In the middle of the week, when the sane were fast asleep and the insatiable were up late watching a pair of goalposts steal the show, home teams in the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs went a sterling 4-0.
- D.C. United came from behind to take out New England, 2-1
- Seattle finally climbed their own highest mountain, toppling LA by 3-2
- Montreal danced all over TFC to the tune of 3-0
- Portland... "survived", I guess in a 7-6 PK shootout win over SKC after a 2-2 (AET) draw
Then came Sunday. Eight straight hours of back-to-back-to-back-to-back first-leg playoff madness, and guess what? The home teams still continued to do the job. They went 2-1-1 with the only blemish being United's 1-0 loss to New York at RFK.
I know it's fashionable to say that the regular season in MLS doesn't matter. I will certainly admit that there are certain ways to make it matter more.
But the weight of homefield advantage has been crushing almost everyone in its path so far in the postseason, and it's something to keep an eye on for the duration of these playoffs.
Let's start at RFK:
Paint It Black
Olsen's approach led to some grisly milestones. United's pass completion percentage of 54.5 percent safely ranks as the lowest of the 2015 season to date. And perhaps more urgently, their fleeting 41.9 percent of possession contributed to them becoming the first home team in MLS Cup Playoffs history to have zero shots on target.
There are certain ways in which this is acceptable. D.C. were undermanned thanks to the dual injury absences of Chris Pontius and Davy Arnaud, and the suspension of Bobby Boswell meant that a "pragmatic" approach was always going to be the order of the day. United get a lot of aesthetic stick for bunkering, but when they're dialed in they do it well (as their record attests).
The problem comes when they're not dialed in, especially in center midifeld. Perry Kitchen and Markus Halsti have to outwork teams playing 2-v-3, and...
Yeah, they didn't exactly paint it black.
There's no one stat that's an all-encompassing indicator of "energy," but midfield recoveries is pretty useful, and it's safe to say that D.C. didn't keep up.
The good news? They didn't give up, either. Going down 1-0 is bad but not fatal, and for as limp as they were offensively, they did earn some dangerous set pieces (a United specialty) and they didn't exactly leave Bill Hamid out there all by himself.
But let's face it: Save for Damien Perrinelle's injury, this looks pretty good for the Red Bulls.
A friend of mine who has worked in the game in Europe, and who works in the game now here, in the United States, likes to talk about the generation of young(ish) attackers coming through the ranks in MLS.
At one point we were analyzing the merits of Chicago's Harry Shipp in comparison to Portland's Darlington Nagbe. The differences in physical upside were all weighed and measured, and eventually we got around to talking "mentality." He's helped develop some guys who play in top leagues, so I put a lot of stock in this:
"What worries me about Nagbe," he said, "is that he's too passive. Shipp tries too much [stuff], and Nagbe doesn't try enough. If given the choice between two horses, most trainers would usually take the one who needs to be reined in, even if the other has more potential."
Anyone who's watched Nagbe fail to take space over the last two years is probably nodding.
But suddenly, over the past month, Nagbe is no longer that player. He's seeing and attempting passes all over the field, winning second balls in front of the defense, and damn near sprinting through the lines with the ball on his foot at every chance.
He was instrumental in helping an exhausted Timbers side keep a scoreless shutout against the visiting Whitecaps on Sunday. And honestly, that's not a bad result at all -- it means any outright win or non-scoreless draw puts Portland into the Western Conference finals.
Nagbe, it turns out, isn't a pure playmaker (what we all suspected he was), nor a pure winger (how he was used). He's a box-to-box No. 8 who can mix it up with the likes of Gershon Koffie or provide an outlet for the Liam Ridgewells of the world. He's running midfield now, and the 'Caps couldn't drag him away.
And that will be the first thing on the scouting report ahead of next Sunday's second leg.
Sympathy For the Devil
Any time your actions start a meme you've probably had a pretty memorable day. But for Didier Drogba, this was just a typical Sunday, wasn't it?
Let's not mince words here: Montreal earned their 2-1 win over a sloppy and mentally weak Columbus Crew SC at Stade Saputo. Drogba got in their heads (repeatedly), walked the line between fair and foul, and generally became the essence of the "love him if he's on your team, hate him if he's not" superstar. He's like Carlos Ruiz gone super saiyan.
Even when he's bad -- and he was very bad in this one -- he has an influence. Hate it if you want, but there's a reason the guy has been a winner everywhere he's gone. There's a reason he's one of the most reliable big-game players of modern times. There's a reason he's come in and dominated when so, so many other midseason DPs come in and fall flat.
Drogba refuses to let the game just "happen." He's center stage, a man of wealth and taste.
As for Crew SC, here's what I mean by "mentally weak":
This is a team that damn near lost their minds for the last 30 minutes. It was a near replay of last year.
But... last year they got stomped at home in the first leg. This year they get to go back home with a manageable one-goal deficit and a road goal in hand.
It's not what they wanted, and truth be told it's not good enough for how well they played in the first 30 minutes. But it's better than they've had in the past, and it leaves them with a chance.
Beast Of Burden
The Seattle Sounders are old and hurt, and without Ozzie Alonso and Brad Evans, they just don't really have a way to push the ball from the back of the field to the front.
Then, with about 30 minutes to go, they dropped Clint Dempsey to left midfield. And that's when they started looking and being dangerous, started turning the width they were creating into danger they could actually use, and started to make everyone remember that while youth tends to win the regular season, it's age that dominates in the playoffs.
And so they beat FC Dallas 2-1, coming from behind to remind everyone that, yes, the Sounders are still for real.
Dempsey's ability to get all over the ball and drive possession forward in that final half-hour was the game-changer. As you can see he wasn't precise:
He sure was effective, though.
He needed to be since Dallas were justifiably preoccupied with closing down the central midfield lanes through which Dempsey and Obafemi Martins love to dance. This read from Zach Loyd was particularly good:
And... well, ok. Seattle should understand by now that they're going to face that, right?
Right. And with Dempsey inverted on the left and Andreas Ivanschitz inverted on the right, while Nelson Valdez bullies defenders up top alongside Martins, they finally seem to have the pieces to punish teams who overload the central channel.
Dempsey's covered miles, and I'm sure he's hurtin', but this is what the Sounders need him to be in order to win.
It'll be interesting to see how Oscar Pareja plans for that this week.
A few more things to ponder:
4. Where did Kei Kamara go? He basically disappeared, both defensively (that first Impact goal...) and in attack. And it's not like Columbus had trouble spreading the ball around -- they completed over 60 percent of their long balls, and were adept at pulling the defense from side to side.
He's got to show up next week for Columbus to win.
3. Pass of the Week goes to Mauro Diaz, who is and shall forever remain a magic little unicorn:
You recognize that Zach Loyd challenge from above, right? Great defense breeds great offense.
2. The Bradley Wright-Phillips yellow card for shooting wellllllllllll after the whistle had to be incredibly frustrating for RBNY fans. They remember BWP missing a game in last year's playoffs for yellow-card accumulation, and they know full well they can't afford the same this year.
BWP should've known it, too.
1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to Portland's Rodney Wallace:
He is not the most elegant soccer player out there by any stretch of the imagination. But he remains effective because of his brain and his will to compete, and his defensive workrate allows the Timbers' 4-3-3 to survive. Without him there'd be no connection to the left fullback, but with him Jorge Villafana always has support.