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PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs and Postseason Roundtable

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The Major League Soccer season has just nine matches left, and after this weekend will have four teams vying for the MLS Cup title.

[ MORE: Cameron out for USMNT ]

With that in mind, ProSoccerTalk called its writers together to lay out their thoughts on this playoffs and the MLS postseason in general.

The four best regular season teams in Major League Soccer will have had a week to stare at the zeroes next to their names after conference semifinal first legs. Who has the best chance to flip their fate on its ear?

Andy Edwards: “The Red Bulls managed to do what neither Dallas nor NYCFC could in the first leg: damage limitation. To only give up one goal — on two shots on target — in a game where Montreal would have been desperate for two or three, was mission accomplished. No one scored more goals at home than the Red Bulls this season, which means they’ve got L’Impact right where they want them.”

Joe Prince-Wright: “I have a feeling that the New York Red Bulls are the most likely to overcome the deficit. Aside from a wonder strike from Matteo Mancuso at Stade Saputo, there wasn’t much in the game. Jesse Marsch’s side had an off day. Don’t expect them to have another one. Elsewhere I expect Seattle to get through against Dallas and LA to get past Colorado, but I have a sneaky feeling New York City FC will make it very interesting against Toronto. Because, Toronto.”

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Bradley Wright-Phillips and Dax McCarty, New York Red Bulls (Photo credit: New York Red Bulls - Twitter: @NewYorkRedBulls)
(Photo credit: New York Red Bulls – Twitter: @NewYorkRedBulls)

Matt Reed: “Outside of the Sounders-FC Dallas fixture it’s hard to say that any of the other matchups are over and done with. That said, I think the New York Red Bulls have the best chance to overcome their deficit. The Impact weren’t dominant in the opening leg and the Red Bulls are a significantly better home side than they are on the road (13-2-2 at Red Bull Arena). With Jesse Marsch’s side potentially only needing a goal to send things to extra time I believe Bradley Wright-Phillips and co. are more than capable of handling their business.”

Kyle Bonn: “Has to be RBNY. Not only is their deficit just a one-goal differential from a first leg on the road (they were a questionable road team at best during the year), but they have been stellar at home. They were 13-2-2 at home this regular season, and they beat Montreal twice at home in the recent past by a combined score of 4-1. I don’t see any other result but the Red Bulls advancing.”

Nick Mendola: “I’ll take a differing angle, solely to be different. The Colorado Rapids have shown a keen ability to keep a clean sheet, and Tim Howard nearly blanked the Galaxy last week. The Rapids went unbeaten at home this season, with 11 wins in 17 matches, and Jermaine Jones is finally back. It may take extra time and kicks, but I’ll take Howard over Brian Rowe every day.”

What’s the best active storyline in these MLS Cup Playoffs?

Andy Edwards: “While the Sounders with Brian Schmetzer and Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris are the obvious answer, I’m giddy about the current form of one Josmer Volmy Altidore in Toronto. When was the last time the U.S. national team had a single striker scoring the way Altidore, Morris and Bobby Wood are doing, let alone three at the same time? Sebastian Giovinco gets most of the plaudits (rightly so) in Toronto, but the difference with and without Altidore on the field is clear as day. The link-up play between the two is strangely perfect, and might be enough to take the Reds all the way to the Cup.”

Joe Prince-Wright: “I don’t want to single out a player but I think the way the Seattle Sounders have turned things around is remarkable. Sigi Schmid will always be a legend in Seattle and in MLS but he will always be remembered in the Emerald City for not being able to deliver the elusive MLS Cup. If Seattle somehow go on to win MLS Cup this year under Brian Schmetzer, who was interim boss up until this week when the Sounders made it permanent, it would be bizarre. I think with the streak they’re on to finish the season, Seattle can go all the way to MLS Cup.”

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TORONTO, ON - MAY 07: Michael Bradley #4 and Jozy Altidore #17 of Toronto FC celebrate a goal by teammate Tsubasa Endoh #9 during the first half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Kyle Bonn: “I agree with Joe that a big storyline is Seattle’s turnaround, but to me the biggest is Toronto’s rise. Having made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last year but suffering a disappointing early exit, this year they’re primed to eliminate NYCFC. On an individual level, Sebastian Giovinco will feel slighted after being left off both the Italian squad recently, as well as the MVP list released a few days ago. Can he prove everyone wrong with a big playoff push?”

Matt Reed: “As much as Brian Schmetzer’s miraculous run with the Sounders will gain plenty of headlines (and deservingly so), I think what Patrick Vieira has done with New York City FC is quite impressive. Yes, it’s a star-driven squad, but the former Arsenal midfielder has done well implementing a system and sticking to it even though his personnel doesn’t necessarily always allow them to succeed. It’ll be a tough task overcoming Toronto down two goals, but David Villa has had plenty of magic in his two-plus seasons with NYCFC. It’s hard to count him and this side out.”

