Nicolás Miremont and Manuel Veth –
In our Conference Semifinals preview, we look ahead to what is the most exciting part of the MLS season. That said the regular season was full of excitement as well for example as anticipated by the Futbolgrad Network in our Decision Day preview, the most determining round of the Major League Soccer regular season did not only live up to the astronomical expectation we created upon it, but it also delivered some of the most thrilling and varied matches since the start of the regular season.
If you missed Decision Day, there is absolutely nothing to regret. You only missed one of the most entertaining MLS match days in recent years! At first glance, it is Philadelphia Union’s demolishing 6-1 victory against a Kaká-less Orlando and FC Dallas’ opportunist 5-1 victory versus an adrift LA Galaxy that stand out the most. However, the rest of the fixtures did not disappoint for Decision Day registered an average of over four goals per match and delivered no 0-0 draws whatsoever. Major League Soccer may be lots of things, but it surely is not dull! Thankfully the Futbolgrad Network has set up a nice MLS Conference semifinals preview for you to enjoy so that you will not miss any of the games in the coming week.
Going into the final instances of the 2017 edition of Major League Soccer, four of the twelve teams that managed to get into the postseason last weekend have now been eliminated in the knockout rounds. This leaves us with eight contenders divided into two conferences. Out of each side of the United States and Canada, a conference champion will emerge after winning the upcoming semifinal and the conference final. Both conference winners will face on December 9 to determine the new MLS Cup champion.
MLS Conference Semifinals Preview – The Lottery of the Knockout Stage
Only days ago, Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, Atlanta United’s first-ever head coach, spoke to his club’s media team in an interview stating how tense the postseason was. The idea of losing everything you have fought for during the 34 rounds of the regular season in a single Knockout match sounded terrifying to him, also declaring that this aspect of MLS is “very challenging” due to said reasons.
Irony can be a funny aspect of life, as you may already know. Less than a week after that interview, Martino and his expansion franchise are out of the race for the MLS Cup after they lost to an intelligent Columbus Crew on penalties, having hit the post three times (four if you count Jeff Larentowicz missed a penalty that also hit the post). Atlanta, their two attendance records this season, and all the project behind it—that of becoming the new face of US soccer through a fresh model consisting of young talent and attractive football are all out for this season after succumbing to the unforgiving nature of one-on-one definitions. Their intentions of recreating the Chicago Fire’s successful debut season of 1998 will have to wait…for now. Try again next season.
Speaking of the Chicago Fire, their name also appears in the list of casualties caused by one-on-ones. The franchise of the last MLS Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic had to overcome the hurt New York Red Bulls, who had only won three times since mid-August. Against all the odds Jesse Marsch’s men seem to have shown all the efficiency they lacked during the regular season, making the most out of a two-goal lead by the 11th minute that would later turn into a four-goal feast. For the relief of the entire NYRB fan base who, apart from worried about their team’s performance, are still moved and probably angry after Dax McCarty was traded to casually the Chicago Fire in a very criticised move by the franchise board.
Elsewhere, the results were varied. The Vancouver Whitecaps showed that their stumble on Decision Day was nothing to worry about after scoring five past the clueless San José Earthquakes. Houston Dynamo, on the other hand, had to battle a bit more to get past Sporting Kansas City by the narrow margin of a single goal, although keeping a clean sheet—a habit that is always better to incorporate going into the postseason where away goals matter.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 27, 2017
MLS Conference Semifinals Preview
The Conference semifinals are taking place from October 29 to November 5. Consisting of two legs and the away goal rule as the primary tie-breaker, a win at home and a clean sheet are very important to the contenders, especially considering that home advantage tends to exist in MLS. This, however, does not guarantee a win if a team is not ready to face whatever the ever-changing nature of MLS puts in front of them. Ask Atlanta and the 67,221 fans that turned up on Thursday.
