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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.

MLS – West: SKC finish 1st; Sounders sneak into 2nd; Galaxy crash out (video)

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While the Eastern Conference was largely settled heading into the final day of the regular season, the Western Conference was anything but.

[ EAST: Red Bulls snatch Shield; Crew SC grab last spot (video) ]

Spots 1-6 were up for grabs, and four teams were mathematically alive in the race for first place and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Things started wildly, and only got more wild…

First-place race: FC Dallas take an early lead on Colorado Rapids, pushing themselves into second place for the time being.

https://twitter.com/MLS/status/1056653716420317184

Sixth-place race: LA Galaxy score twice in 10 minutes — both courtesy of Ola Kamara — to move into sixth place, two points ahead of Real Salt Lake.

First-place race: First-place Sporting KC lead second- (now fourth-) place Los Angeles FC, via Roger Espinoza‘s strike from 25 yards out.

Sixth-place race: The Galaxy wouldn’t, would they? They couldn’t, could they?

First-place race: Carlos Vela pulls LAFC level in KC. The home side would still finish top of the West after a draw.

Second-place race: Danny Hoesen puts San Jose Earthquakes ahead against the run of play, putting Seattle Sounders in a bit of trouble.

First-place race: 22-year-old Daniel Salloi restores the lead for Sporting KC, who have been down a man since Seth Sinovic’s handball which led to the penalty kick.

Sixth-place race: Mauro Manotas makes it 2-2 at StubHub Center, and it’s happening. It’s really happening.

Second-place race: Raul Ruidiaz has proven to be worth his weight in gold since signing this summer, and his late equalizer sends Seattle second.

Sixth-place race: There could be no more fitting end to the Galaxy’s season. What a stunningly uncontrollable disaster.

Second-place race: Dallas were unable to grab a second in Colorado and left the door wide open for Seattle.

Second-place race: Colorado get a second shortly thereafter, and Dallas tumble from second, to third, to fourth on the final day.

Second-place race: Ruidiaz does it again and locks up second place for Seattle.

FOLLOW LIVE: Sounders go for 9 straight wins; TFC’s last stand?

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Saturday night’s slate of MLS fixtures gets under way at 7:30 p.m. ET, when Toronto FC begin what can only be described as their last chance at securing a 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs berth, at home against LA Galaxy. With seven games remaining, Greg Vanney’s side — the defending champions — trail Montreal Impact by nine points. D.C. United and New England Revolution must also be leapfrogged in the process, meaning TFC sit ninth in the Eastern Conference halfway through the month of September.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: 8 games in MLS, beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET ]

Later in the evening, the Western Conference’s top three seeds — FC Dallas, Sporting Kansas City and Los Angeles FC, in that order, for now — are all in action. FCD will host Columbus Crew SC at 8 p.m. ET; Sporting KC will visit San Jose Earthquakes at 10:30 p.m. ET; LAFC will host New England in the same late-night time slot.

The last time Brian Schmetzer’s Seattle Sounders lost a game was June 30. That was a dozen games ago. Since then, the Sounders have won nine of 11, including the last eight in a row. The two-time defending West champs go for nine straight against their Cascadia Cup rival Vancouver Whitecaps at 10 p.m. ET.

Click the link above to follow along in real-time, and check back with PST early Sunday morning for a full recap of all of the action.

Tonight’s full MLS schedule

Toronto FC vs. LA Galaxy — 7:30 p.m. ET
Philadelphia Union vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET
FC Dallas vs. Columbus Crew SC — 8 p.m. ET
Houston Dynamo vs. Portland Timbers — 8:30 p.m. ET
Real Salt Lake vs. Minnesota United — 9:30 p.m. ET
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Seattle Sounders — 10 p.m. ET
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Sporting Kansas City — 10:30 p.m. ET
Los Angeles FC vs. New England Revolution — 10:30 p.m. ET

Sunday’s MLS schedule

D.C. United vs. New York Red Bulls — 1 p.m. ET
Chicago Fire vs. Orlando City SC — 5 p.m. ET

MLS roundup: Sounders win again; FCD, LAFC pacing the West

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September is here, which means the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs are less than two months away.

[ MORE: No Pulisic on USMNT roster for Brazil, Mexico ]

Points won in September and October count just the same as points won in March and April, but these are the advantageous positions — and predicaments — in which the 17 teams still realistically chasing a postseason berth now find themselves…

Seattle Sounders 3-1 Sporting Kansas CityHIGHLIGHTS

Seattle’s winning streak now stands at eight games after Brian Schmetzer’s side overcame an early deficit at home to knock off the similarly hot (four straight wins) Sporting KC on Saturday.

Diego Rubio scored his fifth goal in five games, after just two minutes, but the visitors’ lead was wiped away just 10 minutes later when Raul Ruidiaz tapped the ball into an empty net on the business end of Brad Smith‘s seeing-eye cross. 1-1 was the score at halftime, but it didn’t last much longer than that.

Harry Shipp’s cross deflected off of Graham Zusi and floated over the helpless head and hands of Tim Melia to make it 2-1 in the 52nd minute, and Sporting’s unraveling was complete four minutes later when Ike Opara played the ball with his upper arm. Nicolas Lodeiro stepped up to the penalty spot and converted with ease.

The win sends Seattle even further up the table, into fifth place in the Western Conference, after their torrid start to the season which saw the two-time defending West champions take just 12 points from their first 15 games. Since their current 11-game unbeaten streak began, the Sounders have won 29 of a possible 33 points.

