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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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)
T’s are crossed and i’s dotted on Neymar’s new contract, keeping him at the club through the 2020-21 season.
Neymar, 24, will make his 100th La Liga appearance with his next step onto the pitch.
Lionel Messi’s deal runs through 2017-18, and Luis Suarez’s goes through 2018-19.
[ MORE: Guardiola on Aguero omission ]
He’s scored 59 goals in league play, and has 91 total when you include all 150 of his matches in a Barca kit.
Neymar is on a similar scoring rate to last season, when he netted 31 times. The Brazilian also has 49 international goals in 73 caps.
Pep Guardiola is seething with reports that claim star striker Sergio Aguero is not in his plans for Manchester City’s future.
Aguero started on the bench for Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League loss at Barcelona, inspiring talk that the Argentine star wasn’t long for the Emirates Stadium.
[ MORE: Conte on Mourinho, Pogba ]
Guardiola says that’s garbage, and that he simply needed more midfielders for his attack. Next time, just ask.
From the BBC:
“It was a tactical decision. I wanted one more midfielder, I tried to keep the ball in the Camp Nou and when you have the ball, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez don’t.
“I spoke with Sergio and he was understanding, I thought in the last 30 minutes, with the Barcelona centre-halves tiring, he could help a lot from the bench. When Sergio decides to leave it will be his decision. Next time before you (the media) decide he is not in my plans you can call me.”
Still, not using Aguero is risky business.
The striker believes, rightly, that he’s among the most dangerous players in the world. Guardiola has said as much, too.
While few would put him in the class of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s difficult to imagine either being sat for tactical reasons against one of the best teams in the world.
The managers are meeting the media ahead of this week’s Premier League matches, and many eyes are trained on one specific match-up.
Chelsea and Manchester United meet on Sunday, the first time Jose Mourinho will manage against his old side since his unceremonious exit last winger.
[ USWNT: Holiday has tumor removed ]
Mourinho, of course, led Chelsea to the 2014-15 title only to see a miserable start to the following campaign. He was hired at Manchester United this summer, but Conte thinks Mourinho’s Chelsea laurels have earned him some love from Stamford Bridge.
“I have great respect for Mourinho. He deserves a good reception. He was an important man for Chelsea and wrote part of the club’s story.”
Conte also touched on Paul Pogba‘s decision to head back to Old Trafford. Pogba is coming off a starring role in United’s 4-1 win over Fenerbahce, and Conte guided the French midfielder during their time at Juventus.
“It was Paul Pogba’s dream was to return to Manchester United. I wish him well, but only after this game.”
Conte said John Terry is available to return for Chelsea, and that could be invaluable against a big, strong forward like United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With the Red Devils having played Thursday, Conte will like his chances a bit more than usual.
The bracket is set for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, and ensures that at least one MLS vs. Liga MX semifinal will happen next Spring.
No. 1 seed New York Red Bulls will cross the continent to meet No. 8 Vancouver Whitecaps, with the winner moving on to face the victor of Mexico’s Tigres UANL vs. Pumas UNAM.
[ VIDEO: Previewing all 10 PL matches ]
The possibility of an all-Liga MX or all-MLS final still exists, with Pachuca and FC Dallas on opposite sides of the bracket. Arabe Unido gives Panama hope for its first CCL semifinalist, while Saprissa can be Costa Rica’s first semifinalist since 2011.
Of the remaining teams, only Pachuca has won a title in the CCL era (2008-present). Tigres lost in the 2016 final, the only other team to make it that far.
New York Red Bulls (1) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (8)
Tigres UANL (4) vs. Pumas UNAM (5)
Arabe Unido (2) vs. FC Dallas (7)
Pachuca (3) vs. Saprissa (4)
The first legs will be played in late February, and the bright side to the intra-league quarters will be one MLS side waiting a round before facing a more in-form club playing a traditional season schedule (though that’s an overblown excuse at this point).
Some fans don’t care much for the tournament, while others — myself included — are extremely keen to see an MLS team win the CCL and represent North America in the Club World Cup, where it can get a high profile litmus test in a serious competition (Real Madrid beat Cruz Azul 4-0 in a 2014 semifinal).