Photo credit: Toronto FC / @torontofc

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

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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.

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.

Let’s go to the 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.

Mohamed Salah starts for Egypt despite int’l retirement talks

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Mohamed Salah is coming off of his best season as a professional, but reports suggest that his time with the Egyptian national team could soon be coming to an end for reasons that extend beyond soccer.

Salah will however be included in Egypt’s Group A finale against Saudi Arabia on Monday, though, after the team sheet was revealed by the Pharaohs ahead of the match.

CNN reported over the weekend that Salah believes he is being used by Egypt as a political symbol to represent Chechnya, which has sparked talks of the talented Liverpool winger ending his international career.

Egypt has already been eliminated from reaching the Round of 16 after losing its first two matches at the World Cup.

The tides have turned significantly for Toronto FC

AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo
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2017 gave Toronto FC its first MLS Cup, as well as significant notoriety for the club’s historic season, but Greg Vanney and his side are in a world of trouble in 2018 for reasons that are still unfathomable.

[ MORE: NYCFC tops TFC in come-from-behind victory ]

A deep run in the CONCACAF Champions League (which ended in heartbeat at the hands of Chivas) and a number of injuries have plagued Toronto this season, and for that, the defending champions find themselves in unchartered MLS waters.

Over the course of Major League Soccer’s 22 previous seasons, only three defending champions have gone on to miss the playoffs the next year (D.C. United in 2000, LA Galaxy in 2006 & Portland Timbers in 2016).

So, how poor has TFC been through nearly half the season?

The Canadian side has acquired 15 points in as many matches, which puts the club on pace to finish with 34 points in 2018.

That total would leave TFC well below the average points needed for a club to get into the playoffs. It varies on a year-to-year basis, but teams typically need somewhere in the range of 45 to 50 points to finish above the red line in their respective conferences.

Last season, three teams in MLS finished with less than 34 points (D.C. United, LA Galaxy & Colorado Rapids), and none of the clubs finished within striking distance of the postseason.

While Toronto wouldn’t be the first team to show signs of struggles in the first half of the season and then proceed to turn things around over the second portion, there are definite concerns for Vanney and Co.

In 2018, the Reds haven’t earned back-to-back victories in MLS play, leaving the club in 10th place in the Eastern Conference.

The talent within the squad remains there, and if TFC gets the rest of its squad healthy there could be a run made by the team, but as things stand, the club’s historic run a season ago looks to be crumbling in 2018.

Gressel ties it in Atlanta United’s 1-1 draw with Timbers

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ATLANTA (AP) Julian Gressel tied it in the 56th minute and Atlanta United held on for a 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers on Sunday.

A loose ball deflection off defender Larrys Mabiala bounced into Gressel’s path and he pounced on it with a right-footed volley. Atlanta (10-3-4) stayed atop the MLS standings and extended its unbeaten streak to five games.

Mabiala opened the scoring in the 32nd minute. Samuel Armenteros was the first to get a touch with a left-footed stab on Diego Valeri’s free kick. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan blocked it out, but Mabiala headed home the rebound and Portland took the early lead.

The Timbers (6-3-5) extended their unbeaten run to nine.

MLS: NYCFC beat TFC in new coach Torrent’s debut

AP Photo/Adam Hunger
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NEW YORK (AP) — Jo Inge Berget scored twice and coach Domenec Torrent celebrated his New York City FC debut with a 2-1 victory over Toronto FC on Sunday.

Berget made it 2-1 in the 68th minute, following Maximiliano Moralez’s direct pass up the right channel and slotting it home.

NYCFC (9-3-4) tied it at 1 in the 51st minute on Berget’s back heel from the top of the 6-yard box.

Víctor Vazquez opened the scoring for Toronto (4-8-3) in the 37th minute. Vasquez outran his defender on Auro’s long ball up the right side and sent a chip shot over the onrushing goalkeeper.

NYCFC’s David Villa left the game in the 28th minute with a non-contact injury.

Torrent replaced Patrick Vieira in New York shortly after Vieira’s departure for OGC Nice was officially confirmed. Torrent had been the right-hand man to Pep Guardiola for the last 11 years, most recently at Manchester City.