MLS's hectic midweek knockout drama gave way to more measured and tempered first legs of the conference semifinals on Sunday, when all eight teams remaining were in action, looking to take steps forward on the road to MLS Cup. The drop in gripping action is normal when shifting from single-elimination knockout matches to two-legged series, with the combination of tired legs (from the teams not fortunate to have first-round byes) and the teams' lack of willingness to gamble and leave themselves susceptible to series-killing mistakes typically resulting in lower scoring, more cagey theater in playoff series openers.
Half of the midweek winners capitalized on their recent momentum in hosting those opening legs, with the Columbus Crew toppling the Supporters' Shield-holding New York Red Bulls, 1-0, and the Portland Timbers coming from behind to beat the Seattle Sounders, 2-1. Both the Red Bulls and Sounders entered the postseason on five-match winning streaks, while the Red Bulls had lost twice since July 14 and the Sounders had lost twice since July 4. So needless to say, these were not the results the higher seeds desired or expected.
On the flip side, Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City handled business on the road and will go home for the second legs with the odds in their favor, with the former conquering NYCFC at Yankee Stadium, 1-0, and the latter drawing Real Salt Lake 1-1, taking the away-goal edge into its home game.
Here are the major takeaways from the opening legs to the four series:
Ideal result for Berhalter's Crew
If Gregg Berhalter is indeed going to be the next U.S. men's national team manager, as has been speculated by plenty for some time, he's doing a nice job going in with a head of steam. After devising a tactical game plan to largely remove D.C. United's star tandem Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta in the knockout round, Berhalter pushed the right buttons again on Sunday.
He took the calculated risk of keeping 34-year-old Federico Higuain on the bench to start the match, which came three days after a grueling 120 minutes in the nation's capital. After his side saw out a scoreless first half, he turned to his veteran playmaker to make a difference. That he did, turning a slick back-heel pass into Gyasi Zardes's path inside the Red Bulls box. Zardes scored, and that was that.
The match–not to mention the series–was nearly changed on a pair of late saves. Losing 1-0 on the road isn't the end of the world for the Red Bulls, but it was very nearly 2-0, when Pedro Santos found space to rip from the edge of the box, forcing Luis Robles into a diving save that preserved the scoreline.
On the other end, the one time Kaku and Bradley Wright-Phillips were able to link up in a dangerous area resulted in a glanced header by the latter, who looked likely to even the score at the death. That is, until goalkeeping hero Zack Steffen made an instinctive, diving save to his left, pawing the ball to safety.
To concede an away goal and settle for a draw at that juncture could have been a dagger for the Crew. To keep the Red Bulls scoreless and turn up the pressure on the MLS Cup-hungry side heading into the second leg, on the other hand, is the ideal outcome for Berhalter's well-drilled side.
Seattle's dream start turns into an injury-laden nightmare
After 10 minutes in Portland, Raul Ruidiaz had scored, and the Sounders were enjoying a perfect start: the lead plus an away goal and carrying full momentum on a team that just endured through a hard-fought win in Dallas a few days prior.
But then Cristian Roldan, the influential midfielder, went out with a groin injury. And with about 10 minutes to go in the first half, center back rock Chad Marshall, the heartbeat of MLS's second-best defensive unit, injured his right knee making a seemingly innocuous pass out of the back. Factor in that Portland scored twice directly off giveaways, through Jeremy Ebobisse and Sebastian Blanco, all while this was happening, and Seattle's brilliant start turned south real quickly.
To Seattle's credit, it weathered the storm. The 2-1 loss, given everything that transpired after the opener, was not a worst-case scenario, and Portland will surely rue not going for the jugular against an opponent that was ripe for the picking. The problem for the Sounders, though, is that unlike the three other conference semifinal series, there's less rest in this one. Seattle will host the second leg Thursday night, not next Sunday, and if Roldan and Marshall can't go, it'll require a major turnaround against a team–and more specifically a dominant midfield–that holds the early advantage.
Atlanta's neutralizer for NYCFC's small field: Set pieces
Atlanta United is a team that thrives off space and dynamic combinations, and with that not entirely feasible during a physical and choppy match on NYCFC's narrow, slippery set-up in the Yankee Stadium outfield, Tata Martino's side needed a Plan B. That turned out to be excelling on set pieces.
Atlanta had one apparent goal off a set piece taken off the board via VAR and another would-be goal off a set play shanked by Leandro Gonzalez Pirez before finally breaking through off another corner. Josef Martinez's initial volley off the corner was saved, but the rebound fell nicely on the doorstep for Eric Remedi, who touched home the first goal of his professional career for the opener and crucial away strike.
If NYCFC wanted to win this series, it really needed to hold serve at home and use its confines to its advantage. The task will be immense to top Atlanta at what will surely be a rocking Mercedes Benz Stadium next Sunday.
Instant impact changes SKC's outlook
Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes was hoping for an impact out of second-half substitute Diego Rubio, but he couldn't have possibly anticipated it coming so soon.
Less than a minute after the Chilean stepped onto the field, with his side trailing 1-0 at No. 6 Real Salt Lake, he was on the scoresheet, pouncing on a blocked Nick Rimando clearance and firing home with his first touch of the game. While he'll garner all the praise for the crucial away goal, which totally changes Sporting KC's series outlook, it's his countryman, Felipe Gutierrez, who deserves ample credit as well. It was his hustle and block that altered Rimando's clearance, and his sly seal off of Kyle Beckerman that created Rubio's unimpeded shooting lane.
The draw gives SKC the slight edge going home, thanks to the away goal, and it'll have the benefit of knowing one of RSL's chief attacking threats won't be available to play in the return leg.
Albert Rusnak was one of five RSL players carrying yellow cards into the conference semifinals, after Thursday's action-packed win over LAFC. So his needless tackle on Graham Zusi less than half an hour into Sunday's bout ruled him out for the second leg, due to card accumulation. One look at what he was able to do in opening the scoring in the first leg, and you can see what RSL will be missing.
The draw is clearly not the worst-case circumstance for RSL, but knowing that Rusnak won't be playing in the second leg all while conceding the road goal on an entirely unnecessary sequence has it feeling like more of a loss than a tie for the lowest seed remaining in either conference.