Commentary

MLS conference semifinals: Our predictions

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

Quick turnarounds are not uncommon during the regular season, and the four Knockout-Round survivors play again on short rest when they host conference semifinals on Sunday.

Montreal, the only lower seed to advance, heads home to Stade Saputo to play the Red Bulls. The other three winners, after prevailing at home, stay put to host the first legs.

In last year’s playoffs, the Knockout-Round winners posted a 2-1-1 record in the home legs of their conference finals. The only one to advance over two legs was Portland, which went on to win MLS Cup.

A week from Sunday the second legs will be played. Kickoff times and TV information have not been finalized for those matches.

In addition to fatigue and injuries, the Knockout Round can be costly in terms of cautions. In the playoffs, two yellow cards yields a suspension, unless the second card is issued in the second leg of the conference finals. In that case, a player is eligible to play in the MLS Cup final if his team advances.

The Seattle-FC Dallas series is a rematch of conference semifinal series of the last two seasons. FC Dallas advanced on penalty kicks last year after the teams traded 2-1 home victories and played 30 scoreless minutes in extra time. In 2014, an away goal edged Seattle into the next round (1-1 aggregate).

Colorado and the Galaxy are squaring off in postseason play for the first time in more than a decade. A great game by Landon Donovan led the Galaxy to a 2-0 victory in the 2005 Western Conference finals en route to its second MLS Cup title.

The matchups are listed in order of their sequence for the first legs on Sunday.
 
MONTREAL vs. NY RED BULLS, First Leg: Stade Saputo, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN.
 
At RFK Stadium, the Impact reminded everyone it is a formidable team with or without Didier Drogba, and the younger legs and greater range of Matteo Mancosu are ideally suited to open up space for and polish off the chances created by Ignacio Piatti. 2015 Defender of the Year Laurent Ciman scored in the fourth minute and led a solid defensive effort that blanked United until the final minutes.

Montreal may get a bit overlooked because of the many stars on the New York teams as well as Orlando City and Canadian rival Toronto. It hasn’t been very consistent this season but on its good days, as at RFK, it can beat anyone.

Still, United is not the Red Bulls, who are unbeaten in their last 16 games. While the performances of Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips (24 goals) and leading assist man Sacha Kljestan (20) will be vital for NYRB, it also needs tough work from midfield linchpin Dax McCarty and centerback Aurelien Collin to help contain Piatti, et al. If left back Kemar Lawrence can’t keep up with Dominic Oduro, the Red Bulls could be stretched in places they don’t want to be.

But as the better team they should win.

Series Prediction: Red Bulls, 5-3, on aggregate.
 
LA GALAXY vs. COLORADO, First Leg: StubHub Center, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN.
 
Few ill effects from a run of injuries could be seen Wednesday as the Galaxy overpowered Real Salt Lake, 3-1, and if Emmanuel Boateng and Donovan can work the flanks like they did in that game, the Rapids’ vaunted defense will need a monster game out of Tim Howard to avoid defeat. Colorado conceded the fewest goals in the league, 32, yet scored just 39. Only the lowly Quakes, with 32, scorer fewer goals.

With Donovan on the wing, Arena used Sebastien Lletget in the middle alongside Baggio Husidic, but the coach could tweak the midfield again to contain Colorado’s central duo, which lately has featured Dillon Powers and Michael Azira as well as captain Sam Cronin. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena has also used different combinations in the middle in the past two months and might pick Jeff Larentowicz in the possible absence of Steven Gerrard, whose ouchy hamstring kept him out of the game-day roster for RSL.

On Friday, Arena was non-committal about Gerrard’s availability for Sunday as well as that of Robbie Keane, who came on as a sub early in the second half.

The Rapids are fast, fast, fast. Marlon Hairston is one of the league’s swiftest players running the channels and if he and Dominique Badji are in the mood Galaxy centerback Jelle van Damme in for a long day. In his first MLS season, Shkelzen Gashi earned team Player of the Year honors by scoring a few spectacular goals and befuddling numerous opponents from the left flank.

Series Prediction: Galaxy, 4-3, on aggregate.
 
TORONTO FC vs. NEW YORK CITY, First Leg: BMO Field, 7 p.m. ET, FS1.

Toronto FC finished just a point behind NYCFC in the Eastern Conference and by that margin fell into third place. The teams split their two regular-season meetings and in the last one, played May 18, Kwadwo Poku -- since sold to Miami FC -- scored for NYCFC and Patrick Mullins -- since traded to D.C. -- started with him in a 1-1 tie. Jozy Altidore, Andrea Pirlo, Jack Harrison and Frank Lampard didn’t play in the midweek tussle. Safe to say the playoff games won’t resemble that match of more than five months ago.

Ideally, TFC’s 3-1 Knockout-Round defeat of Philadelphia Wednesday served as a tune-up for this much tougher test. In his third game back from injury, Sebastian Giovinco buzzed through and burst past challenges as he is wont to do, and Altidore had his way with the Philly defenders.

That said, centerback Drew Moor and his colleagues somehow must track David Villa and minimize those opportunities he feasts upon. Michael Bradley and his midfield cohorts must close down Pirlo as much as possible while also harassing Lampard, whose own recovery from injury yielded two assists last Sunday in a 4-1 rout of Columbus that closed out the regular season.

The runs and crosses of NYCFC left back Ronaldo Matarrita mitigate his occasional defensive lapses.

Series Prediction: Toronto FC, 4-3, on aggregate.
 
SEATTLE vs. FC DALLAS, CenturyLink Field, 9:30 p.m. ET, FS1.
 
On paper, this matchup looks as close as the outcome of last year’s series, but in two key areas, Seattle holds the edge.

Playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro didn’t dazzle on Wednesday yet FCD -- missing its own orchestrator, Mauro Diaz -- can’t afford to give him time and space to dribble and knife into the attacking third. Without Diaz, the attacking onus falls on Michael Barrios and Tesho Akindele as well as the central mids to make chances in support of striker Max Urruti. The wild card is former Sounder Mauro Rosales, who has the skill and experience to unlock defenses but at 35 is not a 90-minute player.

In goal, a superb game by Stefan Frei confirms he’s the more experienced of the two starting keepers. In last year’s playoffs, a couple of errors tarnished an otherwise excellent season for Jesse Gonzalez. Successor Chris Seitz -- traded to FCD by Seattle nearly six years ago -- set career marks this year for games (28), shutouts (10), and victories (14), and in those playoffs two years ago conceded just one goal in his only two postseason games to date.

It’s hard to buck the Sounders’ momentum, but FCD is due, with or without Diaz. A blown offside call and Frei's brilliance barely carried the Sounders past Sporting Kansas City, which isn't as good as the two-time conference champion.

Series Prediction: 3-3, FC Dallas wins on away goals.
1 comment about "MLS conference semifinals: Our predictions".
  1. beautiful game, October 29, 2016 at 10:58 a.m.

    NYCFC is my choice over Toronto which shows too much inconsistency. Galaxy beats Rapids, being "fast" means nothing when efficacy fails.

    No one on the Sounders "dazzled" against KC which lost in regulation via an "off-side" goal.

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