Conference Finals Leg 1 Preview

Woah, we actually have MLS games tonight? Yes, the MLS Cup Playoffs are still a thing, despite the fact that we haven’t seen a game in sixteen days. (You gotta do something about that, MLS.)

The conference finals begin tonight, and both matchups should be fun to watch. Each of the four teams left are capable of scoring multiple goals per match. I think the days of boring 0-0 playoff draws are behind us now. (Which means now that I’ve said that both games will probably end 0-0.)

Anyways, we’ve waited long enough, so let’s get right to it.

Columbus Crew SC v. Toronto FC – Tuesday, November 21, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN

This is going to be a fun game. The atmosphere should be absolutely electric, but not because the Crew are a couple games away from MLS Cup. Nope, MAPFRE Stadium will be filled to the brim with loud, passionate COLUMBUS soccer fans. #SaveTheCrew is gonna turn out en masse. Will you be there, Anthony Precourt?

Columbus shocked many when they jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the first leg of their conference semi-final matchup against NYCFC. As it turns out, they needed every single one of those four goals, including Harrison Afful’s 90’+3 stoppage time goal that seemed merely an insurance goal at the time. NYCFC was able to get a 2-0 victory at Yankee Stadium in the second leg, but the final 4-3 aggregate went to the Crew.

As for Toronto FC, many people outside of Red Bulls fans thought they’d be able to handle RBNY relatively easily, especially when they went back to BMO with a 2-1 lead after scoring two road goals. Well, the second leg didn’t go quite as planned for TFC, to say the least. The Reds actually lost the second leg 1-0, leading to a 2-2 aggregate tie, but Toronto moved on thanks to their 2-1 away goal advantage. TFC can breathe a sigh of relief, right? Not so fast.

Both Giovinco and Jozy Altidore will miss the first leg of the conference finals against Columbus due to suspension. Jozy was shown a second yellow at halftime during an altercation with RBNY, giving him a red card and a one-game suspension. Giovinco was shown a yellow in the 80’ for dissent (FWIW I actually think Seba had a point), and as a result he earned a suspension for yellow card accumulation.

All that leads to an emotionally charged matchup at MAPFRE where Crew fans will be fighting for their team’s existence while taking on a shorthanded TFC side. Columbus hosted Toronto at MAPFRE twice during league play relatively early in the season, winning once and losing once with a 2-1 score line in both games. The bad news for the Crew is neither Giovinco nor Altidore were involved in the two goals that led to their loss on May 10. Tosaint Ricketts found the net twice in ten minutes thanks to assists from Raheem Edwards and Victor Vazquez. Oh, and Giovinco didn’t even play in that game.

The Crew will absolutely need to get out to a fast, early lead and keep building if they have any hope of beating Toronto on aggregate over two legs. Toronto has been a behemoth at home all year, which the Crew know better than anyone after losing 5-0 to TFC at BMO in May. However, at that point the Crew team weren’t nearly in the form they have been as of late.

The Crew ended the season on a 10-game unbeaten streak. That continued into the playoffs when they beat ATLUTD on the road and NYCFC in the first leg of the conference semifinals. Sure, they were beaten 2-0 on the road in the second leg, but they did what they had to do to move on. They’ll need to rely on the strong attacking talent of Ola Kamara, Justin Meram and Federico Higuain, with the Crew likely needing at least three goal victory in the first leg if they want to have a chance heading back to BMO.

Toronto will have to turn to some of their secondary contributors without Giovinco and Jozy Altidore available. But, Toronto’s secondary options would be stars on many other MLS teams. Victor Vazquez has eight goals and a team high 16 assists. Tosaint Ricketts and Justin Morrow have seven and eight goals respectively as well. Yes, missing the combined 31 goals and 12 assists of Seba and Jozy is far less than ideal, but this team is still a strong side without their two stars.

