4
Nov

MLS Cup Playoffs: What we learned from Conference Semifinal 1st legs

imageImages: USA Today

LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena summed up the tenuous state of the MLS Conference Semifinal ties in his typically succinct way on Sunday night.

“I’d rather be the team ahead,” Arena told reporters after his side claimed a 1-0 victory over Real Salt Lake in Carson, Calif. “These are always difficult matches. All the games in the league are all competitive going into the second game. It’s going to be difficult. Obviously, having the one goal is a real plus, but it’s going to take a heck of an effort in the next 90 minutes.”

It took plenty of energy to even reach the halfway point in these series, truth be told. All eight teams enter midweek with genuine hopes of booking a place in the final four, but they must heed the lessons learned from a nervy weekend in order to claim it:

New England 2 – Sporting Kansas City 1

Precision provides Revolution with a foothold: New England ceded possession by design (38 percent accrued on the night, according to Opta statistics) in this first leg in a bid to draw Sporting out and exploit the ensuing space. Sporting, for the most part, resisted those urges and retained its shape superbly, but two lapses – one iffy clearance, one instance of poor closing through midfield – invited the Revs to attack swiftly. The tidiness displayed in those sequences – particularly the sumptuous second rounded off by Kelyn Rowe’s outside of the foot finish – punished Sporting for its modest letdowns. If the Revs can produce similarly neat combination play as Sporting eventually commits numbers into the attack on Wednesday night, then they could book a place in the Eastern Conference championship.

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2
Nov

MLS Cup Playoffs: Conference Semifinals Preview

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Consider the Knockout Round games in midweek as a modest appetizer for the entertainment to come this weekend. The path toward MLS Cup commences in earnest at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night as the final eight sides prepare for the first leg of the conference semifinals.

Each of the four ties possesses the same governing principles (two-legged, aggregate goal series with the potential tiebreakers of two 15-minute extra time periods and penalty kicks after the second leg) and turns on different particulars.

The outcomes will not hinge on the results this weekend, but the answer to one specific question could provide a telling glimpse about the result in the first match and the eventual winner of the tie in midweek:

New England – Sporting Kansas City (Saturday, 8:00p.m. ET)

Can New England find a way to break quickly?

Sporting Kansas City commits numbers into the attack for two reasons: it needs the extra bodies to pose problems and it wants to win the ball high up the field when the opposition wins possession. Those structural concessions create ample room to counter, particularly when Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic foray forward to provide width. There are a couple of ways to exploit the holes – quick inside-out passes through the middle back into the vacated space, long vertical balls down the side line – yet Sporting does a particularly good job of preventing opposing teams from pursuing those avenues by breaking up the play and closing down quickly. New England must find a way to move concisely and neatly enough out of the back to avoid those issues and spark their usually tidy work through the middle of the park.

Seattle – Portland (Saturday, 10:00p.m.)

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Is it really a matter of three versus two in central midfield?

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30
Oct

MLS Playoffs Preview: Knockout Round

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The quest for MLS Cup commences in Seattle Wednesday night. Ten teams will embark upon this perilous journey with a single objective in mind. Two of them will drop out of the reckoning entirely by the end of Thursday night.

It is rather harsh justice to risk a season’s worth of toil with one game on short rest, but four teams find themselves in that predicament over the next two days. The binary nature of the process leaves no room for interpretation: advance with a win, exit with a defeat.

The outcome in both matches – Colorado’s trip to Seattle tonight, Montréal’s excursion to Houston tomorrow – rests upon finding a way to solve the inherent problems created by this difficult situation and snag the desired result. The answers to a few pressing questions along the way could determine the identity of the last two entrants into the final eight over the next few days:

Seattle Sounders vs Colorado Rapids (Wednesday, 10:30 p.m. ET)

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Is it time for the Sounders to make an MLS Cup final? (Action Images)

1. Can Seattle put its house in order?: Sounders coach Sigi Schmid faces considerable pressure to turn his talented squad around after a poor conclusion to the campaign squandered a direct berth into the Western Conference semifinals. Clint Dempsey’s first Seattle goal on Sunday night provides some hope of an uptick in his game, but Dempsey can’t solve all of the problems. Schmid must find a way to establish the necessary cohesiveness and rhythm in short order to avoid a disappointing – and yet entirely plausible – result on home turf and a vibrant offseason debate about his job status.

2. How will injuries influence team selection?: Schmid will likely omit Obafemi Martins (groin) from his plans. Colorado coach Oscar Pareja will probably cope without Dillon Powers (concussion) and ponder whether Vicente Sanchez (shoulder) is fit enough to feature from the outset. The potential absence of those three players will necessitate some adjustments, though Seattle has ample experience without Martins and Colorado possesses some options in midfield.

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