MLS playoff preview: Seattle Sounders at Real Salt Lake

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Who would have thought the most exciting much of this year’s playoffs would be a 0-0? So far, that’s the case, though it’s not a fair question. Not many postseason predictions posts have a place for Scoreline of the playoffs’ most exciting game. Even if somebody spends time thinking about such things, there aren’t many places to go on record.

But since Seattle and Real Salt Lake opened the semifinal round with a goalless thriller last Friday, the rest of Major League Soccer’s round of eight has been unable to replicate the drama. So between the scoreline, Nick Rimando’s heroics, the teams’ history (they also met in last year’s Western Conference semis), and the pure quality of these two MLS Cup contenders, it would be fair to call Thursday’s second leg at Rio Tinto highly anticipated.

And as with all second legs, there’s always on big, underlying question: What should we expect to change from the first leg.

Kickoff: 10:00 p.m. Eastern, Rio Tinto Stadium, NBC Sports Network

Series is tied, 0-0, after leg one

On Real Salt Lake

  • Mission accomplished? On paper, yes. RSL got out of CenturyLink with a draw. What road team wouldn’t take that?
  • But Friday’s outcome was less of a moral victory than a boxer absorbing a 12-round beating only to be bailed out by the judges. Sure, you take it, but in your heart, you know you got worked.
  • That type of analogy completely ignores the fact that goalkeeper Nick Rimando is an RSL player, the team values counts on his performance, and you can’t just dissociate a goalkeeper’s contributions from the rest of the team’s when assessing the product (a mistake which, admittedly, I’ve done too often). Rimando has given other-worldly performances before. Who’s to say he won’t do so again on Thursday?
  • Ideally, Jason Kreis won’t need any incredible performances to get a result, but that requires solving the midfield problem. RSL’s diamond was exploited down its left, an advantage that led to 30 open play crosses for Seattle.
  • The midfield also failed to connect with Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola. Saborio scored twice in last year’s home leg, but on Friday, he didn’t get a good look until very late.
  • Fabian Espindola, who left Friday’s match at halftime with a hamstring injury, is listed as probable. So is Ned Grabavoy (quad) and every RSL central defender: Jamison Olave (hamstring), Nat Borchers (quad), Chris Schuler (quad) and Kwame Watson-Siriboe (ankle). What’s with all the quad strains?

On the Seattle Sounders

  • Seattle has injury concerns of their own, most notably with Mauro Rosales. The man responsible for so much of the work against RSL’s left limped from the field on Friday after tweaking a hamstring. But rest easy, SounderFan. Rosales didn’t even make the injury report.
  • More good news: Eddie Johnson will be back. The U.S. international (and Seattle’s leading goalscorer during the regular season) didn’t even dress on Friday. His presence was sorely missed. It’s hard to believe Seattle doesn’t convert one of their myriad of crosses if one of the league’s greatest aerial threats is in the team. On Friday, Sigi Schmid made sure everybody knew: Eddie will be ready for Utah.
  • Seattle’s only other injury concern is left back Leo Gonzalez, who missed game one with a hamstring strain. Veteran Marc Burch will probably get the call.
  • Though the final score doesn’t show it, Seattle’s coming off one of their best performances of the season (the best game I’ve seen them play all year). One man’s extraordinary performance kept them from a lopsided win, so while a 0-0 result at home would normally lead to some tweaks, Schmid’s task for leg two is to keep his good thing going.
  • That means exploiting the wide areas. Or, area. Seattle’s right side, manned by Rosales, proved a huge advantage on Friday.  If Rosales is less than 100 percent or Kreis finds a solution, it’s not something Seattle’s likely to replicate on their left. There are only so many Mauro Rosaleses in the world.
  • What would Plan B be? Any variety of options centering around Johnson. Or Fredy Montero. Or the play of Christian Tiffert and Osvaldo Alonso. You’d call it am embarrassment of riches, but general manager Adrian Hanauer and staff have no reason to blush about the job they’ve done.
  • One of Hanauer’s more recent acquisitions, goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, received a lot of credit for his overshadowed Friday performance, but in a game where the little things could prove decisive, Gspurning will have to avoid replicating the first half giveaway that gifted RSL a chance at goal.
  • Obligatory Seattle history references: They’ve never won a playoff series (0-for-3). In 2009, their first leg with Houston also ended scoreless, with the second leg requiring extra time after another goalless 90 minutes. Brian Ching scored in the 96th minute to end Seattle’s first MLS season.
  • Seattle’s scored only three goals in 660 playoff minutes: 0.41 goals per game. That’s not bad. It’s terrible.

