The playoffs continue to deliver as we saw two more exciting shootouts Sunday. There was an upset in Portland, a dominant performance in Minnesota and a Tim Melia masterclass to help Sporting Kansas City advance. Here are my takeaways.
Sporting survive but must improve
In the end it was job done for the number one seed in the West and they survived, but only just. Sporting KC will need to improve if they are to live up to that top seed. First let’s talk about what they will did well. For the most part, their key guys showed up offensively and did just enough to show the quality that led to them having a strong regular season. Between Johnny Russell, Gianluca Busio, Gerso and Khiry Shelton they generated enough offense — 14 shots with eight on goal — to show they can be an offensive force.
The issue was they gave up too much defensively to a good, but not great, San Jose offense — 17 shots with eight on target and some of them were really good chances. Goals like Chris Wondoloski’s equalizing one deep into stoppage time simply cannot happen. Giving up a free header to the league’s all time leading goal scorer, with seconds to go and the season on the line is just something you cannot allow to happen. Like all teams who face San Jose, I’d imagine they spent the past few days reiterating how much you cannot allow Wondo to roam free in the box — always have a hand on him, get touch tight, prevent the cross — so to concede that type of goal at that time in the game had to be disappointing. They got away with it tonight but going forward, against even stronger opposition, the playoffs can be very unforgiving.
The biggest positive of the night for Sporting was of course the penalty shootout performance of Tim Melia. You just almost knew he was going to be the hero and come up big but I don’t think even he would have envisioned keeping a clean sheet in the shootout by saving all three of San Jose’s attempts. I always say, in the playoffs you need your big players to make big plays. That’s the best formula for winning, and on a night when Sporting almost let a lot of their good work from this season go to waste, Melia stood tall and ensured their MLS Cup hopes remained in tact.
Lodeiro-like Reynoso can hurt Sporting
I have one word to describe the Loons performance against Colorado: deadly. The Rapids certainly had their chances and on another night, if they were a little cleaner in the final third this game could have gone very differently. But as it was, the efficiency of Minnesota was the difference because both teams created enough to advance, but goals change games and after Kevin Molino opened the scoring brilliantly, Minnesota used that confidence to put the game away.
I don’t want to get caught in the moment but Sporting will have to be extremely concerned about facing Bebelo Reynoso. I don’t believe he’s quite as good as Nico Lodeiro but it’s undeniable that he has a Lodeiro-like influence on his team — just look at the opening goal. The little piece of skill on the edge of the box was breathtaking to say the least and it’s not something that many players can pull off. He does a great job of dropping deep at times to find the ball but then he’ll also show up in a more dangerous attacking spot in the final third later in the same move. He doesn’t stop moving — again, very Lodeiro-like. How much, or how little he’s allowed to influence the game will go a long way toward determining which team advances to the Western Conference Final.
At their best, I make Sporting the slight favorites but another determining factor will be how they manage transitions. Molino, Robin Lod and Ethan Finlay get out really well on the counter especially when Reynoso is on the ball so Peter Vermes will have to manage that part of the game really well. If they are able to do so, I can see them hurting Minnesota at the opposite end. The Rapids created a lot of chances but were wasteful and Minnesota rode their luck.
Sporting won’t be as forgiving — they only failed to score in one regular season game and they just put three past San Jose. I’ve got no doubts about their attacking prowess but in order to win, they have to avoid simple failed defensive assignments like we saw for San Jose’s third goal — they will win and advance if they do so.
Dallas score big upset but will need to change in the next round
In the end, the Timbers were undone by the thing that has plagued them all year long — conceding late goals. They have given up far too many goals in the last 15 minutes of games and that was ultimately their undoing. After completely dominating for 90 minutes, it looked like they’d get the result they deserved through Jorge Villafana’s wonderful strike off yet another sublime Diego Valeri pass, but some slack defending allowed Ricardo Pepi to give FC Dallas the lifeline they needed. After that, it was all Dallas. Michael Barrios and Pepi brought life to an attack that had been pretty pedestrian and throughout extra time, it was the Texans who looked the more likely to settle things before the shootout.
The Timbers are a very good team and many people had them pegged as potential MLS Cup champions so we can’t downplay just how impressive this FC Dallas win actually was. Playing away to Portland is always tough, even in an empty stadium. It’s especially hard when you fail to generate much offense and then find yourself behind after 82 minutes. The fact that they were able to dig deep and completely turn things around against such a formidable opponent.
I hate to rain on their parade but I do think they will need some big improvements when they face the Sounders or LAFC. The fact is, if tonight’s game was replayed and followed the same pattern, Portland would score two or three goals before FC Dallas had the chance to spoil the party.
So in the next game, I’d love to see Luchi Gonzales set his team up to play a little more on the front foot earlier in the game. They looked more like the best version of themselves in the last five minutes of regulation and extra time once he made some bold subs in search of the equalizer. They are not a team built to defend and absorb pressure, they are at their best when they go looking for the win. Playing how they played for most of tonight’s game also stifles Andres Ricaurte, he shines when they prioritize possession and take attacking risks, but he looks average when they play a little more conservatively.
Their best chance of producing another upset, either in Seattle or against LAFC, will come if they play a little more of an expansive game. I’m not suggesting that they unnecessarily open themselves up from the first minute, but they also can’t plan to just sit deep and let the opponent make the game — that approach will ensure that their season comes to an end in the next round.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.