After all the games played in MLS this season - from unexpected thrillers like D.C. United's 6-4 win over Real Salt Lake all the way down to the 34 games the Colorado Rapids were unfortunately allowed to play - there are just three to go. Today's second legs will determine the two sides that will get their shot at winning the 2015 MLS Cup. Down in Texas, FC Dallas took a decent result into stoppage time only to concede on a set piece for the second time in the game. That gave the Portland Timbers - who have been very strong on the road lately - a 3-1 lead to protect in the Dallas exurbs. In northern New Jersey, the New York Red Bulls have to overcome a 2-0 loss in the first leg in which the Columbus Crew looked like the more well-coached team.
Key question: Can Dallas get their wingers involved?
Credit to Caleb Porter and the Timbers: Faced with a Dallas side that loves to play on the break and find their wingers, Portland put together a game plan that largely left FCD with few chances to play on the break. With Diego Valeri suspended, Porter opted for Jack Jewsbury as a second holding midfielder, and both him and Diego Chara did great work flaring out to support the fullbacks defensively. That meant no room for Fabian Castillo and Michael Barrios to attack on the dribble, which was the main issue the Seattle Sounders were unable to cope with in the previous round.
Circumstances will dictate a different look for Portland. Valeri and Rodney Wallace are both fit again, and the Timbers have gotten this far by leaning hard on the idea that they are an attacking team first and foremost. Valeri will return, but that means the 4231 that Porter used in the first leg is probably not going to be used again. I'd instead expect a "433" that plays just like a 4141. Wallace will have to support Jorge Villafana down the left (rather than Villafana getting that help from a central player), and on the right Dairon Asprilla will have to work even harder than he did in Portland to support Alvas Powell.
Of course, Oscar Pareja is a very clever coach, and a different PTFC change may see him opt for a different look to get Castillo more involved. Porter conceded yesterday that Norberto Paparatto will have to start for the injured Liam Ridgewell, which is a potentially huge problem for Portlan. As Porter states in the article, the Timbers are unbeaten when starting Paparatto. However, the Argentine lacks agility and as such is going to have a hard time dealing with skillful, shifty dribblers.
People often refer to Castillo as a left winger only, but anyone who watches Dallas regularly knows that Pareja uses Castillo in 3 different positions (with the left flank taking up about 65-70% of his minutes. Castillo has spent plenty of time this season as a forward, and it would not surprise me much at all if Pareja opts to start him up front and drop David Texeira for Tesho Akindele (as the latter can play on the wings for Pareja's inevitable in-game shifting of his attackers). Between Castillo and Mauro Diaz, Dallas has two players that Paparatto will struggle badly against. If Michael Barrios can cut in from the right, he'd have his opportunities to attack Paparatto as well.
Match date/time: Sunday 11/29, 5:00pm Eastern
Venue: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, TX)
TV: ESPN (English), ESPN Deportes (Spanish)
Online: WatchESPN (English)
Key question: What did NYRB learn after being taken to school in the first leg?
If you're like me and you don't buy the idea that Jesse Marsch was MLS's best coach this year (probably not even top five), you surely enjoyed the Coach of the Year being thoroughly outfoxed by Gregg Berhalter. Of course, if you're reading this blog, you probably enjoyed it anyway because any Red Bulls defeat is welcome, but still.
Berhalter and the rest of the Crew's coaching staff turned a rehearsed kickoff routine into a first minute goal, and then embarked on a gameplan that used a mix of pressure and attacking movement to reduce Dax McCarty to a shell of himself. NYRB's vaunted central midfield fell apart as their foundation struggled, and while they did create on offense - Columbus is just not a very good defensive team, even when their tactics are great - they were clearly a confused group of players throughout. On top of all that, the choice to bring on Cedrick to attack a tiring Red Bulls left side produced the crucial second goal.
Marsch is going to have to alter his side's tactics, and that's a major argument I have against him being named MLS's CotY. The fact is that the Red Bulls have been a one-speed, Plan A only team all year long. No club is more sure of their identity, which is a positive, but this is also a team that has nowhere to go when they're found out. NYRB's zeal for high pressure saw them pressing in the wrong places and without their normal structure. There was no alternate option.
One thing Marsch will probably change up is how his wingers behave. NYRB will need Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella to force both Columbus fullbacks into staying home. Teams that have done that have disrupted the Crew's preferred mode of attack. Without their fullbacks pushing extremely high, Berhalter's team becomes far less effective at crossing the ball. Without those crosses, Kei Kamara becomes a rank-and-file target man rather than the kind of player who could nearly win the Golden Boot.
Match date/time: Sunday 11/29, 7:30pm Eastern
Venue: Red Bull Arena (Harrison, NJ)
TV: Fox Sports 1 (English), Fox Deportes (Spanish)
Online: Fox Sports Go (English), Fox Soccer 2Go (English)
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