MLS Five Points: Conference semis finely poised after first legs

November 2, 2015

Caution dominates in first legs, but endeavor peeks through, too

MLS fell in line with the rest of the world and introduced the away goals rule prior to the 2014 postseason. Its belated arrival prompted one particularly expansive away side (New England romped to road victories at Columbus and New York Red Bulls on the way to MLS Cup) and a host of teams focused on preventing road goals first and foremost. The results reflected the prudent course: There were just five goals scored in the five first leg ties that did not include the Revs.

No team adopted the Revs’ tactics away from home during the conference semifinal stage this year, but the four visiting teams all mustered more intent than a year ago. The four matches played on Sunday produced seven goals. Three out of the four away teams even grabbed an away goal for their troubles. Only one of the games -- the Red Bulls’ professional 1-0 victory over D.C. United -- counted as a laborious chore. The sample size is far too small to take anything of statistical note, but this batch of games at least offers a modest improvement from a year ago and prompts a quartet of tense return legs next weekend.

Dempsey delivers as Seattle rides through the storm against FC Dallas


Seattle spent most of the first half and some of the second trying to strike the right balance against FC Dallas. Opposing teams struggle against FCD when they allow too much space from back to front and provide ample room to operate on the break. Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz drove home the point on the ruthlessly constructed opening goal and reinforced those issues with the danger they created over the course of the night.


Seattle midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz completed three of the Sounders' five key passes against FC Dallas, according to Opta statistics. All three of those passes came when Ivanschitz tucked inside from the right and played a ball into the middle of the field during the second half.

This 2-1 victory only arrived after Seattle shifted course appropriately. There were nervy moments after the interval, but the Sounders focused more on their strengths -- managing the tempo against quicker teams and starting moves from wider positions to open gaps in the middle, for example -- and relied on their veterans to locate the necessary openings. Andreas Ivanschitz functioned most deftly in this role for most of the night and procured his deserved reward with the equalizer. Clint Dempsey curled home a wonderful free kick in the closing moments to give Seattle a modest advantage ahead of the second leg.

Seattle must approach the second leg on Sunday (live, 7:30p.m. ET, FS1, FOX Sports GO) carefully. This performance illustrated the importance of game management against FCD and underscored the peril of heading to Texas to face the league’s best home team this season. A first leg victory is by no means a guarantee of a place in the Western Conference final, particularly if Osvaldo Alonso (groin) and Brad Evans (hamstring) are still hobbled. And the Sounders must tailor their work accordingly.

Montréal leans on structure to expose Crew SC mistakes

Didier Drogba dominates the discussion in Montréal. It makes sense: Drogba changed the club, improved the team and took the league by storm since his arrival. He is a big star in one of the league’s largest cities. But the reasons behind the Impact’s searing form since Drogba’s arrival extend beyond the influential forward’s considerable presence.


Crew SC winger Ethan Finlay completed one pass in the attacking third in the first leg against Montréal, according to Opta statistics. Finlay finished third in MLS this season with 11 assists.

The foundation starts with the extensive work interim coach Mauro Biello carried out on the Impact’s shape. This is now a well-drilled side with a back four marshaled by the excellent Laurent Ciman and a midfield trio instructed to protect them. The core of the side forces teams to operate in the wide areas and provides ample latitude for Drogba and Ignacio Piatti to find the game wherever they see fit.

All of those qualities rose to the fore in the 2-1 victory over Columbus on Sunday. Montréal ceded lots of ground, but the Impact blunted Crew SC in possession and limited the influence of Best XI candidates Ethan Finlay (pulled off in the second half) and Kei Kamara (isolated for most of the night). Those efforts restricted Crew SC to one goal (prompted by a poor Drogba clearance on Justin Meram’s cross from the left) and set the table for the Impact to pounce on two mistakes and secure a precious victory.

Those qualities must endure ahead of the return leg at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday. Columbus will chase the game earnestly, operate neatly in possession and risk their defensive shape from time to time. Montréal must maintain this course to navigate through that difficult assignment and seal a place in the Eastern Conference final.

Whitecaps set out their stall to secure draw in Portland

Vancouver Whitecaps led MLS with 24 away points during the regular season. Their success away from B.C. Place stemmed from an organized defensive shape and a willingness to commit numbers forward at the right times on the break. Both principles appeared at different points during the 0-0 draw at Portland Timbers.


Portland and Vancouver tied for the MLS lead with seven away victories this season.

Most of the attacking thrust arrived before halftime. Vancouver created two good opportunities to punish the Timbers on the break. Both of them passed without the corresponding punishment after Gershon Koffie scuffed his attempt and Octavio Rivero thrashed high on the turn.

The wastefulness in front of goal -- a rather troubling habit for the Whitecaps in the second half of the season -- heaped pressure on the Whitecaps as the Timbers pressed after the break. Vancouver kept its shape well and remained connected across the back four. Those efforts allowed David Ousted to intervene when necessary (including with a stellar stop on a Diego Valeri free kick) and paved the way for a precious point.

The key for the Whitecaps: coping with a different dynamic at home in the second leg. Portland boasts similar qualities -- the Timbers are better in possession, but they also organize well and sweep forward on the counter -- and often reaps the benefits away from home. Vancouver must devise the right balance to navigate through a difficult second leg at B.C. Place.

Red Bulls exhibit patience to punish D.C. United

Pressure formed the heart of the New York Red Bulls’ efforts this season. Jesse Marsch instructed his players to push high and unsettle the opposition. Those tactics led the Red Bulls to a second Supporters’ Shield in three years and pointed to a potentially profitable approach against D.C. United on Sunday.


D.C. United completed just 54.5 percent of their passes in the first leg against New York. It marked the lowest passing accuracy of any MLS team in a single match this year.

In this particular instance, the Red Bulls benefited from the threat of that pressure in the 1-0 triumph at RFK Stadium. United adopted a safety-first approach on the inside its own half. Any sight of danger prompted a direct ball out of the back with little regard for keeping possession. Those measures allowed United to stem its early-match troubles (no team allowed more goals inside the first 15 minutes this year), but they also permitted the Red Bulls to wait for the right moment to ratchet up the pressure.

The opportune time arrived early in the second half. New York pushed higher up the field and restricted the service to Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio. United tried to keep its shape in the absence of extended spells on the ball, but the home side wobbled without the suspended Bobby Boswell. New York eventually procured a deserved winner when Dax McCarty ghosted free and nodded home Sacha Kljestan’s free kick at the far post.

United might linger on Ronald Zubar’s wild lunge on Markus Halsti and the possible influence of a Red Bulls’ red card in this match, but Ben Olsen’s side must concoct another way forward ahead of the second leg nevertheless. This sort of end product -- no cohesion on the ball, no service to Espindola and Saborio and no shots on goal -- simply isn’t good enough to overturn this tie at Red Bull Arena next Sunday.