After what seems like ages, the MLS playoffs are back tonight. The first leg of both conference finals will take place on...Tuesday? Wait, what? Odd wrinkles of scheduling having to do with stadium availability and national TV demands have left us with crucial playoff games coming on a strange night. It wouldn’t be so bad if MLS didn’t have to take a break due to the international window, but them’s the breaks. MLS fans by now should have learned to embrace the quirks.
First up tonight is the Montreal Impact and a gigantic crowd hosting Toronto FC at the Big O. That means playing on turf, a surface neither side is all that familiar with. That might affect Didier Drogba’s availability, though it seems reasonable to expect the scoreboard to remain the #1 factor here. If Montreal is looking at a 2-0 deficit sometime in the first hour, Drogba will play 30+ minutes.
However, it seems likely that we won’t see that many goals either way. Montreal has gotten to this point doing what their roster is clearly built for. They’re a counter-attacking team first, second, and third, and that plan is greatly helped when your opponent wants to come out and attack. If Montreal wants to ring their iconic bell tonight, the most likely path is on the break.
Here’s the problem with that: Toronto FC, under Greg Vanney, are an innately cautious team. Since moving to a 352 for the playoffs, TFC have looked more organized front to back. When they press, they don’t leave gaps, and the Reds are transitioning back into defensive spots quickly. If TFC stays disciplined tonight, we might see a low-scoring game.
On the other hand, Ignacio Piatti and Dominic Oduro bursting into space behind the wingbacks make the 352 a very hazardous choice if the execution isn’t perfect for Toronto. Stopping Piatti in particular is nearly impossible, but the spaces left open by the 352 are very difficult to hide against a team like Montreal, who has been able to spread the ball wide quickly and accurately throughout these playoffs.
Montreal (433): Bush; Camara, Cabrera, Ciman, Oyongo; Bernier, Donadel, Bernardello; Oduro, Mancosu, Piatti
Toronto (352): Irwin; Zavaleta, Moor, Hagglund; Beitashour, Cooper, Bradley, Osorio, Morrow; Giovinco, Altidore
Location: Stade Olympique (Montreal, Quebec)
Kickoff time: 8:00pm Eastern
Available TV: ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN 1 (Canada only), TSN 3 (Canada only), RDS (Canada only)
Available streaming: WatchESPN, TSN Go (Canada only)
Let’s move on to the Western Conference. The story here is injuries on both sides. Seattle appears to believe that they’ll have some major players available, though questions still linger over whether Jordan Morris can play. Morris provides the direct element in a Seattle attack that, without it, is vulnerable to playing slowly. Colorado will sit deep to eliminate the vertical threat anyway, but Morris doesn’t need to line up a 40 yard sprint to break open a defense.
If he’s unavailable, Brian Schmetzer will have to choose between Alvaro Fernandez - who plays a very different game from Morris - or moving Joevin Jones up the field. That would mean Oniel Fisher - who played 232 regular season minutes this year - stepping in at left back, but Jones is the only Sounder who can replicate Morris’ speed.
Colorado, meanwhile, has received less good news. Jermaine Jones has been cleared to play, but he looked dead tired in both USMNT games. Due to an injury that cost him most of this season, he simply doesn’t have the fitness base to play at a high level in so many huge games in short order right now. He’ll play, but it’s doubtful he’ll be the game-changing force he normally is.
Still, his situation is better than that of Tim Howard and Shkelzen Gashi. Howard is out for the year with a major adductor injury, and will be replaced by Zac MacMath. MacMath’s backers will cite his goals against average before Howard arrived, but GAA is a team stat, and MacMath happened to be the goalkeeper for one of the great all-time MLS defenses. He did play better than expected this year, but there’s no hiding that this is a major step down for the Rapids.
The Swiss-Albanian attacker is the only truly unpredictable player that Pablo Mastroeni starts on a regular basis (he should 100% start Marlon Hairston, but chooses the more defensive option of Sebastian Le Toux). It was Gashi’s otherworldly goal that got them a win over the LA Galaxy in the previous round, but without him the Colorado offense - which already creates few chances - has lost its X-factor.
As a result, look for the Rapids to try to grind this game into a pulp even more than they’d do under normal circumstances. Colorado’s dream for this game would be one in which no shots are taken. Seattle, meanwhile, will press high in an effort to force turnovers and get Nicolas Lodeiro on the ball as often as possible. If that happens frequently enough, Seattle might be able to make the second leg a formality.
Seattle (433): Frei; Mears, Torres, Marshall, J. Jones; Friberg/Evans, Alonso, Roldan; Lodeiro, Valdez, Morris
Colorado (4231): MacMath; Miller, Watts, Sjoberg, Burch; Azira, Cronin; Le Toux, Jones, Badji; K. Doyle
Location: CenturyLink Field (Seattle, WA)
Kickoff time: 10:00pm Eastern
Available TV: Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes, TSN 1 (Canada only), TSN 3 (Canada only), RDS 2 (Canada only)
Available streaming: Fox Sports Go, Fox Soccer 2Go, TSN Go (Canada only)
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
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