Conference Semifinal Leg 1 Preview

Well that was fun.

We made it through the knockout round, and while some games went about how we expected them (looking at you, Vancouver v. San Jose), others were a bit more dramatic. How many of you had Atlanta losing at home? If you didn’t get a chance to watch the Atlanta United FC v. Columbus Crew SC game, figure out a way to go watch it. It was one of the most exciting, entertaining MLS matches I’ve ever seen. It was certainly the best 0-0 draw I’ve ever seen.

Now we move onto the conference semi-finals. Teams no longer have to worry about getting eliminated upon losing a single game. The two-legged series will start at the home field of the lower seeds. The team with the most aggregate goals after the two legs wins. Away goals are a thing now, which adds a unique bit of strategy the knockout round lacks. It should be a fun week of soccer!

Best matchup of the conference semifinals leg 1: Columbus Crew SC v. New York City FC – Tuesday, October 31, 8:00PM, ET, ESPN

As I mentioned already, the ATLUTD v. Crew SC game was one of the best MLS matches I’ve ever watched. Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen played out of his mind in that game, coming up huge with eight saves and two big penalty kick stops. Simply put, the Crew won this game because of Zack Steffen. The 22-year-old American made everyone take notice of his abilities, and he even had some people saying he should be called up to the USMNT for the game against Portugal. He had that kind of night.

Yes, the Crew were outshot and outpossessed by Atlanta. That was to be expected, though. Atlanta had been dominant in their home games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and few people gave the Crew a chance to knock out the darlings of MLS on the road. They did what they needed to do, though, earning the victory in penalties (even if it shouldn’t have come to that since Ola Kamara had a goal called back due to a bogus offside call).

Now the Crew go back to Columbus for the first leg of their series with NYCFC. You can bet that MAPFRE will be filled to capacity, and I’m guessing we’ll see a few #SaveTheCrew signs in the stands. New York City comes into this series as the #2 team in the Eastern Conference, finishing the year with 57 points. NYCFC and the Crew faced off twice in the regular season, with NYC taking the first game at MAPFRE 3-2 and the two sides drawing 2-2 at Citi Field on Decision Day.

Columbus is 12-3-2 at MAPFRE this year, and they’ve been in good form to end the season. Counting their win against ATLUTD, the Crew are on an 11-game unbeaten streak and have to be feeling confident. NYCFC are actually decent on the road at 6-7-4, though. NYC had the Crew’s number at MAPFRE earlier in the year, but there’s a buzz around this Crew team after their knockout round win, and I think they’ve been able to harness the energy from everything happening off the field and channel it into success on the field. I think the Crew will head into the second leg with a one goal advantage over NYCFC.

Worst game of the conference semifinals leg 1: Houston Dynamo v. Portland Timbers FC – Monday, October 30, 9:30PM ET, Fox Sports 1

It’s not that this will be a bad game at all. It could actually be a pretty fun game. There just isn’t as much intrigue surrounding this one. Houston hosted Sporting KC in the knockout round and were able to get an extra time goal from Alberth Elis to move on after knocking out Sporting KC. The Dynamo didn’t exactly look like an MLS Cup worthy team, though. Sure, the Dynamo got 20 shots off, but only five were on target. The Dynamo only held the ball 37.9% of the time and committed 21 fouls, earning five yellows in the process. The last two teams to knock out SKC in the first round of the playoffs did go on to win MLS Cup, though, so who knows?

Portland enters the game still a bit banged up even after week of rest. Star striker Fanendo Adi has been battling injuries as of late, and it’s looking more and more like he may not return at all in 2017, which is bad news for the Timbers faithful. Darren Mattocks will likely start up top for PTFC, who’s netted four goals and has two assists in 2017. He’s appeared in 24 matches this year, but he’s started only 11 and has just over 1,000 minutes logged this year. His legs will be pretty fresh, which will be the Timbers biggest advantage in this game.

