1. Crew have their coming-out party
The whistle blows from referee Allen Chapman to begin the match between the Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final. The black and gold-clad fans in Ohio are in full-force, waving their towels, flags and other assorted items in support of the home team. It's an unmistakeable MLS playoff environment.
Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay kick the ball off at midfield as ESPN commentators Adrian Healey and Taylor Twellman finish off their pregame spiels while putting on their hand-warmers, as Twellman said in the broadcast. A customary long-ball is sent forward after a back pass from the center-circle.
Seconds later, MAPFRE Stadium exploded in cheers.
Crew winger Justin Meram found a bouncing ball in the box and whipped a volley past the diving arms of MLS goalkeeper of the year Luis Robles just nine seconds into the game. Robles looked at his defenders as if to say, "really? You're going to hang me out to dry already?" The rest of the Red Bull team eyed each other in a state of shock and dismay, wondering what went wrong so early in the game.
Meanwhile, Meram was sprinting toward the ecstatic supporters with a huge grin on his face, joined soon by his equally-exited teammates.
And that, right there, was the coming-out party of the Crew. You could say it was back on Decision Day when they creamed DC United 5-0; you could make a case that it was when Kei Kamara scored in extra-time to eliminate Didier Drogba and the Impact in the conference semifinals, but when Meram volleyed it home for the fastest playoff goal in history, you could tell this was the moment they would prove to the soccer community that they belong among the elite in MLS.
Throughout the rest of the match, Columbus showed off all of the Red Bulls' flaws in what was arguably their best game of the season. They outplayed the skilled New York midfield–jumbling it up with pressure from Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain and Tony Tchani–and used Ethan Finlay's incredible fitness and speed to open up the field and stretch Red Bulls' right-back Kemar Lawrence, which simultaneously took away possession outlets for Felipe and Dax McCarty in defensive midfield.
The backline also was strong. There were questions going in about the center-backs due to Gaston Sauro's absence, but Michael Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl held the fort well enough to earn just their third home clean sheet this season, an impressive feat considering that the Red Bulls hadn't been shut out since May 24th.
Right-back Harrison Afful has been very good along with left-back Waylon Francis, further signifying the improvement of the defense. What was a weakness a couple months ago is now a strength.
They have all the components of a great club. Here they are, in no order:
- A great goalkeeper: Steve Clark has played all 68 MLS games in the last two seasons. He may not be perfect–particularly when he is coming off his line–but he clearly is in the upper echelon of MLS keepers.
-A sturdy backline: Sauro has been a revelation at center-back in the second-half of the year. The aforementioned full-backs are among the best.
-A good defensive midfield: Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp are the epitome of power and finesse. Tchani is big and imposing in a Diego Chara-type number-six way, while Trapp helps win second balls in front of the defense and then acts as the main distributor to the attackers.
-A number-ten: Federico Higuain is the heart of the Crew attack.
-Two good wings: With help from the FBs, Finlay and Meram have been great at getting the ball to the flanks and sending the ball into the box. That's why Kamara has 11 header goals this season.
-A goal-scorer: Kamara is a pure scorer. He is always in the right place at the right time.
It doesn't seem likely the Red Bulls will bounce back at home, as they need to score two goals and keep a clean sheet just to send it to extra-time. Right now, the Crew are MLS Cup favorites. Nobody could have predicted that in August.
2. Timbers survive without Rodney Wallace and Diego Valeri
Winning against FC Dallas is a pretty hard thing to accomplish, especially when you don't have two of your regular starters. Rodney Wallace and Diego Valeri were both missing because of yellow-card accumulation, but the Portland Timbers used set pieces and a Dairon Asprilla crazy-good long-range rocket to dispatch mighty Dallas and go into Frisco with a 3-1 advantage.
Darlington Nagbe was solid in the middle, Lucas Melano entered on the wing and came up with a couple of early chances, and Fabian Castillo was neutralized well by Alvas Powell for Portland. Overall, the Timbers played well, and should play better with Valeri and Wallace back.
It's hard to say whether or not the Timbers would be able to beat Columbus or New York if they are able advance in the second leg, but they would definitely compete.
3. Predictions for the second legs
Eastern Conference: Crew 1 Red Bulls 1
Both teams pick up goals back in New Jersey, but thanks to their win in the first leg, it's the Crew that advance to the MLS Cup final.
Western Conference: FC Dallas 2 Timbers 0
FC Dallas come back with a 2-0 victory in Texas, which sees them through to the final thanks to away goal differential.