First legs are cagey and tense and tight – usually. In MLS, the proportion of "play-it-close-to-the-vest" first legs is somewhere around 65 percent, just from eyeballing it.
That's fine. That's how things are done everywhere in the world just about. In two-legged series, all but the most overwhelmingly talented teams are known to take a page or two from the Book of Mourinho.
On Tuesday night in the openers of the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Championships, the portion of cagey first legs totaled 50 percent. Let's start with the current champions, who went down to Houston and just about ended the series...
Houston Dynamo 0, Seattle Sounders 2
It would be un-generous to reduce a team as good as the Sounders to just one or two things, but that's what I'm going to do right here.
- You have to penetrate through the lines to stretch their defense
- You can not let Nicolas Lodeiro drift inside to create overloads
I feel like if you manages these two things, you've got a shot against Seattle. If you don't, you are going to lose.
The Dynamo lost. They stretched the Sounders backline just twice – once at the very start, when Alberth Elis got a look in the box he should've done much better with, and one early in the second half when Mauro Manotas dribbled half the Seattle team before somehow pushing his shot wide.
That was pretty good! But that also wasn't anywhere near enough, because too many things went wrong defensively for the Dynamo here. First and foremost -- and decisively -- they never figured out how to track Lodeiro (volume up for analysis):
Seattle have often sleepwalked through games on attack this year, but they're still capable of putting the pedal all the way down to the floor when they feel up for it. In the first half, they felt up for it, and it probably should've been 3-0 at the break. The fact that it was only 2-0, and remains 2-0 heading into Leg 2, is some kind of moral victory for Houston.
Losing your home leg 2-0 is bad, mmmkay? Even if Roman Torres did pick up a yellow card, ruling him out for the second leg via card accumulation...
It's not enough. The Dynamo are down to their third-string right back now because of Jalil Anibaba's red card, and Elis – their best attacker, even if he didn't play like it on Tuesday – is out via card accumulation of his own. Yet Wilmer Cabrera still has plenty of attacking options to choose from and in addition to Torres's absence, Chad Marshall is starting to pick up some knocks.
But... naaaah. Seattle came out with the bit between their teeth and effectively ended this series because Houston had no way of stopping Lodeiro from getting on the ball where and when he wanted. Even if the Dynamo play their hearts out, there's no way I can wrap my head around them going 3-1 or better at CenturyLink.
Much of this year's title defense has seen Sounders fans patiently waiting for this team to start playing like the champions they are. Over the last 145 minutes (they were unstoppable in the second half of the second leg vs. Vancouver), they've gotten their wish.
Columbus 0, Toronto FC 0
This series, however, is still very much up for grabs. Toronto, playing without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, came out as expected: compact, low-block, and trying to hit on the counter via the speed of Tosaint Ricketts.
Columbus were more aggressive, but couldn't quite figure out how to break down the unusual 4-1-4-1 (that eventually shifted to a 5-1-3-1 after Greg Vanney started making some subs) TFC played. Part of that may have been nerves, but part of it was planned by Vanney, who had Victor Vazquez and Jonathan Osorio shadowing Wil Trapp, thus forcing Crew SC to use someone else to initiate builds.
If you were TFC, what would you want the Columbus distribution numbers to look like?
Something like that, I'm sure. CCSC pinged 509 passes, and Trapp's usage rate was only about 11 percent. That means he wasn't allowed to be influential.
To be fair, Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams did a very nice job in this one – no big mistakes from either. But neither guy provides the type of early, accurate, zone-moving distribution that Trapp does, and with Trapp marginalized that forced Federico Higuain to drop deeper and deeper. That, in turn, created a dislocation between the Crew SC midfield and lone forward Ola Kamara (who had kind of a nightmare).
Columbus were still dangerous in transition at times, but for the most part TFC were able to keep the entire game in front of them. Like the Crew SC defenders, they made no big mistakes, and the few times Alex Bono was called upon he rose to the moment.
Toronto, in other words, got the result they wanted. I do think it's fair to be a little hesitant about their assuredness of going through, however, as 1) they've been shut out twice in a row for the first time all year; and 2) they're just not playing sharp, incisive soccer.
Maybe that returns when Giovinco and Altidore do. We'll find out in a Leg 2 that promises to be more open and full of attacking intent than what these two teams served up on Tuesday.