MLS Playoffs: Previewing Sunday's quadruple header

For the second Sunday in a row, MLS stages a playoff quadruple header spread over at least nine hours of programming time.

None of the higher-seeded teams was able to score an away goal in the first legs, so as the home teams this time around they must balance defensive necessities along with scoring enough goals to win the series or at least force overtime.

With both New York teams along with L.A. Galaxy, Toronto FC and FC Dallas in action, the league has four of the top six North American TV markets in play. Butting up against the NFL so as to avoid college football on Saturday is a tough trade-off, and the league will be carefully examining the TV ratings for its games on consecutive Sundays.

In order, here are the four games that will decide which teams advance to the conference finals to be played starting Nov. 20, after the FIFA international break.

COLORADO vs. LA GALAXY, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN (LA Galaxy leads, 1-0).

Both teams head into this showdown beset by questions of who will play and where.


If Jermaine Jones starts his first game in nearly four months, who does he replace in the Colorado lineup? Would head coach Pablo Mastroeni break up his central midfield pair of Sam Cronin and Michael Azira to give both Jones and Dillon Powers a starting slot, or would he keep that duo together, slide Jones in behind the striker, and push Powers out wide? Does the coach also opt for speed and mobility by starting Marlon Hairston as well as Dominique Badji to clear out space for Shkelzen Gashi, who seldom threatened in the first leg?

For the Galaxy, rugged target man Alan Gordon has been starting as Robbie Keane plays his way back to fitness. There are ways to get them both on the field, and that would mean sitting down Baggio Husidic or Sebastian Lletget, who have been praised recently by head coach Bruce Arena for their work in the playoffs. Is the time right to unleash Steven Gerrard?
 
Arena has always been an advocate of getting his fittest players best suited for the task at hand onto the field, and selecting a formation and tactics accordingly. The value of an away goal and attacking potential of Emmanuel Boateng, Giovani dos Santos, and Landon Donovan lessens dependence on Keane, but he’s so often produced in big games that a bench role seems a waste.

This series, rightly or wrongly, is regarded as a potential changing of the guard if the younger, upstart Rapids confirm their class at the expense of a glamour team.

NY RED BULLS vs. MONTREAL, 4 p.m., ESPN (Montreal leads, 1-0).
 
Though the Red Bulls are down by only a goal, they are in a very precarious situation if they can’t score first. The Impact blanked D.C. in the Knockout Round until the final minutes after rolling up a 4-0 lead and shut out New York in the first leg. Keeper Evan Bush has been excellent and centerback Laurent Ciman is reprising his displays of 2015, when he won Defender of the Year honors.

Led by Ignacio Patti and Matteo Mancosu, Montreal blitzed D.C. repeatedly and can do the same Sunday if the Red Bulls are too anxious and leave gaps for those two and speedster Dominic Oduro to exploit. The Red Bulls’ pressing style is designed to force turnovers but is also prone to conceding space if the ball is not won cleanly.

Bradley Wright-Phillips, who squandered an early chance in the first leg, and Sacha Kljestan need to raise their games, but the Red Bulls must also get solid games all along the back line as well as from Dax McCarty, whose primary job will be to cut off service to Piatti and Mancosu.

If McCarty is outplayed by Marco Donadel, the chances of Montreal grabbing an away goal increase significantly and that would require the Red Bulls to score at least three. Doable, but a daunting task nonetheless. Donadel is not Andrea Pirlo but he can deliver the same kind of service from deep positions.

Of course, controversy-obsessed ESPN will repeatedly show Didier Drogba and recount his latest saga ad infinitum whether or not he gets into the game.
 
NEW YORK CITY vs. TORONTO FC, 6:30 p.m. Fox Sports 1 (Toronto FC leads, 2-0).

Two late goals in the first leg removed a lot of tension for Toronto FC yet the first MLS playoff game at Yankee Stadium will be one for the ages. Either TFC holds serve to win a postseason series for the first time in its decade of existence, or the home team posts a dramatic turnaround in its playoff debut.

Quiet games for David Villa and Frank Lampard in the first leg aren’t likely to be repeated, and so the experience and leadership of midfielder Michael Bradley and centerback Drew Moor are essential to help contain that pair and Pirlo, who sat out the first leg after suffering a calf injury while training the day before.

Villa got so frustrated by the dogged harassing of Armando Cooper that he kicked the Panamanian in the back of the legs; after reviewing the incident, the MLS Disciplinary Committee elected not to suspend Villa, who had scored in four straight games (six goals) prior to the first leg.

Six times this season -- including a 2-2 tie with TFC at Yankee Stadium in early March -- Villa has scored twice in the same game.

Look for NYCFC to unleash Jack Harrison and/or Khiry Shelton to get at the TFC back line as often as possible so its world-class DPs can do their thing. If TFC can thwart NYCFC’s attacks and find Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore on counterattacks, an away goal would effectively end the series before the final whistle.

The pressure on goalkeeper Eirik Johansen, who replaced starter Josh Saunders for the final regular-season game and held his spot for the first leg, is going to be excruciating if he plays.
 
FC DALLAS vs. SEATTLE, 9 p.m., Fox Sports 1 (Seattle leads, 3-0).
 
This is MLS bizarro world in a nutshell; the midseason laggard that fired its legendary head coach is poised to eliminate the only team in league history to log 60 points in consecutive seasons.

Can FCD get the goals it needs to make history as the only team in league history to overturn a three-goal, first-leg deficit? Doubtful but not impossible. But can it do so while denying the Sounders a goal or two of their own? Almost certainly not.

Nicolas Lodeiro’s mix of setup and final punch, the blossoming excellence of Jordan Morris, and a delightfully intense Osvaldo Alonso have propelled Seattle out of the gloom and into the spotlight.

Throw in the sharp form of Stefan Frei, who is reminding us how good he was in Toronto before injures -- torn ankle ligaments, a broken nose, a fractured fibula -- limited him to a pair of games in 2012 and 2013, and FCD’s task seems hopeless.

Yet it will make for compelling theater nonetheless if FCD scores first, preferably in the first half. Max Urruti can get the goals if chances are created and for a while there Michael Barrios was unstoppable.

Since playmaker Mauro Diaz suffered the Achilles’ tendon injury that ended his season, FCD has not scored. Mauro Rosales can provide some creative spark and even if, at 35, he can’t go 90 minutes his inclusion seems mandatory.

FCD simply needs its best performance of the season just to have a puncher’s chance.

1 comment about "MLS Playoffs: Previewing Sunday's quadruple header".
  1. Vince Leone, November 6, 2016 at 12:03 a.m.

    Don't think FCD would be the first team to overturn a 3-0 first leg deficit. Didn't San Jose do that to LA in the 2002 (?) playoffs? And LA also scored early in the return leg, so SJ had to come back from a 4-0 deficit in that game.

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