Major League Soccer kicked off its conference semifinal round Sunday night with a Cascadia snoozer as the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Seattle Sounders played to a 0-0 draw.
Featuring just a single shot on goal, the fewest ever in an MLS playoff game, this match gave the 27,837 fans little to cheer about, although it set the stage nicely for a winner take all showdown Wednesday in Seattle.
The game also inspired calls for a format change, eliminating the two-game aggregate for single elimination, or doing away with the away goals rule.
The former has been in the air in recent days while the latter is seemingly always up for review. Vancouver will be happy with the away goals rule this morning, knowing that if they manage to put one past Stefan Frei on Wednesday they can make life very difficult on the home team.
The league will be hoping for better in the three remaining Conference Semifinal first legs, starting tonight in Harrison, New Jersey with the New York Red Bulls hosting Toronto FC (7:00 pm), while Portland visits Houston in the nightcap. (9:30 pm)
Columbus is at home versus New York City FC on Tuesday night (8:00 pm) in the last of the quartet.
Here is a quick look at each series.
Vancouver Whitecaps vs Seattle Sounders:
Seattle is the defending MLS Cup Champion, having beaten Toronto in Toronto on penalty kicks last year. Clint Dempsey was missing last night due to a suspension, which surely contributed to the Sounders dull effort last night. Jordan Morris is out with an injury and that also slowed the Sounders attack.
Still, headed home to play in front of their passionate fans I see the defending champions rising to the occasion and moving on at the Whitecaps expense.
Houston Dynamo vs Portland Timbers:
Home is where the heart is for the Houston Dynamo, the team with the most dramatic home/away splits in MLS this season. The Dynamo have compiled a fantastic record of 12 wins, 1 Loss, and 4 ties at the BBVA Compass Stadium against a dreadful 1-9-7 road mark.
The Timbers topped the West with 53 points, beating Seattle on tiebreakers, with Houston third on 52 points. With so little between the sides look for the Dynamo to edge it tonight with the Timbers emerging after the two-game set.
New York Red Bulls vs Toronto FC:
Toronto responded to the disappointment of losing the MLS Cup on penalty kicks last year by putting together the best season in league history. Led by stars Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore, TFC knows that the Supporters Shield and the points record means nothing if they don’t raise the MLS Cup on Saturday, December 9th in front of their home crowd at BMO Field.
The Red Bulls have been there, twice winning the Shield only to fall short in the playoffs. This season Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch admitted that he was prioritizing the playoffs over the regular season, resulting in a sixth-place finish for New York after a very uneven campaign.
What does it all mean? Well, the Red Bulls are not your average sixth-place side, they certainly won’t be confused with the San Jose Earthquakes. But Toronto is the cream of the crop. Clearly the best team in Major League Soccer, TFC should get past this hurdle and the next and I fully expect Greg Vanney’s team to become the first Canadian club to hoist the MLS Cup in early December.
New York City FC vs Columbus Crew:
Columbus owner Anthony Precourt’s threat to take MLS originals from Columbus to Austin, Texas has galvanized support for the Crew from fans from all around the league making Columbus every neutral’s favorite.
Having said that it will be fascinating to see how many Columbus fans turn out on Halloween night when the Crew host NYCFC in the first leg of the Conference Semifinals.
Are the fans too embittered to show up, or will fans come out in numbers to #SavetheCrew?
As for the games, these are two teams that like to get after it. Two good attacking units, two good goalkeepers but I think NYC’s defense has improved enough to see them into the next round.