Bottom line:

If Seattle plays like they did on Friday, they win most of the time. “Most” actually understates how good they were. The Sounders win nine out of 10 games playing at that level, which is why their history of playoff frustrations should matter little on Thursday. Keep doing what they’re doing, and Seattle moves on.

The ball is in Kreis’s court. His team is as predictable as they come in terms of set up and tactics. He always uses that narrow, diamond in midfield, and the team likes its short, controlled passing game – a plan that didn’t work on Friday. It failed miserably, but thanks to Nick Rimando, RSL’s was given a lifeline.

The extent to which they take advantage of that lifeline depends on Kreis’s changes.

MLS Snapshots: Opara scores a bike, SKC win; SJ thump RSL

Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): I’m going to start by quoting myself (re: Sporting Kansas City), via Twitter: “This team is better in June than it was in March, and will be better in October than it is in June. Just steadily progressing.” Saturday’s 2-1 victory away to LA Galaxy (just their second road win of the season, and the team’s fourth and fifth away goals in 10 games) is the latest sign of progress for Peter Vermes’ side, as they extend their lead on the rest of the Western Conference to five points. Roger Espinoza and Ike Opara scored the visitors’ goals — the latter coming in spectacular, most unexpected fashion — before the hosts pulled back to 2-1 through Dave Romney late in the second half. LA, meanwhile, sit sixth in the West, one point clear of the wrong side of the playoff cut line.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

22′ — Diop’s howler puts SKC up 1-0 — Sometimes — and this is one of those moments for Clement Diop — you just want the ground to open up and swallow you into the middle of the Earth.

35′ — Opara rides his bike to 2-0 — Ike Opara, a center back, scored a bicycle kick from a long ball played to him by Matt Besler, Sporting KC’s other center back. It’s a sequence of events you won’t see again for a long, long time.

59′ — Smith goes through Feilhaber, who is subbed off — Baldomero Toledo allowed Nathan Smith to stay on the field after this “tackle” on Benny Feilhaber.

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Man of the match: Ike Opara

Goalscorers: Espinoza (22′), Opara (35′)


San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 Real Salt Lake

Three Two moments that mattered

13′ — Hoesen blasts a loose ball past Rimando for 1-0 — If you fail to clear the ball anywhere inside 12 yards, you’re probably going to get scored on. Danny Hoesen got all of this one.

68′ — Hoesen sets up Ureña for 2-0 — Hoesen’s speculative through ball found its way into space, and Marco Ureñat took it from there, putting the game away and handing RSL their eighth loss in 11 games.

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Man of the match: Danny Hoesen

Goalscorers: Hoesen (13′), Ureña (68′), Hernandez (90+4′)

MLS Snapshots: Hat trick for Accam; MNUFC come back from 2-0

Photo credit: Chicago Fire / Twitter: @ChicagoFire
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The game in 100 words (or less): All hail King David Accam, the newest superstar of MLS — except, well, you know, he’s been doing this for a couple years now. It’s not his fault you hadn’t already taken notice. For too long, it was Accam and not much else for the Chicago Fire, who finished bottom of the league two straight seasons, in 2015 and 2016. Now, with the likes of Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger joining him in Bridgeview, Accam has ascended to his rightful throne as an MVP candidate. The 26-year-old Ghanaian international strengthened his case on Saturday, bagging three goals and an assist, playing a key part in all four goals, in Chicago’s 4-0 drubbing of Orlando City SC. Accam’s season stats now sit at 10 goals and six assists, for the Eastern Conference’s second-place team. If these kind of performances persist, don’t be surprised when Accam follows in Fabian Castillo’s footsteps, right off to Europe.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

8′ — Accam rounds Bendik for 2-0 — The long-ball distribution from Bastian Schweinsteiger is perfect, but Accam still has a ton to do from there. He corrals the ball with his first touch, quickly goes around Joe Bendik, gets his wits about him and fires through an opening to make it David Accam 2-0 Orlando City SC. This one came just six minutes after his brilliant backheel finish for the opening goal.

