Houston Dynamo

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MLS Conference Finalists cheat sheet

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Four teams remain in the chase for the 2017 MLS Cup, from Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto down to the team with the 10th most points in the regular season, the Houston Dynamo.

For those who haven’t been watching too closely this season, here’s what you need to know about the semifinalists.

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Toronto FC

Regular season: 1st in East (20W-5L-9T)
Overall: 1st
Playoffs so far: Advanced past Red Bulls 2-2 on away goals
Last season: Lost MLS Cup Final to Seattle

Leading scorer: Sebastian Giovinco (17), Jozy Altidore (15)
In-form player: Goalkeeper Alex Bono
Secret weapon: Victor Vazquez — The Spaniard and ex-Barcelona prospect was the Belgian Professional Footballer of the Year in 2015, and has nine goals and 10 assists in his first MLS season,

Record vs. Seattle: Won 1-0 in Washington
Record vs. Houston: Won 2-0 at home
Record vs. Columbus: Won home and away; Lost away

The big question: Will MLS find enough evidence against the Red Bulls to reverse Jozy Altidore’s suspension for the weekend’s tunnel fracas? If not, TFC will not have its top two scorers for leg one.

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Houston Dynamo

Regular season: 5th in West
Overall: 10th
Playoffs so far: Defeatied Sporting KC, then Portland
Last season: Missed playoffs

Leading scorer: Erick Torres (14), Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis (10)
In-form player: Elis — four goals in last seven matches
Secret weapon: Juan Cabezas — The Colombia defensive midfielder averages 3.7 tackles and 2.1 interceptions per game.

Record vs. Toronto: Lost 2-0 in Canada
Record vs. Seattle: Lost 1-0 at Seattle, Won 2-1 at home
Record vs. Columbus: Won 3-1 at home

The big question: Can backup backstop Joe Willis do the job with Tyler Deric suspended after a domestic arrest?

(Photo credit: Houston Dynamo / @HoustonDynamo)

Columbus Crew

Regular season: 5th in East (16W-12L-6T)
Overall: 5th
Playoffs so far: Defeated Atlanta, then New York City FC
Last season: Missed playoffs

Leading scorer: Ola Kamara (19), Justin Meram (14)
In-form player: Artur — The 21-year-old center mid does the little things well, humming on a consistent motor.
Secret weapon: Pedro Santos — Gets into dangerous places, and knows how to draw a foul.

Record vs. Toronto: Won at home, Lost home and away
Record vs. Houston: Lost 3-1 in Texas
Record vs. Seattle: Won 3-0 at home

The big question: Can the Crew continue to rise above the furor and buzz of owner Anthony Precourt’s horribly-timed relocation discussion? (EDIT: Twitter user CG Hudson pointed out that there is rarely a good time for a relocation discussion, and that’s spot on).

(AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Seattle Sounders

Regular season: 2nd in West (14W-9L-11T)
Overall: 7th
Playoffs so far: Beat Vancouver 2-0 in quarterfinals
Last season: MLS Cup champion

Leading scorers: Clint Dempsey (14), Will Bruin (11)
In-form player: Dempsey
Secret weapon: Cristian Roldan — The University of Washington product has always good defensively, but has seen his goals rise from zero to four to six in his first three seasons.

Record vs. Toronto: Lost 1-0 at home
Record vs. Houston: Won 1-0 at home, Lost 2-1 in Texas
Record vs. Columbus: Lost 3-0 in Columbus

The big question: Can Seattle become the first back-to-back MLS Cup winners since the Galaxy in 2011-12?

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

MLS Cup Playoffs semifinals set; First legs Nov. 21

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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There are only five kickoffs left in the 2017 Major League Soccer season.

The final one, MLS Cup, has been set for some time and will be held at 4 p.m. ET on Dec. 9 in Toronto, Columbus, or Seattle.

[ MORE: Kljestan, Altidore react to fight ]

Houston had the fourth-best record of the quarterfinalists, and would be headed to Columbus or Toronto were it to get past Seattle.

Here are the Conference Final legs, as West No. 4 Houston attempts to upset reigning MLS Cup champs Seattle (No. 2 seed), and East No. 5 Columbus looks to take down Trillium Cup rival and Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC:

East
Nov. 21 – 8 p.m. ET at Columbus Crew
Nov. 29 – 7:20 p.m. ET at Toronto FC

West
Nov. 21 – 10 p.m. ET at Houston Dynamo
Nov. 30 – 10:30 p.m. ET at Seattle Sounders

Top-seeded Timbers ousted, at home, by road-woeful Dynamo

Photo credit: Houston Dynamo / @HoustonDynamo
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The game in 100 words (or less more): One by one, the trendy, higher-seeded favorites are falling away in the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs — same as the postseason has ever been. Sunday saw the Eastern Conference’s 2-seed, New York City FC, bow out at the hands of 5th-seeded Columbus Crew SC, not long before the Western Conference’s top-seeded Portland Timbers fell victim to 4th-seeded Houston Dynamo. Having secured a 0-0 draw in the first leg down in Houston, Caleb Porter’s side entered Sunday’s second leg with a decided advantage — Houston won just once away from home all season, and managed just 10 points in total from 17 tries. After Dairon Asprilla put Portland 1-0 ahead in the 39th minute, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the 2015 champions would move on to face the defending champs, their Cascadia rivals, the Seattle Sounders, in the West finals beginning on Nov. 21. Alas, Dylan Remick, a former Sounder himself, made it 1-1 just four minutes later, and Mauro Manotas delivered the final blow 13 minutes from full-time to propel Wilmer Cabrera’s side into the final four. In their 12 seasons of existence, Houston have been to the playoffs eight times, reached the conference finals seven times, appeared in MLS Cup four times, and won it twice.

