Knockout Round Preview: Impact, Toronto FC meet again, Timbers host Sporting Kansas City
Chaos erupted on the first night of the MLS postseason. Juan Agudelo produced one of the goals of the season with his magnificent bicycle kick in New England's 2-1 defeat at D.C. United, And that goal somehow ended up taking a back seat to Jermaine Jones' eruption at Mark Geiger and Seattle's cathartic victory to oust defending champions LA Galaxy.
Those developments injected a sense of drama into the playoffs at the first possible moment. The unenviable task of summoning an encore falls on the remaining four teams in the Knockout Round as this truncated round winds to a close.
Eastern Conference: (3) Montréal Impact -- (6) Toronto FC, 7:00p.m. ET (UniMas, TSN1/4/5, RDS)
Decision Day established the broad strokes between these two sides and paved the way for a second meeting inside a week. Both teams rely heavily on their stars to mask potential issues elsewhere, but they also understand how to place themselves in the proper position to thrive.
Toronto FC operates deftly in possession to highlight the strength in midfield and protect a brittle, mistake-prone back four. This is not a group with a surplus of natural wingers, but it does boast Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio to pry open reluctant defenses. Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco rely on the industry and the service provided by Bradley and Osorio from midfield. It is a group that can create opportunities in a number of ways and punish the Impact if the defensive shape starts to buckle.
Montréal set the stage for its recent improvement by tending to its defensive structure. Interim coach Mauro Biello shored up some of the evident holes and strengthened the spine of the side. Those measures reduced the liability at the back and reinforced the ability to break forward on the counter. There are other tools available -- the counter remains a potent weapon even if Didier Drogba's presence requires a different sort of delivery, while Ignacio Piatti slices teams open in possession -- yet the Impact often reap the greatest dividends when forced to rely on their preferred routes (and Drogba).
Both teams played to those advantages on Sunday. That meeting -- highlighted by Drogba's quick double -- ended in the Impact's favor, but it also pointed the way forward for Toronto FC ahead of this second engagement at Stade Saputo.
X-Factor: Drogba and Giovinco loom as the decisive figures here. The superior player on the day likely spurs his side to victory. The onus falls on both defenses to manage those considerable threats accordingly.
Western Conference: (3) Portland Timbers -- (6) Sporting Kansas City, 10:00p.m. ET (UniMas, TSN 1/4/5, RDS)
Sporting Kansas City tends to rise and fall to the level of its opposition. It is a fact borne out of its strengths (the high-pressure, 4-3-3 setup is often wielded more effectively against teams more willing to play) and the ability to summon them against better sides. Both tenets will prove crucial here ahead of this tie against the resurgent Timbers.
Portland produced its best performance of the season -- a 5-2 victory at LA Galaxy on Oct. 18 -- by returning to its roots. Timbers boss Caleb Porter eschewed the direct, pragmatic approach employed for most of this season and trusted Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri to dictate the terms of the game instead. Those measures sparked new life into a team sputtering toward the end of the campaign. Nagbe, in particular, poses more of a threat now when deployed in the midfield three. The turn toward a more expansive deportment also opens new supply lines to the streaky Fanendo Adi and increases the latitude for a competent defense.
Those adjustments heap pressure on Sporting Kansas City to maintain its shape diligently. This is not one of those games where Sporting plans to push the fullbacks high and wield possession in the attacking third on a regular basis. It is more about claiming possession at the right times and slicing through the Timbers when it arrives. Those tactics generated a win at Providence Park earlier this month, but they also reduce the margin of error significantly.
X-Factor: Sporting can only spend so much time absorbing pressure. It must figure out a way to frustrate and limit Nagbe and Valeri in central midfield. If the Timbers dominate in the middle third, then Sporting might find it too difficult to register a fourth result against Portland this year.