By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Nov 12, 2018) US Soccer Players – The 2018 MLS playoffs have produced some very competitive matches over the past two weeks. As always, the postseason doesn’t fail to disappoint, as Sunday’s triple-header revealed. With the Conference Finals on the horizon, there’s no better time than now to take stock of what’s happened and what it says going forward.
One of the best two-legged playoff battles culminated this past Thursday when the Portland Timbers got the best of rivals Seattle Sounders FC in what many labeled an instant classic. The second-leg in Seattle had it all: emotion, thrills, and two never say die teams. With the score level after 210 minutes, it was Dairon Asprilla’s conversion on his team’s fifth kick that put the Timbers through on penalties.
“Seattle and Portland brought the right rivalry to this match and it was incredible,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese told reporters after the game. “There were moments when they scored when it looked like it would be difficult for us. Then we went back and forth, back and forth, all the way to PKs. I think it delivered a very good match.”
It was a remarkable turnaround for Portland after Savarese, in his first year at the helm of an MLS club, got off to a slow start. They worked their way to a 5th-place in the Western Conference, beating FC Dallas in the knockout round. This was a series either Cascadia team could have won. It was also the type of a series that revealed the Timbers’ character and giving them the momentum often needed to go on a deep run. Portland's Western Conference Finals series against Sporting Kansas City should be another for the ages.
Another will be the New York Red Bulls against Atlanta United on the other side of the bracket in the Eastern Conference Finals. Can New York win it all? This very question comes up every year at this time. After winning three Supporters’ Shield in six years including this season's, the Red Bulls normally fail in the playoffs, New York is hoping this is the year they break the jinx. Sunday night’s emphatic 3-0 win at home against Columbus sets up what will be a very interesting matchup versus Atlanta United FC and its stars Josef Martinez and Miquel Almiron.
With crosstown rivals NYCFC out of the postseason after losing to Atlanta, it's the Red Bulls chance to show that this season is different. The team has latched on to the intensity that got them to 71 points this season. They're loaded with talent, including unheralded stars like Alex Muyl and Danny Royer, who scored twice in three minutes to seal the late win against Columbus. This is a Red Bulls team that’s perfected the high-press game and utilized crisp passing to bamboozle defenses. The series against Atlanta represents the biggest test of the season for both sides with a trip to the final on the line.
Fans, however, will have to wait for these two tasty clashes. The two-week international break that falls each November is always seen as disrupting the playoffs. While there have been calls in the past to have MLS adhere to FIFA’s schedule, a break in the midst of the playoffs does nothing to help the stronger teams. Historically, teams seeded3rd and 4th do well in the playoffs and often need the break after playing extra games.
Take both NYRB and 2nd-seed Atlanta. Both are strong teams, but the break isn’t likely to help either of them. The break is generally viewed as doing nothing but interrupting momentum and risking fatigue and injury to players on international duty. Good teams need to play each week. The weaker ones, often lacking depth and dogged by injuries, get the chance to rest and regroup. Sporting KC, who came into the playoffs as the #1 seed in the West, might be the anomaly. They're beat up from its series against Real Salt Lake.
"The good thing is we’ve got a little break. Everybody gets a chance to recover a little bit and then we’ve got to get ready for Portland,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes told reporters on Sunday. “It’s going to be an incredible series. They’re a very, very good team both attacking and defending. It’s going to be a tough one."
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- What to expect from the 2018 MLS playoffs
- Is the MLS Homegrown Player system working?
- Soccer History: Chicago Sting
- What kind of a league is MLS?
Photo by Mike Lawrence - ISIPhotos.com