There are still a few more days before the long break between MLS playoff matches is closed, but both matchups in the conference finals are generating buzz.
Both series will kick off Tuesday in front of huge crowds. Montreal has already sold more than 55,000 tickets for its all-Canada showdown against Toronto at the Olympic Stadium, and Seattle is anticipating a big number at CenturyLink Field for leg one against Colorado.
The conference semifinals concluded Nov. 6, prior to the FIFA international break, and so teams will not played for more than two weeks when they return to action. It’s a variable that everyone accepts but no one can predict how it will affect play.
“The way we train, how we train, the intensity of training has been good. I think that will help us,” said Sounders FC head coach Brian Schmetzer during a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
“But you're absolutely right. You don't know with such a long break. I know that every single player on our team probably would prefer to just keep playing, because when the games are coming fast and they were really into everything, the team performed and they did well. So we'll see what happens coming out of the break. But the messaging and the way we train, we've done everything we can to try and get them sharp.”
The schedule has been compromised by the other popular brand of football on both sides of the border. The Sounders will play two days after a Seahawks’ NFL game, and TFC must wait three days after the Grey Cup (Canadian Football League championship) game is played at BMO Nov. 27, which is when the Rapids host the second leg of the Western finals at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. TFC plays Montreal at BMO Field Nov. 30.
The higher-seeded winner hosts MLS Cup 2016 on Dec. 10. As the lowest seed remaining, Montreal cannot host. If the Impact beat TFC, the MLS Cup final goes west. The pecking order based on regular-season points is: 1. Colorado (58). 2. Toronto FC (53). 3. Seattle (48).
Here’s how the teams are shaping up as they prepare for a pressure-packed return to action, starting with the top seed.
COLORADO. MACMATH IS THE MAN. As soon as Tim Howard hobbled off injured late in the first half of the USA-Mexico qualifier a week ago, the Western Conference finals changed radically. No American keeper has played more big games for club and country than Howard.
Yet the Rapids permitted fewer goals with backup Zac MacMath in the nets than it did with Howard, though the USA keeper did enough in one-half a season to finish third in Goalkeeper of the Year voting. Both goalies certainly relished playing behind the league-leading Colorado defense (32 goals allowed, seven fewer than No. 2 TFC), but still MacMath’s stats are incredible: 13 goals conceded in 17 games for a per-game average of 0.76, which would have set a league record if he’d played enough games.
Howard’s mark of 1.12 is also very good and he posted a better save percentage (74.0) than did MacMath (68.4), which suggest the Rapids were more willing to push forward with Howard in the nets. MacMath has zero caps and no playoff experience but he’s a veteran of 123 pro games and played strongly in the months leading up to Howard’s inevitable takeover.
“I think he has proven over the course of several months, until July, that he's a first-rate goalkeeper in this league,” said Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni. “Fantastic with his feet, great in distribution, making great saves, great goals against percentage this year.”
MacMath acknowledges that the pressure and speed of play in the first leg are daunting prospects. He’s already replaced Howard once during an international break – in a 2-0 loss at New England -- and trains with the team every day so he’s not landing on an alien planet. He and Colorado blanked the Sounders, 1-0, at CenturyLink in May.
“Well, I think with practice leading up to this game on Tuesday, I'll get plenty of live reps to the first team, which is always nice,” he said. “I think getting myself settled in that first 20 minutes of the game will be very helpful, just kind of getting used to the pace of the game again. Obviously, it's hard to replicate game speed in practice, but it's something that I've been used to this year, and I'm excited to get back in it.”
Midfielder Sheklzen Gashi, forced off the field by an ankle injury moments after scoring with a spectacular 40-yard strike against the Galaxy in the semifinals, is rehabbing and Mastroeni said, “his participation in the first leg will be doubtful.” Ex-Sounder Marco Pappa is recovering from a hamstring injury suffered a few weeks ago and is not training at full speed.
SEATTLE. AWAITING WORD ON MORRIS. Seattle’s main injury concern is rookie Jordan Morris, who suffered a hamstring strain a week ago Sunday and is a possibility, nothing more, for the first leg. He trained Wednesday but not for the full session. Still, it was his longest stint on the field since the injury.
Defender Roman Torres sat out the second leg against FCD but went the full 90 for Panama against Mexico on Tuesday, and he’s expected to be at full speed for Colorado. The scintillating play of midseason arrival Nicolas Lodeiro is rightly credited for turning around a season skidding towards the abyss, but the pairing of Torres with Chad Marshall in central defense has brought a defensive stability that had been missing.