[ MORE: 3 keys to Sunday’s 2nd legs ]

Three moments that mattered

39′ — Asprilla fires home the opener — Diego Valeri played the ball wide to Vytas, who lofted it into the box. Asprilla was quickest to react when the cross was a bit too deep, and the Colombian hit an unstoppable ball past Joe Willis.

43′ — Remick smashes home a loose ball for 1-1 — Tomas Martinez played the free kick into the box, Jalil Anibaba headed it down, and Remick smashed it past Jeff Artinella to put Houston ahead on away goals.

77′ — Manotas hits a slow bouncer past Attinella for 2-1 — Insurance.

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Man of the match: Juan Cabezas

Goalscorers: Asprilla (39′), Remick (43′), Manotas (77′)

3 keys to Sunday’s decisive return legs in MLS Cup Playoffs

Photo credit: Toronto FC / @torontofc
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Three keys to Sunday’s three decisive second-leg matchups in the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs conference semifinals…

[ MORE: Previewing Sunday’s 2nd legs, from Toronto and NYC, to PDX ]

Toronto FC (2) vs. (1) New York Red Bulls — 3 p.m. ET

With a 2-1 lead — and a pair of away goals — heading into Sunday’s second leg at home, TFC’s key to advancing is quite obvious, while anything but simple: the numbers advantage must translate to a territorial advantage against Bradley Wright-Phillips and Daniel Royer.

MLSsoccer.com

On the right, you’ll see the combined touches of Wright-Phillips and Royer, New York’s two most prolific final-product providers, in the first leg. You’ll immediately notice BWP and Royer, New York’s leading scorers with 17 and 12 goals during the regular season, respectively, combined for two open-play touches inside TFC’s penalty area over the whole of 90 minutes — the first an unsuccessful pass by BWP (6th minute), the second a blocked shot from BWP (87th).

TFC’s three-man backline, which quickly becomes a five-man unit when Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow track back in times of need, dealt so well with the unconventional and coordinated movement of BWP and Royer. They’re a nightmare come alive for most central duos, but faced with the organization and continuity of Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor and Eriq Zavaleta on Monday, TFC’s central trio put on a clinic of communication and spatial responsibilities.

New York City FC (1) vs. (4) Columbus Crew SC — 5 p.m. ET

One might look at the scoreline from the first leg — 4-1 to Crew SC — and say there’s simply no way back for NYCFC on Sunday. To which this writer would be so inclined to agree… if not for the magical presence of David Villa.

MLSsoccer.com

Let’s go to the MLSsoccer.com chalkboard again, this time to see Villa’s in-possession actions from the 52nd minute onward — the 38 minutes which remained after Alexander Callens earned himself a straight red card. Completely starved for service and support after Rodney Wallace was sacrificed to bring on a defender, Villa still managed to create five chances, either for himself or for others, including the one he scored in the 78th minute. Of course, Crew SC were busy breaking the other direction for three more goals while enjoying their man advantage, but that’s something with which NYCFC won’t have to wrestle again on Sunday (presumably).

Admittedly, it takes the most devoted of optimists to conjure a scenario in which NYCFC break down a bunkering Columbus side by three goals or more, but a man with 84 combined goals and assists (in 94 career MLS games) is as good a place as any to begin your search for hope.

Portland Timbers (0) vs. (0) Houston Dynamo — 7:30 p.m. ET

Finally, a tie without a presumed winner with 90 minutes still left to play. Feel free to imply any lessons from the abomination that was the first leg — I won’t be joining you, but you’re more than welcome to do so yourself — and I’ll focus on the absence of Diego Chara (broken foot suffered in leg 1) and David Guzman (knee).

Typically, Houston’s go-to strategy is to bypass the midfield altogether with long diagonal balls out to wingers Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto, or quick, cutting balls into the channels for the rotating duo at center forward, Erick Torres and Mauro Manotas. With Chara out for the rest of the season and Guzman’s status uncertain at this point, the tactical tweaks applied by Houston manager Wilmer Cabrera will almost certainly determine the outcome of leg 2.

A continued refusal to deviate from Plan A would be the most welcome of sights for Portland’s eyes. Quickly bypassing the middle third of the field, where Caleb Porter’s side was once so strong but now so depleted, wouldn’t be all too different from refusing to shoot against a team playing without a goalkeeper. If Houston can work a bit of possession in the middle third and entice Amobi Okugo and/or Zarek Valentin to abandon the space just in front of the backline, space — and chances — will undoubtedly open up against a Timbers defense which only ever looked competent when shielded by Chara and Guzman.

MLS Cup Playoffs: Weekend Preview

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The Seattle Sounders booked their place in the MLS Cup Conference Finals, but there’s three places up for grabs that will be decided this Sunday.

Toronto FC and the Columbus Crew take advantages into their second-leg bouts with the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC, respectively, while the Portland Timbers head back home to host the Houston Dynamo coming off a scoreless draw.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

TFC is edging closer to a second-consecutive appearance in the Eastern Conference final after their 2-1 win at the Red Bulls while the Crew ran riot past NYCFC at home, leaving Patrick Vieira’s season on the brink.

Here’s a look at what we can expect to see in the final three second-leg matchups of the conference semifinals.

(more…)