Eastern Conference Semifinals Preview
Eastern Conference Semifinals Preview – Toronto FC vs New York Red Bulls – October 30 / November 5
It has been a season of records for Toronto FC. The club from Canada’s most populous city dominated not just the Eastern Conference, but all of Major League Soccer. With 69 points Toronto broke the regular season point record set by the Los Angeles Galaxy in 1998—although LA Galaxy had two fewer games and still hold the record for the most points collected on average 2.13 ahead of the 2001 Miami Fusion, who on average collected 2.04 and Toronto, who managed 2.03 points on average.
Hence, while Toronto’s record has to be taken with a grain of salt their achievement and their dominance shouldn’t be. Toronto collected 12 more points than the second best team in Major League Soccer New York City FC. In a league known for parity Toronto FC had a record of 20 wins, five draws and just nine defeats.
First place in the Eastern Conference and, in fact, Major League Soccer was never really in doubt for the club, who will now be the favourites to win the MLS Cup after having narrowly lost out last season. Beaten in the final by Seattle Sounders in what was perhaps the biggest robbery in MLS history as Seattle did little to nothing to contribute to the 2016 MLS Cup final.
On their road to success, they will have to overcome two home and away rounds before they are once again given the right to host the MLS Cup final thanks to their impressive point total. First up are the New York Red Bulls, who despite reaching the playoffs had an unconvincing regular season. Finishing the regular season sixth in the Eastern Conference and ninth overall NYRB had a poor second half to the regular season. But the MLS Cup is a new season, and a famous 4-0 win over Bastian Schweinsteiger’s Chicago Fire means that Toronto should not underestimate their opponents.
Postseason records (W-L-D): Toronto FC (4-2-1) / New York Red Bulls (15-24-8)
Last encounter: Toronto FC 4-2 New York Red Bulls
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Toronto to reach the Eastern Conference Final
Eastern Conference Semifinals Preview – New York City FC vs Columbus Crew SC – October 31 / November 5
The first leg of this semifinal will be a very emotional occasion for the Crew: it will be their first match at their home, the MAPFRE stadium, after the terrible news of their possible relocation to Austin, Texas came to light. Beating Atlanta after such a tense knockout round emboldens anyone, especially a franchise with so much history as the Crew. With Ola Kamara, Federico Higuaín and (surprisingly) Zack Steffen in outstanding form, Columbus have a real chance of upsetting NYCFC. Going to Queens having earned a considerable lead would be ideal for the Crew, which is probably what they will aim for. After all, Columbus are unbeaten in their last 11 matches, something to bear in mind.
Would you like to know more about the Crew’s possible relocation? You should click here then!
At the other end, Patrick Vieira and his men in blue await. Patiently and certainly a bit confident, however logically cautious as well, for the Crew have become a Pandora box after the recent succession of events. The team of David Villa, Yangel Herrera and several other outstanding football players is about to face the only thing that is unbeatable in football: momentum. Yes, momentum does exist (ask the Sounders), and Columbus have it. NYCFC will have to use everything at their disposal to contain the Crew at home. Being the fifth team with fewer goals conceded during the season and having drawn 2-2 on Decision Day very recently, their odds are somewhat respectable, although they will need much more than a good defence to overcome two matches against this Columbus Crew.
This match has everything to be a shocker. Here at the Futbolgrad Network we strongly encourage you to watch it, for a supporters demonstration against the board is to be expected and, if there is anything we love more than a good match at Futbolgrad Network, it is when football intertwines with politics and society. Splendid!
