Let me sum up Leg 2 of the Cascadia version of the Western Conference semifinals:
Dairon Asprilla lives for #MLSCupPlayoffs.— #ThankYouDeuce (@JogaBonito_USA) November 9, 2018
In his #MLS regular season career:
In the playoffs:
1 winning penalty in shootout
He has all kinds of dance moves, too!#SEAvPOR #RCTID #MLS pic.twitter.com/eQ8v8BOoVR
Five years from now, or 10, or 25, when someone mentions "The Dairon Asprilla Game," Thursday night is what they will be referring to, and the above is why. Asprilla came on for the final 18 minutes – on the wing, not at center forward, mind you – and completely changed the game for the visitors. He bagged a goal and an assist, put in the world's most honest defensive shift, and capped it off with the series-winning penalty in the shootout.
The game was beautiful, glorious madness. It was pure MLS. If we're lucky we'll get more of it this weekend.
Sporting KC v. Real Salt Lake
CURRENTLY: 1-1 on aggregate (SKC have an away goal)
What Sporting need to do: The biggest thing is to get on the ball more. SKC can still press you into mistakes, as they did for Diego Rubio's equalizer, but this team is more of a possession team than anything else, and in Leg 1 they didn't do much of that to speak of. If you're not using the ball well, then you're not making the defense react to you, and if you're not making the defense react to you, then you're not pulling the defense out of position. And if you're not pulling the defense out of position, then they're not going to be giving you big, inviting gaps – the kinds that Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi love – to hit from the wing.
Know who struggled the most? D-mid Ilie Sanchez. He's normally neat and tidy and able to get on the ball and dictate the pace of the game and hit a million short passes and OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!!!!!!
That looks like the storyboard from a slasher flick. It's the most un-Ilie passing map I've ever seen from him.
RSL made his life miserable, constantly hurrying him and leaving him bereft of outlets or options, so he spent damn near the full 90 minutes mailing it to Topeka every chance he got.
Not a great strategy, but it wasn't fatal, either. They got the road result and are heavy favorites because of it.
What RSL need to do: Somehow reprise the defensive effort of the first game and prevent SKC from getting any sort of rhythm, AND carve out better chances despite the loss of Albert Rusnak to yellow card accumulation, AND exploit the space in behind when Graham Zusi overlaps despite the fact that the Claret-and-Cobalt haven't really played with a pace-and-space winger over there.
My guess is it'll be Joao Plata as a very inverted left wing, with Corey Baird as a channel-running center forward and Damir Kreilach as a pseudo No. 10 beneath him. I'd watch for Baird to make diagonal runs away from goal into that space Zusi vacated, while Plata dives inside to play with Kreilach.
Also: They can't give up anything off of set pieces, especially early. If RSL give up a cheapie in the first half they'll be forced to really chase, the game, which will leave them stretched. At that point, I'd bet on SKC scoring three.
Atlanta United v. NYCFC
CURRENTLY: 1-0 Atlanta (Atlanta have an away goal)
What Atlanta need to do: This is going sound cliched, but the honest-to-god most important thing for the Five Stripes is to match the intensity of the moment. They were superb at it in Leg 1, dominating NYCFC for the first 45 before making an appropriate halftime sub, but throughout their brief MLS existence they've usually fallen short in those moments – last year's Knockout Round loss to Columbus, the way they got dominated at Red Bull Arena in September, and the utter collapse on Decision Day that cost them the Supporters' Shield.
This team has, more often than not, failed in those moments. Leg 1 was a break from that script as they imposed their intensity upon a good opponent with everything on the line, and won a rock fight. If you're an Atlanta fan you should be thrilled about that.
You should also be thrilled about that 45-minute cameo by Miguel Almiron, who was the best player on the pitch before coming out at the half. Chances are he's well-rested and close to 90 fit after another week to recover.
Even on the tight confines of Yankee Stadium Almiron was able to extend the field both on and off the ball, and force the NYCFC backline into copious amounts of emergency defense. At home, with more room to work in...
I'd expect at least a few moments that look a lot like that.
What NYCFC need to do: The No. 1 job is to avoid the above, at least until desperation time. If they spent a bunch of the game chasing Almiron and and Josef Martinez into green acres, their postseason stay will be brief and tragic for the third straight year.
On the other side of the ball, they've got to get on the damn ball and put it on Maxi Moralez's foot, preferably in the central channels at least a little bit. My colleague Ben Baer did a really good job of breaking down how the Five Stripes shut down the NYCFC attack, and it largely boiled down to "starve Maxi, starve the team."
The Cityzens got marginally more dangerous when they subbed Jo Inge Berget on and went to something of a two-forward set up, as the big man was able to pull defenders away from Moralez and David Villa. If I was Dome Torrent I'd try to keep it scoreless though 70, then replicate that look for the final 20 minutes and toss the dice that Almiron will be too exhausted to punish you on the counter.
To be clear: I don't think NYCFC can beat Atlanta in Atlanta in a must-win game by going toe-to-toe with them for 90 minutes. Their last road win over a playoff team was waaaaay back on March 4, literally Week 1 of this crazy season of ours.
But if they keep it scoreless for 70, then make some big, bold changes, maybe a bit of magic happens.
Nothing but respect to Dome for calling Atlanta a bunch of divers, by the way.
New York Red Bulls v. Columbus Crew SC
CURRENTLY: 1-0 Columbus (no away goals)
What RBNY need to do: Beat Columbus by two goals, which is something they've managed just once in their last 13 meetings. Playing the Crew is hard.
Why? Because Columbus happily play right through the RBNY press when they can, and happily play right over it when they must:
Chris Armas has talked about amping up the intensity for Leg 2, and that's a start. The Red Bulls weren't bad in Leg 1, but they were at least a little bit flat – they almost never hurried Columbus – and when the margins are small (as they always are this time of year), that can/usually is the difference.
Another thing to consider: RBNY had a super disappointing result in Leg 1 of last year's Conference Semifinals as well, against Toronto FC. Jesse Marsch changed things up in the second leg, going to a 4-4-2 diamond with Tyler Adams (!!!) as the attacking tip, specifically to take away TFC's ability to build from deep in midfield.
It worked. Adams dominated Michael Bradley that game and without that deep midfield outlet, TFC spent the full 90 on the front foot. Only some unfortunately familiar playoff finishing cost the Red Bulls a series they could/arguably should have won.
I would be surprised if Armas went as experimental in this game, but "cut Wil Trapp out of the equation" does make a lot of sense if you want to get the Crew shook.
What Columbus need to do: Surviving the first 20 minutes is key, because they absolutely will get blitzed. It's a shame, from a Crew SC perspective, that they'll be without the injured Niko Hansen, whose speed would've opened up Route 1 as a viable over-the-top countermeasure for when New York put all 10 field players in the attacking half (which is how I expect the opening 20 to play out).
If/when they survive the first 20, it becomes a process of repeatability in possession – i.e., just do what you always do and trust the system that got you here – and danger mitigation elsewhere. That might mean Zack Steffen, 40 yards off his line, sweeping the ball away, or it might mean Jonathan Mensah launching it to Row Z. It might also mean both fullbacks playing just slightly lower than usual so as to avoid getting stretched.
Basically, though, they just need to score a goal. If they do that, then the Red Bulls need three, and if that's the case I really, really like the Massive's chances.
One More Thing to Ponder
Happy weekending, everybody.