I imagine that the Crew will come out fast and strong, maybe even stealing an early goal feeding on the emotion of the crowd. But, don’t be surprised if Toronto settle in and find a couple goals themselves. A 2-2 draw or 3-2 Crew victory seems likely, which Toronto gladly take back to BMO for the second leg.

Houston Dynamo v. Seattle Sounders FC – Tuesday, November 21, 9:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1

First things first, this game will absolutely not start at 9:30 p.m. ET. Sure, that’s when FS1 broadcast coverage may start, but kick will be at 10 p.m. ET at the absolute earliest. That’s assuming Columbus v. Toronto actually starts on time and there isn’t too much stoppage time. To be honest, don’t be surprised if this game doesn’t actually kick-off until 10:15 p.m. ET.

Okay, now to the actual soccer. Few people outside of Houston really thought that the Dynamo had much of a chance against the Timbers at Providence Park. The Dynamo were one of the worst road teams in MLS this year, and Providence Park has the reputation of being one of the toughest places to play in the league.

Yes, Portland had injuries and was missing key starters. So was Houston. We can go back and forth all day about whether the injuries were comparable, but the fact of the matter is the Dynamo were able to find a way to do what needed to be done, defeating Portland 2-1 on the road.

Seattle had a bit more straightforward path to the conference final. They earned a 0-0 draw on the road against Vancouver in the first leg of the semifinals before handling the Whitecaps 2-0 at Century Link Field. Clint Dempsey looked a bit like vintage Deuce with his brace in the second half. The Sounders may need more of that tonight in Houston. Unfortunately for Seattle, Jordan Morris is listed as questionable and Osvaldo Alosno is out tonight with a right quad strain. Missing Alonso a big blow to Seattle’s defense.

The Dynamo have one of the stronger home field advantages in MLS. BBVA Compass Stadium is rarely filled to capacity, yet somehow Houston have managed to turn it into a fortress of sorts. They went 12-1-4 (W-L-D) at home this season, including a 2-1 victory against the Sounders in the very first game of the season. But that was so long ago that there’s really not much to take from that game at this point.

Similar to Columbus, Houston probably need to build a big lead in the first leg if they want to have much of a chance in the second. As good as Houston was at home this season, they were equally bad on the road at 1-9-7. And Century Link truly is a fortress in every sense of the word. The last thing the Dynamo need is a repeat of the conference semifinals scenario. They pulled it off once. I’m not sure they could do it again.

Honestly, the wild card for me in this game is Dynamo coach Wilmer Cabrera. What sort of lineup he puts out will determine how this one goes. If he goes with his strongest attacking front of Alberth Elis, Mauro Manotas and Romell Quioto from first kick, Houston have a decent chance at finding the net early. If Cabrera decides to start Cubo Torres over Manotas, which he’s been known to do, I don’t see this one going well for Houston.

Yes, Cubo has four more goals on the year than Mauro, but five of those are PKs. Zero of Manotas’ ten goals came from the spot. Oh, and Cubo hasn’t scored a goal since August 23, when he had a brace at home against a struggling FC Dallas side. Cubo started the second against Portland, but it was Manotas who came subbed in during the 73’ for Cubo in the second leg who scored the go-ahead goal that sent Houston through.

This game could look fairly similar to the Columbus v. TFC game in terms of pace and excitement. Houston will try to score early, and they may well do it. I don’t think they’ll shut out Seattle, though, especially without their starting keeper Tyler Deric, who’s still unavailable due to a domestic violence investigation. Seattle will get a goal or two, but the question is will Houston be able to build enough of a lead to hold off the Sounders at Century Link? Alonso being out may help a bit, but I’m still not convinced.

Hot take of the week: Both Columbus and Houston will score early goals to get out to a quick lead before Toronto and Seattle settle in and strike back. The Crew and Dynamo may both win the first leg, but neither will have enough of a lead to hold off Toronto and Seattle during the second leg match-ups.

GIF of the week: “Altidore is particularly known for his strong, physical presence…” – MLSsoccer.com