Nick Mendola: “It was treble-chasing FC Dallas, but their 3-0 deficit to Seattle makes that a lot less sexy. As mentioned above, Toronto and Seattle are great selections. But it comes down to two teams now, in terms of storylines: The Red Bulls still haven’t won an MLS Cup and are running the risk of falling behind NYCFC in the latter’s second season downstate (or in New Jersey). Yet as much as I hate to say it, as long as Landon Donovan is playing close to 90 minutes per game for the LA Galaxy after coming out of retirement, he would be the No. 1 draw of any storyline for fans in the U.S.

Speaking of the playoffs here in Year Ten, what are you feeling about the way the MLS structures its postseason? Do you have significant qualms?

Joe Prince-Wright: “Bit in between to be honest. I’d actually like to see the playoffs eradicated, just for one season, and see how it was received. With the increased number of teams in the league over the next two seasons, you could just have an extra four or so regular season games. I know the playoffs always create buzz and excitement but to me there still seems something far too hollow about the Supporters’ Shield. It shouldn’t be that way.”

Kyle Bonn: “I like it a lot. Sure, the regular season is somewhat diminished by the playoffs, but it’s like that in any sport. There is a sacrifice of sporting fairness in exchange for excitement and big moments. It works the same in Major League baseball, where a 162-game season can come crumbling down in 7 games.”

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KANSAS CITY, KS - DECEMBER 07: The Philip F. Anschutz trophy is seen on the field before the start of the match between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City in the 2013 MLS Cup at Sporting Park on December 7, 2013 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Nick Mendola: “I enjoy the playoffs while they are going, but I’d like to see one-off home games if we’re going full-blown American structure. Yes, teams get a break if home-field advantage comes their way, but playing one more match in a 10-day span is hardly an advantage after 34 matches worth of grinding for position.”

Andy Edwards: “Of all the gripes I have about the MLS Cup Playoffs, that they play home and away in the conference semifinals and finals is the biggest (that they don’t even give the higher-seeded side their choice of which leg to host is even worse). When they put the higher-seeded team on the road in the first leg, where you choose between playing for a 0-0 draw, or opening yourself up to an onslaught by coming out and attacking, I find myself wondering, ‘Why did we even play eight months of the regular season?’ In a perfect world, every round is single elimination. If after 90 minutes the game is tied, put the team that performed better over 34 games into the next round. There’s money to be made in these here playoffs, though, which is why it’ll never happen.”

Matt Reed: “I’m not a huge fan of a playoff system in general but given the way things are set up with two separate conferences it seems pretty good the way things are. Just like I’m not a huge proponent of away goals being a tiebreaker in Europe, I feel the same way about its use in MLS, so I suppose that would be the biggest change I’d make to the current system.”

Would you rather your team won the Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup?

Matt Reed: “Just like any other league, you want to be considered the best team at the end of the season. The Supporters’ Shield is certainly nothing to cast aspersions on but at the end of the day MLS Cup is the ultimate prize for any team.”

Andy Edwards: “Until the regular-season schedule is balanced (i.e., not playing some intra-conference teams twice, while playing others three times), the Supporters’ Shield, by definition, is a tilted competition at best, and rigged at worst. For that reason, even though I would like to see more value placed upon the regular season, it’s always going to be about MLS Cup.”

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COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 6: The Portland Timbers celebrate with the MLS Cup trophy on December 6, 2015 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Portland defeated Columbus Crew SC 2-1 to claim the MLS Cup title. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Joe Prince-Wright: “You want your team to win the highest possible honor possible which right now is MLS Cup, but if you win the Supporters’ Shield then you’re a damn good team (looking at you, FC Dallas). In the current format the regular season champ doesn’t get enough respect. So, MLS Cup is better.”

Kyle Bonn: “Absolutely the MLS Cup. The Supporter’s Shield probably recognizes the best overall team, which says a lot, but it’s not the league championship. I want the title.”

Nick Mendola: “You can’t manufacture hype and passion, and it’s clear the MLS world respects the Cup more than the Shield. So while I love the Shield accomplishment far more, I have to tip my hat to the majority… for now.”

WATCH: Fort Lauderdale striker scores screamer from half

Fort Lauderdale screamer
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Every goalkeeper could use a reminder to be wary of adventuring too far from his box, and USL League One provides us our latest lesson for backstops.

Ricky Lopez-Espin scored a terrific insurance goal for Fort Lauderdale CF on Saturday night, a marker which would stand as the difference in 2-1 defeat of Georgian outfit South Tormenta FC.

[ MORE: Atletico Madrid confirms positive COVID tests ]

The win pulls FLCF, first called Inter Miami II, off the bottom of the League One table early in this restarted season.