Montreal Impact 3-0 New York Red BullsHIGHLIGHTS

Just about every week, MLS throws its viewers an unexpected curveball — a surprising result that not a single soul saw coming. This week, it was the Supporters’ Shield-leading New York Red Bulls going up to Stade Saputo and losing 3-0 to the Eastern Conference’s sixth-place side, Montreal Impact.

Rod Fanni (30th minute), Bacary Sagna (38th) and Ignacio Piatti (94rd) scored the goals for Remi Garde’s side which now sits six points clear of seventh place, though they have played three and two more games, respectively, than the seventh and eighth-place D.C. United and New England Revolution (both on 30 points).

FC Dallas 4-2 Houston DynamoHIGHLIGHTS

Back in the West, Dallas extended their lead to three points — over now-second-place Los Angeles FC — with a 4-2 home victory over Houston. It was 3-0 after 51 minutes, before Houston woke up and made a cursory effort to get back into the game.

Michael Barrios opened the scoring in the 10th minute, then Santiago Mosquera bagged a three-minute brace beginning in the 48th. Two minutes later, Mauro Manotas pulled a goal back for the visitors, but Reto Ziegler converted from the penalty spot just five minutes after that to restore the three-goal advantage. Alberth Elis’s 72nd-minute penalty conversion was as close as Houston would get as Wilmer Cabrera’s side fell to 13 points out of the West’s sixth and final playoff place.

Toronto FC 2-4 Los Angeles FCHIGHLIGHTS

LAFC’s 4-2 victory away to defending champions Toronto FC might appear equally perplexing to New York’s debacle in Montreal, but perhaps it shouldn’t anymore. After 27 games played, TFC have just 27 points and they trail the aforementioned Canadian side by nine points for a playoff place.

Like Houston, it was 3-0 — albeit on TFC’s home turf — before Greg Vanney’s Reds put up a fight. Carlos Vela (23rd minute), Diego Rossi (47th) and Lee Nguyen (49th) established the lead for Bob Bradley‘s expansion side before Jozy Altidore scored in the 74th and 93rd minutes to make things more than a little interesting. Vela sealed the three points with his second goal of the game just a minute later, though, and LAFC moved one point ahead of Sporting for second in the West.

Elsewhere in MLS action

D.C. United 3-1 Atlanta United
Columbus Crew SC 2-1 New York City FC
New England Revolution 1-1 Portland Timbers
Orlando City SC 2-2 Philadelphia Union
Real Salt Lake 6-2 LA Galaxy
Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 San Jose Earthquakes

MLS roundup: SKC, VAN get huge road wins; RBNY trim the gap

Photo credit: Sporting Kansas City / @SportingKC
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Between now and the end of the regular season, with every game comes a bit of added pressure of consequence as the MLS playoff race is officially underway…

[ MORE: Austin MLS stadium vote delayed until next week ]

Los Angeles FC 0-2 Sporting Kansas CityFULL HIGHLIGHTS

“Six-pointers” don’t get much more obvious than Saturday’s matchup between LAFC and Sporting KC, two sides who entered the weekend in fourth and third place, respectively, with the same points total (36) and numbers of wins (10). Thanks to results elsewhere, the winner would climb into second place — just three points back of Western Conference leaders FC Dallas — and the loser would tumble to fifth place, suddenly just three points clear of the wrong side of the playoff cut line.

Sporting got goals from Gerso Fernandes and Ilie Sanchez (penalty kick) either side of halftime to hand the expansion side its first-ever loss at Banc of California Stadium. After fighting through an injury crisis for the better part of the last two months, Peter Vermes’ side is nearly 100 percent healthy at the right time of the season — Felipe Gutierrez and Johnny Russell returned from injuries; Roger Espinoza returned from suspension; and Krisztian Nemeth returned to KC in a trade this week. The West is far from over.

Portland Timbers 1-2 Vancouver WhitecapsFULL HIGHLIGHTS

Speaking of the West being a jumbled mess, Portland’s home loss to Vancouver means the Timbers dropped from second to third, and just four points now separate third and sixth place. Most notably, their unbeaten run of 15 games is no more, and at the hands of a Cascadia rival. The Whitecaps, meanwhile, moved to within two points of sixth-place Real Salt Lake after extending their current run to three games without defeat (two wins).

Kei Kamara (14th minute) and Cristian Techera (43rd) gave the visitors a 2-0 halftime lead, and though Diego Valeri converted a penalty kick in the 71st minute, Carl Robinson’s side left Providence Park with all three points.

Chicago Fire 0-1 New York Red BullsFULL HIGHLIGHTS

Bradley Wright-Phillips scored the only goal (the 101st of his MLS career) in a drab affair (13 total shots, 4 on target) at Toyota Park. A win is a win, though, and this particular win moves Chris Armas’s side to within one point of Atlanta United (48), leaders in the Supporters’ Shield race. The Red Bulls have a game in hand on the Five Stripes.

Elsewhere in MLS action

LA Galaxy 2-2 Minnesota United — HIGHLIGHTS
Columbus Crew SC 1-0 Houston Dynamo — HIGHLIGHTS
New England Revolution 2-3 Philadelphia Union — HIGHLIGHTS
Real Salt Lake 1-1 Montreal Impact — HIGHLIGHTS
Colorado Rapids 2-1 San Jose Earthquakes — HIGHLIGHTS