90 minutes to MLS Cup: Red Bulls need not apply
Background photo: Marc Berry Reid, CC BY 2.0
Major League Soccer's Conference Finals began on Sunday. Going into the first leg matches, the four teams hoping to reach the MLS Cup Final on Saturday, December 8th each had a script they wanted to follow. Two stories from the four almost certainly won't be told although three contenders remain very much alive. If the math doesn't work for you, allow me to explain.
Portland Timbers 0-0 Sporting Kansas City
Portland entered the playoffs as the Western Conference's fifth seed, eighth in all of MLS. A 15-9-10 regular season yielded 54 points with a +6 goal difference, setting the Timbers a level or two below the other three finalists. SKC, the West's top seed, finished fourth overall. Their 62 points were much closer to Atlanta and New York's respective 69 and 71. Their +25 goal difference was even closer to the top seeds [+26, +29]. If this were Sesame Street, the Timbers would be the one team not like the others.
That isn't to say they can't surprise everyone by making the final then hoisting their second MLS Cup in four seasons. Anything can happen in 90 minutes of football. Barcelona will tell you to ask Paris Saint-Germain about a little match they call La Remontada. Just as you open your mouth, Roma will nudge you in the ribs, wink and suggest you put the question to Barca instead.
While Portland have a shot, they would be much better off with a goal on the board going into Children's Mercy Park tonight against the West leaders. SKC's 66 goals were bettered by just four teams: Atlanta, New York and the two Los Angeles sides. The Red Bulls and Seattle Sounders were the only squads to concede fewer than the Wizards' 40. The Timbers almost had that goal off a set piece on 70 minutes until VAR proved David Guzman was offside before bundling the loose ball home.
It was a chippy affair at Providence Park. Sporting KC right-back Graham Zusi escaped a possible red card for a cheeky slap to Sebastian Blanco during the run of play. Blanco showed off his Neymar School of Simulation diploma by milking the flick for all it was worth. Even with VAR, the referee wasn't having it. Touching an opponent's head is a straight red according to the rules but, as is traditional in all American sports, the rulebook's put away for the playoffs while whistles are kept in pockets as much as possible.
For their part, the Timbers avoided three separate bookings for rash tackles that would've suspended key players for the second leg. Given that two yellows equal red, you could say they came out ahead. Manager Gio Savarese was certainly grateful.
I think the referees have been very good in helping in this playoff stage to make sure that there isn't any yellow given for no good reason. I think they've been able to make sure the players that need to be playing continue to play.
The former Cosmos boss has all his players for the second leg. He also has it all to do away from Providence Park's friendly confines.
Atlanta United 3-0 New York Red Bulls
If you want to talk about having it all to do, Chris Armas and his Red Bulls can speak from experience. The scoreline heading into the second leg all but guarantees the coach who took over for Jesse Marsch midseason won't rewrite the Red Bull's MLS script.
Instead, he's set to become the third NYRB manager in succession to win the Supporters Shield as best regular season team in his first campaign, then crash out in the conference final. Marsch did it in 2015. Current Real Salt Lake boss Mike Petke suffered the same fate in 2013. The Red Bulls haven't won the MLS Cup. Not in their current guise nor as the NY/NJ MetroStars.
In addition to dashing Armas' hopes to end the Red Bulls' status as bridesmaids, it just about kills Portland gaffer Savarese's dream of returning to New York to deliver poetic justice to MLS for freezing out his old Cosmos team. Although Portland still has life, defeating SKC makes Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta a near-certainty as their MLS Cup destination.
The return leg in the Eastern Conference Final takes place at Red Bull Arena. That said, it's difficult to see how the Red Bulls can make up three goals. Open up against Tata Martino's United and you're asking for it. The Red Bulls boast the league's best defence, the only one that conceded fewer goals than games played, but there's nothing to protect at this point. They must get forward at every opportunity.
The Red Bulls scored three at home to dispatch Columbus in the last round. United are not the Crew, however. Throwing everyone into the attack opens the door for Josef Martinez to stick in his MLS Golden Boot for Hector Villalba and Miguel Almiron to follow. Almiron didn't score in the first leg although the playmaker was involved. The other two made the scoresheet. Martinez opened Atlanta's account on the half-hour. Villalba essentially put the tie to bed five minutes into stoppage time.
Red Bulls talisman Bradley Wright-Phillips thought he'd equalised when the ball came to him 12 yards from goal. VAR once again did its job, proving that Alex Muyl, in a clear offside position, was also in Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan's line of sight. As he interfered with the netminder's ability to react, the goal was correctly overruled.
New York fans will tell you their side should've been awarded a penalty in the bargain. Don't listen to them. The ball that found defender Jeff Larentowicz's arm between bicep and shoulder did so as he clearly tried to avoid contact by stepping back and aside while sliding the offending appendage behind his back. With no clear intent to handle the ball, the referee made Portland boss Gio Savarese happy [and frustrated him at the same time] by pocketing his whistle.
The Red Bulls have the attacking talent to reverse the score at home. Doing so while keeping a clean sheet against Atlanta's equally formidable frontline is a monumental task. I'd like to offer hope by saying you can see the Statue of Liberty from just outside Red Bull Arena but that would just be false.
Tonight's 2nd Legs
Eastern Conference Final [for the insomniacs]
NY Red Bulls [0-3] Atlanta United
Red Bull Arena
Western Conference Final [for the true believers]
Sporting KC [0-0] Portland Timbers
Children's Mercy Park