Armchair Analyst: Conference Semifinal Leg 1 Anxiety Power Rankings

It is just halftime of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Semifinals, and as my co-panelist Meghan Klingenberg said on Sunday night's postgame show, none of the four series was finished in the first leg. Everybody's got a chance going into Leg 2.

Some teams, though, have more of a chance than others. And some have more reason to worry than others because of what happened in Leg 1.

So here are my Anxiety Power Rankings, from least to most, following Sunday's marathon:

8. Atlanta United

Scuffled through the last month of the season? Famously collapsed on the last day with a trophy on the line? Lost their best two-way player to yet another hamstring strain? Golden Boot winner on the fritz?

Nah. No worries here.

Atlanta United put together their best win (so far) of the Tata Martino era on Sunday, beating NYCFC 1-0 at Yankee Stadium. It wasn't a classic performance by any means, but the first 45 was as dominant as they've been in months, and Miguel Almiron looked good for 45 minutes, and the defense looked good, and Atlanta showed they could be exactly as tough as they needed in central midfield.

The most important part, though? Martino showed a level of tactical pragmatism against a pressing team that'd often been lacking in the past. Being a great manager requires a defined system you can induce your players to execute with effort and precision. Tata's got that. Being a winning manager requires a certain level of moral flexibility when it comes to the ideals apparent in your system – are you willing to compromise them in the moment in order to achieve an ugly result?

For Tata the answer's often been "No." At Yankee Stadium, the answer was "Yup."

That's their passing map for the second half, as they were sitting on that 1-0 lead. Green arrows are completed passes, red are incomplete and yellow are key passes (passes that lead to a shot).

And yes, that is horribly ugly. And yes, given the circumstances of the game, that is just fine. When protecting a lead on the road at Yankee Stadium the smartest path to a happy flight home is to close your eyes and mail it to Staten Island any time you're under pressure, and so that's what the Five Stripes did. More than a quarter of their passes in the second half were long-balls – easily the highest number for any half in the Tata era – and that kind of pragmatism was absolutely necessary.

They've got their mojo back.

7. Columbus Crew SC

They were playing with house money at least a little bit after beating D.C. United, which meant they came out against the Red Bulls playing soccer that was alternately cagey (the first half) and loose (the second). And loose soccer can lead to beautiful soccer:

This is so, so good.

Crew SC are one of the few teams in the league that aren't intimidated by the Red Bulls or their press, and pretty calmly played through it (or occasionally over it) in each of their meetings this year. RBNY are surely going to come out and press both higher and harder next week, but ... meh. I don't think Columbus will lose sleep over that.

Their 1-0 home win means a single goal in Harrison will almost certainly be enough to see them through. Columbus will surely take that deal.

6. Sporting KC

There are two ways to look at it: Way No. 1 is that Sporting KC came out flat in a playoff game, generated almost nothing useful from what little possession they had, and at no point looked like the smooth and inventive possession team that scored 65 regular season goals; Way No. 2 is despite all that, it took a worldie to break down the defense on one side, and on the other they proved they could still press their way to a necessary goal. Sporting haven't been the dominant defense-converted-to-offense group this year that we've known them as since 2011, but it turns out that club's still in their bag and they can still use it when they need to.

And so they sit at 1-1, and now get to go home and control their own fate. 

"Do we feel good about going home and having everything in front of at home? Yeah, it feels good," said captain Matt Besler. If we are able to go home and win the game then we will advance and that’s a positive. As far as what you can take from the game, we weathered a bit of a storm and we knew we would have to do that."

This is how you draw it up over a two-legged series, result-wise. SKC will have to play better next weekend than they did on Sunday, but that's not a particularly high bar.

5. Seattle Sounders

I had to flip a coin between Seattle and Portland here at these two spots, but give the slightest of nods to the Sounders here because of the away goal in their 2-1 loss at Providence Park.

Baked into that:

  • Seattle gave up one goal that was a product of momentarily playing 10-v-11
  • Brian Schmetzer made a good tactical adjustment that stopped the defensive bleeding and got his team more of the ball in the 2nd half
  • The Sounders got into really good attacking spots in the final 45 minutes

At one point it seemed like Portland were going to run away with the game, but Seattle bottled them up for the final hour, allowing the Timbers only two shots in the box and generating a ton of their own penetration.

