Los Angeles Galaxy v Sporting Kansas City

Looking at the MLS conference semifinal matchups – and they are dandies

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Now that the one-game elimination round is done – the 4th – vs. 5th-place finishers clashing in those 90-minute knockout contests – the eight survivors are paired neatly for conference semifinals. And there isn’t a dog of a series among them.

Storylines look strong in each matchup. Remember, these are home-and-away, total goals series. The lower seeds generally host first, which means the 30-minute extra time in the event of a tie after 180 minutes plays out at the higher seed’s venue.

Each matchup is stocking stuffed with viewing appeal and ample “wow” factor. A quick glance at each. (The complete playoff schedule is here.)

Sporting Kansas City vs. Houston Dynamo

Chief storylines:

  • Sporting Kansas City is the league’s top team in terms of applying high pressure, immediate and ferocious – and the extra rest afforded to SKC can only help as the Eastern Conference winners bomb and bounce around.
  • The Dynamo is unbeaten at BBVA Compass Stadium, although the “weakness,” if you will, has been in a few too many draw at their amply orange downtown ground. Houston is 11-0-6 there.
  • Sporting Kansas City will be favored overall, but might be a little nervous after what happened last year; Houston prevailed as these teams (with many of the same players) met in last year’s Eastern Conference final at Livestrong Sporting Park outside Kansas City.
  • Two of the league’s top assist men are in this one, Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi (pictured) and Houston’s Brad Davis.

(MORE: Analysis of Houston’s Wednesday win over Chicago)

(MORE: Houston manager Dominic Kinnear is good at this playoff thing)

D.C. United vs. New York Red Bulls

Chief storylines:

  • D.C. United did the right thing in agreeing to swap spots here. Some things are bigger than soccer, clearly. Set to begin in Harrison, N.J., the series will now launch at RFK Stadium, a switch driven by logistical concerns surrounding the hard-hit areas of New Jersey. It creates a slight competitive disadvantage for D.C. United.
  • The consensus says New York has more talent, but D.C. United finished stronger and more confidently, 5-0-2 down the stretch.
  • United is 12-1-4 at home; New York was 5-7-5 on the road, so Ben Olsen’s side has a chance to grab a good result and add pressure on a New York side that surely already feels some, with all that ballyhooed talent and a manager whose place seems anything but certain.

(MORE: Looking the venue swap)

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Los Angeles Galaxy

Chief storylines:

  • The teams, as they say, do not like each other. The latest, greatest is example is here. Simply delicious.
  • The Galaxy regulars have injury concerns and cannot feel as well-rested as they would ideally like to be. L.A. played a close one last night (a 2-1 win over Vancouver) while San Jose benefits from the additional R&R.
  • One of the injury concerns is to David Beckham, who is slowed by an ongoing ankle injury.
  • You’ll hear a lot about Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski, and for darn good reason. “Wonder Wondo” just matched a 17-year-old league record for most goals in a season with 27.
  • Earthquakes teammate Steven Lenhart may be the most polarizing figure in MLS. He’s either an effective striker who rightly exploits the league’s lenient refereeing ways, or he’s more battering ram than soccer player and fouls or flops on almost every sequence in which he is involved. All dependd on your point of view.
  • The league’s top pair of center backs will stand and be counted in this one: San Jose’s Victor Bernardez and the Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez.

(MORE: Analysis of L.A.’s win over Vancouver)

(MORE: Landon Donovan and some very impressive numbers)

Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle Sounders

Chief storylines:

  • Real Salt Lake put together a wonderful, core group four years ago. It helped the Utah side win an MLS Cup and establish itself as one of the more consistent, reliable sides in league and regional competitions. But it seems this particular group’s time is up. Changes are ahead … so this looks like a last hurrah kind of thing.
  • Seattle has been on the cusp of “more” for approximately the same amount of time. Are all the elements finally in place, all the holes plugged?
  • Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero were the West’s top strike duo down the stretch, but Johnson’s hamstring strain in Seattle’s regular season finale may have left him in doubt.

