With the international break behind us it is time to turn our attention back to the Major League Soccer Conference Finals which get underway with the first half of a pair of two game sets this Sunday.
Columbus hosts the Supporters Shield winning New York Red Bulls at 5pm ET in the Eastern Conference and Portland will welcome Western Conference winners FC Dallas at 7:30 ET.
The four teams are notable for a lack a high wattage star power causing some to wonder if the league would have preferred it if at least one of the high profile teams like Seattle, Los Angeles, or Toronto had made it to the semifinals.
No one would be likely to admit such a thing and what good would it do, but the league can’t be happy that attractions like Steven Gerrard (L.A.), Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore (Toronto), Seattle’s Clint Dempsey, and even NYCFC star trio, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard have all shut it down for 2015.
On the other hand, four quality teams have made this far and both semi’s feature well-matched opponents that should give fans a good show, and the crowds should be good.
Columbus has added bleacher seats for Sunday’s showdown with New York and Portland, well Portland is Portland.
The Red Bulls have announced that the Sunday, November 29th game against the Crew at Red Bull Arena is already sold out, leaving Dallas. Just 17,287 came out to 20,500 capacity Toyota Park in Frisco when FCD outlasted Seattle in a pk thriller, can they do better for the conference final?
And what about the games? Let’s start with the East. In three 2-1 regular season matchups, New York won once each in Columbus and Harrison, N.J. while injury and U23 duty forced the Crew to do without key midfield man Will Trapp for all but a few minutes of the trifecta.
Under Gregg Berhalter and Jesse Marsch, the two Eastern finalists have gotten this far by each playing its own distinctive brand of soccer.
Both are offensive-minded with Berhalter’s Crew featuring an attack that relies heavily on dynamic wing play and devastating finishing from Kei Kamara.
Ethan Finlay has earned most of the plaudits as Kamara’s prime setup man, but fullbacks Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis provide plenty of headaches for opposing defenders too.
One player who will have to deal with that attack, New York’s Sal Zizzo, has been learning fullback on the fly since making the job his own in recent weeks, but the converted midfielder doesn’t seem unduly stressed.
Speaking to GotSoccer after Wednesday’s intense training session, Zizzo called the match up, “a contrast of styles.” “I think we match up well against teams that like to play, opposed to teams that are kind of like bruisers like DC,” Zizzo said.
Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch has implemented a high pressing style since taking over from Mike Petke prior to the season, with outstanding effect.
Marsch has been missing three of his defenders to international duty, but he didn’t feel that his team’s preparation for Kamara and co. was compromised.
Matt Miazga (U.S.) and Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica) are regular starters while Karl Ouimette (Canada) is a contributor off of the bench, but Marsch doesn’t see any problems.
Speaking to an intimate group of reporters after training on Wednesday Marsch said, “we’ve prepared as if they were here even though they’re not here,” noting confidently that “these guys have been around all year, they know what we’re about and they’ll be ready to go.”
Dallas goes into Sunday’s match at Portland’s Providence Park with a poor 0-3-1 record at the Timbers home ground, including a 3-1 loss back in April that ended in controversy between the two coaches.
“Tissue Gate” occurred when Dallas coach Oscar Pareja offered Caleb Porter a tissue in lieu of the traditional postgame handshakes. The message was from the FCD boss was – stop crying to the refs.
But the players will be the ones to decide Sunday’s outcome and Dallas would like to keep it close heading into the home leg.
FCD is young, fast and explosive featuring a balanced attack and a hot goalkeeper in 20-year-old Mexican international Jessie Gonzalez.
Fabian Castillo played his way onto the Colombian squad with his best season yet but he is far from a one-man show, with Pareja able to count on Matt Hedges, Mauro Diaz, Michael Barros, Tesho Akindele, and Kellyn Acosta among others.
Portland has built a solid defensive team backboned by PK hero Adam Kwarasey and a veteran central defense pairing of Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell. Ridgwell has adapted well to MLS after a solid career in England and the distinctively bearded Borchers brings a wealth of playoff experience to the Timbers from his years with Real Salt Lake.
New U.S. MNT man Darlington Nagbe has sparkled since Porter moved inside from the wing, a move that has livened up the Portland offense considerably.
With Diego Valeri doing the spadework, Nagbe has played off the talented Argentine Diego Valeri to great effect and with Fanendo Adi a dangerman up front Timber Joey has been busy revving up his chainsaw for Portland goal celebrations.