It was quite a hit, a turnover near midfield allowing Lopez-Espin the chance to spy the keeper off his line and rip a rocket out of reach.

Miami-born Lopez-Espin played college soccer at Creighton and was a Real Salt Lake draft pick. The 24-year-old played twice for RSL and later suited up for Real Monarchs and Lansing Ignite.

Two positive COVID tests for Atletico Madrid ahead of Champions League

Atletico Madrid coronavirus
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Atletico Madrid announced two positive coronavirus tests from its crew set to travel to Portugal for this week’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against RB Leipzig.

[ MORE: JPW’s European predictions ]

The team says it will test all of its players and staff again to assure that there are no positive COVID-19 cases affecting the tournament.

Atleti asked for extreme privacy regarding the individuals who tested positive.

The match with RB Leipzig is Thursday in Lisbon, the second of four quarterfinals on the docket.

The positive tests are a stark reminder that while the top leagues in European soccer have done a very good job at isolating and keeping tests down, an incredibly contagious virus like COVID-19 can wreak havoc on the competition at any time.

From Atleti’s web site, via Sky Sports:

“Today, two positives appeared among the known results, which are now isolated in their respective homes and were reported immediately to the Spanish and Portuguese health authorities, UEFA, the Royal Spanish Football Federation, the Portuguese Federation and the Superior Council of Sports.

“As such, a corresponding protocol planned for these circumstances has been activated, which requires new tests to be undertaken to first team players, members of the Lisbon travelling party and those who are in close contact with the positive cases, and which will result in changes in the timings of training sessions, in the structure and development of the journey and the accommodation in the Portuguese capital.”

Atalanta plays PSG on Wednesday, while Barcelona and Bayern Munich meet Friday, and Man City battles Lyon on Saturday.

It will feel like smooth sailing once the tournament begins and players hit the proverbial bubble. Until then, though, this proves that there are no guarantees.

USWNT star Kelley O’Hara on NWSL restart, launching podcast

Kelley O'Hara
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When USWNT star Kelley O’Hara launched her own podcast, she didn’t mess around with the star power of her guests.

Launched in July, the “Just Women’s Sports” podcast has hosted three incredible guests including the first post-pregnancy interview with USWNT teammate Alex Morgan as well as talks with Olympic star Chloe Kim and WNBA hero Candace Parker.

A Stanford connection with fellow alum Haley Rosen put the two-time World Cup winner on the path to hosting the show, and O’Hara admits that she was driven by the chance to lift the lid on athletes’ true feelings beyond the shield that comes up while talking to reporters.

[ MORE: Champions League favorites ranked ]

“Even as an athlete I know that I have a little of my guard up when I’m talking to a reporter because sometimes they’ll take it and use it for their own narrative or agenda,” she said in a conversation with ProSoccerTalk. “There’s an ability to be vulnerable and be safe because you’re talking to someone who has a general idea of what it feels like to be an athlete. Nothing about it is trying to catch them.”

Part of that comes with O’Hara realizing she has a massive stage on account of her accomplishments. The USWNT is one of the most-watched teams in the world, on-and-off the pitch.

While she felt more like someone achieving a life goal when she first became a pro, the simultaneous life under a microscope and on a platform has inspired her to take advantage of her role model status.

“You come to realize that with the success that we have had, individually and with the national team, you do influence people,” O’Hara said. “You have an impact. You have this ability to be a role model and do good things in the world. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to do this podcast; I have the ability to lend my platform to other athletes and give people a voice and a space.”

O’Hara was speaking as the National Women’s Soccer League put a bow on its return to the pitch with the NWSL Challenge Cup.

O’Hara’s Utah Royals fell to eventual champions Houston Dash in the quarterfinals, but the completion of the tournament in itself was a bright spot to a dark summer.

“I’m really proud about what the NWSL was able to create there,” O’Hara said. “There was a lot of uncertainty around the Challenge Cup because of COVID, but the fact that the NWSL was able to create an environment to get back on the field has been fantastic. Obviously you have Orlando that wasn’t able to come but since every team has arrived, not one player has tested positive so the NWSL deserves a lot of credit for designing this whole set-up.”

PST asked the 32-year-old how much credit should go to the players, considering how many other leagues have been thwarted by the negligence of athletes or staffers around COVID-19.

“When the NWSL was proposing everything, they told us it was built on trust. If players weren’t going to be responsible, it wasn’t going to work. It’s great that we all want to be competing, I feel we’re very lucky to be able to compete, but that’s contributed to people following the rules. You didn’t want to be the one person who ruins it.”

Learn more about the Just Women’s Sports crew, which includes Olympic heroes Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Hilary Knight, and Maggie Steffens as well as former WNBA No. 1 overall pick Nneka Ogwumike, at their official web site.

