintain this level of excellence, there’s no reason why the Sounders can’t claim their second title. 

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