52′ — Accam sets up Nikolic for 3-0 — The time and space afforded Accam is inexcusable from Orlando’s midfield remaining players in their defensive half of the field, but the through ball still required inch-perfect precision to find Nikolic.

63′ — Accam converts from the spot — No doubt about this one, as Accam slams home from the penalty spot to complete his much deserved hat trick.

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Man of the match: David Accam

Goalscorers: Accam (3′, 8′, 63′ – PK), Nikolic (52′)


Minnesota United 2-2 Vancouver Whitecaps

Three moments that mattered

45+2′ — Tchani heads a rocket past Shuttleworth — You’re not going to find many headers with more power behind them than this one from Tony Tchani, anywhere in the world, anytime.

50′ — Calvo heads down and past Ousted — Take, for example, Francisco Calvo’s goal five minutes into the second half… not quite as much behind it.

63′ — Thiesson hits it low, through traffic, for 2-0 — Jerome Thiesson’s equalizer needed eyes to make its way through a penalty area full of bodies.

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Man of the match: Kevin Molino

Goalscorers: Techera (17′ – PK), Tchani (45+2′), Calvo (50′), Thiesson (63′)

MLS Snapshots: Manneh inspires Crew SC; Philly, Atlanta win at home

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
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Columbus Crew SC 4-1 Montreal Impact

Three moments that mattered

17′ — Higuain’s free kick beats Bush — Aided by a slight deflection off the top of the wall, Higuain put a free kick past Evan Bush to give the home side an early lead.

70′ — Manneh makes an immediate impact — The initial ball from Higuain is what you came here for, but the elementary defending by three Montreal defenders is what’ll keep you glued until the very end.

72′ — Manneh sets up Kamara for 3-1 — Kekuta Manneh had been on the field for all of three minutes, and he put a goal and an assist to his name. Most importantly, three points to that of Crew SC.

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Man of the match: Federico Higuain

Goalscorers: Higuain (17′, 88′), Jackson-Hamel (19′), Manneh (70′), Kamara (72′)


 

Philadelphia Union 1-0 D.C. United

Three moments that mattered

28′ — Blake gets down to deny Harkes from distance — Ian Harkes had picked out a spot just inside the far post, but Andre Blake was well up to the task of denying DCU’s homegrown rookie.

31′ — Picault slams Bedoya’s cross — Alejandro Bedoya’s cross has some serious loft on it, which it makes it so tough to keep the ensuing shot low and to hit it with such power. Fantastic finish from Picault.

70′ — Blake stone-walls Neagle from the spot — It’s a pretty poor penalty from Lamar Neagle, but it’s a massive moment so badly needed by Andre Blake who’s been well off his own standard this season. Don’t be surprised if it’s a season-turning save for the talented Jamaican.

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Man of the match: Andre Blake

Goalscorers: Picault (31′)


 

Atlanta United 1-0 Colorado Rapids

Three One moment that mattered

67′ — Martinez turns and beats Howard for the game’s only goal — You can’t give Josef Martinez this kind of space, and this kind of time, around the six-yard box. He’s shown us seven times already this season (in just seven games) how deadly he is from there.

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Man of the match: Josef Martinez

Goalscorers: Martinez (67′)

VIDEO: Accam’s slick backheel puts Chicago ahead

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For the last two years, David Accam has been, in my estimation, the best player in MLS that no one talked about.

[ MORE: NYCFC run rampant on Red Bulls, win NY derby 2-0 ]

Understandably so, of course, given the 26-year-old Ghanaian international and the Chicago Fire been rooted to the bottom of the league table for two years running. All of that has changed in 2017, though, as Accam finally has a forward (Nemanja Nikolic) who can not only put chances away, but create space and chances for his teammates, and a solid midfield base which allows him to cherry-pick counter-attacks just that little bit more.

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Entering Saturday’s game against Orlando City SC, Chicago sat second in the Eastern Conference, just four points back of Toronto FC, and Accam’s 7 goals and 5 assists (in 15 games) were a huge part of the why and the how. It didn’t take Accam long — two minutes, in fact, to put Chicago ahead of Orlando with a ridiculous backheel finish to Matt Polster’s cross.