Breakdown: Final weekend drama paves the way for a first look at the MLS postseason
The final whistle at Sporting Park on Sunday night drew a compelling final weekend and a protracted regular season to a close. The events of the previous eight months transformed into preamble for the journey poised to commence over the next few days.
All of the struggle during the regular season whittled the field of potential champions from 19 to 10. The next five weeks will winnow the list of contenders even further until one side manages to lift the trophy on Dec. 7.
It is a fresh start for everyone involved. The regular season sorted out the landscape and the seeding. The playoffs — starting with the one-off Knockout Round matches in midweek and proceeding through the two-legged conference semifinals and finals prior to MLS Cup — determine the champion.
Seattle enters the gauntlet ahead as the favorite after securing both the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and the Supporters’ Shield, but history indicates Sounders FC faces a complicated road toward a third title this season. Two-thirds of Supporters’ Shield winners fall short during a tumultous postseason always ready to spring a surprise. The pressure falls squarely on Sounders FC to buck the trend, reach the final and win it at CenturyLink Field.
The other nine teams will hope to sidetrack those Rave Green ambitions. LA Galaxy looms as the second favorite in the West after pushing Seattle to the last day, while Real Salt Lake always poses a threat. FC Dallas and Vancouver will strive to emerge from the Knockout Round to make a sustained push. The picture is more muddled in the Eastern Conference with any of the five teams capable of advancing to MLS Cup.
The answers will start to emerge over the next few days. With the regular season now in the rearview mirror, it’s time to take a first look at the confirmed playoff matchups to commence the preparations.
Western Conference knockout round: (4) FC Dallas – (5) Vancouver (Wednesday, 9:00p.m. ET at Toyota Stadium)
The first match of the postseason promises a renewal of hostilities. Bad blood simmered between the two teams and the two technical staffs with disagreements, scuffles and shouting matches pockmarking the final two regular season encounters.
The emphasis on breaking quickly leaves ample room for both teams to operate in possession. It is not a department either side can afford to ignore given the inevitable emphasis on restricting opportunities to proceed quickly from back to front. The difference between the sides might arise in possession (look to see whether Mauro Diaz or Pedro Morales can locate time and space to pull the strings) or from a set piece (monitor Blas Perez and Kendall Waston carefully in both boxes).
Composure, of course, remains a critical component in this affair. FCD holds a mixed record in terms of its temperament, while the Whitecaps enter this game with little experience at this stage. The margin between the two teams is narrow: Neither side can afford to tip the scales with something foolish.
Eastern Conference knockout round: (4) New York – (5) Sporting Kansas City (Thursday, 8:00p.m. ET at Red Bull Arena)
Bradley Wright-Phillips arranged this date with his record-tying double at Sporting Park on Sunday night. Wright-Phillips buzzed around in pursuit of the single-season goals record — he finished tied on 27 goals with Roy Lassiter (1996) and Chris Wondolowski (2012) — and captured the sentiment of a committed and organized Red Bulls side with his performance on the night.
Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes cited fatigue in the wake of the 2-0 defeat, but the problems run a bit deeper than tired legs for the MLS Cup holders. This well-oiled machine started to creak and shake in the summer. Several factors — the crowded fixture list, the drop in form from several regulars, the inability for squad players to take larger roles and the sale of Uri Rosell to Sporting Lisbon with an eye on next season, for example — stripped away the usual reliability from this system and the unit as a whole.
The big question is whether Sporting — a team perhaps best suited to perform on the road when other teams are expected to carry more of the play — can slide everything back into place over the next few days. The acumen and the talent is in place to cast aside the recent struggles, but the energy must follow suit. Any resurgence starts with an emphasis on that intelligent pressure, a return to basics at the back and a tidy approach on the ball.
