90 — or, perhaps 120 — minutes of soccer is all that stands between four Major League Soccer teams’ seasons coming to an end this weekend, and four advancing to the MLS Cup Playoffs’ conference finals round in a week’s time.
With the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals played last week, the East’s top seed D.C. United head home for the second leg facing a 2-0 aggregate deficit to the peaking New York Red Bulls (Watch live on NBC at 2:30 pm ET on Saturday and online via Live Extra), while third-seeded New England Revolution look in good shape for Sunday’s second leg with a 4-2 aggregate lead over the Columbus Crew (5 pm ET).
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D.C. United 0-2 New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls’ formula all season long has been simple: Thierry Henry (10 goals, 14 assists) sets up with Bradley Wright-Phillips (27 goals, tied for the single season record), and it worked like a charm. In the first leg, it was more of the same. On the road for the second leg, though, will be a much tougher test.
Key matchup: Luis Silva vs. Dax McCarty/Eric Alexander — Silva’s absence (hamstring strain) for the last two regular season games and first leg matchup with the Red Bulls saw United’s scoring average dip from more than 1.5 goals per game, to one goal per game, and that’s not a coincidence. He remains questionable for Saturday’s second leg.
The ability of Silva (11 goals, 4 assists) to drift all over the field, occupy defenders, and create difficult seams and angles for opponents to defend, while always popping up in the right place at the right time, makes him United’s most important attacking player. Without Silva, United are a very predictable, get-it-wide, cross-and-hope team going forward.
Prediction: “That’s so Metro” creeps up once again, not letting anyone forget the club’s infamous late-season debacles of the MetroStars days, and we’re likely to see a second-leg surge from United, the East’s best team for the majority of 2014. But a vital away goal for New York midway through the second half kills off a furious United comeback. Red Bulls advance.
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New England Revolution 4-2 Columbus Crew
The Crew was the hottest team in MLS to finish the regular season (five wins out of six). Unfortunately for them, once the playoffs started, they came up against the second-hottest team during that same period (four wins out of six), and one with significantly more (read: any, at all) playoff experience, the Revolution.
Key matchup: Wil Trapp/Tony Tchani vs. Lee Nguyen/Jermaine Jones — In the first leg, Trapp and Tchani, one of the league’s most surprisingly great deep midfield duos in 2014, were torn to shreds. The Revs’ gameplan, which was to press high with Nguyen and Jones, thus cutting off Trapp and Tchani’s preferred passing lanes — always forward — was drawn up and executed perfectly.
For the Crew to have any hope of coming back in the second leg, everything must flow through the 21- and 25-year-old, respectively, midfielders, and do so quickly. There’s a reason Justin Meram completed zero forward passes in the first leg, and Ethan Finlay was a complete non-factor in the attack.
Prediction: The Crew scored three or more goals on seven different occasions in 2014, and five of those performances came during the final two and a half months of season. To say they’re completely dead would be naive, but 3-0 against this Revs side is hard to envision. Crew get one, maybe two back, but the Revs exploit the vast openings created by pushing numbers forward. Revolution advances.