I've been watching this league for 21 years, and in terms of raw entertainment – both on the field, off the field and in the tunnels – today was probably top three. I love to see players lose their minds, like Toronto FC and Red Bulls did; I love to see a desperation push for an equalizer, which is what NYCFC gave us; and I love to see an underdog come good with a road upset, as the Dynamo did.
But from a neutral perspective? Raw, unfiltered entertainment. Hook it to my veins!!!!
Let's take a look at the three games:
• Toronto FC 0, RBNY 1 (2-2 aggregate; TFC advance on away goals)
This game was defined by two things. One was Jesse Marsch pulling a surprise formation switch, going with a 4-4-2 diamond in an effort to deny Michael Bradley the ball. The other was the physical back-and-forth that ended up with a halftime scuffle in the tunnel which saw both Jozy Altidore and Sacha Kljestan pick up their second yellows and get ejected.
On the formation switch, it was simply a gambit that I did not see coming, especially in how it was executed. Usually the 4-4-2 diamond is meant to be a formation that stays tight and compact (as this one does), and to give the guy at the tip of the diamond the bulk of playmaking duties. Think Javier Morales for years with RSL, or Dwayne De Rosario with those great Houston teams a decade ago, or Marco Etcheverry with the OG D.C. United dynasty. The whole formation is built around their ability to unlock defenses.
Marsch, instead, played Tyler Adams at the point of the diamond, with his more creative midfielders – Kljestan and Daniel Royer – wide. Adams is a very good passer of the ball, but isn't exactly a wizard.
What he does excel at is the ability to cover a ton of ground and to do so quickly. He is a destroyer, and RBNY had him playing as one in a spot where teams usually hide a guy who doesn't have those kinds of defensive chops. This was designed to help spearhead the press, but (more importantly) to deny Bradley much of the ball. When he's getting on the ball all the time and dictating both the pace and angles of the game, TFC are... TFC. When he's not, they are whatever it is they were today.
Adams did his job well. Bradley had just 50 touches, as per our own Ben Baer, which is his lowest single-game output this season, and the Reds never got close to getting a rhythm. TFC were so shook that even when it wasn't Adams exerting pressure, they still struggled to build:
All three Reds DPs – Bradley, Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco – had miserable days. The latter two will miss the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship against Columbus as well, Altidore for his red and Giovinco for yellow card accumulation.
Nonetheless the Reds did do enough to survive, if just barely. Alex Bono came off his line well to smother a Bradley Wright-Phillips chance, and neither Royer nor Gonzalo Veron ever got a good look, and Greg Vanney was smart to make a formational change of his own, swapping to a 4-4-1 eventually in the second half in order to right the ship.
None of it was pretty. None of it needed to be.
I bet that'll go on a bulletin board in Seattle if there's an MLS Cup rematch.
What I'll remember most from this series: The fight. It got HEATED out there, and I loved every second of it.
• NYCFC 2, Columbus Crew SC 0 (Columbus advance 4-3 on aggregate)
This was the plan, as spelled out by Calen Carr on MLS Playoff Central last weekend: Win the first 15 minutes 1-0, then win the next 30 minutes 1-0. That puts you into halftime down 4-3, and at that point, you come out looking to win the second half of soccer 1-0. Do that, and you're through.
NYCFC almost – almost! – managed to execute. They got the early goal, courtesy of a penalty Columbus coughed up because they were perpetually on the back foot and defending too deep. You can not invite good attacking teams forward like this, again and again and again:
But Columbus held them to just that one in the first half. NYCFC then once again took advantage of Crew SC defending too deep and grabbed a second (that was charitably not ruled a Jonathan Mensah own-goal) at the 53rd minute, and it felt like the 4-1 lead from the first leg was going to evaporate.
I'm still not sure how or why it didn't. Crew SC were never particularly good at preventing the Cityzens from surging forward in this one, and Yankee Stadium, as always, played like a pinball machine. There were enough chances for the hosts to conjure a goal that would have been the series-winner.
It never came, though, and once David Villa was officially in "I'm gonna get a late goal and break your damn hearts" mode, Gregg Berhalter adjusted by going to five at the back. He brought on rookie center back Lalas Abubakar just to get another big body in the middle and asked him to clear everything the hell out. There were no tactics from the final 15 minutes, just a shooting gallery directly in front of Zack Steffen:
Those are Columbus's final third defensive actions during that time – blocks, clearances (those are the purple ones), tackles, interceptions and recoveries. It was all about making sure that if NYCFC got a goal, it was going to have to come from an angle.
