Pretty much everyone agrees that the 16-day gap between MLS Cup playoff games, necessitated by the FIFA international break, is a momentum-sucking, narrative-killing annoyance. That’s the consensus. The question is whether the pause will help or hurt each of the four remaining clubs. If the postseason is about getting hot and going on a run, then the conference finals—which kick off Tuesday night—may come down to a given team’s ability to make the most of its two weeks treading water.
The two clubs aiming to repeat as conference champs—Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders—are the favorites. And in MLS, that means starting on the road. Toronto will visit the Columbus Crew in Tuesday’s opener, followed by Seattle’s meeting with the Houston Dynamo. The delay has given Houston and Columbus time to sell more tickets, and the atmosphere at both matches should be playoff-quality.
As for the play, that’s an unknown. Sixteen days is a long time to wait, and MLS final four history suggests chaos to come. Since the league switched the conference championships to the two-leg format in 2012, only three of 10 higher seeds (all from the East) have moved on to the final.
Let’s set the stage, finally, for the stretch run:
Eastern Conference Finals
No. 1 Toronto FC (21-6-9) vs. No. 5 Columbus Crew (17-13-7)
Leg 1: Tuesday at Columbus, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN, TSN)
Leg 2: Nov. 29 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m. ET
Regular Season Series: April 15 - Columbus 2-1 Toronto; May 10 - Columbus 1-2 Toronto; May 26 - Toronto 5-0 Columbus
Playoff History: Never met
It’s rather remarkable that last season’s agonizing MLS Cup final loss to Seattle boosted a motivated TFC to the threshold of an historic treble, only to see its collective composure vanish once the playoffs began.
After losing at BMO Field only once all season, TFC was downed, 1-0, by the New York Red Bulls in the second leg of the conference semis. Toronto advanced thanks to the away goals tiebreaker but managed just one shot on target in a sluggish affair. And the hosts saw star attackers Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore lose their cool and earn pointless cards that will result in their suspension in Columbus.
Was the pressure finally getting to the Reds? If so, then the break can only help. Calm down, collect yourselves and spend two weeks training to play without Giovinco and Altidore (which they managed quite well in May’s five-goal demolition of Columbus). TFC is deep and experienced, and the time should help settle both the emotions and coach Greg Vanney’s tactics for Tuesday.
“Playoffs are different,” Vanney said. “[They're] about appreciating that in a way that helps you win the championship. The guys recognize that a series with New York is going to be a small percentage about soccer and a big percentage about competition.”
He continued, “I don't think the team is under any real pressure … outside of what they want, what they expect to do. There is focus, intensity, and desire to finish off this run.”
The Reds certainly can play it safer and rely on their second-ranked defense and comfort on the counter, not to mention the two weeks they’ve had to prepare. The Crew know a good first-leg result is critical and likely will be even more inspired to play on the front foot knowing TFC is missing two key attacking pieces.
Speaking of inspiration, the Crew also will take the field under the stressful shadow of owner Anthony Precourt’s designs on moving the team to Austin. The controversy and conversation has continued unabated, even through the FIFA break, and has been exacerbated by Precourt’s apparently contentious meeting with Columbus mayor Andrew Ginther and additional questions about the club’s good faith (or lack thereof). Perhaps it will continue to motivate the Crew. But perhaps it’s exhausted them. It’s a unique burden—one that will have become either more customary or more cumbersome over the past two weeks.
In playmaker Federico Higuaín, winger Justin Meram and striker Ola Kamara, the Crew have the talent to do some damage. And they’ve had two weeks to plan for shorthanded TFC. Their only chance in this series is if they stayed warm and focused during the break.
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Western Conference Finals
No. 2 Seattle Sounders (15-9-12) vs. No. 4 Houston Dynamo (15-10-12)
Leg 1: Tuesday at Houston, 9:30 p.m. ET (FS1, TSN)
Leg 2: Nov. 30 at Seattle, 10:30 p.m. ET
Regular Season Series: March 4 - Houston 2-1 Seattle; June 4 - Seattle 1-0 Houston
Playoff History: 2009 Western Conference semifinals: Houston won, 1-0, on aggregate
No MLS club has advanced to the conference finals more frequently over the past dozen years—since Houston entered the league—than the Dynamo (seven appearances), yet it’s still a shock this year’s version got this far. First-year coach Wilmer Cabrera has done a fine job of cobbling pieces together and fashioning a team that’s been very hard to beat at home. The opportunistic Dynamo rode that wave into the second leg of the conference semis in Portland, where they made more plays and got the bounces in a 2-1 win over the injury-hit Timbers.
Houston was shut out by Portland in the first leg of that series and almost certainly can’t afford that again. The Dynamo have never won in Seattle. Goals on Tuesday are a must. And that means getting Cubo Torres back in the habit of finding the net. The Mexican forward led Houston with 14 regular season goals, but he’s been blanked since late August and has scored in only one game since July 1.
It also may depend on the break’s impact on Houston’s Honduran trio: Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto and Óscar Boniek García. All three were part of Los Catrachos World Cup playoff against Australia, which they lost after a 3-1 second-leg setback in Sydney. The disappointment and the mileage very well could add up and slow the Dynamo spark plugs.
“It is tough. It is not the same when you have to travel, you know, three or four hours. When you have to travel to the other side of the world and play, with a 15-hour difference, it is tough. No matter what, it is going to take a lot of the players to recover, but we are here with 20-24 players,” Cabrera told reporters. “The team that works the best throughout this window, throughout this break, it’s going to be able to display a better performance in this game and take advantage.”
Seattle’s been rock solid defensively—goalkeeper Stefan Frei has backstopped a veteran unit that shut out the Vancouver Whitecaps over two legs after posting clean sheets in three of the final four regular season outings—and is loaded with playoff seasoning. It’s tough to imagine the Sounders straying from their path.
The most likely tangible impact of the break is a good one—forward Jordan Morris continues to train and work on his fitness following his September hamstring injury. Expect former Dynamo striker Will Bruin to start with Clint Dempsey on Tuesday, but Morris might be ready to make an impact off the bench or in the return leg.