MLS is down to its final four, and a pair of mouthwatering matchups await in the conference finals.
Sporting Kansas City held off Real Salt Lake during a frenetic second leg to set up a Western Conference final vs. the Portland Timbers, while the two best teams in the regular season, the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United, will battle in the Eastern Conference final. The Supporters' Shield-winning Red Bulls overturned a first-leg deficit to oust the Columbus Crew, while Atlanta took care of its business at home to see off NYCFC.
There will be a two-week lag in between the conference semifinals and finals, thanks to the FIFA international window, but when play resumes on Nov. 25, four of the league's finest will continue their roads to reaching the Dec. 8 MLS Cup final–which is guaranteed to be hosted by the Eastern Conference winner given New York and Atlanta both had higher regular-season point totals than Sporting KC and Portland.
Here are three thoughts on the day when the MLS playoff picture was whittled down to four:
Sporting KC brazen on all fronts
Sporting KC will face the Timbers in a rematch of their 2015 first-round clash that Portland won in PKs (and was most memorable for the double-post PK that kept the Timbers' run to an MLS Cup title alive). After carrying an away-goal edge home against the No. 6 seed, it's no surprise that Sporting KC was able to finish off the series win and advance, but how it was accomplished was certainly of note.
Sporting KC lived on the edge defensively, almost daring RSL to seize the series. Despite going up 2-0 and 3-1, SKC never put the clamps down to see out the match, and on two occasions, RSL came inches away from going ahead late via away-goal tiebreaker. First, Nick Besler did his brother and SKC opponent, Matt, a solid by hesitating when a ball fell to him some six yards out. Instead of striking it first time, he took a touch to set up a shot, giving the defense time to react and cut off the angle.
A few minutes later, with the SKC defense stretched again, Jefferson Savarino put a chance just wide of the far post. It was not the kind of outing you'd expect from a Peter Vermes-coached unit, and the reckless, brazen personality extended to the other side of the field.
After a somewhat controversial penalty call, Ilie Sanchez opted for a Panenka penalty kick with PK specialist Nick Rimando in net.
Later, with RSL pushed forward, Rimando off his line to reach a weakly hit back pass and Sporting KC finally able to see the finish line, Daniel Salloi went with a no-look finish into an empty net to ice the series.
The brazenness continued immediately after the final whistle, when the club's social media department got creative with redesigning RSL's crest.
That brazen approach speaks of a confident team taking on the playoffs with swagger. Given that Sunday's win was Sporting KC's first in the playoffs in five years, you might have expected a bit more humility, but this is a vastly different SKC than past editions from top to bottom.
Atlanta's dynamic duo shows up
Speaking of bold, brazen and confident, Atlanta United's stars were quite bright under the dome at a packed Mercedes Benz Stadium, with Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron doing the damage in a 3-1 win over NYCFC. With Martinez entering the postseason being shut out in six of his final eight games and Almiron nursing a hamstring injury and only going 45 minutes in the first leg, there was reason for Atlanta fans to have some doubts, but the duo put those fears to rest with a dominant second-leg showing.
Martinez's jump-step penalty kick was the table-setter for Almiron's sensational free kick, which effectively put NYCFC down for good.
Maxime Chanot's header restored some faint hope, but Martinez put out that fire with a fantastic late finish, taking the ball down off his chest and volleying home. In what was already a record-setting regular season for Martinez, that second goal brought him level with Roy Lassiter for the most combined goals in a regular season and playoffs in one year, a mark he'll look to break vs. the Red Bulls.
Atlanta is arguably the best team on paper in the league. Now it'll have a chance to continue showing it's the best on the field as well, with its two top dogs doing the damage and looking like their best selves.
A tale of two New Yorks
The Red Bulls and NYCFC embarked on two divergent paths this season. Both enjoyed phenomenal starts and appeared to be viable contenders playing an effective brand of soccer under confident leadership. Yet both lost their coaches to Europe over the summer. Domenec Torrent's first game at NYCFC was June 24, replacing OGC-bound Patrick Vieira. Chris Armas moved up the ladder with the Red Bulls a couple weeks later after Jesse Marsch left for an assistant role with RB Leipzig. And while Torrent's NYCFC got the better of Armas on his debut, it's the latter's side that excelled best during the transition.
The Red Bulls are still an extension of the foundation built by Marsch and his staff, and that much was evident during the second leg, in which they pressured relentlessly and scored quality team goals both in the run of play and on a set piece. That Bradley Wright-Phillips was essentially a nonfactor in the series–save for his glancing header at the end of the first leg–is a testament to the team structure and the system in place. The first of Daniel Royer's two goals in three mintues that clinched the series capped a fanastic team sequence, marked by movement, first-touch passing and a sense that everyone was on the same page.
The same cannot be said for Torrent's NYCFC, which often looked out of ideas and out of sync. It was a far cry from the well-oiled unit that Vieira had cultivated in his time at the helm, and NYCFC ultimately lost its way. Torrent won five of his first six games in charge, but then went 3-6-4 to stumble down the stretch before winning the knockout-round matchup vs. Philadelphia.
The question, now, is what comes of the two managers of the losing sides of their respective series. NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna and City Football Group will have to determine whether he's the right coach to take NYCFC forward.
After falling to the Red Bulls, Columbus's Gregg Berhalter is at the center of a much larger question. He's widely been reported to be U.S. Soccer's choice to take the helm of the men's national team. Dave Sarachan will guide the USMNT against England and Italy during the upcoming window, that much is certain. If Berhalter, indeed, is the chosen one, would the powers that be disrupt camp with an immediate announcement? With Thanksgiving just two days after the Italy match and U.S. Soccer in no apparent rush, it could be a little while longer before Berhalter's coaching future is officially sorted–and yet another piece of important business involving the Crew dangling in limbo for a little longer.