Houston is a fast team, but they’re entering this game on a mere three days of rest after playing an extra time game on Thursday. The Dynamo were one of the best home sides in MLS this year at 12-1-4 in the regular season, which is Houston’s biggest advantage going into this game. The Timbers are a poor 4-9-4 on the road, so Timbers fans are likely hoping to come out of this game with a draw and one or two away goals to their name. They were able to earn a 2-2 draw at BBVA Compass Stadium back in July, so they can certainly do it again.

The rest:

Sunday, October 29

Vancouver Whitecaps FC v. Seattle Sounders FC – 8:30PM ET, ESPN

The Whitecaps laid the smackdown on San Jose during the knockout round. I know the Earthquakes were the worst team to make it into the postseason, but a 5-0 is an impressive scoreline no matter who you’re playing. The Whitecaps will have it a bit harder this week in their two-legged series against Seattle.

The Whitecaps had eight shots on target against the Earthquakes, converting five of them into goals. Something tells me that Stefan Frei will be a bit harder to get the ball past. Frei was one of the better keepers in MLS this year, with 13 shut outs to his name, the most in MLS. Nothing against Andrew Tarbell, but the Whitecaps will be facing a much tougher test in Frei than they did in the knockout round.

These two Cascadia rivals are no strangers, as the Whitecaps and Sounders have already faced off three times in 2017. Vancouver took the first match 2-1 at BC Place in April, but Seattle was able to earn a 1-1 draw when they went back to BC Place in August before beating Vancouver 3-0 at Century Link in September. Those last two games are probably the more important ones to pay attention to, as the Sounders team of the second half of the season is an entirely different side than the Sounders of the first half of the season.

Seattle only lost two of their last 16 MLS regular season games. They won their last two against FC Dallas and Colorado by a combined score of 7-0. Seattle is firing on all cylinders going into the post-season. Their only problem ahead of this match is they’ll be missing Clint Dempsey, who will be suspended for his red card earned against Colorado. Will Bruin may have to step up since Seattle will be without their leading goal scorer.

Vancouver will try to come out and score fast in this one. They’ll want to capitalize on their momentum from their big blowout over the Earthquakes. Vancouver’s leading scorer Fredy Montero will have a bit of extra motivation facing off against his old team, too. This won’t be an easy match for either side, but I could see Seattle earning a draw or maybe even sneaking out with a one goal lead when it’s all said and done.

Monday, October 30

New York Red Bulls v. Toronto FC – 7:00PM ET, Fox Sports 1

The Red Bulls shocked the MLS world when they took down the Chicago Fire in Chicago. Not only did they beat the Fire, they destroyed them 4-0. The Fire may have technically outshot the Red Bulls and won the possession battle, but RBNY got six shots on target compared to the Fire’s three.

Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan showed why they are a couple of the best players in MLS, each coming away with a goal and Sacha adding an assist to his tally as well. The Red Bulls defense was able to hold Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic to a mere two shots, effectively eliminating him from the game.

The Red Bulls won’t win 4-0 this week, even though they head back to Red Bull Arena. Toronto FC comes into this series having just completed the best regular season in MLS history. TFC finished #1 in the East and won the Supporters’ Shield after earning 69 points. Giovinco and Jozy Altidore are two of the most dangerous attacking players in MLS, combining for 31 goals on the year Victor Vazquez and Justin Morrow each added eight goals, with Tosaint Ricketts adding another seven. Simply put, Toronto FC can score a lot of goals.

I know RBNY fans want to believe that maybe this is the year they can finally win a cup. Maybe they can harness the momentum from their upset over Chicago and pull off another miracle. I’m sorry, RBNY fans, but it’s not happening this year. I know you’ve been good at home, but Toronto is the only team in MLS that actually had a winning road record at 7-4-6. TFC put up 74 goals on the year and had a goal differential of +37. They’re just too good, and they’re going to move on past the Red Bulls and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals without much problem.

Hot take of the week: Portland and Seattle both will head to their home fields in good position. Whether they draw or win their respective matches I’m not quite sure, but they’ll both get some road goals and will be sitting pretty heading into Leg 2.

GIF of the week: Adam Jahn silences Atlanta, and I love it.