(MORE: ProSoccerTalk’s preview of tonight’s Seattle-RSL meeting)

“Pretty unreal, a fairy tale” — Alonso, Marshall celebrate Sounders title

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Talk about penalty kicks all you want, and definitely talk about that save, but Seattle’s formative heart kept Toronto FC’s vaunted attack off the scoreboard to win its first MLS Cup final.

Veterans Chad Marshall, Osvaldo Alonso, Stefan Frei, and Roman Torres simply got the job done against Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and the high-flying Reds.

“We knew what a great offensive team they are,” Marshall said. “Giovinco and Jozy are incredible. The amount of goals they put up this postseason is pretty ridiculous, so to keep them off the board for 120 minutes is incredible.”

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

The man in front of him, Alonso, was a prime reason for that. Countless connecting passes and perfect spacing limited TFC’s chances with the ball. After an MVP caliber season, you could argue that Alonso deserved just as much of a shout for MLS Cup MVP as winner Frei.

“In the final you have to give everything you have to win,” Alonso said. “I step on the field to play for my team, play for myself, and play for my family. And I think I did that.”

Both Alonso and Marshall spoke of the moments following Torres’ match-winning PK, as the Sounders crew flew down to pitch to celebrate in front of a rave green and blue visitors section high above BMO Field.

[ MORE: Bradley apologizes to fans ]

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

“I think I threw my back out on the run to Roman, and he flew right by me,” Marshall said. “It was just nuts. I lost my voice in a matter of 20 seconds. It’s just so exciting.”

Alonso was filled with pride for the fans at the game, and the ones back in Seattle who stood by the Sounders after a midseason coaching change.

“They deserved this, the trophy, because they are always there for us,” Alonso said. “Even when we were down at the bottom of the table. This trophy means a lot for me.”

Marshall admitted the words weren’t coming to him, even an hour after the game.

“I don’t know if I can. It’s an incredible feeling, from where we in July, the Kansas City game, to this moment right now, it’s pretty unreal, a fairy tale.”

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Bradley lauds “fearless” teammates after heart-wrenching MLS Cup loss

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Michael Bradley paused to collect himself, several times actually, before apologizing to Toronto FC’s supporters.

The game of football, with its soaring highs and gutting lows, was the latter now. TFC had dominated Seattle over a lackluster 120 minutes, Bradley engineered several big interventions and some delightful balls that didn’t have an end product.

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

Much of that won’t be remembered, though, because Bradley passed his penalty kick right into the path of a waiting Stefan Frei. Surrounded by reporters in the TFC locker room, Bradley chose his words carefully.

“When you put everything you have into something, when you come in every day ready to pour your heart and soul into something, the highs are amazing and emotional and incredible in a positive ways,” Bradley said. “And the setbacks… hit you hard. Every guy here is going to have to take the time to get over this one, to let it hurt, let it frustrate you, let it anger you.

“It’s not for the weak, and you see that on nights like tonight.”

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

Bradley was one of the final men to emerge from the showers at BMO Field, and he answered every question with brutal honesty.

“On behalf of the team, we can only thank every person in this city for their support and for the passion and the emotion and the energy that they put into this, together with us,” he said. “I’m sick to my stomach that we couldn’t reward them with the biggest trophy tonight.”

In defeat, it was easy to see why TFC’s locker room is drawn to its captain. Bradley shirked nothing, answering the tough questions and humoring those who would lob softballs about his family.

Among the former was this response, one of those quotes that moves a team into formation.

“The margins are so small, and on nights like this you have no choice but to go for it,” he said. “We talked about having a group of guy who were gonna, on the biggest of nights, be fearless and go after things in an aggressive way. And we did that. We were strong, brave, and went after the game in a really, really hard away from the first minute right up until the 120th minute.”

That Bradley missed a PK will howl to the moon in Toronto to the wee hours of this Sunday morning, and his critics will be happy to join in. But as the 29-year-old prepares for a winter that could see him head across an ocean before returning for World Cup qualifying and another MLS season, Toronto can be happy to put its faith — and its backbone — in No. 4.

