Congratulations on surviving 10 straight hours of MLS coverage. Your merit badge is in the mail.
Three of the four lower-seeded teams advanced, which is dragging one big thing into the spotlight:
I don't have a fire take to offer on this one – I kind of enjoy the away goals rule, but I can also very much enjoy two legs of playoff soccer without it. And while I understand how and why certain fanbases feel hard done by (is that the right construction?), I also feel entirely comfortable blaming the eliminated teams for either A) playing too defensively in Leg 1 (Dallas and NYCFC) or B) not finishing their chances.
Neither of those things is the fault of the playoff format.
Onto the games:
It's a day for FC Dallas to wonder what might have been, following their 2-1 win over Seattle (4-2 aggregate loss). And by that, I mean this: Last week they played a 5-3-2, sat deep and got pummeled. This week, Oscar Pareja trotted his team out in a more familiar 4-2-3-1, played Mauro Rosales as the playmaker for the injured Mauro Diaz, and got themselves a result.
It wasn’t a commanding or dominant win, but it was a win that played to the strengths of the team he had, and against the weaknesses of a short-handed Seattle team. Dallas crossed the ball a ton and hit paydirt:
They crossed the ball 33 times overall (26 from open play) in Leg 2, which were both season highs – almost 2.5 times their season average – and that's where philosophy had to meet pragmatism: With Diaz as a No. 10, it doesn't make sense to cross the ball all that much. With Rosales out there and Seattle's Roman Torres hurt, "Get it into the mixer!" is a perfectly viable, and heartily repeatable strategy.
This is what they should’ve done in Leg 1 as well, but for one reason or another, it just wasn’t meant to be.
The question over the next two weeks is what’s meant to be for Seattle: Nicolas Lodeiro continues his remarkable run of form, and he’s got this team into the Western Conference final against Colorado; the injuries — on the backline, in midfield and now in attack with Jordan Morris having to be subbed off — are piling up. This run since the start of August is remarkable, but so is the sheer volume of health issues besetting the Rave Green.
But yeah … it's still very good to be the Sounders. On Tuesday, November 22, they'll see if they can bring this run of good form and good vibes to the Western Conference Championship's 1st leg, which will be at home against the Rapids.
This Is Happening
Toronto FC's 7-0 aggregate win over NYCFC is the largest in league history, and it came for a lot of reasons. Sebastian Giovinco was brilliant, and his opening goal basically sealed the deal here. Jozy Altidore was just as good — his vision, his goalscoring, his hold-up play, everything. Michael Bradley, meanwhile, kept the whole NYCFC midfield in his pocket. Great players win games in big moments, and that was TFC's formula for the utter domination they unleashed upon an utterly demoralized NYCFC team.
Ours isn’t just a game of players, though. It’s a game of coaches and strategies, scouting and preparation. Last week in this space, I took Patrick Vieira to task for deviating from his team's every-game strategy that had served them so well during the regular season, and I maintain that his mid-October personnel tweaks and late-October strategic reversal damaged the fragile psyche of his club.
This week I'm here to praise Greg Vanney and Co., because they had the measure of their opponents right from the start: Press NYCFC high, press them hard, press them often. Get an early goal …
... and that ends the series. Then get four more of them just to prove a point.
Smother NYC to death because their midfield and backline will make mistakes, and you can turn those mistakes into goals. It's really the path of least resistance for beating NYCFC, and Toronto took it for the full 180 minutes.
It also turned out to be the best way of shutting down NYCFC's MVP candidate, David Villa. He averaged nearly seven touches in the 18 per game during the regular season, but over two legs against the Reds, he managed only four. So it wasn't just that NYCFC struggled getting out of their own end, but it was pretty indisputable that they had no idea how to turn possession into attacking pressure the few times they got through the TFC first wave.
Bradley had a huge part in that:
Vanney & Co. did as well. Now they'll be prepping for the 401 Derby, because their mortal enemies – the Montreal Impact – await in the Eastern Conference championship.
Smash. Grab. Advance.
That was the formula for the Portland Timbers 12 months ago, and it's very clearly been the formula for the Montreal Impact so far in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs.
I don't think anybody would argue that RBNY didn't get the better chances across this series, and the underlying numbers show it:
The above-the-fold numbers show that Montreal won Sunday's second leg, 2-1, and won the series, 3-1 on aggregate. Expected goals can tell you a lot about how the two teams played, but only the scoreboard can tell you how they finished. And this scoreboard told the story of a New York team that couldn't take advantage of the truly excellent chances they created in either leg.