It never did.
"The ability to hang on was important," is how Wil Trapp put it afterwards. "None of us are happy with [the result], I think it was sloppy."
It was, and it was still enough. Now the question is this: Did the magic wave this team has been riding for three months suddenly crash down on the shore? Crew SC hadn't lost since August 5, but in this one they got spanked. They're not going to totally deflate or anything, but once the spell is broken just a little bit, it's hard to conjure it again.
What I'll remember most from this series: The fan turnout at MAPFRE Stadium. I can't wait to see what it looks like for the Conference Championship.
• Portland Timbers 1, Houston Dynamo 2 (Houston advance 2-1 on aggregate)
Houston were catastrophically bad on the road in the first half of the season, but people missed the fact that they improved dramatically after the Gold Cup. During the season's second half, they were 1-2-5, which isn't great or anything, but considering they needed only a draw out of this one, and considering the injuries to Portland, I did like the Dynamo's chances.
Which is not to say that injuries and absences were the deciding factor here – they weren't. Houston were missing half of their starting backline and their No. 1 goalkeeper, who was the league's player of the month for October. The Timbers should've found a way to drop more than a single goal on them, and it's kind of shocking that they didn't.
But give credit to Wilmer Cabrera here. He had his team shadowing Diego Valeri everywhere, and while that hurt them once...
"Once" was all there would be for Portland. The Timbers never started stringing passes together as the makeshift Dynamo backline held together, and as Juan Cabezas was a true stopper in front of the central defense, and as Eric Alexander was able to always put a foot on the ball and change the tempo of the game when the visitors needed.
Alexander has been kind of forgotten in the years following his very good 2014 with RBNY, but Houston like what they have found with him. He was a starter early in the year when they were playing their best ball, and he's almost certainly a starter now that he's healthy again. So far in 2017 they are... wait for it... 10-2-3 with a +15 goal differential when he plays (all competitions), and 13 of those 15 games are starts. All the standard correlation/causality warnings apply, but I don't think it's an accident that this team is better able to play inside out when the guy wearing No. 6 is on the pitch.
Houston, when they run out ideas, give him the ball. He never does anything spectacular with it, but most goals don't come out of something spectacular. Rather, they come out of a series of guys doing the right thing in such a way that they're well-positioned to take advantage when an opponent does the wrong thing. Alexander is a central and thus essential link in that chain.
Obviously, attackers like Mauro Manotas and defenders like Adolfo Machado are key links as well. It was Manotas's goal that provided the final margin, and Machado was the anchor for the backline. It was perhaps fitting that the series-winning goal came after backup left back Dylan Remick lashed home backup right back Jalil Anibaba's cushioned header, since it was that defense that was always going to be Houston's worry. On paper, they probably should've conceded three this series.
They conceded only one. And now they have a date with Seattle in the Western Conference Championship.
What I'll remember most from this series: Remick's series-winner. The ball took a perfect turf hop, and he slashed it home to the back post with his weaker foot, and suddenly Providence Park went silent.
Redemption came quick for him after he slipped on Dairon Asprilla's opener.
A few more things to ponder...
5. Amobi Okugo's attempted bicycle kick to put Portland up 2-1 would've been the most spectacular goal of the playoffs.
Okugo has barely played the last three years as he's battled constant injuries, but man did he look the part in this one. He's still just 26, and should figure for somebody next season.
4. Face of the Week, Wilmer Cabrera:
3. Aaron Long was a boss today for the Red Bulls, and should be a starter for them at center back for the better part of a decade. It's safe, however, to assume he'll have to familiarize himself with some new teammates in defense come preseason.
2. As I mentioned, Vancouver were also eliminated this week. I wrote about how they went out with a whimper against the Sounders on Thursday night.
1. And finally, today marked the end of the great Andrea Pirlo's career. We never really got to see that from him in MLS, but here's seven minutes from his glory days that are worth watching:
He walked faster than most players ran, and it was beautiful. In the modern history of the game only Xavi is his superior as a regista.
Pirlo's time with NYCFC was disappointing to the very last, as he sprayed pass after pass, but what he did in the 20 years leading up to his MLS move will be remembered forever.