If there's any anxiety, it comes from this: Playing Waylon Francis, a left back, as a true winger in a 4-5-1 was part of the adjustment Schmetzer made, and part of why Seattle were able to defend wider and deeper. Francis got into good spots on both sides of the ball, and forced Portland to adjust to him. I was surprised!

Francis also squandered, with bad touches or indecisiveness, every good attacking moment his movement provided. I was not surprised.

If Cristian Roldan can't go, Schmetzer has to be brave enough to play a real winger – Harry Shipp (who looked good in a late cameo) or Handwalla Bwana – in that spot.

Regardless, "we've gotta get a win at home" has been Seattle's default setting since July. They know how this week feels.

4. Portland Timbers

Portland, on the other hand, probably need to get a result on the road, which is not a particularly happy task. That said, they've played what were essentially two road playoff games recently (at RSL late in the regular season, and then at FC Dallas in an actual playoff game last Wednesday), and won both – 6-2 on aggregate. They've been a much better road team over the past six weeks than they've been pretty much at any point in their existence, so ... I'm almost talking myself into flipping them with the Sounders here.

I'll also make another point, mainly that this is Jeremy Ebobisse:

Portland's attack was sputtering through the summer. Ebobisse won the starting job in early September. In his seven starts they've gone 5-1-1 with a plus-7 goal differential and four wins in four games against Western Conference playoff teams. Over the entire rest of the 2018 season, they'd managed just three wins against West playoff teams.

Simply put: Ebobisse has been a perfect fit in front of guys like Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco. His hold-up play, unselfishness and passing vision have opened up space for those guys – he had the primary assist on Valeri's game-winner at Dallas, remember – and now he's making smart, early runs to stretch the field as well.

If and when Seattle push up on Thursday night in possession, he will have to do more of that.

3. Real Salt Lake

Damir Kreilach has caused me to almost entirely lose my voice. First, it was his crane-kick golazo at LAFC, and then it was his interplay ahead of Albert Rusnak's banger on Sunday. Holy hell, I can't stop watching this:

Maybe Kreilach, a central midfielder converted to center forward, has finally found his true calling? He's certainly playing like it.

But it wasn't enough on Sunday for RSL. A 1-1 home draw in a two-legged, aggregate goals series is not quite a death blow, but it is very not good.

Can RSL play that well again? Can they do it on the road – a place where they've struggled, the LAFC result notwithstanding? Will the SKC attack sputter again? Will the well run dry on Claret-and-Cobalt golazos?

It feels like the answer to all of the above should be "No," but bear in mind that over the last five years (since the 2013 MLS Cup), RSL are 6-1-6 against SKC in MLS play (regular season and playoffs). There'll be no fear there.

2. New York Red Bulls

It's beginning to feel very Metro 'round about these parts. For the third straight year they came out flat in the first leg of the Conference Semifinals (the year before that they saved their "flat" performance for the Conference Championships) and rather than grabbing hold of a series, dug themselves a hole.

It's not the deepest hole in the world. Luis Robles made that point afterward, and he's not wrong.

But they need a two-goal victory to win outright (1-0 sends it to extra time), and those are not easy to come by. Since 2015, the start of the high-pressing era in Harrison, the Red Bulls have won by two goals just once in 13 meetings against Columbus.

Again: The series isn't over, but it's leaning pretty heavily toward Ohio.

1. New York City FC

It's true that Atlanta United aren't the best home team – 11-2-4 is good, not great. But they are very, very good at playing with a lead, and very, very good at punishing teams who have to take chances.

NYCFC, on Sunday, will have to take chances because Atlanta are sitting on a lead. And they'll be doing so at Atlanta in a must-win road game.

Crazy things can happen because this is MLS, and these are the playoffs. Remember that Toronto/Montreal series a few years back? Or Houston winning at Portland last year? Or the way the Revs blitzed Columbus in 2014? We live in the land of the weird.

But it's hard to see the path here. NYCFC's last road win over a playoff team was their only road win against a playoff team, way back on March 4 of this year. Literally Week 1.

It was long, long ago. They need to rediscover who they were when 2018 began, or the season will absolutely be coming to a disappointing and premature end once again.

Series: 
Topics: 

Stay connected: Sign up for The Daily Kick Off, your daily dose of North American soccer news, analysis, and commentary direct to your inbox.