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MLS preview, leg 2: Top seeds RBNY, SKC have work to do

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Three more places are set to be booked in the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs conference finals on Sunday. One home side leads, one trails and one enters the second leg on level footing…

[ MORE: Timbers top Sounders, in PKs, in epically insane 2nd leg ]

Sporting Kansas City (1*) vs. Real Salt Lake (1)

Conservative and defensive aren’t two descriptors typically, if ever, used to describe Peter Vermes’ Sporting KC side, yet the first leg saw the Western Conference’s top seed set out to frustrate and stifle the six-seed on their home patch — at least in the first half, until Albert Rusnak scored his stunning goal from just about nothing in the 51st minute. Sporting responded brilliantly, though, never panicking and hardly showing RSL another sight of goal until the game’s final few frantic minutes.

It was Diego Rubio — super-sub for most of the season, save for a two-month stretch where he was the only option to start at center forward, and he produced a goal or assist per game — who bagged Sporting’s equalizer right on the hour mark, seconds after coming on. While some will surely be clamoring for the Chilean to start the second leg, it’s important to remember that game states drastically affect an attacking player’s quantity and quality of chances. For the vast majority of Khiry Shelton’s shift, Sporting resorted to uncharacteristically long balls out of the back. Once RSL went ahead, Vermes did the right (and obvious) thing in swapping the two.

In the second leg, Sporting will be the possession-dominant side on their home field, which will play perfectly into the hands feet of Shelton, whose hold-up play and tireless movement will pull defenders out of deeper positions, thus opening up half-spaces for Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi — the team’s two top scorers this season — in ways that Rubio just can’t. It’s vitally important that Sporting attack RSL through the center of the field and don’t fall into the trap and getting the ball wide and crossing it into the box more than 20 or 30 or — gasp — 40 times, as they’ve sometimes done in the past. Patience and persistence through the center will cause RSL problems they don’t want to deal with, and ultimately send Sporting through to the West finals.


Atlanta United (1*) vs. New York City FC (0)

Of the three higher-seeded sides hosting on Sunday, Atlanta United have the most straightforward path to victory: don’t lose at home, where they lost just twice all season and haven’t done so since dropping back-to-back games (against the no. 1 seeds from each conference) in May. There is no such thing as a lock in MLS, but this is as close as you’re going to find. [cue NYCFC winning 3-0 on Sunday]

Chances will be far more plentiful for both sides on Sunday, as opposed to the four combined shots on target (all by Atlanta, the visitors) on the postage-stamp field at Yankee Stadium.

The late-season return of Yangel Herrera from his season-ending long-term knee injury did wonders to strengthen NYCFC’s shoddy midfield down the stretch, but not even the 20-year-old Venezuelan destroyer (on loan from Manchester City) could grab hold of the first leg and coax the game in any particular direction, let alone one that was advantageous for his side. It’ll take a 10-out-of-10 performance from Herrera, and a couple of his teammates along the backline, to have any hopes of even slowing down Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Co.

Good luck.


New York Red Bulls (0) vs. Columbus Crew SC (1*)

The Supporters’ Shield-winning Red Bulls find themselves in a fairly precarious position heading into Sunday’s nightcap: trailing the side that conceded the second-fewest goals (24) away from home in the Eastern Conference and the fourth-fewest in the entire league.

The first leg saw yet another tally of just four shots between the two sides (split evenly this time) and only 14 combined efforts, period. The Red Bulls did everything they could have hoped to do ahead of kickoff, but were undone by a moment of pure magical and ingenuity from Federico Higuain, who just seems to do those things this time of year, every year.

Columbus is an interesting foil for New York, as their tendency to play the ball quickly and vertically often negates the Red Bulls’ relentless press. Like in the first leg, the midfield essentially turns into a pendulum shuttling back and forth constantly without ever really accomplishing anything for all the miles traversed. If the Red Bulls’ backline can play a little tighter to Columbus’s wingers and forward(s), making those long balls a tad tougher to see and play, that’s all the likes of Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Daniel Royer and Alex Muyl will need to wreak havoc in Crew SC’s defensive half. That’s where the chances — and any likelihood of a comeback — will come from.

Portland outlasts Seattle in gripping playoff second leg

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Portland and Seattle staged a second leg befitting of their rivalry, as the Timbers knocked their rivals out of the MLS Cup Playoffs with a gripping win in Seattle early Friday.

A chaotic ending put the match in extra time, where Dairon Asprilla sent a bullet header into the back of the goal off a Diego Valeri cross to make it 4-3 on aggregate only to see a penalty make it 4-4 four minutes later.

Will Bruin hit the post with Seattle’s second penalty attempt and Jeff Attinella stopped Osvaldo Alonso on the next Seattle attempt. Stefan Frei stopped Liam Ridgewell‘s winning bid, but could only get a hand on Asprilla’s winning hit.

The triumph sets Portland up for a meeting with either Real Salt Lake or Sporting KC in the Western final.

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The Sounders entered the match down 2-1 but holding an away goal. That meant 1-0 would be enough for them to get into the conference finals, and an awful Portland mistake put them in the catbird seat.

Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella bungled a cross and left it on the doorstep for Raul Ruidiaz, who made it 2-2 on aggregate in the 68th minute. Seattle, as it stood, was headed back to the Western finals.

Enter Sebastian Blanco.

