Conference Finals Leg 2 Preview

The first legs of the conference finals are in the books. Now we get to find out for sure who will be facing off in MLS Cup. Sure, most people are assuming it will be a Toronto v. Seattle rematch from 2016, and Seattle seems to be holding up their end of the bargain. But if the Crew have anything to say about it, Toronto hasn’t locked up their spot yet.

Toronto FC v. Columbus Crew SC – Wednesday, November 29, 7:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1

I said in my preview last week that if the Crew had any hope of beating Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference finals, they’d have to build a pretty big lead at MAPFRE in the first leg. Well, despite TFC playing that game without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, the Crew weren’t able to do much offensively and heat to Toronto after a 0-0 draw.

Now, one could argue that the Crew aren’t in too bad of a position. They didn’t allow an away goal to Toronto, meaning that any draw would put the Crew through to the finals. A draw certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility by any stretch of the imagination, but Toronto at home certainly has the advantage.

Toronto played 17 games at BMO Field during the regular season, going 13-1-3 (W-L-D). The one loss came at the hands of rival Montreal Impact near the end of the regular season. When the Crew came to BMO Field in May, TFC won 5-0 thanks to goals from Victor Vazquez, Justin Morrow, Jonathan Osorio and Jordan Hamilton. That’s not a great sign for the Crew.

Anyone who watched the first leg of the game saw that the Crew could hardly do anything on offense. It was a fairly boring game as Toronto was happy to sit back and play for a draw, knowing that if they could get it back to BMO they’d feel confident in their abilities to get a win. (Portland thought the same thing against Houston, but that didn’t work out so well, did it?)

Roles will likely be reversed in this game. It will likely be the Crew who will park the bus and play a defensive game. There’s no incentive for the Crew to come out attacking and leave themselves vulnerable defensively. If the Crew are able to frustrate Toronto enough, they may be able to grab a goal off the counter against the run of play. If the Crew are able to steal a goal before Toronto score, TFC would have to score two goals to move on as a draw would send Columbus through.

The biggest advantage for Columbus in this match is really that all of the pressure is on Toronto. No one really expects the Crew to move on, and Toronto are coming off the best regular season in MLS history. Anyone remember the 2015 Golden State Warriors? They set the NBA record for wins in the season before losing to LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Regular season records are great, but if you can’t finish it doesn’t mean much.

I do think this game will be much closer than the 5-0 match we saw between these two teams in May. The Crew will make Toronto fans sweat a bit. But when it’s all said and done, I still think it will be Toronto who will go through and seal their ticket to MLS Cup.

Seattle Sounders FC v. Houston Dynamo – Thursday, November 30, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Houston are in bad shape. Sure, they went on the road to Portland in the conference semifinals and beat Portland when no one thought they could. This is different.

Going into Century Link to face the defending MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders down two goals is just about as close to an insurmountable task as possible. It doesn’t help that Houston was horrific on the road all season long at 1-9-7, either. And similar to Toronto, the Sounders were one of the strongest home sides in the league at 11-1-5.

Houston traveled to Seattle once during the regular season and lost 1-0. At minimum, Houston need to beat Seattle 2-0 if they want to move on. A three goal swing by a bad road team is quite the task. Add in the fact that Houston will be without star forward Alberth Elis, who’s suspended on yellow card accumulation, and defender Jalil Anibaba for a red card, it doesn’t look great for Houston.

Sure, Seattle will be without their starting CB Roman Torres, who will miss the game due to yellow card accumulation as well, but like Columbus, Seattle will pack it in and leave no space for Houston to operate, which will mitigate the risk of playing without Torres. There’s simply no incentive for Seattle to go on the offensive in this game. If things stay as they are, Seattle will cruise on through to try and defend their MLS Cup.

Even better for Seattle is it’s likely that goalkeeper Stefan Frei will return from injury. He missed the game last week due to a hamstring injury, but MLSSoccer.com projects that Frei will be in the starting XI for Seattle, indicating that his injury isn’t that bad.

The Sounders have only allowed 0.7 goals per game at home this season, while the Dynamo have only scored 0.9 away goals per game during the year. I know Houston fans want to believe that the Dynamo can pull off the miracle comeback and go to their first MLS Cup since 2012, but I just don’t see any way it’s possible this year.

Hot take of the week: Columbus is going to make Toronto work for their victory. The Crew will park the bus and maybe even get a few counter-attacking chances. Ultimately it will be Toronto that goes through, but it may take a second half goal for Toronto to do it.

GIF of the week: I guess this tifo is a good metaphor for the Dynamo’s season. So close to being incredibly successful, but still so far away…