Even with all of those pieces in place, Sporting will face a fight to keep its season alive. New York churned through its own selection issues over the past couple of months and struck the right balance recently (with the exception of a no-show against Columbus). Red Bulls coach Mike Petke must evaluate the fitness of Thierry Henry (Achilles tendonitis) carefully as he weighs potential lineup changes. The alterations must protect the balance in central midfield, while the group as a whole must provide plenty of service to the streaky Wright-Phillips to arrange a meeting with D.C. United in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Eastern Conference semifinals: (2) New England – (3) Columbus (first leg: Saturday, 4:00p.m. ET at Crew Stadium; second leg: Nov. 9, 5:00p.m. ET at Gillette Stadium)
Columbus mirrored New England’s path to the postseason last year: The Crew closed well and then watched the teams in front of them crumble to sneak into third place. This direct route to the conference semifinals — sealed with a late Bernardo Anor winner against Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon and that New York win on Sunday night — creates a pairing of the two in-form sides in the East and offers an enticing contrast in styles.
New England finished the season with nine wins in its final 11 matches because it consistently figures out a way to expose the opposition and grind through games. Lee Nguyen deserves plenty of credit on the back of a MVP-caliber season, but this recent stretch resulted from a group effort. Jermaine Jones’ presence provided everyone — and Nguyen, in particular — with more freedom moving forward and more grit in those defensive duties. Few teams in the league operate more potently when combining in tight spaces to transition through the line, but that fluidity does not come at the expense of the overall shape.
Columbus will attempt to thwart those efforts by keeping possession reliably and using its wide players to exploit the occasional concentration lapses in defense. Ethan Finlay tormented the Revs this season with his intelligent, slicing runs infield. He will need plenty of support from the rock-solid midfield three — Federico Higuain as the roving schemer, Tony Tchani as the increasingly reliable link and Wil Trapp as the deep-lying distributor — to figure out a way to break the Revs down once again.
As the previous meetings showed, the key to this series looms in the middle third. If New England can retain its shape for 90 minutes and stop giving away fouls inside its own half, then it can focus on exploiting the gaps behind the Crew fullbacks and playing Nguyen and Charlie Davies into pockets of space. If Columbus can reduce those opportunities to combine and stroke the ball around well enough to create chances, then the Crew might place itself in a position to procure the desired results.
Both teams have enjoyed success with their chosen paths this season. More importantly, they have achieved success against each other. Their previous give-and-take and their scorching recent form makes this tie particularly compelling.
Western Conference semifinals: (2) LA Galaxy – (3) Real Salt Lake (Saturday, 8:00p.m. ET at Rio Tinto Stadium; second leg: Nov. 9, 7:30p.m. ET at StubHub Center)
There are few secrets between these two sides. This is their fourth meeting in the past six postseasons, a mark of their continued success and their sustained ability to produce results at the right part of the season. The actors have changed over that time period, but the fundamental principles remains largely the same.
Most of the scrutiny in this tie will fall straight down the middle of the park. Both teams tuck their nominal wide players inside to create room for their fullbacks on the overlap. It creates congestion in that portion of the field with Ned Grabavoy often asked to help out Kyle Beckerman to cope with Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas on the other side. Javier Morales will try to pull both Galaxy midfielders into difficult areas, while the two teams will attempt to make profitable use of the wide areas with combination play and timely forays into those open spaces.
The biggest wrinkle in this meeting takes place on the RSL teamsheet: Is Chris Schuler (facial fractures) sharp enough for this arduous two-legged tie? Schuler comprises one-half of a formidable central defensive duo with Nat Borchers. Schuler’s anticipation and dexterity combined with Borchers’ astute positioning and tactical intelligence gives RSL a good chance to cope with the incessant movement of Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes. If Schuler isn’t quite up to his best or Carlos Salcedo needs to replace him for some reason, then the Galaxy might find those precious gaps and use them to good effect.
Expect these two veteran sides to give little quarter and expect none. It is how their previous three postseason meetings unfolded. This series should follow suit and provide ample intrigue along the way.