MLS Playoff Recap (Leg 2 Conference Semis)

With the Conference Finals now set with their four teams, we look back at the crazy matches that took place over the weekend that were full of tension, wicked goals, and the swansong of an Italian legend.

Seattle Sounders vs Vancouver Whitecaps (2-0, 2-0 aggregate)

Before the first game of the series between the Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps, many believed that both matches would be close and played with a lot of tension. Even the prospect of goals being plentiful was an afterthought. The difference in the second game came from the foot of someone who wasn’t even on the team sheet in the previous matchup.

Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times

Just five days after a 0-0 draw in Leg 1, the Sounders advanced to the Western Conference Final on the back of two goals by Clint Dempsey. Although the series wasn’t the most exciting in terms of scoring opportunities or action, the second game had just enough key moments in play that were enough for the Sounders to get the victory.

A perfectly placed shot into the side of the net in the 56th-minute and an 88th minute sealer did the job for the reigning MLS champions as the team had the edge over its Cascadia rivals all night. The Sounders had the upper hand in the shots department, putting up double digits and limiting the Whitecaps to two shots in the first half alone.

As Seattle will be relishing the prospects of another finals berth, Vancouver will be left to wonder about how it wasn’t meant to be. Head coach Carl Robinson outwit Brian Schmetzer in terms of strategy, as the Whitecaps looked more defensive-minded like the first game, and the team had very few chances to score with the limited amounts of players rushing forward.

With the win, and the subsequent loss by rivals Portland Timbers against the Houston Dynamo, the Sounders will be going on the road first before coming back to CenturyLink Field looking to possibly go back to the MLS Cup Final.

Toronto FC vs New York Red Bulls (0-1, 2-2 aggregate (Toronto advances on away goals))

It wasn’t easy, but the favorites to win the MLS Cup this season survived to keep playing.

Toronto FC’s chance at making the finals for the second successive year was helped by the away goals rule, and despite losing at home 1-0 to the New York Red Bulls on Sunday night, their goal in New York in the first leg gave Toronto the edge.

The Red Bulls were the victors on the night thanks to a redirection off a Daniel Royer shot by Bradley Wright-Phillips in the second half, and New York could’ve possibly stunned the hosts to advance to the Eastern Conference Final if it wasn’t for Toronto’s keeper Alex Bono. With the lead at hand, Wright-Phillips had a golden opportunity to ice the game and series with a perfectly placed pass that led him on a breakaway, only for Bono to jump off his line and save the ensuing shot.

But the goal and the would-be clincher were far from the biggest talking points of the match, as the tension generated from the first leg boiled over to the next game. The first half saw quite a few hairy moments between players and it all came to a head in the 34th minute after Tyler Adams of New York and Jozy Altidore of Toronto coming together, and then Sasha Kljestan coming to his Red Bulls comrade and getting in the face of Altidore. Those two didn’t end the bickering on the field, however, as they both got into it again at halftime while walking in the tunnel to the dressing rooms. Both received straight red cards from the referee and left their teams a man short for the entire second half.

As Toronto is now looking towards its next round of games, the team will have to it without its main strikers, as Altidore’s red, alongside Sebastian Giovinco’s yellow-card accumulation, which he added to against New York, means Toronto will have to go into the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final with their bench players needing to make an immediate impact.

New York City FC vs Columbus Crew (2-0, 3-4 aggregate)

The game may not have gone the way that the Columbus Crew had wanted, but the result didn’t dent their hopes in reaching the MLS Cup Final. For the second time in the last three seasons, Columbus will reach the Eastern Conference Final after defeating New York City FC 4-3 on aggregate, despite losing 2-0 at Yankee Stadium on Sunday night.

New York looked to become the first club to come back from a three-goal deficit in a two-leg playoff, and their first goal came early as in the 16th minute as Rodney Wallace was fouled in the box by the Crew’s Josh Williams. David Villa took the ensuing penalty kick and fired past Zack Steffen to give New York some life.

While there wasn’t anything to add to the goal department for the rest of the first half, the next 45 minutes provided another gift for New York, as Andraz Struna took a long-distance shot in the 53rd minute that went off the head of Jonathan Mensah of Columbus as he tried to clear the ball, but instead deflected it into his own net. Now with Columbus playing defense and holding on to a slim aggregate advantage, New York needed one more to seal the improbable comeback, but couldn’t make it happen despite being close on a couple of occasions.

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Wallace’s shot off the post in the 70th minute was the closest that Patrick Vieira’s team could get to accomplishing their goal, and now with New York going no further in the playoffs, Columbus will be excited to take on the best side in the MLS in Toronto.

There was one bright moment during the match, and that was Andrea Pirlo playing in the final match of his illustrious career. Coming on in the final few minutes, the former Juventus and AC Milan midfielder gave the fans in New York and those watching on TV one last look at a player who has won everything from a UEFA Champions League title and the World Cup with Italy in 2006.

Even with the loss, Columbus knows that the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final will have its side favored, with the team starting the series at home, just as it did against New York. Add to the fact that Toronto will be without star forwards Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco due to suspensions, and MAPFRE Stadium will be raucous come November 21st.

Portland Timbers vs Houston Dynamo (1-2, 1-2 aggregate)

What a story this has turned out to be for Houston. Looking back at last season, the Dynamo were nowhere near the playoff chance. In fact, the team was at the bottom of the Western Conference. And now, the MLS Cup Final is only two games away.

Dylan Remick and Mauro Manotas canceled out Portland’s goal by Dairon Asprilla and earned the Dynamo only its second win away from home all year, and now a date with the Seattle Sounders awaits for Houston as it looks to continue its improbable quest to the final.

After a scoreless affair in the first leg in Houston, the passionate crowd inside Providence Park came to life at the end of the first half when Asprilla collected a cross and finished the play off with a thunderous shot in the 39th minute, but Remick, who was at fault for Portland’s goal, quickly made amends for the mistake just minutes later, scoring on a great half-volley shot to level the game and give Houston that all-important away goal.

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Even with all of the injury concerns that limited Portland’s threats on goal, they continued to push forward and give the Dynamo all they can handle. But Houston were able to resist the pressure and put the game away in the 77th minute, as Manotas rifled a long-distance effort past Timbers keeper Jeff Attinella that stunned both Portland and the crowd. The Timbers had nothing left for the final few minutes, and were left to wonder just what might have been.

The Portland Timbers knew coming into this game that the injuries that had plagued them from the first leg as well as during the season would be a big concern, and it certainly didn’t get any better for the team as the game progressed. Vytautas Andriuskevicius left the game through injury, and teammate Darren Mattocks couldn’t make it 15 minutes before having to be subbed off because of a head injury. With Diego Chara and Fanendo Adi already missing from picking up knocks in previous games, Portland’s depleted roster was the big turning point of the series, one that couldn’t be overcome.

November 21st is the date set for the first match between the Dynamo and the reigning MLS champs Seattle Sounders, and with Houston looking to have defender DaMarcus Beasley come back from injury, the team could very well continue to write its impressive story and knock off the Sounders.

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)

Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

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)

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

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.