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Let’s talk about the MLS playoffs ahead of tomorrow’s conference semifinals

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Some scattered thoughts on each playoff pairing as well as the postseason structure as a whole

Tomorrow is the last truly busy day of the MLS season. There are bigger games to come, sure, but from here on out the playoffs will be doled out more economically. The conference finals will all be played on a one game per day basis, making today your last shot at unseemly soccer gluttony.

Personally I see this as very good news, but then I’m also against binge-watching TV shows. It’s hard to critically assess anything by the time your brain is completely worn out from eight straight hours of constant stimulation. That’s not to say that a full day of soccer lacks a certain charm, or that this is anything other than an argument for a lost cause, but at least for me, the chance to think back over a game after it ends is a richer experience.

In any case, that’s a lost cause, so I promise no more whining about it. Instead, let’s look at tomorrow’s games and see if there’s something we can figure out about each pairing. In all four cases, the team that was supposedly rewarded for a better season was granted the wonderful privilege of starting a do-or-die series on the road. And in all four cases, those teams lost on the road. No valuable away goals were scored.

You know how we talk about game states in soccer, where getting a lead early dictates so much of what happens in 90 minutes? Yeah, might be time to reconsider this whole set-up. My preference? Before the season begins, every team informs MLS whether they want to play their home game in the first leg or the second leg. Come playoff time, the team with the better record gets their preference. I suspect that at least three of the remaining eight - and possibly even some kind of majority - would have chosen to play the first leg at home.

Anyway, that’s not the reality we find ourselves in. Instead, we saw the Supporters Shield winner’s season more or less go up in smoke during an eight minute span. The Shield runners-up, masters of the 1-0 win but stuck with a very low-scoring attack, are one mistake away from needing to score three times to advance. The top seed in the East faces a must-win against a side seemingly built for road playoff soccer, while the #2 seed - saddled with what is easily the worst defense left in the playoffs - probably needs to either shut Sebastian Giovinco out or score 4+ goals.

Before we dig in on each pairing, over at Sounder at Heart, they’ve published visual guides to what a given scoreline means in terms of advancement in all four match-ups. Keep it handy throughout tomorrow’s overindulgences.

LA Galaxy 1 : 0 Colorado Rapids

This was, in my opinion, the least interesting game from last Sunday. LA probably had the opportunity to make it 2-0 against a Rapids team that was only interested in the prevention of soccer, but outside of the opening half-hour there was a lack of zeal to their play.

A full week of rest will help the aging Galaxy lineup, but will it help enough? Colorado finished the year with MLS’s only undefeated home record in 2016, and their physical style of play combined with the thin mountain air should combine to take the wind out of LA’s sails pretty quickly. Jermaine Jones is likely to play from the start, and the Rapids are a different team with him as their “attacking” midfielder. He’s not a playmaker so much as a turnover-forcing chaos generator. LA has gotten great returns from using Sebastian Lletget as a linking midfielder who gets a ton of touches in the 4231 they’ve used recently, but Jones will make that area of the field far more difficult to play in.

Who’s going to take it: I find myself going back and forth here, because both teams have a glaring flaw. The Rapids are just a goal away from being in charge, but if they concede just once, they’re kind of doomed. Colorado only managed to get a third goal in a game three times this season; that’s less than 10% of the time. As D.C. United fans know from 2014 and 2015, the margins of playing this defensively are so slim. One mistake, and your chances of winning are pretty much gone.

On the other hand, LA fielded an old lineup even without Keane and Gerrard, who pose their own problems. Bringing Keane back means messing up LA’s best tactical plan (he and Dos Santos want to play in the same spaces, while Keane can’t replicate Gordon’s back-to-goal play). Gerrard is too much of a passenger to play in anything other than desperation scenarios.

I don’t feel confident about any prediction here, but this structure I’m choosing obliges me to make a choice. I’ll bet on Bruce here: Colorado outplays the Galaxy, but a slip-up at the back gifts LA a critical away goal, and the Rapids do not have a three-goal outing in them.

2-2 aggregate, Galaxy advance on away goals.

Montreal Impact 1 : 0 New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls probably went to Stade Saputo thinking that they had a good shot at snagging a road goal, and possibly even a road draw. And they did, but Bradley Wright-Phillips inexplicably reverted to the ice cold form he had back in March, and the Impact won the game on the back of Matteo Mancosu’s inch-perfect finish following a superb long ball from Marco Donadel. Precision counts in this game.

NYRB has some problems now. Montreal’s classic counterattacking style is set up perfectly for road games against teams that send numbers forward, and no one sends numbers forward like these Red Bulls. The time to pounce on this Impact side was when they were on short rest in the first leg.

On top of that, the Red Bulls are losing players left and right. Omer Damari’s fully justified red card in stoppage time removes one option to bring in a second forward late on, while Kemar Lawrence - who left the first leg late with an ankle problem - appears to have pulled his hamstring rehabbing his ankle. Mike Grella has missed two days of training, as well, leaving Jesse Marsch facing major problems on the left flank. Sal Zizzo could be lining up against Dominic Oduro, for example.

