The 2018 Audi MLS Playoffs are nothing if not surprising. The knockout and conference-semi final matches had some of that with RSL somehow beating LAFC and the Columbus Crew upsetting the New York Red Bulls. Here’s how the Americans did in the first matches.
Starting with the losers in the knockout round...
Philadelphia Union - After losing 3-1 in the last game of the regular season to NYCFC, Philly lost 3-1 to NYCFC in the knockout round of the playoffs. It really wasn’t even close as the young backline of the Union was cut apart by David Villa and company. The team let in the first goal after 8 minutes and two minutes later Auston Trusty sent a ball into his own net. For those wondering, Alejandro Bedoya did not get a yellow card. CJ Sapong did draw a penalty but then Fafa Picault’s shot from the spot was saved by Sean Johnson. Incidentally Johnson had the main notable contribution for Americans in the game for NYCFC.
FC Dallas - Things went about as you would expect for a team that backed into the playoffs and lost out on having a first round bye on the last game of the season because they couldn’t beat the Colorado Rapids - they lost 2-1 to Portland despite being a man up for 32 minutes in the game. If there is one bright spot it is that Matt Hedges got a meaningless goal in the 94th minute to give Dallas false hope as they inevitably were eliminated in the playoffs in front of a lackluster home crowd on Halloween.
LAFC - Nobody can say they saw LAFC giving up a 2-1 lead at home to Real Salt Lake. For the Americans in the match, Christian Ramirez and Lee Nguyen teamed up for the second goal that would have been the game winner.
It wouldn’t work out that way as Damir Kreilach score four minutes later and then Walker Zimmerman put a dagger in the heart of LAFC with an own goal in the 69th minute. LA failed to equalize and became the best expansion team in MLS history to not only give up five goals to Minnesota United but also became the best expansion team in MLS history to lose in regulation during the 2018 Audi MLS Playoffs to RSL.
DC United - Paul Arriola - It was inevitable wasn’t it? A flashy American winger a hole at right back - a story as old as time. Paul Arriola started in defense for DC United and ended up being subbed in the 69th minute for Nick DeLeon. Let’s hope this doesn’t become a thing, Arriola had a decent season with seven goals and eight assists and at 24 is just getting into his prime. DeLeon did manage the game tying goal in the 116th minute that sent the game into penalties, but then missed his chance from the spot to ensure that Columbus would move onto the next round of the playoffs.
Russel Canouse - The DC midfielder completed 86% of his passes and had six tackles and two interceptions in the loss.
Onto the winners and first round bye teams...
NYCFC - You basically saw the only highlight for an American out of the 180 minutes NYCFC played in the playoffs when Sean Johnson saved Picault’s PK. I dare you to tell me that Ben Sweat did anything useful during that time.
He did get to see a just absolute classic Yankee Stadium goal against Atlanta though.
Portland Timbers - I thought long and hard about including Jeremy Ebobise in the Americans at home MLS preview and left him out. My thought process was - well this is already 4,000 words long and he was really hyped coming into the league but didn’t get much of a chance and even though he got some starts at the end of the year, he didn’t play a huge role for Portland. He’s making me pay for it now. Ebobise has a goal and an assist in his two games in the playoffs including somehow doing the impossible against the Seattle Sounders and getting a goal past the 10 men that Brian Schmetzer puts behind the ball every game. Kim McCauley on the big SBN site has a great write up on why Ebobise is for real.
Zarek Valentine and Jorge Villafana are also on this roster. Portland has won both of their playoff games beating the above mentioned FC Dallas and took the first of their two game set from the invincible Seattle Sounders in Portland.
Columbus Crew - The Crew have had quite a playoff run and it’s only been two games. Gregg Berhalter is showing why he might be worthy of being the USMNT coach as his team beat DC United in DC in penalties and then took a win in their first leg match against the New York Red Bulls. In the DC United shootout, Zack Steffen saved two penalties from Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta. Wil Trapp somehow made his try from the spot while the best American striker Gyasi Zardes missed his try. In their match against New York, Zardes would silence would be comment section commenters by finishing a terrific move for Columbus as Steffen kept a cleansheet for a 1-0 win.
<I see a vision, it is the year 2022, Gergg Berhalter’s USMNT beats the Republic of Korea in the World Cup after Christian Pulisic flicks a ball into the path of best American striker Gyasi Zardes, it is 200 degrees on the field>
The real story was the defensive shape for the Crew - if there’s one person who loves a well organized 4-4-2, it’s Bobby Warshaw.
Here is a 30 second clip of the Crew's defensive shape today. I think a major concern with Berhalter with the USMNT is (was?) whether he could take the pragmatic (ie. Bob Bradley-esque) approach when necessary. The 4-4-2 block GB has used this year has been really impressive. pic.twitter.com/2TQUPQ2Dtv— Bobby Warshaw (@bwarshaw14) November 4, 2018
NY Red Bulls - Something that was not said often this year was that NYRB could not breakdown a team to at least score a goal. The above tweet breaks down how that happened but the Red Bulls did have their chances, including this one from Tim Parker:
MLS Defender of the Year Aaron Long, Tyler Adams and company will try to turn things around as Columbus visits New Jersey on Sunday.
Atlanta United - The Five Stripes went to New York and beat a team that struggled down the stretch 1-0. The main American contributors for the team were Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz, Darlington Nagbe, Greg Garza, and Brad Guzan. Somehow Atlanta managed to put five Americans on the field and while none are gamebreakers, they have all been solid contributors to the team as regular starters. That said, there weren’t many standout performances from either team in match. New York completed 76% of its passes while Atlanta only completed 62%, but that’s probably what should be expected from a team that depends on width on a field that is 20 feet narrower than a full size pitch.
Real Salt Lake - Brooks Lennon helped put RSL up early against LAFC by making a nice run and sending a great cross to a virtually unmarked Kreilach who finished his shot quite well.
Lennon also went the full 90 in the RSL draw to SKC in the conference semi-final. Justen Glad appeared off the bench in both games, going for one minute against LA and 49 against SKC. Nick Rimando had an uneven set of games, giving up two goals to LA but making some clutch saves against SKC.
Sporting Kansas City - SKC avoided being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs and may very well advance as they got an away goal in their draw in Sandy, Utah. American forward Khiry Shelton got a start but managed just one shot in his hour - and when he was substituted, Diego Rubio scored in his first minute on the field. If you are curious, Jaylin Lindsey made the bench but did not see time in the game and Tim Melia, Matt Besler, Ike Opara, and Graham Zusi each went the full 90. Melia had a nice save to keep the draw intact.
Seattle Sounders - Almost forgot one. Seattle came into the playoffs burning hot, scoring 37 goals in the 16 games that the front office decided to field a good team for half of the season in - as has become their yearly strategy. They cooled off some against Cascadia rivals the Portland Timbers in the conference semi-final first leg. Very important Sounders players Cristian Roldan and Chad Marshall had to be subbed in the first half due to injury and the three minutes that Harry Shipp played were of little consequence as not MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Stefan Frei let in two goals and made two saves. Somehow, Will Bruin was not put on to make a difference late in the match. After taking a 1-0 lead, Portland scored two of their own by the 30th minute and somehow Brian Schmetzer’s half-time speech, which consisted of telling his players about the importance of maxing out their Roth IRAs, didn’t inspire a comeback.
The second leg is scheduled to kick off tonight at 10:30PM on the East Coast in a marquee matchup that the league usually loves to promote because of an autoshow scheduled over the weekend at Centurylink Field.