Schmetzer also credited his midfield, which Osvaldo Alonso has revived by playing some of his best games in years. “I made him captain in Brad Evans’ absence,” said Schmetzer. “He's taken over that role very well. He cares about the team. This is a team that we signed him initially in '09. So he and Brad Evans and Zach Scott have been the three guys that have maintained that continuity since '09. So he's a big, big part of our club, and he has made a big resurgence.
“You obviously see in the press about Nico and the talent that he has. One of the guys that has made Ozzie a lot better, has been the play of Cristian Roldan, and even Erik Friberg when he's filled in there for me. So I think that group as a whole has done really well for the club.”
The attack could be bolstered by the return of wide midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz, who injured his knee in the Knockout-Round defeat of Sporting Kansas City. He resumed full training this week.
TORONTO FC. LOOKING FOR REVENGE. The eastern Canada rivals have already met in the 2015 Knockout-Round encounter yet didn’t catch the fancy of fans not only in both provinces but on both sides of the border.
Not so this time around. They ousted the New York teams by combined scores of 10-1 in the conference semis to set up a rematch of Montreal’s rather easy 3-0 victory a year ago and thus the pressure meter points to the higher seed on the Ontario side.
“We have enough guys on this roster from last year who remember that day and were embarrassed on that day, as was myself,” said TFC head coach Greg Vanney, “but our mentality and our mindset as we start this series will be different than what it was last year. So we're very much looking forward to it. I think it's going to be a great series and one that I think fans will find very interesting.”
TFC’s swatting aside of New York City FC in the conference semis, 7-0, on aggregate set aside doubts of a late-season malaise carrying over into the playoffs. There are concerns on how physically and mentally fit will be Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley following USA duty in losses to Mexico and Costa Rica.
Showing no aftereffects of the adductor injury that forced him to miss several games late in the regular season, Sebastian Giovinco leads the playoff scorers with four goals in three games and has also logged two assists. Altidore has three and midfielder Jonathan Osorio two.
Giovinco was born and bred in Italy yet clearly knows what this game means for the sporting culture of eastern Canada. A playoff game against a bitter rival on turf is just how things are done in North America.
“I personally like the change, and the change in regime from one way of playing to the other, from the regular season to the playoffs,” he said. “And I've experienced last year and I really liked it, this year even more, of course. And once we know and I know what we are going to face, then we just focus to get prepared and get ready for what the task is going to be.”
MONTREAL. PEEVED AT PIATTI SNUB. The All-Canada clasico also pairs up Giovinco, the 2015 league MVP excluded from this year’s finalists, with Impact counterpart Ignacio Piatti, who twice stung the Red Bulls with counterattack goals in the semifinals second leg. He, too, is not among the three MVP finalists.
“Ignacio is just a tremendous player to play on because he's an X factor in the game,” said Impact midfielder Patrice Bernier. “Just takes him a few seconds, a minute to change the whole factor of the game.”
Piatti, scorer of 17 goals during the regular season, plays a very different game than Giovinco but is no less dangerous. He’s the ideal focal point of Montreal’s counterattack game that has outscored D.C. United and the Red Bulls in road playoff games, 6-3. Already in the playoffs he’s scored three goals and served up a great assist to Marco Mancosu, a younger and sharper alternative to Didier Drogba, for one of his three postseason goals.
“Whether he came off the bench and gave us that added spark, whether he started games, he's given us a different look up front in terms of his profile, in terms of his qualities, to be able to get in behind, being able to constantly be in movement,” said Impact head coach Mauro Biello of Mancosu, who arrived in July on a loan from Bologna.
“These are all things that have benefited our team and our play, but at the same time we're very happy the way he's adapted. He's a good guy. He's very quiet, somebody who's been able to fit in in the room and be very productive on the field at the same time.”
Nobody is more attuned to the magnitude of having a Canadian team in the MLS Cup final than Bernier, a native of Brossard, Quebec, who nearly joined Toronto when it started up in 2007 but elected to stay in Europe until Montreal came aboard five years later. At 37, he probably doesn’t have many games left in his holster.
“Well, first and foremost it's very good for the club in terms of establishing historical moments to be at the Eastern Conference final,” said Bernier, who started his pro career with the Impact of the old A-League in 2000. “To play it against Toronto, even better.
“It’s great for Canadian soccer because two clubs out of the three are in the conference final, and one will be able to attend the final. It shows the growth of professional club soccer here in Canada. These are the types of games you want to play in.”