MLS Playoff Recap (Leg 1 Conference Semis)

With all of the first legs of the MLS Conference Semifinals done and dusted, here are the recaps and big talking points for each of the four games that took place over the weekend:

Vancouver Whitecaps vs Seattle Sounders (0-0)

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The Cascadia rivals left Vancouver with a 0-0 draw Sunday night, and a place in the Western Conference Final will be battled out in Seattle on Thursday. Although short on goals (and shots for that matter), the match was tense for the full 90 minutes. And save for an almost own goal by a clearance off the line that hit the crossbar by Vancouver’s Kendall Waston, very few attacking chances were created.

Both Seattle and Vancouver were short on attacking options coming into the match, with Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris out for the Sounders due to suspension and injury, respectively, and coach Brian Schmetzer including Harry Shipp into the lineup. For the Whitecaps, Carl Robinson lost a couple of his main players to injury in their last playoff match against San Jose, so Nosa Igiebor earned a rare spot on the team sheet.

As the return leg looms for both sides, one goal could be all that takes for a team to advance. Both teams looked content to not push the envelope too much on Sunday, and there’s no certain way to tell who has the upper hand out of the two. But, a raucous crowd at CenturyLink Field will provide the Sounders a big boost in their quest to repeat as MLS champions. The Whitecaps know that one away goal could be enough, as the Sounders would then have to score two to lead the aggregate.

New York Red Bulls vs Toronto FC (1-2)

A match that few expected to be competitive, the Red Bulls gave Toronto a run for its money before falling 2-1 Monday night at Red Bull Arena. Coming into the playoffs, many were questioning whether anyone could actually knock off Shield winners in Toronto FC, a record-setting team that has a place among the best teams in league history.

For most of the match, it was looking like New York might be able to, even after Toronto’s Victor Vazquez scored within the first ten minutes. Soon after, the match produced many fouls, close chances on goal, and a Red Bulls team taking control of the pitch, and it all paid off right before halftime with a converted penalty by Daniel Royer.

The second half saw New York unable to produce the game-winning goal, and when Toronto had their chance with a free kick just past the box, up stepped up star Sebastian Giovinco, with his beautiful curler that past keeper Luis Robles.

Although pulling a goal back, the result leaves the Red Bulls with a challenging task as they look to upset Toronto when they visit on Sunday in the second leg.

Houston Dynamo vs Portland Timbers (0-0)

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The second game of two on Monday night of the MLS Cup Playoffs took place in Houston, as the Houston Dynamo and Portland Timbers played to a scoreless draw at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston.

Portland came into the match already ravaged by injuries to some of its starters, and over the course of the night all three substitutions were because players were forced to sub off before 90 minutes were over. Even with that, the Timbers were able to prevent a goal, and take the result on the road back home. And like Seattle’s situation, the team knows that any result with goals puts them in the Western Conference Final.

With regular starter Erick Torres starting on the bench, the Dynamo were only able to muster two shots on target all night. Relying on counterattacks to get the offense going, Houston couldn’t put its strategy to good use. The same can be said for the Timbers, as being hampered by injuries caused a lack of production on their opponent’s side of the pitch. Only four shots were taken between the two clubs in the entire match.

The big talking point was in the 30th minute when Portland’s Larrys Mabiala looked to have taken down Alberth Elis in the box, given the Dynamo a penalty, but the video review system that’s been recently implemented in the MLS overturned the call.

With Houston now looking ahead to snag a vital game in Portland, the Timbers will be heading back home for the second leg desperately hoping for at least some of their stars to be healed by Sunday. Mabiala, Diego Chara, and Darlington Nagbe all picked up injuries during the game, and with almost a week to rest, the Timbers, even with a home match looming, will possibly be on the backfoot.

Columbus Crew vs New York City FC (4-1)

The final Leg 1 match and biggest upset of the weekend took place Tuesday night with the Columbus Crew thrashing New York City FC 4-1. Having not lost since early August, the Crew continued their hot run of form and looks to have already ended the tie, as no team over the course of two legs in the MLS Playoffs have ever come back from a three-goal deficit.

Ola Kamara got the party started for Columbus at MAPFRE Stadium, scoring off a rebound to put his side up within six minutes. Somehow the early goal was the highlight of the first half, as both sides couldn’t produce any more before halftime. Some of the close calls included the Crew’s Justin Meram missing an open net and New York’s David Villa hitting the post.

The second half became the focal point of the night, as right from the whistle, action came left and right. NYC’s Alexander Callens received a straight red card a few minutes in after the video review system showed that he swung his arm and elbowed Meram during a corner kick. Brazilian midfielder Artur took the advantage given to the Crew and made his opponents pay dearly, scoring a few minutes after the red, and Meram would increase the lead to three after NYC keeper Sean Johnson made a mistake on a relatively easy save.

David Villa trimmed the lead to two for the away side, and NYC looked to be taking a not-so terrible deficit back to the Bronx, however Harrison Afful dazzled in his dribbling skills and got around multiple defenders to give Columbus a forth on the night, making sure the gap would stay at three.

This is the second year running that New York started its playoff campaign as favorites and then losing in the first leg of its playoff matchups. Like last year against Toronto, the deficit was too much for the team, and now are hoping for a miracle and some luck back home.