The Argentine took a lay-off from Dairon Asprilla and hit a low ball that caught Stefan Frei in a hard place.

Portland was back in front, though the Timbers were denied a bid to close the match out via Frei’s in-tight denial of Lucas Melano.

Stoppage time made it 2-1 to Seattle, when Ruidiaz unleashed this beauty following a weak headed clearing attempt from Blanco.

The match went to extra time, and Valeri’s long cross was met at the back post by the leaping Asprilla.

The score line stayed the same for less than four minutes, as a Blanco handball sent Lodeiro to the spot and the Sounders star did not miss his chance to make it 4-4.

Ruidiaz had a goal pulled back for a handball as the match continued to deliver drama en route to kicks.

Some Timbers players celebrated after extra time, apparently thinking they advanced via away goals (away goals in extra time are no longer a tiebreaker). That’s… problematic.

Kreilach’s ‘Karate Kid’ goal helps Real Salt Lake spring upset at LAFC

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Damir Kreilach scored two goals and assisted another as Real Salt Lake bounced No. 3 seed Los Angeles FC from the MLS Cup Playoffs in an entertaining 3-2 match at Banc of California Stadium on Friday.

One of Kreilach’s goals was straight out of “The Karate Kid,” a standing volley that called to mind Daniel LaRusso’s crane kick.

Danilo Silva and Christian Ramirez scored for Bob Bradley‘s LAFC, which goes down in its first playoff match.

Jefferson Savarino also netted for RSL, who will meet Sporting KC in the conference semifinals. Seattle and Portland will stage a Cascadia Derby in the other semi.

[ MORE: Columbus tops DC in PK thriller ]

The match started late, but the scoring arrived after just 20 minutes.

Former Liverpool academy man Brooks Lennon chased down a loose ball and sent an arrow cross to the penalty spot.

Kreilach settled the ball and had time to lash it home.

The lead lasted about 10 minutes, as LAFC leveled through Silva’s header of a Carlos Vela cross.

It stayed 1-1 into the break, but not much longer.

Lee Nguyen set up Ramirez for his goal in the 54th, with an answering coming from Kreilach within five minutes.

And, well, holy cow, guys and girls:

Columbus beats DC in MLS Cup Playoffs thriller

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Penalty prodigy Zack Steffen stopped two penalty kicks to help lead Columbus past DC United at Audi Field on Thursday in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

The sides were level 1-1 after 90 minutes, and 2-2 through 120. Columbus scored thrice to DC’s two goals in PKs.

Steffen stopped Wayne Rooney‘s opening attempt of penalty kicks, but Bill Hamid stymied Gyasi Zardes’ third round bid.

Steffen then stopped Luciano Acosta, but the ball bobbled on Patrick Mullins’ chance to win it for the Crew.

So it came down to DeLeon to tie it, and he sent it way over the bar.

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Federico Higuain bagged a brace for Columbus, while Nick DeLeon and Frederic Brillant scored for the Black and Red.

Columbus/DC moves on to face the New York Red Bulls in the conference semifinals, a rematch of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals.

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DC hit the scoreboard first thanks to a rare error from Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

The USMNT No. 1 backstop couldn’t hold onto a rising cross, which spilled out of his hands for Brillant to tap into the goal.

DC’s lead didn’t last long, thanks to 34-year-old Higuain (You thought he was older, didn’t you?)

Like Brillant, the Argentine was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of some rough play from the opposition.

Columbus had a few very good chances to retake the lead.

Justin Meram hit a volley over the goal, and Bill Hamid thwarted Pedro Santos’ ambitious distance effort with a flying save in the 85th.

Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta then combined atop the 18, but Steffen made a fine save of his own to force extra time.

It didn’t take long for the visitors to get their first lead of the night, with Higuain heading a pinpoint cross from Afful inside the far post.

Yet that wasn’t it!

A foul far from goal saw Rooney presiding over a deep free kick. He sent it to the back post, it was headed to the top of the 18 by Gyasi Zardes, and De Leon punched it through traffic and inside the near post with a dynamic shot.

Valeri scores twice as 10-man Portland eliminates Dallas

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Diego Valeri scored twice, the second when Portland was down to 10 men, as the Timbers won their first match of the MLS Cup Playoffs with a 2-1 defeat of FC Dallas in Texas on Wednesday.

Larrys Mabiala was shown a red card in the 58th minute for the Timbers, and Matt Hedges scored in stoppage time for the hosts’ lone goal.

For Valeri, the goals were his third and fourth in MLS Cup Playoff action, and his 76th and 77th as a Timber.

Portland will face Sporting KC if LAFC beats Real Salt Lake on Thursday, or Seattle if Real wins.

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Reto Ziegler looked to have pushed Dallas in front, but the 15th minute goal was overturned by VAR for offside.

Valeri’s goal couldn’t be overturned, though perhaps the refs would’ve liked to sneak a look at the replay just for entertainment’s sake.

The match headed to half 1-0, with Diego Chara and Carlos Gruezo shown yellow cards for a scuffle before the break.

That was a prelude to a straight red 13 minutes into the second half, albeit not one for brawling. Mabiala was shown off as last man back for a takedown of Dominique Badji.

Portland would have to make it a half-hour plus with a one-goal lead and 10 men on the pitch, and they would thanks to hard work from Jeremy Ebobisse to set up Valeri for his second.