- Three MLS conference semifinal series feature one-goal deficits heading into the second legs, while one is all level, separated only by the away-goal tiebreaker. So which of the four trailing sides has the best shot to go through?
All four MLS conference semifinals are hanging in the balance as they head into this week's second legs. Three of them are one-goal deficits, with Atlanta United going away from home to secure a 1-0 result at NYCFC, while the Columbus Crew and Portland Timbers held serve at home with 1-0 and 2-1 wins over the New York Red Bulls and Seattle Sounders, respectively.
The other series is tied, with Sporting KC holding an away-goal edge over Real Salt Lake after a 1-1 draw. So which of these trailing teams has the best shot to overturn their deficit and advance? We go one by one and take a look at the situations and who is primed to go through to the conference finals:
ECHEGARAY: If you're asking me to pick one, the obvious answer is the New York Red Bulls. There is no doubt that Columbus did what it needed to do at home and in many ways it wasn't much of a shock, regardless of RBNY's overall dominance in the regular season. Things will be different in Harrison, though, as I think chances will come. Newly crowned MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Zack Steffen was a big reason why the Crew didn't concede in the first leg, and as unbelievable as he has been, I don't think he can keep a clean sheet away from home this time around. The Red Bulls will go all out and take this one.
CREDITOR: I’m with you, generally, but it would be oh-so-Metro for the Red Bulls to win the Supporters’ Shield again only to crash out of the playoffs at the first hurdle. Gregg Berhalter has, shall we say, some extra motivation these days to prove his coaching chops, and he’s devised two excellent plans so far to stifle D.C. United and the Red Bulls. It shouldn’t shock anyone if he comes up with a third.
I’m looking at Seattle as the other team with the best shot. Yes, it just lost Chad Marshall for the postseason with a torn meniscus. And yes, Cristian Roldan’s status is up in the air as well. That’s two key starters. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that they’d come back. But they’re going home with an away goal and prevented Portland from shutting the door on the series in the opening game. Raul Ruidiaz and Nicolas Lodeiro are more than capable of breaking through and getting the goal necessary to advance. Now, whether the Sounders can get the better of Portland’s dominant Diego Valeri-Diego Chara-Sebastian Blanco midfield is another question.
ECHEGARAY: With Ruidiaz, anything is possible.
CREDITOR: Spoken like a true supporter of La Blanquirroja! But he has scored in three straight games, got the opener last week and has three multi-goal games in his last nine, so Portland has its work cut out, defensively, to go through.
Let’s look at the other remaining pairings and start by staying in the west: That Sporting KC late away goal at RSL was surely a dagger, right? Do you see a way back for RSL without the suspended Albert Rusnak?
ECHEGARAY: It is completely doable, and all you need to do is look at RSL's plan in the knockout round away at a very hostile LAFC. We had Mike Petke on Planet Futbol TV this week, and we posed the same question. His answer? Patience. Contain. Counter.
There is no doubt Sporting Kansas City poses a bigger threat than LAFC at home, as it's so good at protecting its own ground. Last time it lost at Childrens Mercy Park was in July. But it's less about the result and more about conceding goals, so there is a chance. To me it's about implementing the same plan Petke did in L.A. Frustrate the midfield and look for Jefferson Savarino to find the spaces where he can provide. Let's not forget RSL has MLS rookie of the year Corey Baird as a workhorse who enters a game with zero fear. This can be done. But I reiterate Petke's thinking: patience and take full advntage of the chances that come, especially later in the game when the legs get tired.
Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke is who he is, and with that sometimes comes fines when he deals with the media.— SI TV (@watch_SITV) November 7, 2018
Petke's reactions can be entertaining, but his wife has her own thoughts on the fines 😂
Check out more Planet Futbol on SI TV: https://t.co/JpvzmVcTj2 pic.twitter.com/iqqC3frzn1
CREDITOR: I just think Peter Vermes will put the clamps on and have his side shut down what’s proven to be a very resilient RSL side. Rusnak’s absence concerns me, though, and I just have a hard time seeing SKC blowing it. It got a rare gift in Salt Lake, and now it has the chance to grind out an ugly second leg and do what’s necessary to advance.
That leaves us with the final series. Atlanta won 1-0 at Yankee Stadium and goes home with a lead over NYCFC. What are the odds NYCFC overturns the result in front of that ridiculous crowd?
ECHEGARAY: Man, this is tough. Very tough for NYCFC. It's not so much that I think New York City won't play well, but rather it won't be enough to overcome exactly what you mentioned, the fortress that is Mercedes Benz Stadium. Here's the thing: Tata Martino won at Yankee Stadium by prioritizing set pieces. But at home, he can play his game, and I think with a healthier Miguel Almiron and a more determined Josef Martinez behind their own crowd is going to be a tall order. NYCFC can win this, it's not impossible, but it's going to need to fight fire with fire, just like the last time these two faced in Atlanta. If you sit, wait and contain, hoping to counter and sneak a goal against Atlanta United, you'll get crushed. I think the philosophy here needs to focus on playing the exact game plan from the first leg and hope Dome Torrent's squad scores more than one goal. David Villa can't be the only solution, as players like Jesus Medina need to really step up.
CREDITOR: I … don’t see it happening. Tata wisely used Almiron for only 45 minutes in his return from a hamstring injury and showed the willingness to do what it takes in different environments. Now he’s got his team in its ideal environment and a chance to go for the kill. Atlanta will go through.
So that leaves me thinking that Atlanta, Columbus, Seattle and Sporting KC will advance. Where do you stand?
ECHEGARAY: I am with Atlanta, Seattle, SKC and the Red Bulls. Sorry, Pipa.
CREDITOR: We'll find out just how wrong we are soon enough!