The MLS completed its 2018 regular season this past weekend and the playoffs began Wednesday night. But before dissecting the upcoming playoff matches lets take a look back over the season. A season filled with highs and lows.
First, there is no better place to start than in Atlanta and their FC United. Atlanta fans had plenty to cheer about this year as they watched star forward Josef Martinez find the back of the net 31 times, an MLS record. And there were plenty of fans watching as they averaged 53,000 fans at their home games. In fact, they also had five home matches where the attendance was over 70,000! Perhaps the NFL should take a look. Their attendance averaged 12,000 higher than the second highest attendance in Seattle. Overall attendance across the league was right on par with 2017 and attendance at the 11 games this past weekend were all well above season averages indicating strong interest.
Then there was the arrival of English superstar Wayne Rooney. Prior to his joining DC United, they had a woeful season underway having won just twice in their first 14 matches. But when “Wazza” arrived things changed and in a big way. In the 19 matches with Rooney on the roster they 12 of those with Rooney scoring 12 goals and adding 7 assists. That’s making an impact! One of the questions surrounding his transfer to DC United was just how much did he have left in the tank at age 32 having been a mainstay with his clubs and the English National Team since he was 17. I think this goal answered that in one spades.
Then there are the NY Red Bulls with the MLS’s best record for the season while also fielding the most homegrown players in the league. Their youth movement paid big dividends as it did with Philadelphia Union, FC Dallas, and Real Salt Lake. Those four teams were among the top five in homegown minutes this season all they all advanced. Clearly the MLS teams and their academy programs are starting to bear fruit.
But as in any sport there were disappointments to go along with the bright spots and no bigger one that in Toronto. Winner’s of the MLS Cup last season Toronto FC failed to even make the playoffs this season finishing a dismal 9th in the Eastern Conference. Then the Portland Timbers one of the perennially strongest teams in the Western Conference made the playoffs, barely finishing 5th.
Then there have been coaching change rumors flying over the last month but none more so than in Atlanta and Columbus. The current odds are that once the MLS season is completed that Tata Martino of Atalanta will become the new head coach for the Mexican National Team. However, yesterday reports surfaced that Argentina was going to make a strong push to pull him their way. Then there is the abysmal situation with our own National Team. Without a head coach since October 2017. Again its mostly back door stories but it appears that the new General Manager for US Soccer, Earnie Stewart, is supposedly going to announce the new head coach this month. And from more a process of elimination than anything else it will be a shock if it isn’t Gregg Berhalter of the Crew.
So lots happening in the US soccer world right now but lets get on to the MLS playoffs.
The single elimination matches started Wednesday night with Portland beating FC Dallas 2-1. Portland scored both its goals (both by Diego Valeri) while playing down a man and Portland keeper Jeff Attinella nearly had a clean sheet till Dallas scored its lone goal near the end of extra time. Portalnd will move on to face Sporting KC.
NYC FC bested the Philadelphia Union 3-1 and will return to the Conference Semifinals for the third straight year. The Union? Well they are still looking for their first playoff win. It was a comfortable win for the Cityzens and a notice to the rest of the league to not count them out. When healthy they are a very strong team and they love playing in Yankee Stadium. They move on to face Atlanta.
True to the form of this years knockout matches, Real Salt Lake beat LAFC 3-2 making it three of four for the road teams. Very unusual in a sport like soccer where home field is typically a big advantage. And Real fans have to thank long time keeper Nick Romando for coming up with six key saves. Not bad for a 39 year old! Real now faces Sporting KC.
The Columbus or is that Austin no its Columbus Crew earned a tough victory over a motivated DC United. The game was very entertaining with lots of attacking back and forth play and at the end of regulation it was all tied at 1. Thirty minutes of extra time couldn’t produce a winner as each side scored once so it went to penalties. And in the end it was two great stops by USMNT #1 keeper Zach Steffan, including this on against Wayne Rooney, to move the Crew on to face the NY Red Bulls.