So it goes for New York, a franchise that may start believing they're cursed once again.
So it goes on for Montreal, who have a hot goalkeeper and a deadly counterattack that's been the key to this late-season resurgence – just as it was the key to their hot start way back in March.
There's nothing secret about how to park a bus, which is exactly what Mauro Biello did in this series. The real trick is how to release out of that shell and into open space, and that's where the front line of Ignacio Piatti, Matteo Mancosu and Dominic Oduro complement each other perfectly:
- Oduro's speed terrifies defenders into playing a step or two deeper
- Piatti's 1-v-1 skill draws defenders a step or two toward him
- Mancosu's movement means he's always available to link those wingers to the midfield
Wash, rinse, repeat, advance.
The truly terrifying thing about what the Impact are doing is that they now have another look to throw at teams for the final 15 minutes. Didier Drogba is a different kind of center forward from Mancosu, and his "Play it directly to me, I'll hold the ball up and allow everybody else to get forward" game is stronger than literally anybody's.
We saw it the last time he played, when he set up the final goal in the Impact's 3-1 win at San Jose. The goal he set up today wasn't quite the same thing …
… But it gives you some idea regarding his ability to link play. Through injuries and age and off-field drama, he can still be "Didier Drogba" for 10 or 15 minutes at a time.
The Impact will be happy to take that. They've got a working formula already, and it's just been improved upon. All of that has them just 180 minutes from an appearance in MLS Cup.
Did that wondrous strike make up for the other 119:59? It probably depends upon your point of view.
It's also not uncommon in a situation like this to see two teams playing to avoid mistakes, which is exactly what we got. Gashi's goal wasn't really because of anything LA did poorly – you could argue that Baggio Husidic could've shaded over to cover a little bit more, or that Daniel Steres could've been a little bit daring to try to come out and close down a little bit, and in the process risk letting Dominique Badji loose in the 18 – but rather, it was a DP striker crushing one from 37 yards out.
That's why Gashi was brought to Commerce City in the first place. Dog's gotta hunt.
On the other side of the ledger, it's fair to say that LA's DPs didn't offer much. Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard both came off the bench, while Gio Dos Santos was a non-factor. Sometimes your best players are your best players, and sometimes they aren't.
In other news, Kevin Doyle should never be used as a playmaker:
That inability to complete dangerous passes hamstrung Colorado's ability to get forward in any meaningful sense, even though the speed of Badji and later Marlon Hairston pushed the Galaxy backline deeper and deeper.
On the opposite side of the field, LA's lack of speed – the lack of Ema Boateng and Gyasi Zardes and a healthy Landon Donovan – meant that Colorado could push as high as they wanted, and camp any/every passing lane. That's how you get a game as closed off and cautious as this one, and that's how you end up going to penalties.
And as for getting out of penalties? A big miss from your opponent's star and two big saves from your DP 'keeper was a more-than-good-enough plan. The Rapids didn't slip up and the Galaxy did, and Colorado are through to the Western Conference championship.
A Few More to Ponder...
6. Fans who were displeased by Dallas's fullback play – and there were a few being vocal about it on Twitter – should know that one of the most promising young players in the country is Reggie Cannon, the right back for both the US U-20s and UCLA. And he's a Dallas Homegrown.
5. There was real anger among TFC people this week (fans, players, staff) about Giovinco's MVP snub. I absolutely think that fed into both his performance and the team's.
4. This was a nice little sequence from Sebastian Lletget, who was very active, very available, but not quite decisive for LA:
Underrated little sequence from Lletget today. He seeks & finds the ball really well in central midfield.https://t.co/PeVK13NHq4— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) November 7, 2016
The Galaxy need to find the right central midfield partner for him going into next year. But I do think he's shown enough over the last two months to be considered the incumbent for that half-distributor/half-playmaker role.
3. New York fans are, in what has become an annual tradition, calling for major changes to the team that exited the playoffs. They will get their wish, as three starting defenders (Gideon Baah, Connor Lade and Kemar Lawrence) weren't available for the loss to the Impact, while winger Daniel Royer wasn't quite healthy enough to start.
The RBNY core will almost certainly be back next season, but a handful of the key pieces around them will certainly change. And all of them will have plenty of bulletin board material to consume:
2. The Eastern Conference Championship will feature a TFC team likely to field 10 starters who are born/raised CONCACAFers, while Montreal will likely field only two. Vive la difference!
1. And finally, take a minute to pity the poor Whitecaps:
There will be plenty of British Columbians moonlighting as Rapids fans for the next month.