Postseason records (W-L-D): New York City FC (0-2-0) / Columbus Crew SC (17-21-4)
Last encounter: New York City FC 2-2 Columbus Crew SC
Futbolgrad Prediction: Columbus Crew SC to reach the Eastern Conference final
Western Conference Semifinals Preview
Western Conference Semifinals Preview – Seattle Sounders FC vs Vancouver Whitecaps FC – October 29 / November 2
Carl Robinson, Vancouver Whitecaps head coach, recently declared that he “enjoys the underdog role.” He is undoubtedly right as Vancouver are the underdogs against the team with the longest active Playoff appearances streak (nine in nine seasons). However being an underdog historically does not mean one cannot dream bigger than a miraculous victory, especially when Seattle will be missing several key players for the first leg at BC Place. The Whitecaps play mature, attractive football with plenty of options up front in the feet of Christian Bolaños, Cristian Techera, Fredy Montero and Brek Shea (maybe) and have proven to be masters in making the most out of set pieces, their most effective resource this season. A positive result in the first leg in Canada is key should the Whitecaps hope to stand a chance in Seattle. As it stands, they have everything to achieve it.
Seattle will enter the playoffs with the ease of a regular contender in this instance. Despite being one of the more recent expansion franchises, facts prove that the Sounders know how to face these instances (even if it involves winning a final on penalties without registering a single shot on goal). Clint Dempsey’s red card on Decision Day against Colorado and Jordan Morris’ injury, however, mean an inconvenience for head coach Brian Schmeltzer. It will be up to Nico Lodeiro’s creativity and the performances of Víctor Rodríguez and Will Bruin, two players that have impressed and delivered in recent fixtures. Seattle’s strategy will mainly focus on keeping Vancouver away from Stefan Frei’s goal, hoping for Osvaldo Alonso to cut their creative circuit.
Should the defending champions manage to pull it off, we expect a dull first leg in our MLS Conference semifinals preview with the Sounders’ defence battling against Vancouver’s dangerous attackers. The return leg shall be a different story, though. At the Century Link Field and with the return of Clint Dempsey, this tight Cascadia clash could turn into something really attractive.
Postseason records (W-L-D): Seattle Sounders FC (26-11-10) / Vancouver Whitecaps FC (0-3-1)
Last encounter: Seattle Sounders 3-0 Vancouver Whitecaps
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Seattle Sounders to reach the Western Conference final
Western Conference Semifinals Preview – Portland Timbers vs Houston Dynamo – October 30 / November 5
Portland Timbers clinched first place in the Western Conference on the final day of the season by defeating Cascadia Cup rivals Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 at home in Portland. The victory not only dethroned Vancouver from first place in the Western Conference but also meant that Portland took the Cascadia Cup from Vancouver as well. All around a perfect way to end the regular season and the result will mean that Portland are now the favourites to become the Western Conference’s representative to the MLS Cup final.
Unlike the Eastern Conference, however, the Western Conference has been a very even affair with four clubs within reach of first place on Decision Day parity very much the name of the game in the West. As a result, Portland might be the favourite in the Western Conference semifinals, but at the same time, Houston Dynamo will feel that they could upset the apple cart and knock out the 2015 MLS Cup winners.
Dynamo have kept plenty of clean sheets and the nature of the Western Conference where home teams have a clear advantage and as we are typing up our MLS Conference semifinals preview we have to say that they are one of the clear favourites to advance through the Western Conference to reach the MLS Cup final. Thanks to the differences in climate and distances to travel, Houston will want to put in a perfect performance at home in order to stand a chance in the second leg in Portland—in what is perhaps the noisiest and most difficult stadium to play at for any away side.
With the second game in Portland, the Timbers will be favourite to advance. Only Seattle, in fact, can match Portland’s home record, which means that MLS fans will have the joy to see a real rivalry in the Western Conference semifinal between Portland and the winner of the Cascadia clash between Seattle and Vancouver.
Postseason records (W-L-D): Portland Timbers (5-2-3) / Houston Dynamo (14-8-6)
Last encounter: Houston Dynamo 2-2 Portland Timbers
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Portland Timbers to reach the Western Conference final
Nicolás Miremont is a born and raised Boca Juniors fan, but his heart has a special place for Manchester United, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Dynamo Kiev. Miremont loves to support the underdogs. Miremont enjoys watching smaller competitions especially those from Eastern Europe, but also his native Argentina. Follow him on Twitter @Miremont_Nico
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and social media editor at Bundesliga.com. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.