Champions League favorites ranked from eight to one

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Eight teams remain in the UEFA Champions League’s rapid-fire return, with one-legged ties promising high drama in Portugal.

The quarterfinals begin Wednesday, the bracket distinctly split into one deadly half and another with upset potential.

Because of this set-up, there’s a massive challenge in divining the true favorites to win the Aug. 23 in Lisbon.

[ MORE: JPW’s European predictions ]

If you were assembling a bottom-up power rankings in terms of the talent and toughness assembled by the eight remaining clubs, it might look something like this:

Longshots: Atalanta, Lyon
Puncher’s chance: Atletico Madrid, RB Leipzig
History-weighted powers: Man City, Paris Saint-Germain
Favorites: Barcelona, Bayern Munich

Here’s the rub: Three of the four biggest favorites will have to get through each other to get to the final, including the two top dogs. Barcelona and Bayern Munich will scrap Friday, and Man City’s slight advantage in facing Lyon is mitigated by one day’s less rest for a Bayern-Barca winner.

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Man City is the bookies’ favorites to win the whole thing. Do we see it that way? Spoiler alert: Nope.

And, by the way, despite changes to both outfits this is a Lyon that took four of six points from City in the 2018-19 UCL group stage. We don’t see an upset at that stage but it’s a way to note that anything is, indeed, possible.


8. Lyon

Seventh-place in Ligue 1 this season, Rudi Garcia’s men already have the beating of Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus on their resume. Moussa Dembele, Houssem Aouar, and Memphis Depay are all exciting attacking talents, but the bracket’s demands to take down Man City, then either Bayern and Barcelona just to get to the final sinks them to eighth.

7. RB Leipzig

Julian Nagelsmann is building a reputation as a man who can outwit anyone in a one-off — see two draws with Bayern in Bundesliga play this season — so it’s fitting that he’ll go tete-a-tete with Simeone in the next round. The absence of Timo Werner, who’s off to Chelsea, is a huge problem given the occasion(s). Asking three wins seems a lot, though there will be plenty of Americans pulling for Tyler Adams’ team.

Bayern Munich v. RB Leipzig recap and video highlights
09 February 2020, Bavaria, Munich: American midfielder Tyler Adams duels with Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski. (Photo by Matthias Balk/picture alliance via Getty Images)

6. Atalanta

The Bergamo-based side will have the support of many neutrals. For one thing, Atalanta is on a historic run for their club before taking into account their city’s status as one of the early epicenters of the coronavirus. For another, they are super fun. Gian Piero Gasperini’s men scored 98 goals in Serie A, 19 more than next-best Lazio, and lost the second-fewest games in Italy. They’ve lost once since January 25, a final day defeat to Inter Milan. Five players have scored double-digit goals in all comps this season.

5. Atletico Madrid

Ask Liverpool: Diego Simeone and Jan Oblak in knockout round football is reason to doubt anyone. Still, there’s an argument to be made that Atleti has punched well above its weight this season, even relative to El Cholo’s standards.

4. Barcelona

Lionel Messi means the club should be even higher on this list, and Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez are plenty battle-hardened in this spot. But Barca has made a mess of their last few ventures into the latter rounds of this tournament, and those ghosts combined with having to beat Bayern and perhaps Man City in consecutive weeks is brutal with several u’s.

Messi new contract
SEVILLA, SPAIN – JUNE 19: He’s good (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

3. Paris Saint-Germain

There’s a good argument to be made that PSG might hold the top spot on this list. Thomas Tuchel’s men are better rested and have a more straight-forward path to Lisbon, plus the Ligue 1 champs have played and won two Cup finals in the past three weeks. There are two reasons we’re keeping them below Man City and Bayern. One is the UCL-challenged history that has us as well as surely them seeing ghosts, and the other is the uncertain status of Kylian Mbappe. He’s in the squad, but at what percent?

2. Manchester City

The reason to consider putting City above Bayern is the men in charge. Hansi Flick has done oh-so-well at Bayern but is certainly not Pep Guardiola in terms of big-game acumen or reputation. But City’s defense has proven suspect, with John Stones falling off a cliff and Nicolas Otamendi not at the levels of previous seasons. Relying on Fernandinho, Aymeric Laporte, and Eric Garcia to shut down three top attacks in two weeks is a big ask, and left back is also a huge concern with the talented wingers set to test City.

1. Bayern Munich

No weaknesses aside from potentially having to beat Barcelona and Man City inside of six days. Boasting one of the only double-double men in Europe’s top leagues in Serge Gnabry, a played who doesn’t get mentioned as often as history-chasing Robert Lewandowski and history-making Thomas Muller. A midfield duo of Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich which is just plain stupid. Speed and composure to spare with Manuel Neuer at the back. The German keeper may no longer be the undoubted 1 or 2 in the world, but he’s still a monster.