MLS Playoffs – Conference Finals
Heading into the Conference Finals the question has to be will we see more of this? More Clint Dempsey finding the back of the net that is. Back several weeks ago the preview of the Conference Semi-Finals was dished out. And those matches turned out mostly as predicted with one big exception. The on paper look said that the Portland Timbers just had too much offense even for the stout defense of the Houston Dynamo. Well it turned out the Dynamo did indeed have a very stout defense. But they also found some magic on the road scoring twice to defeat the Timber. Only the second road win for the Dynamo all season. So how do the Conference Finals look?
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Columbus Crew vs Toronto FC
The winner of this home and home series will earn the right to host the MLS Cup Final on December 9 as both of these sides finished the regular season with better records than the two Western Conference finalists, Seattle and Houston.
Toronto enters the first leg as the generally accepted best team in the MLS and they are playing for a chance to play for the Cup for the second year in a row. The Crew meanwhile continue to embrace their underdog role and just keep winning. It helps when your goalkeeper is on a hot run as is Zack Steffen. The first leg, to be held on November 21st in Columbus at MAPFRE Arena will be a big opportunity for the Crew to make a statement. And they need to win this one to have a shot at all headed to Toronto for the return match eight days later. But things are setting up for the first match to tilt in favor of the Crew. Toronto will be without their two main attacking threats. Jozy Altidore was shown red in the tunnel during halftime of the Toronto – Red Bulls match. And after not having even shown up in the last USMNT’s World Cup qualifying match against Trinidad and Tobago you have to wonder just what will be his frame of mind for the second leg? (And yes Altidore was on the field in that last USMNT match….which is too bad because he was nowhere to be seen in the actual play)
But if things were bad for Toronto after that half time fiasco, well they turned even worse in the second half. Sebastian Giovinco was given a yellow card for dissent and will also miss the first leg due to card accumulation. So while Giovinco wasn’t apparently good enough for the Italian WC squad, he is one of the best free kick takers in the world. Yes that same Italy that did not qualify for the WC. Yes that same Italy that scored a big fat zero in both legs against Sweden in the final qualifying round. Nope Giovcino wasn’t good enough. Bet the Italian’s wish they had taken him just for his free kicks. Just one of those would might have saved them a trip to Russia!
So things are set up for Columbus to try and score several goals at home to build a bit of a padding before going to Toronto where they will surely play much more defensively and try to not give up any free kicks within 25 yards of goal. Both Altidore and Giovinco will be back for the second leg and figure to be able to put a couple in the next.
This matchup is a tough one to call. I think Columbus needs to win by two at home to have a shot. Even with a hot keeper in Steffen it will be tough to keep Toronto from scoring up in Canada. So if Columbus can win 2-0 I like their chances a bit. Any less than that and its going to be Toronto.
Seattle Sounders vs Houston Dynamo
These two sides split their two meetings during the regular season. Each winning at home. Seattle is aiming to get to the final for the second year in a row after last year’s victory. However, this year’s squad has another leg up over last season. Clint Dempsey is back and in form. He missed the the playoffs last year out with an irregular heart beat. An issue that many thought would end his career. But thankfully that was not the case. Dempsey led the Sounders in goals scored and was third in assists. If his performance against Vancouver was any indication of his form then Houston better be watching him…..closely. And there is a chance that Jordan Morris will return for this series missing the last month and a half with a hamstring injury. The speed he brings would create even more headaches for the Dynamo back line.
Houston meanwhile comes in having won the Cup twice in back to back years in 2006-2007 look to return to the final for the first time since 2012. They lost in both the 2011 and 2012 finals to LA Galaxy. The Dynamo’s have been on a roll of late not having lost a match in two months. And they have never lost at home to the Sounders. They will be trying to balance their attack and defending. Although they did score the upset road win in Portland that’s not a path they likely want to follow again. Seattle will be looking to defend first and score if and when the opportunity presents itself but they will be more than happy to return home 0-0. The Dynamo need to win the home match and try and keep Seattle from scoring the dreaded away goal. But the Sounders have not won an away match in their last five attempts and in fact have been held scoreless in four of them. This is the Dynamo’s path to success.
Houston has several players out with injuries (Malki, DeLaGarza, and Rodriquez) but of more concern is the potential fitness of their three Honduran National Team players (Ellis, Quioto, and Garcia). All three of them traveled to Australia last week for the second leg of their World Cup Qualifying match. That much travel takes a toll on a player. How much it impacts their form tomorrow remains to be seen but it is clearly in question.
To me the key stat is telling. The Sounders have not allowed a goal in the playoffs since first leg of last seasons Western Conference Final. A span of 467 minutes. Stefan Frei is solid in the net and has the backline in synch. With the center back pairing of Chad Marshall and Roman Torres, the Sounders have gone 11-0-6. And in that 17 game span they have earned a plus 25 goal differential. That looks to be a lot to overcome for the Dynamo.
The Conference Finals kick off tomorrow night with Columbus hosting Toronto. Game time is slated for 8pm EST on ESPN. Houston hosts Seattle with a 930 EST kick off on FS1.