Breaking down Sunday's MLS conference semifinal second legs

By Ridge Mahoney

So goes conventional thinking in regards to a two-game series that advantage goes to the home team of the second leg, since its task to advance is clearly defined.

The away goals rule, used extensively around the world and adopted by MLS last year, alters the dynamics of each conference semifinal series, which stack up thusly:

a) The New York Red Bulls, 1-0 winners at RFK in the first leg last week, are in the strongest position with a victory and an away goal as they prepare to host D.C. United.

b) FC Dallas and Columbus host their second legs trailing, 2-1, yet can advance simply by scoring a goal and shutting out the opponent (Seattle and Montreal, respectively). Conversely, if the Sounders and Impact concede the first goal, they are trailing in the series because of away goals even though the aggregate would be tied, 2-2.

c) Portland, despite tying its home leg, 0-0, has a slight edge in that it can advance on the away-goals rule if it gets another tie in Vancouver while scoring a goal. The Whitecaps simply need to win. Another 0-0 score after 90 minutes sends the series to extra time, during which the away-goals rule does not apply. If the ‘Caps and Timbers are tied at the end of extra time, be it 0-0 or 1-1 or 2-2, the teams will go to penalty kicks.
The away-goals tiebreaker came into play several times during the 2014 playoffs. The Sounders knocked off FCD with their away goal after the two games ended 1-1 and 0-0, then lost out to the Galaxy, which had narrowly prevailed, 1-0, at home, but scored in the second leg at Seattle to advance despite losing, 2-1.

The Revs roared on the road in last year’s playoffs. They pummeled the Crew, 4-2, in the first game and completed a 7-3 aggregate demolition by winning the home leg, 3-1. In the conference finals, they won at Red Bull Arena, 2-1, and scrambled into the MLS Cup final on aggregate, 4-3, after New York matched their away goals in a 2-2 tie at Gillette Stadium.

In the six two-game series played last year, four were won by the team hosting the second leg. Besides the Galaxy, the other exception was New York, which took a 2-0 lead from the first leg to RFK, where a 2-1 defeat was sufficient for it to advance on aggregate, 3-2.
As was the case last week for the first legs, the four semifinal games are being presented as a Sunday quadruple-header on ESPN and Fox Sports 1. The league then takes a break during the FIFA international window before resuming with the conference finals Nov. 22.
New York vs. D.C. United (1-0)
Red Bull Arena, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN Deportes.
Conference semifinals, first leg
Nov. 1 -- D.C. United 0, New York 1 (McCarty).
BOSWELL BACK. United launched a fair number of attacks in the first leg but was restricted to 41.5 percent of possession and failed to put a shot on goal. Being outshot, 18-10, at home isn’t a good omen for the second leg, nor are the 2-0 and 3-0 losses D.C. has endured at Red Bull Arena this season.

Defender Bobby Boswell comes off suspension and on many occasions this season, including a 2-1 defeat of New England in the knockout round, keeper Bill Hamid has stonewalled the opposition through rough periods. United has firepower in Chris Rolfe and Fabian Espindola, and Alvaro Saborio has scored four goals in 12 games since arriving via a trade in early August. But to threaten New York’s goal it has to get the ball, and D.C. struggled to get through New York’s midfield pressure in the first leg.

United had trouble containing Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam at RFK and those two should be much more dangerous on their home field. The injury absence of centerback Damien Perrinelle, who suffered a knee injury in the first leg, will probably move Ronald Zubar into the back line. He hasn’t played a lot alongside Matt Miazga, and if United can attack that central pair early it may get the away goal it needs to even the series.
Regular-Season Results
March 22 – New York 2 (B. Wright-Phillips, Sam) D.C. United 0.
April 11 – D.C. United 2 (Kitchen 2) New York (Perrinelle, Sam) 2.
Aug. 30 – New York 3 (B. Wright-Phillips 2, Sam) D.C. United 0.
Stat Leaders (including playoffs)
D.C. United – Chris Rolfe 11 goals, Fabian Espindola 9 assists, Bill Hamid 112 saves.
New York – Bradley Wright-Phillips 17 goals, Sacha Kljestan 15 assists, Luis Robles 86 saves.
Yellow Cards
DC -- Markus Halsti, Fabian Espindola, Alvaro Saborio.
NY – Matt Miazga, Ronald Zubar, Bradley Wright-Phillips.
Bottom Line
United can scrap and battle with anyone but the Red Bulls are stronger and more consistent top to bottom.
New York 2, D.C. United 1 (New York advances)
Columbus vs. Montreal (1-2)
MAPFRE Stadium, 5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Conference semifinals, first leg
Nov. 1 -- Montreal 2 (Venegas, Bernier), Columbus 1 (Higuain) 1.
TIME FOR REDEMPTION. Crew SC’s last home playoff game was that 4-2 pounding inflicted by New England a year ago. This time around it has the decisive game at home. That precious away goal won’t mean anything unless it can score at home, and since it conceded 25 goals at home (second most in MLS) during the regular season and is up against Didier Drogba, it probably needs more than one.

