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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.

Columbus shocks Red Bulls with 1-0 first-leg win

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A Gyasi Zardes goal was the lone strike in a surprising result as the Major League Soccer playoffs get under way.

New York, fresh off its last-day Supporters’ Shield victory, was held goalless in the first leg of its matchup against Columbus on Sunday. Bradley Wright-Phillips nearly netted a last-gasp equalizer that would have completely changed the complexity of the matchup, but New York instead heads back home with work to do.

The lone goal came in the 67th minute as Milton Valenzuela threaded a pinpoint pass to Federico Higuain who had come off the bench at halftime. The Crew star produced a fabulous assist, back-heeling to a streaking Zardes who finished one-on-one.

There were two moments late that could have defined the match. First, Luis Robles was there to produce a stop on Pedro Santos in the 89th minute that would have left New York with even more ground to make up back home. Then, in the 93rd minute, Wright-Phillips got his head to a wonderful Kaku delivery into the box and flicked the ball towards the corner, but Zack Steffan made a brilliant diving save to turn the effort away and preserve the victory.

New York was a significant favorite in the two-legged match, having clipped Atlanta United on the final day of the regular season for the most points in the league. They collected 22 wins over the course of the season, but struggled against Columbus, earning just a single point in their two meetings, including a 1-1 road draw and a 3-2 loss at Red Bull Arena in late July.

Columbus kept New York at bay by holding 58% of the possession and conceding just nine total shots, two on target. The home side generated just six shots of its own, but managed to put one of its two on target into the back of the net.

Men In Blazers podcast: Spurs-City, Salah, 2nd shield for RBNY

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Rog and Davo break down a Tottenham vs. Manchester City clash played on a CONCACAFF-y field, Arsenal’s draw at Palace and how Mo Salah got his groove back. Plus, NYRB take home the MLS Supporters’ Shield.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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MLS – East: Red Bulls snatch Shield; Crew SC grab last spot (video)

Photo credit: @NewYorkRedBulls
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The final day of the 2018 regular season couldn’t have gone any better for the New York Red Bulls — or any worse for Atlanta United.

[ West: SKC finish 1st; Sounders sneak into 2nd; Galaxy crash out ]

With the Supporters’ Shield — along with all kinds of seeding, and the sixth and final playoff spot — on the line, this is how the final Eastern Conference’s final day played out…

Supporters’ Shield: Toronto FC take an early lead on first-place Atlanta United. Atlanta holding onto top spot by virtue of third tiebreaker, goals scored (69-61).

Supporters’ Shield: Red Bulls win a penalty kick, but Derrick Ettiene’s effort is saved. Red Bulls remain second on goals-scored tiebreaker.

Supporters’ Shield: Toronto score again. ATLUTD’s goal differential drops to +27, sending Red Bulls into first.

Third-place race: New York City FC restore their two-goal lead on Philadelphia Union. D.C. United currently sitting fourth, by a single point.

Supporters’ Shield: Red Bulls break through at long last. Derrick Etienne gives his side a two-point cushion back to Atlanta.

Sixth-place race: After a lengthy weather delay, Columbus Crew SC are first on the board against Minnesota United. Thanks to Philadelphia’s struggles, Gregg Berhalter’s side sits fifth.

Supporters’ Shield: Josef Martinez pulls Atlanta back to 2-1, but they need two more with the Red Bulls leading.

Supporters’ Shield: Before Atlanta could get a second, Toronto got a third. That’s the Supporters’ Shield all but sewn

Supporters’ Shield: And a fourth.

After head coach Jesse Marsch departed in the summer, Chris Armas took over a Shield-contending team and finished the job.

Atlanta or RBNY? Supporters’ Shield goes down to final day

Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
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Surely it’s a challenge for American fan bases to get behind regular season championship, if due solely to the traditions involved with our major leagues.

In fact, in a lot of ways we stop just short of invalidating amazing seasons by disappointing playoff runs, as if having a bad game or fortnight is the equivalent of a character indictment.

[ MORE: Top PL storylines — Week 10 ]

The Golden State Warriors lost single-digit games in 2015-16, but lost to the Cavs in the finals. The 2007 New England Patriots went an absurd 16-0 in the NFL, but didn’t win the Super Bowl.

Yet here we are, three days from silverware heading to either Atlanta United or New York Red Bulls based on superlative regular seasons, and I can’t help but feel the Supporters’ Shield isn’t getting short shrift.

In a league which punishes away teams more than any other, where quality depth remains a problem and over-stresses the main players on a given team, this should be a much bigger deal.

Atlanta has a one-point lead on the New York Red Bulls, and a one-goal lead in differential. The clubs went head-to-head twice and RBNY won twice: First, a 3-1 win in Atlanta. Then, on Sept. 30, the Red Bulls beat visiting Atlanta despite a suspension to 20-goal scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips.

So Atlanta heads up to Ontario to face last season’s struggling Shield winners, Toronto FC, while at the same time, the Red Bulls host former captain Sacha Kljestan and mostly miserable Orlando City.

If both teams wins, they will boast the Nos. 1 and 2 point totals in MLS history. And one won’t win the shield.

Atlanta is seeking its first shield in a season its dealt with coach drama and plenty of transfer gossip regarding its star. It also boasts the best single-season finisher in MLS history in Josef Martinez.

RBNY is the shining example of development in MLS, whether midfielders or coaches. The club changed managers midseason, and overcame a disappointing start to put together an amazing campaign.

So while we relish the idea of these teams meeting in the Eastern Conference finals, there’s something about this weekend which is equal parts tantalizing.