Atlanta United vs NYC FC: There are three teams with near 20% odds to win the MLS Cup and Atlanta United is one of them. These two teams met twice during the regular season with both ending in draws. However the game play was quite uneven with both home teams having the better play but just not able to capitalize on their opportunities. The first leg will be held Sunday at Yankee Stadium where FC is an outstanding 12-1-4. Simply stated the Pigeons don’t lose at home. The bad news for FC is that they don’t win on the road (4-9-4) while United just wins. Certainly United is better at home than on the road (11-2-4 vs 10-5-2) but they had two more road wins than the next best road team in the entire league. Both teams had strong defenses and only allowed 44 (United) and 45 (FC) goals. The difference is in their offenses. FC can score but United can score in bunches. The Pigeons will have to rely on their stingy home defense (they only allowed 11 goals at Yankees Stadium all season) and hope to put Atlanta in a hole headed south for the second leg. The problem then becomes their away form where they aren’t near as stingy allowing 39 goals. Seven times this season they allowed three or more goals. That is likely to cost them in Atlanta. The Five Stripes will open things up in front of 70,000 fans and will take the series and move on.
NY Red Bulls vs vs Columbus Crew: The Red Bulls are another of the three odds on favorites to win the Cup and with good reason. The Red Bulls had the leagues best defense only allowing 33 goals on the season. Eleven fewer than the next best! And they were the fifth highest scoring team in the league. With a veteran keeper, Luis Robles, an incredible midfileder, Kaku, and a superstar striker in Bradley Wright-Phillips they are a stacked team. Oh and they have a kid by the name of Tyler Adams. Probably going to be a mainstay with the USMNT down the road especially if he gets a January transfer to a European club. The question mark for the Red Bulls is pretty straight forward. How much do they have left in the tank after a long season PLUS their matches in the Supporter’s Shield (which they won) and the CONCACAF Champions League. They have played over 40 matches this season. On the other side the Crew have reason to be optimistic. They tied them at home and actually beat them in NY, one of their only two losses at home all season. However, the Red Bull have not lost at home since late July. For the Crew to have a shot they will need midfielder Federico Higuain and keeper Zack Steffen to step up big. Even still the Red Bulls should have too much for the Crew to handle.
Western Conference Semifinals
Sporting KC vs Real Salt Lake: Sporting, the last of the three favorites, has a unique group of players especially in the attack. Unlike most teams that have two or maybe three goal scorers they rely on, Sporting has a much more spread out system. They had 16 different goal scorers this season which makes them very difficult to defend. And they are coached by one of the best in the league in Peter Vermes. They are tactically sound and rarely make big mistakes and in the playoffs that can be a winning combination. Many, me included, have Vermes high on their list to become the next USMNT head coach. The flip side for Sporting is that they don’t have that difference maker up top and if they need a goal will somebody step up and become that guy? Real, on the other hand, is the proverbial good news bad news team. The good is that they are a very young and energetic team. The bad news is that they are a very young and energetic team. They play with abandon and throwing caution to the wind can yield dividends. But it can also lead to mistakes. Big ones, and Real allowed 58 goals, by far the most of any team in the playoffs. In fact if not for the collapse by the LA Galaxy on the final day of the season Real wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. Sporting moves on.
Seattle Sounders vs Portland Timbers: The final matchup in the semi-finals might just be the most fun of them all. This is THE rivalry in the league made up of two of the most rabid fan bases there are. And these teams have a history of playing some outstanding matches in front of packed houses. Seattle comes in a tale of two seasons. One of the worst teams the first half turned it around the second half. They were the best team in the league the second half winning 14 of 16 matches. The Sounders have made a habit of having these second half runs and its led them to the MLS Cup the last two years. A third may be in the cards. The problem for the Sounders has been in the attack where they have way overperformed their xG (expected goals). At some point you have to wonder when they come down to earth…perhaps with a crash. The TImbers on the other hand come in as an inconsistent side. Capable of a 15 match unbeaten streak then faltering toward the end of the second half then having a strong finish to creep into the playoffs. In a playoff format like the MLS where a string of strong play is key not sure the Timbers are the one to get it done. Look for the Sounders to move on.
So there’s the setup. The first legs are all going off this Sunday November 4 and will be shown on Fox Sports 1 or ESPN so tune in and watch some soccer.
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Written by Steve Birrer.Posted 10 months ago in Soccer.
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O's. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.