Montreal is riding a major wave of momentum, and won the first leg on just two days’ rest against a fresher team. It scored on a corner kick and a terrible giveaway by Crew SC defender Michael Parkhurst, which are glitches head coach Gregg Berhalter knows are correctable.
Federico Higuain, who scored in stoppage time of a 2-1 loss at Stade Saputo in July, is the only Columbus player with a goal against the Impact this season. Kei Kamara launched 10 shots in that game without success. At home in a must-win situation, he and Ethan Finlay are going to get their opportunities.
Regular-Season Results
June 6 –Columbus 1 (Higuain) Montreal 2 (Tissot, Romero).
July 11 –Montreal 3 (Oduro 2, Donadel) Columbus 0.
Stat Leaders (including playoffs)
Montreal – Didier Drogba 12 goals, Ignacio Piatti 9 assists, Evan Bush 103 saves.
Columbus –Kei Kamara 22 goals, Ethan Finlay 13 assists, Steve Clark 119 saves.
Yellow Cards
MTL –- Victor Cabrera, Ambroise Oyongo, Didier Drogba.
CLB -– Gaston Sauro, Harrison Afful.
Bottom Line
Columbus has the edge in firepower but its younger players could be swallowed up by the Impact’s many experienced veterans.
Columbus 2 Montreal 2 (Montreal advances).
FC Dallas vs. Seattle (1-2)
Toyota Stadium, 7:30 pm. ET, Fox Sports 1
Conference Semifinals, First Leg
Seattle 2 (Ivanschitz, Dempsey), FC Dallas 1 (Castillo).
PAYBACK. A dynamic attack and first conference title since 2006 has rekindled hopes of a league championship, five years after FC Dallas lost in extra time to Colorado, 2-1, in its only MLS Cup final appearance. The matchup also gives FCD a chance for revenge after being edged out by the Sounders in last year’s playoffs.

Yet Seattle is riding the momentum of rallying to beat FCD after it ousted the Galaxy, 3-2, in the knockout round. Both of those wins came at CenturyLink Field; the teams haven’t played at Toyota Stadium in late March, and since then both teams have changed significantly.
For Dallas, Mauro Diaz has assumed the playmaker role and Jesse Gonzalez has taken over as the No. 1 goalkeeper. Seattle revamped its midfield by signing Erik Friberg and Andreas Ivanschitz during the summer transfer window. A spectacular dribble and sharp finish by Ivanschitz started the comeback in the first leg capped off by a great  Clint Dempsey free kick.

Leo Gonzalez, Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans did not train with the squad Thursday before the team traveled to Dallas, though they jogged on their own during the session. Injuries forced all three out of the first leg and their availability Sunday isn’t known. If both Alonso and Evans sit, containing Diaz and Fabian Castillo will prove difficult. 
Regular-Season Results
March 28 – FC Dallas 0 Seattle 0.
June 13 –
Seattle 3 (Neagle, Martins, Gonzalez) FC Dallas 0.
Stat Leaders (including playoffs)
Seattle – Obafemi Martins 15 goals, Clint Dempsey 10 assists, Stefan Frei 117 saves.
FC Dallas –
Fabian Castillo 10 goals, Mauro Diaz 11 assists, Jesse Gonzalez 42 saves.

Yellow Cards
SEA – Stefan Frei.

Bottom Line
FCD is more talented and could well prevail with a big win, but the Sounders are playing as if this is their last rodeo and don’t want to ride into the sunset just yet.

Seattle 2, FC Dallas 2 (Seattle advances).

Vancouver vs. Portland (0-0)
B.C. Place, 10 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
Conference semifinals, first leg
Nov. 1 -- Portland 0, Vancouver 0.
FINELY BALANCED. Five goals in four meetings tells you how closely matched are these Northwest rivals are head-to-head, and don’t forget they wound up tied on points (53) during the regular season as well. Vancouver earned second place on the first tiebreaker, most victories (16-15).
Also know this: during the regular season, the ‘Caps lost six home games – tops among playoff teams – and Portland won seven on the road. This series is so tight it’s likely to be decided by a moment of individual brilliance, utter ineptitude or divine intervention.

Vancouver is not in good form; in the last eight games it has beaten only Western Conference also-rans Colorado and Houston. Octavio Rivero is goalless in his last seven games and while the speed of Kekuta Manneh is to be feared, Cristian Techera hasn’t looked as dangerous as he did earlier in the season. Keeper David Ousted needed to be rock-solid in the first leg and he came through with six saves.

The Timbers have their own speed merchants in Darlington Nagbe and Rodney Wallace. They can carve out openings to be exploited by Diego Valeri, though if a foot sprain once again sidelines Diego Chara they will need another strong effort from Jack Jewsbury screening the back line.
Regular-Season Results
March 28 – Vancouver 2 (Mezquida, Earnshaw) Portland 1 (Adi).
May 2 – Portland 0 Vancouver 0.
July 18 – Portland 1 (Valeri) Vancouver 1 (Laba).
Stat Leaders (including playoffs)
Portland -- Fanendo Adi 16 goals, Diego Valeri 9 assists, Adam Kwarasey 81 saves.
Vancouver -- Octavio Rivero 10 goals, Kekuta Manneh 6 assists, David Ousted 105 saves.
Yellow Cards
POR – Liam Ridgewell, Rodney Wallace, George Fochive, Diego Valeri, Lucas Melano.
VAN – Gerson Koffie.
Bottom Line
Portland failed to win its home game without starting keeper Adam Kwarasey, sidelined by illness for the first leg but back to full health, and defensive mid Chara. It hasn’t beaten the Whitecaps in three meetings but can advance with a tie as long as it scores a goal.
Vancouver 1 Portland 1 (Portland advances).
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