Round One concludes tonight
Houston advance to Western Conference Semifinals
Houston Dynamo FC outlasted Real Salt Lake in penalties to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals. The Dynamo will host Sporting Kansas City in a single-elimination match.
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What happened?: Real Salt Lake did everything they needed to do to pull off the upset. They kept it close, Houston couldn’t find a final blow and Diego Luna pulled out a moment of magic to send it to penalties. That’s exactly how they drew it up (and how we drew it up for them in yesterday’s Kickoff). But the Dynamo and Steve Clark got the breaks in the penalty shootout and Houston advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals. They’ll host Sporting KC.
So, did we learn anything?: We almost saw the full nightmare scenario for Houston. They were the much better team across three games and yet two of them went to penalties because they weren’t able to turn chances into goals. It felt for a moment all the worries about lacking individual game-changers in attack might be manifesting.
But Houston got the job done against a typically scrappy RSL team that just had too many injuries at the wrong time. Now, the Dynamo will host Sporting KC with a spot in the Western Conference Final on the line. Considering the Dynamo’s end-of-season form and SKC piling on big wins for a few months now, there’s a real argument to be had about who enters that matchup with more momentum.
Houston have proof of concept thanks to a US Open Cup win back in September. Sporting KC have a Decision Day win, a Wild Card win and a stunning sweep over the West’s top-seeded team. But maybe more importantly, SKC have a player like Alan Pulido who can change the game at a moment’s notice. Houston will have to be at their “the team is the real match winner” best to earn a win. They weren’t quite there throughout this series against RSL.
Columbus and Atlanta have faced each other three times in the last 36 days. Tonight will be the fourth time. No one should be all that surprised by anything that happens tonight tactically. At least in theory. This should be a game where both teams are fully aware of the other’s principles, tendencies and game model. We’ve kind of reached the point where it comes down to nothing more than who executes more effectively.
In some ways, that tilts the odds toward Columbus. We know how good the Crew are in attack of course, but what makes the difference here is Atlanta are far more likely to step on a rake and smack themselves in the face defensively. But as good as the Crew are in attack, Atlanta are one of the few teams in MLS with a slight talent advantage at the top of their roster. When the Five Stripes are clicking, you get Tuesday’s 4-2 beatdown.
It feels like both teams should probably roll up with the same plan as always and hope that, for tonight, their side is better than the other. Making too many tweaks now feels like a risk that would only be necessary if you truly believe the other team is better.
On Friday, I asked Gonzalo Pineda about some of the Crew’s tactics in Match 2 and it eventually led to this quote.
“And I mean, I love tactics. I like to work in structures and things, but I think in these types of games, it's about going more by principles of play,” Pineda said.
That seems like a great sign for Atlanta. There’s always the danger of messing with what’s working or becoming too conservative on the road just because you’re on the road. In some ways, there seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy element to MLS’ home-field advantage at times. Atlanta fed into that in Match 1 with an approach that was great for not getting blown out, but minimized their chances for a win. With Thiago Almada back and the team coming off a big win, I wouldn’t expect too much change from their Match 2 approach.
Meanwhile, Columbus won easily at home in Match 1. They got trucked in Match 2 on the road when Atlanta had their full allotment of attacking pieces on the field. Is that enough to convince Wilfried Nancy and company to make notable changes? Again, that feels like it could be a mistake. The Crew have been the much better team against Atlanta in three out of four games this year. But, then again, who am I to doubt someone who’s arguably the single-best coach in the league?
I don’t know what happens tonight. It feels like if we played this matchup 100 times each team would win 50 games. But, for better or worse, unforeseen adjustments might make the difference tonight. Now we just have to wait and see if they actually come.
Good luck out there. Show up when needed.