Who’s going to take it: Sometimes head and heart find something they completely agree on, and it’s a beautiful thing. I’ve got the Impact making sure that the Red Bulls continue their decades-long run without an MLS Cup. BWP won’t be so wasteful, but I see the Impact matching every NYRB goal with one of their own.

2-2 on the day, with Montreal advancing 3-2 on aggregate.

Toronto FC 2 : 0 New York City FC

This game surprised me, because I was thinking that Patrick Vieira’s convictions - to play an attacking system with attack-minded players no matter what - would hold. I also expected whatever tactical errors this series had to come from Greg Vanney, whose team has not really turned BMO Field into a fearsome venue due to a tendency to panic and default to direct, cross-heavy play too often.

Instead, Vieira got it all wrong, changing to a 5221 that effectively swapped out beacon of joy and light Tommy McNamara for bruising defensive midfielder Federico Bravo. The lineup was released as if it were a 433, but defensive midfielder Andoni Iraola was a full-time center back, with Bravo and Mikey Lopez (replacing the injured Andrea Pirlo) sitting deep in front of five defenders. There’s conservative, and then there’s this.

Vanney’s team, to their credit, did not lose their way. TFC stuck to the 352 until the 83rd minute, when they brought Tosaint Ricketts in for Jonathan Osorio. A minute later, they had their goal despite the fact that Ricketts completely whiffed on what would have been a glorious first touch goal. TFC seemed satisfied with 1-0 judging from their subs that followed, with high-energy midfielders (Will Johnson, Marky Delgado) replacing creators (Armando Cooper and Giovinco, who kicked his seat on the bench in frustration), but they managed to bag a critical second goal anyway through Ricketts.

Who’s going to take it: On Filibuster, with a shot of tequila and a full beer floating around my system, I said that I felt NYCFC still had a real shot at this thing. Yankee Stadium’s tiny surface means chaos, and if any team can just score their way out of trouble, it’s the Pigeons. I could easily see NYCFC scoring three or four goals tomorrow.

The problem for them is that it’s hard to imagine them getting a shutout against anyone, much less a team with Giovinco and Altidore. I think NYCFC will win the game, but they’re going to give away too much to make it matter.

3-2 NYCFC on the day, but TFC wins the series 4-3 on aggregate.

Seattle Sounders 3 : 0 FC Dallas

Let’s talk about Oscar Pareja for a second. I am far from alone in thinking he’s the best coach in MLS right now, but that’s not to say he is flawless. Getting his players to show more emotional control has been an issue for years, but against the Sounders that was not what left them in this deep hole. Pareja - and to be fair, his veteran leaders on the field - failed to sense just how much trouble they were in at the start of the second half.

After an uneventful first half, Seattle really stepped their play up, and got the opener through Nelson Valdez in the 50th minute. Fine, these things happen. The issue for Pareja and FCD is what followed. Seattle was all over Dallas, who did precisely nothing to slow the game down. No player moves from the bench, no adjustments to tactics - say, trying to slow the game down with harmless possession, or to stretch the field vertically so the Sounders would have to consider dropping off - and no move to just start fouling to break the game up. Even a hard tackle that would have sparked some sort of shoving match would have helped Dallas hit the pause button.

Instead, the game carried on as it was, and by the 58th minute 1-0 had become 3-0. This series isn’t truly over, but it’s pretty damn close because Dallas, at the biggest moment of their season, didn’t have the collective read on the game to know when to slow things down to a crawl. And that’s the kind of thing you have to be able to sense, and to instill into your team, at the next level.

Who’s going to take it: The answer here is obviously Seattle, so let’s take a different angle this time. Let’s talk about how Dallas can possibly manage one of the great all-time escapes in league history. The 532 they used in Seattle was not the terrible idea people made it out to be, but it’s probably not going to work in Frisco. I think FCD needs to opt for the 4231 they played with Mauro Diaz, using Mauro Rosales in the injured Argentine’s spot.

Rosales, at 35, is not 90 minutes fit. He’s probably not even 60 minutes fit. None of that matters, because the most important part of this game is the first half for Dallas. If they can’t get at least get into halftime up 1-0 (or, if Seattle scores, 3-1), they’re pretty much screwed. Plenty of coaches would approach this one as if it’s a normal game, because 1-0 is a normal home halftime score, but it’s not a normal game. Seattle will not be approaching this as if it’s 0-0, and neither should Dallas.

I’m a big advocate of making your bold move from the start in situations like this for two reasons. If you find yourself still 3-0 down at the normal moment to go all out (55th-65th minute), you’re looking for some kind of 1 in 10,000 miracle result. And if your bold move doesn’t actually pan out, you still have halftime to enact some kind of (admittedly desperate) Plan B. Trying to concoct that sort of plan during the second half is tough, and it’s even tougher to communicate that to eleven players spread out across a large field surrounded by thousands of shouting fans.

So for me, Dallas needs to play an attacking midfield three of Michael Barrios, Rosales, and Tesho Akindele at kickoff. They should also strongly consider dropping Maynor Figueroa for Ryan Hollingshead to give themselves two attack-minded fullbacks (not to mention speed, which will help during the inevitable moments of defending in transition as the Sounders counter). I don’t think it’s going to work, but it gives Dallas their best shot at what would be a historic comeback.

Dallas wins 2-1, but the Sounders advance 4-2 on aggregate.