MLS playoffs: Top story lines for the post-season

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Ten quick stories to follow through Major League Soccer’s 18th post-season:

1. Can the Galaxy become the league’s first three-time defending champion?

No team has won three MLS Cups consecutively through 17 previous MLS seasons – and here is LA, standing on two in a row. So much of the Galaxy’s chances will come down to the health of DP center back Omar Gonzalez and DP attacker Landon Donovan, both dealing with injuries. By the way, we’ve heard a lot lately about Mike Magee and about Marco Di Vaio and others … but the Galaxy’s Robbie Keane (pictured) is the best player in the MLS playoffs.

2. Will Landon Donovan’s ankle hold up?

The LA Galaxy star says his ankle, injured back in September, needs about six weeks to completely heal up. But he is soldiering through it. So can the league’s all-time leading scorer make it through the post-season? And what of his effectiveness? Seems like he’s one more ankle knock away from being the “Little Donovan” we saw through parts of 2012 and early 2013, not the “Big Donovan” we saw through so much of the summer.

3. For New York, with Supporters Shield in pocket, a bigger prize awaits

Congrats to the New York Red Bulls, who needed 18 years, 13 managers and hundreds of players to lay hands on the club’s first major trophy (Supporters Shield). While the debate rages about where Supporters Shield compares to MLS Cup on the continuum of league-related accomplishment, perhaps we should also consider this: only six Supporters Shield winners have gone on to win MLS Cup.

4. Red Bull leaders Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill

New York’s first two goals Sunday in an impressive 5-2 win over Chicago said it all: one absolute beauty from the stylish Thierry Henry, and one textbook scrapper via Dax McCarty (that dude should be nicknamed “Scrappy”) and impassioned grinder Tim Cahill. That is the perfect picture of this team’s useful blend under manager Mike Petke of substance and style.

5. Can the Seattle Sounders turn it around?

Seattle’s flailing fall, the team’s stunning late collapse, has been the story of October around MLS. The Sounders will tiptoe quietly into playoffs on the anti-momentum of a seven-game winless streak.

But the phrase most often repeated around MLS through the years is surely this: “You just have to get there; anything can happen in the playoffs.” Sounders manager Sigi Schmid sounded pretty sensitive recently as he defended his team for having arrived safely into the post-season, regardless of having backed in.

Yes, Sigi … you did get in. And credit for that. And now …

source:  6. And can Clint Dempsey contribute to any turnaround?

Clint Dempsey (pictured, left), the league’s highest paid man, a splashy summer addition at CenturyLink Field, was nine games into his second MLS go-round before finally getting a goal last Sunday. Who could have imagined it would take so long? But he did break that doggone seal … so can that be a springboard for more?

7. Are we forgetting about Kansas City?

New York swiped a bunch of the final day headlines, and everyone is all aflutter over the Timbers’ evocative turnaround tale. But can Sporting Kansas City, fronted by U.S. internationals Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, really be so far behind? The team is, after all, 7-1-3 over all competitions since a little dip in mid-August. And lessons have presumably been learned over two close post-season calls of the last two years, right?

8. The compressed playoff schedule

It takes eight months to get into the MLS playoffs. They end for two teams just three or four days later. Within 11 days, six of 10 teams will have been eliminated. That’s too quick! Surely there’s a better way to extend the drama.

9. How will the refereeing hold up?

Refereeing in MLS is a hot topic pretty much every week, so there’s no real reason to expect any difference now. I mean, Pierluigi Collina isn’t coming through the door here, right? MLS officiating keeps slowly improving, but mark this down: There will be a highly controversial moment that helps decide a series. Probably more than one.

10. The dark horse in Utah

How can Real Salt Lake be a dark horse? Jason Kreis team won a league championship not so long back (2009). And they were U.S. Open Cup runner-up this year. Still, RSL has lots of young parts, and they just aren’t as fashionable as a championship favorite. Still, Kreis’ team only finished behind the Timbers (everyone’s favorite now) by a single point.

(MLS Week in Review for Round 35)

(MORE: MLS Eastern Conference playoffs are set)

(MORE: MLS Western Conference playoffs are set)

(MORE: MLS playoff schedule and TV times)

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

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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

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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.