In most leagues in the world -- even in most leagues that utilize a playoff format -- you might reasonably expect the same cluster of teams to hover around the year’s most important games year over year. Even if it shifts occasionally, the overarching narrative rarely does. And when it does, it takes years to move.
MLS, as you might have noticed, is not like most leagues in the world.
The league set its final four with the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs Semifinals reaching their climax on a soccer-filled Sunday. And to say it’s a fresh look is the understatement of the decade. In the East, Canadian outfits Montreal and Toronto ousted the two New York clubs in smashing style. The Impact are a mere two years away from a 28-point season – the worst record in the league, while Toronto FC just won its first playoff game two weeks ago. As a result, Canada is assured of putting its first club in MLS Cup.
In the West, it’s a showdown between a year-long renaissance and one condensed to a short matter of months: The Colorado Rapids were the worst team in the Western Conference in 2015 and flipped the switch to become one of the league’s best in 2016; he Sounders, meanwhile, engineered one of the most stirring turnarounds in MLS history, running from ninth to fourth – and now into the Western Conference Championship.
Here’s a glimpse inside the machinery of both match-ups: what they need to do, what they need to avoid and which teams could benefit most from hoisting the league’s ultimate hardware.
Eastern Conference: Toronto FC vs. Montreal Impact
What TFC need to do to win
Toronto FC didn’t get this far by being meek. TFC spiked NYCFC 5-0 on Sunday by cramming quick-fire bouts of possession down a midfield TFC coach Greg Vanney properly identified as old and creaky. Aged Designated Players Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard both started in the middle, and they were slow to help cut off inside movement generated from outstanding overlaps from fullbacks Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour.
Montreal will be quicker to the point of attack, but TFC can still turn and burn Montreal’s defensive midfield. Marco Donadel, Hernan Bernardello and Patrice Bernier -- the three most recent starters against the Red Bulls -- have an average age of 34, and TFC likes to create central space for the unstoppable Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore by stretching defensive fronts wide first. If TFC nips the first leg, it’ll be by eschewing a hands-off approach on the road and going for the jugular. It’s their identity.
What Montreal need to do to win
Maybe don’t call it outright catenaccio, but the Impact in the postseason under the outstandingly adroit coaching mind of Mauro Biello have been about as buttoned up as humanly possible. In two legs against the Red Bulls, the Impact were all too happy to cede the middle of the park to the tune of an average of 35 percent possession. But they were incredibly decisive with their chances, converting six on-target shots into three goals.
Fifty percent ain’t half bad.
The story of these Canadian grudge match games will likely be told, if Montreal is the one left alive to do the telling, in halting attacking bursts amid plenty of defensive pressure from TFC. But above all, Montreal have to expect Ignacio Piatti’s form to continue. Piatti is a high line buster who moves possession faster than just about anyone in the league, and he is the key that will unlock this series if Montreal are to win. It certainly seems as though Didier Drogba still has an outsize role to play, but Piatti’s is the biggest. Get the creator involved in the final third, no matter how much of the ball you’ve had, and watch Toronto fall at your feet.
Who needs it more: Toronto FC
It seems strange to put this much pressure on a team that’s never been this far, but TFC’s ambitions match the stage. Montreal’s rise over the last two years has been impressive, but TFC’s payroll, talent level and current form make them arguably the team to beat of these last four. Both to galvanize the team and the city, TFC should expect to be playing into December.
Western Conference: Seattle Sounders vs. Colorado Rapids
What Colorado need to do to win
You could see it in all those 1-0 wins this regular season (there were eight of them) and shutouts (there were 13 of those) and games that maybe should’ve gotten away from them but didn’t: the Colorado Rapids were built from their very core to win in November and December.
It’s true that Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni shaped his side to be as much of a steel trap as humanly possible. Shrewd draft picks like Marquette center back Axel Sjoberg and Marlon Hairston buttressed a side cobbled around quality everyday vets like Sam Cronin and Micheal Azira. He’s shaped those pieces into the core of an outfield defensive unit perhaps without equal in MLS – despite the lack of a single international name.
Then throw Tim Howard into the mix, and it almost isn’t fair.
This is the core of how the Rapids will beat the Sounders, if they do. They’ll bludgeon Nicolas Lodeiro by closing his space, force the Sounders to reckon with their lack of true width and then smash back with counters led by the in-form Shkelzen Gashi. The Rapids have been nearly unbeatable at home in the altitude this year, which puts that much more pressure on teams to win big at home. But the fact remains that the Rapids are tailor-made to win in the playoffs when the pressure is highest.
What Seattle need to do to win
The Sounders are maybe the hottest team in the league right now, so they perhaps aren’t thrilled to see a two-week layoff staring them in the face following such a rip-roaring three months. After knocking off domestic double winners (and No. 1 seeded) FC Dallas, the Sounders will have to keep the flame burning during the international off week to slide past Colorado.
And make no mistake, this was the more difficult of the two match-ups between the Rapids and the LA Galaxy. Although the Rapids haven’t seen Lodeiro in person yet, and Roman Torres could be back healthy by the first leg on November 22, the Rapids had Seattle’s number this year. The Sounders struggled mightily to open up space against this unit and lost both meetings during Colorado’s unreal 15-game unbeaten run from April through July.
But that could also play into Seattle’s hands. Lodeiro has largely hidden the Sounders’ lack of a single true winger on the roster, allowing the Sounders to fill in the gaps with his otherworldly vision. Colorado haven’t had to play him yet. Teams without a frame of reference on Lodeiro other than in the film room tend to struggle on first blush.
Otherwise, the Sounders need to continue their propensity of selective pressing. Push the fullbacks, play through the spine and let Lodeiro work his magic. He can win you a title if you surround him with even above average team play.
Who needs it more: Seattle Sounders
There’s only one team left in the field that already has an MLS Cup trophy in its cabinet, and that’s Colorado. The Rapids won it all in 2010, and after a management and roster reset, they’re back again. But the Rapids are also one year removed from a nine-win season, and if you’d given Rapids fans (to say nothing of higher management) this kind of year at the outset they’d have been overjoyed. The Sounders, meanwhile, just played in their eighth consecutive Western Conference Semifinals, and the club’s ambitions are squarely set on an MLS Cup they have yet to win. Whatever the regular-season standings would lead you to believe, the pressure in this series is firmly in Seattle’s court.