It takes a decent season to book your tickets to the party, but once you’re in, the MLS postseason represents a whole different beast.
That’s not news to anyone who’s participated in the league’s annual melee over the decades. But we got several more reminders of it over the course of Sunday’s marathon tripleheader of Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Semifinal second legs. The day's matches served up an intriguing quartet for the upcoming Conference Championship showdowns, which open November 21 after the international break.
Glance at the bracket, and the eye is inevitably drawn to those bright citrus splashes of gold and orange that most observers, quite honestly, didn’t remotely expect to see at this stage.
East No. 5 seed Columbus Crew SC and West No. 4 Houston Dynamo are the latest in a long tradition of playoff gatecrashers, defying predictions and knocking off favored opponents on their way to the closing quartet. Each showed us their respective blemishes -- on more than a few occasions over the year -- and at times looked simply too incomplete to keep pace with the league elite.
And yet, here they are.
Back on September 30, I watched Houston labor to break down Minnesota United in a home game the Dynamo really needed to win, but looked in danger of drawing as they chased a playoff place.
They were flubbing chance after chance, their shots missing the target or finding Loons goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth instead of the net, and mere postseason participation looked like far from a sure thing, let alone a deep run. But then the ageless Vicente Sanchez entered the match, Alberth “La Panterita” Elis thumped home one of the two pinpoint deliveries that earned the Uruguayan two assists and donned a Black Panther mask to celebrate, setting the club’s Twitter account aflame with Marvel Comics and cat references for the next few days.
La Naranja were on their way to an important 2-1 win, and despite all their wasteful finishing and wobbly possession and excessive tendency towards long balls out of the back, it was hard not to smile at their sheer exuberance and cheek. I posted this after that ragged, imperfect but nevertheless entertaining 90-plus minutes of soccer:
The Dynamo are a flawed team, but an extremely fun one, & we should love them for it. Yes, I will die on this hill.https://t.co/iZXaspUIZw— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) October 1, 2017
Fast-forward a month or so, and that same ragtag band in orange is now one of the final four survivors in the long march towards MLS Cup after Sunday’s crafty, canny 2-1 road win over the Portland Timbers, whose Providence Park home tends to be quite an intimidating place to hunt a result in big games. Terrible on the road for most of 2017, robbed by injury of their influential defensive leaders AJ DeLaGarza and DaMarcus Beasley, Houston still found a way to bend the game to their will and add a new facet to a collective personality that still feels like a work in progress.
On the East side, a similar phenomenon is unfolding with Crew SC, whose pre-playoffs announcement of a possible move to Austin, Texas has both rocked and galvanized both the team and its fans, infusing their approach to the postseason with defiance and unity. Narrowly outlasting a dogged NYCFC side at Yankee Stadium in Leg 2 is their latest achievement.
Somewhat paradoxically, unearthing that fierce taproot of Columbus pride has made them all but irresistible to neutrals, who can be further charmed by their commitment to fluid football and abundance of attacking personalities. A Crew SC team that lost 5-0 to a Giovinco-and-Altidore-less Toronto FC back in May now feels eminently confident of standing toe-to-toe with the Reds, and who can really begrudge them that?
That’s a matter of timing, too – the MLS race rewards not merely the swiftest and strongest, but those who show those qualities at the proper moments down the stretch. Houston and Columbus entered the postseason with the wind at their backs, and did what was needed to keep the sails taut.
But personality counts for something as well. And both these underdogs have that in spades. In fact there’s a bit of an “A-Team” (or perhaps “the Expendables” for younger audiences) vibe to both of this year’s Cinderellas.
In under a year Wilmer Cabrera has given the Dynamo – worst in the West in 20016 – a facelift in terms of both talent and identity, packing the attack with young Latin American talent and urging them to get out and run at every opportunity. As mentioned before, it can be ragged and reactive, but it’s an efficient use of the varied tools at his disposal, from Honduran wing whirlwinds Elis and Romell Quioto to grizzled castoffs like Sanchez and Eric Alexander, whose labor and intelligence were critical in the engine room on Sunday.
I thought Eric Alexander was influential in deep midfield for Dynamo: 32/38 passing, 1 key pass, 1 assist, 10 ball recoveries, 2 fouls won. pic.twitter.com/WPzo4IV6jZ— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) November 6, 2017
And in Columbus we have the hipster’s choice, the small-market team with big philosophical ambitions thanks to the coolly cerebral Gregg Berhalter and his icy Argentine avatar Federico Higuain. They’ve shown as much tactical versatility as anyone this postseason, but no shortage of grit, and the variety on their roster helps a great deal. They’ve managed to walk the tightrope between defensive caution and enterprise in possession, and will be no easy out regardless of TFC’s vaunted depth and quality.
This is how the MLS Cup Playoffs go. Just about anything is possible. And the first step for lower-seeded teams is to recognize and embrace those heady possibilities.