After a long, grueling MLS season that began back in March, soccer fans are left with four teams competing in the playoffs.
Two Canadian teams are matched up against each other in the Eastern Conference final, which equates to a non-US team appearing in the MLS Cup final for the first time in history. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the remaining playoff teams, and attempt to predict which two will advance to the final.
Eastern Conference final (Montreal Impact vs Toronto FC)
How each team got here:
Neither of these two teams took the easy road, with a midweek knockout stage match preceding the semifinal stage match. For Montreal, they traveled to Washington, D.C. and beat D.C. United, 4-2, then upset the New York Red Bulls 3-1 on aggregate goals. While Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch claimed that they had beaten the Impact in every single statistical category, the simple fact is that he omitted the most important statistic — his team lost both games.
For Toronto, they had little difficulty dispatching the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Union 3-1 before embarrassing New York City FC 7-0 on aggregate. While NYCFC manager Patrick Vieira’s tactics had proven successful on larger pitches, Toronto seemed well-suited to a smaller Yankee Stadium pitch, and were able to press their opponent and dominate the game. In the end, the NYCFC dream team of Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa could only watch in disbelief as Toronto striker Sebastian Giovinco proved to be a one-man wrecking machine.
What to expect:
For Montreal, they advanced without the play of aging star Didier Drogba, who was either injured or benched for refusing to cede his role in the starting eleven for the Impact. Credit manager Mauro Biello for having the courage to resurrect his squad around a solid defense led by goalkeeper Evan Bush, and the up-front play of Ignacio Piatti and Matteo Mancosu.
Expect the Impact to play more of a bunker-style defense, while waiting for counter-attack opportunities. Look for striker Dominic Oduro to become more of a menace up front. Toronto has proven that they can limit their opponents’ goal-scoring opportunities by playing midfielder Michael Bradley in more of a hybrid role, winning the ball in the midfield while looking up-field toward strikers Jozy Altidore and Giovinco. Toronto will also pressure the ball more than what the Impact are used to, turning some untimely turnovers into goal-scoring opportunities.
Who will win:
While Montreal has far exceeded expectations this year and will open the series at home in Olympic Stadium in front of 61,000 fans, Toronto has too many weapons for the Impact to defuse. Look for Toronto FC to advance to the MLS Cup final by the aggregate score of 5-3.
Western Conference final (Seattle Sounders vs Colorado Rapids)
How each team got here:
Languishing near the bottom of the Western Conference, the Sounders parted ways with manager Sigi Schmid in July after eight years as Seattle’s manager. The following month, team captain Clint Dempsey was ruled out for the remainder of the season due to a heart ailment. Still, manager Brian Schmetzer has been able to pull the Sounders from the abyss as they find themselves preparing to play Colorado one step away from the championship game.
While each game has been a battle, they beat Kansas City 1-0 in a single-elimination match. Seattle then beat Dallas FC 4-2 on aggregate, who had already won the Supporters’ Shield as well as the U.S. Open Cup. A major factor in their streak has been the addition of Nicolas Lodeiro, a multi-dimensional midfielder who was acquired from iconic club Boca Juniors of Argentina in late July. For Colorado, they were tied 1-1 on aggregate against the L.A. Galaxy and advanced via penalty kicks in the second leg of their home and away competition. The difference in the penalty kick phase of the match was their veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard (although he is now expected to miss roughly four months of play as he undergoes groin surgery), who stopped the final three Galaxy shots to propel the Rapids forward. The Rapids will miss his presence big-time.
What to expect:
Seattle has relied on Jordan Morris for much of their offense, but with the possibility of him being unavailable due to hamstring issues, they have other striker options on the bench. But with Nelson Valdez and Hercules Gomez both 32 years old and their best years behind them, the Sounders would be better off adjusting their formation slightly to allow Osvaldo Alonso and Lodeiro to play more as strikers and leave the creativity to Erik Friberg and perhaps Cristian Roldan. Of course, they’ll have one match in Seattle, where their biggest asset is the twelfth man. For Colorado, Pablo Mastroeni will see the return of a healthy Jermaine Jones and Shkelzen Gashi, but the loss of Howard will hurt them defensively. Colorado only trailed Dallas FC by two points this season, and employ a true blue collar team concept.
Who will win:
While the Sounders have had an amazing season while playing through adversity, it is hard to see them advancing past a Rapids team that is clicking on all cylinders. Mastroeni has waited for his team to advance to the final cup match, and he will be rewarded with a 5-2 aggregate score.