MLS Playoffs: Third-place teams get first taste of pressure of quickie-elimination

By Ridge Mahoney

Expanding the playoff field per conference from five to six teams didn’t do the third-place finishers many favors.

In the past four seasons, a team finishing third bypassed the knockout round and progressed straight to the conference semifinals to take on the No. 2 seed. Starting this year, the third-place team gets an extra day to prepare for the quickie-elimination game and if it advances, plays a lower-seeded team in the semifinals.

However, it also plays the first leg of that semifinal series on just two days’ rest, which means the winners on Thursday of the games between the No. 3 and No. 6 seeds will play again on Sunday. But no doubt players and coaches aren’t looking that far ahead.

The Eastern knockout game Thursday is a rematch of Montreal’s 2-1 defeat of Toronto FC at Saputo Stadium on the final day of the regular season. In the West, Portland hosts Sporting Kansas City. As was the case on Wednesday, both games are being televised by UniMas.

Eastern Conference Knockout Round
Montreal vs. Toronto FC (7 p.m. ET, UniMas)

CLASH OF CANADA. Last year, the August arrival of Jermaine Jones sparked a New England resurgence that propelled the Revs all the way to the MLS Cup final. The 2015 catalyst extraordinaire is Didier Drogba. Playing 11 games, in which Montreal is 7-3-1, he’s averaged a goal per outing.

Yet as it was in the case of Jones last year, there’s more to this surge than Drogba. Ignacio Piatti missed some time with a strained calf and a trip to Argentina to be with his ailing father, but he scored a brilliant solo goal to down New England, 1-0, Oct. 17 and last Sunday picked up assists on both of Drogba’s goals against TFC. Despite missing eight games, he’s second on the team in goals with nine and leads in assists with eight.

The arrival of Drogba moved Dominic Oduro to a wide midfield slot but didn’t change his status; he’s been in and out of the starting lineup all season (18 starts in 28 appearances) and has scored eight goals. He’s always a danger to get in behind opponents, but defending is not his strong suit. If he’s caught upfield and TFC’s Jonathan Osorio finds space, the Impact will be stretched trying to contain him as well as Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, who has scored in all three of the teams' meetings this season and finished the season with 13 goals.

Assessing every TFC game starts with Giovinco, the league leader in goals (22) and assists (16) and already among the league’s best performers. He’s a threat against packed defenses, tight marking, double-teams, or all of the above. As the home team, Montreal will want to push the tempo, but central mids Marco Donadel and his partner – interim head coach Mauro Biello has used several combinations the past few weeks – must monitor Giovinco, who can turn with the most innocent touch and scythe through challengers at will to set up a teammate or finish with either foot regardless of distance or angle to goal.

The Impact must also track Bradley, who often initiates the attack with an entry pass and trails in the wake of Giovinco and Altidore in case the ball comes back in his direction. If Benoit Cheyrou can secure the middle and subdue Piatti, TFC will flood players forward and even the excellent Impact centerback Laurent Ciman won’t be able to cope.

Regular-Season Results:
June 24 – Toronto FC 3 (Bradley, Altidore, Giovinco pen.), Montreal 1 (Oyongo).
Aug. 29 – Toronto FC 2 (Bradley, Altidore), Montreal 1 (Oduro).
Oct. 25 – Montreal 2 (Drogba 2), Toronto FC 1 (Altidore).
Stat Leaders
Montreal – Didier Drogba 11 goals, Ignacio Piatti 8 assists, Evan Bush 99 saves.
Toronto – Sebastian Giovinco 22 goals, Sebastian Giovinco 16 assists, Chris Konopka 62 saves.
Bottom Line
Toronto doesn’t defend well and teams that score and concede a lot of goals -- 58 in both categories –--often stumble in the playoffs. TFC blew a 1-0 lead Sunday when it needed only a tie to guarantee a home game in the knockout round. Montreal has won its last five home games in a row, outscoring opponents, 13-5.
Montreal 3 Toronto FC 2.
Western Conference Knockout Round
Portland vs. Sporting Kansas City (10 p.m. ET, UniMas)

GOALS WANTED. Portland can advance to the conference semifinals without scoring a goal, which is exactly what it has done in three regular-season games against SKC.

In fact, the 270 minutes of head-to-head play has produced just one goal, that by Krisztian Nemeth in a 1-0 SKC win Oct. 3 that was preceded by a pair of 0-0 ties. Yet neither team lacks for scorers.

In his second MLS season, Fanendo Adi scored 16 goals to lead the Timbers. There’s a cliff dive to runner-up Darlington Nagbe, who hit just five (three in the last two games). A rather quiet season for playmaker Diego Valeri (eight assists in 22 games) points out Portland’s scoring woes; its 41 goals are the fewest among playoff teams.

The SKC scoring is remarkably balanced. Dom Dwyer’s dozen is followed by 10 apiece for Nemeth and Benny Feilhaber, and Feilhaber’s well-documented exploits that have yet to merit a national-team recall include 15 assists. It hasn’t been a great season for Graham Zusi; he’s hit career lows in goals (2) and assists (5) since establishing himself as a regular in 2011. He’s yet to score in 10 playoff games though he has contributed five assists.

The Timbers have been to the playoffs once, as Western Conference champions in 2013, and lost to a more seasoned RSL team after ousting archrival Seattle. With that foundation of experience, plus key additions such as defenders Nat Borchers (formerly of RSL) this season and Liam Ridgewell, as well as Adi, in 2014, the fans believe their chances to reach the MLS Cup have improved significantly.

Both teams' goalkeepers are underrated. Adam Kwarasey is incredibly athletic and with some good support this year he tied for the league lead in shutouts (13). Former MLS pool keeper Tim Melia took over in the SKC nets when Chilean international Luis Marin lost his confidence, and without him it might well have missed the playoffs altogether.

SKC has slipped since capturing the 2013 title; it squeezed into the playoffs last year as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and lost in the knockout round at Red Bull Arena, 2-1. This year’s assignment at Providence Park -- necessitated by several squandered opportunities to clinch before edging the Galaxy, 2-1, on Sunday -- will be just as daunting.

Regular season results
March 21 – Sporting KC 0, Portland 0.
Sept. 9 – Portland 0, Sporting KC 0.
Oct. 3 – Portland 0, Sporting KC 1 (Nemeth).
Stat Leaders
Portland – Fanendo Adi 16 goals, Diego Valeri 8 assists, Adam Kwarasey 80 saves.
SKC -- Dom Dwyer 12 goals, Benny Feilhaber 15 assists, Tim Melia 82 saves.
Bottom Line
Sporting KC needs a Zusi revival and a staunch defensive effort to quell the Timbers, who have won their last three games. But glitches and errors along the back line have plagued SKC often this season and this looks like Portland’s turn to shine in prime time.
Portland 2 Sporting KC 1.
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