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Altidore, Frei react to “that save” after Sounders claim MLS Cup

TORONTO, ONTARIO - DECEMBER 10:  Stefan Frei #24 of the Seattle Sounders stops Michael Bradley #4 of the Toronto FC during the penalty kick phase during the 2016 MLS Cup at BMO Field on December 10, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Seattle defeated Toronto in the 6th round of extra time penalty kicks. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images
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When it comes down to it, Jozy Altidore and Toronto FC were inches away from becoming MLS Cup champions.

The man who walked away with MLS Cup MVP was the reason they didn’t.

[ WATCH: Frei’s big save ]

Deep in extra time, Altidore leapt high to loft a header toward the far post. Frei adjusted his body for one dramatic lunge, just slapping the ball toward Roman Torres for a clear.

“(Altidore) does the right thing because he goes against the way that I’m coming from, and that point you just move your feet as quick as you can see what’s possible,” Frei said.

Altidore thought it was in.

“I thought so,” he said. “It was a tough ball to begin with. … It was a hell of a save. At the end of the day you’ve got to pull off something special.”

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Three things we learned from Seattle Sounders’ MLS Cup triumph

Seattle Sounders players chase defender Roman Torres (29) after he scored the game-winning shootout goal to defeat the Toronto FC during shoot out MLS Cup soccer final action in Toronto on Saturday, December 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP)
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP
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MLS Cup 2016 was the most well-played game of soccer all year — far from it, in fact — but the Seattle Sounders are MLS champions for the first time in their eight-year history anyway.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS Cup coverage ]

Three thoughts on a poorly-played, but thoroughly intense 2016 finale…

A cup final, it most certainly was

The numbers of cup finals which feature brilliant, composed attacking play is hugely outweighed by the number of cup finals featuring a total lack thereof. Whether it was down to nerves, the frigid conditions in which the game was played, or a combination of the two, Saturday’s final at BMO Field was yet another example of the latter.

The telling stats: 40 fouls between the two sides (just three yellow cards shown); zero first-half shots attempted by the Sounders, and just three shots in total over 120 minutes (zero on target).

The only moment of true quality came in the 108th minute, when Stefan Frei made the best save you’ve seen all year to deny Jozy Altidore and keep the Sounders on level terms (WATCH HERE).

Michael Bradley, man of the match (until his PK)

As we’ve come to expect, Bradley was anywhere and everywhere on the field for TFC, at all the right times. With Osvaldo Alonso playing the part of warrior in the Sounders midfield, and Jonathan Osorio’s attacking prowess preferred to the defensive chops of Will Johnson alonside Bradley, it was up to the U.S. national team captain to singlehandedly track and mark Nicolas Lodeiro out of the game. He did just that, and so much more.

Then, came his penalty kick, TFC’s second, which was hit with so little pace and no more than three feet to Frei’s left for the easiest save he’d make all night.

The greatest comeback in MLS history

You’ve heard it all by now, but it doesn’t make what the Sounders did from August to December any less remarkable — from ninth place on the day Sigi Schmid was fired (two days before Lodeiro arrived), to the MLS summit in four and a half months. Clint Dempsey, the Sounders’ highest-paid player, was then lost for the rest of the season a month later (irregular heartbeat). No team in MLS history had ever overcome a points gap that large (10) that late in the season to even qualify for the playoffs, let alone advance in said playoffs, reach MLS Cup, and lift the trophy.

Brian Schmetzer, a Seattle native and member of the Sounders family since his own playing days beginning in 1980, replaced Schmid with (presumably) the idea that he’d see out the lost season as interim head coach before making way for a big-name hire this winter. He won eight of his first 14 games as a head coach instead, led the Sounders to the four-seed in the Western Conference, and delivered to his hometown the ultimate prize on Saturday.

Watching the Portland Timbers lift MLS Cup 2015 was undoubtedly the toughest pill to swallow for anyone in Rave Green, but to end their Cascaida Cup rivals’ reign as defending champions by winning that very piece of silverware themselves … that’s a one-up that’ll last a lifetime.