This is exactly how round one of the MLS Cup play-offs is completed and the conference semi-finals are ready.
Although the likes of NYCFC, Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City finished with home wins as expected, we saw a big shock in the previous round; Real Salt Lake won on penalties in Seattle after failing with a single shot in 120 minutes of play.
After a long regular season, the round gave us the chance to evaluate some teams’ strengths and weaknesses in the heat of a knockout situation. So, before the next round begins, let’s go into the good, bad and ugly of each team, starting with the Western Conference:
The semifinals of the conference are ready! pic.twitter.com/6Kk5ZYQgBf
– Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 24, 2021
The good ones
Everything about Rapids is based on team spirit and togetherness. There’s a next man up attitude that is unmatched in the entire league, which means Robin Fraser can change his entire XI and you probably would not notice it. It’s a trait that makes them more than a match for any team in the league, even though they have the lowest salary expenses in MLS.
“Whoever we play, we play. We want to beat anyone, at home or away,” club captain Jack Price told 90min recently.
There is obviously quality in the trail as well. Price should have competed for the MVP award this season and Kellyn Acosta is an international midfielder in the USA.
But what makes this team so formidable is its willingness and compulsion to fight for each other. Dick’s Sporting Goods Park will bounce for this Thanksgiving match-up, just galvanize Rapids more.
“If they do not want to talk about us, that’s fine. As long as we are champions at the end of the season, I do not really care.”
Had a great conversation with Jack Price about # Rapids96’s # MLSCup bid, playing for Robin Fraser and more ?????????
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– Chris Smith (@ CJSmith91) November 18, 2021
Speaking to 90min in September, Fraser urged his side to improve ball possession and stop losing concentration with the ball in dangerous areas.
That brings us to one of Rapid’s only real weaknesses. They are ruthless in the transition, but can sometimes struggle to break down a low or middle block – and that’s exactly how Western Conference semi-finalists Portland Timbers like to defend, absorb pressure and be tough to play through.
It will be up to Price, Cole Bassett and Mark-Anthony Kaye to find solutions with Colorado gaining ownership as the home team.
Even if they are at home, Rapids may be able to pull the Timbers into the ball a little more, forcing a counterattack. If so, it will be about who has the best finishers.
On paper, Timber has an edge over Felipe Mora and Sebastian Blanco, compared to Michael Barrios and Diego Rubio. But if matches won on paper, Rapids would not even be in the playoffs, let alone finish first in the West.
The good ones
Only SKC surpassed the Timbers in the West during the regular season and their attacking ability has only been strengthened by Sebastian Blanco’s return to form and fitness.
The 33-year-old scored nine goals and six assists in just 1,272 minutes of action before the playoffs and finished the regular season with three goals and an assist in two games. Blanco then settled its round one hit against Minnesota United with two excellent goals in a 3-1 victory at Providence Park.
As mentioned earlier, if the Timbers end up in a battle against Colorado, they have the attacking pieces to get the job done.
Give Sebastian Blanco an inch and he will take ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING? Pic.twitter.com/mbYyQVhRxv
– Chris Smith (@ CJSmith91) November 22, 2021
While they are a force at the top of the field, Portland leaves a lot to be desired defensively. Gio Savarese’s men held just nine zeros during the regular season, while only the San Jose Earthquakes (60.56) had a worse xGA value (59.14).
Whether it comes from fixed play or open play, the Timbers have simply not been able to cut the mistakes or find a cohesive defensive formula – perhaps that Diego Chara is another year older injured more than previously expected, as this is uncharacteristic of a Portland team.
Jack Price has been particularly dangerous with his regular delivery this season and can offer a real test of this thin Timber back line.
Portland had the best home record of any Western Conference team in the regular season, taking 35 points at Providence Park. But just one point behind was Colorado. Away, the Timbers lost the fifth highest number of games of the entire year.
The Rapids faithful will create a brilliant atmosphere for this game and the more pressure they put on their set-pieces and counterattacks, the stronger it will be. Without their loyal Timbers Army, things can fall apart quickly for Portland.
The good ones
Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell are the obvious differences in this SKC team, but what makes them so effective is how they around them manipulate the game to their advantage.
Peter Verme’s team is one of the best possession teams in MLS. They have patience with the ball, poke and look for openings and will regularly change games to move around the opponents – see Graham Zusi’s repeated ball over to Salloi in the win over Vancouver in round one.
All of these dazzling passes obviously disrupt the opponents’ defense, creating room for Salloi and Russell – who scored a total of 31 goals in the regular season – to get to work.
– #SportingKC overlooked? – Vermes Mourinho from MLS? – SKC ready for # MLSCup win?
Had a good chat with @danielsalloi yesterday, we brought up some interesting topics ????
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– Chris Smith (@ CJSmith91) November 19, 2021
SKC were terrible towards the end of the regular season, and it was their inability pressure effectively that killed them.
There have never been any problems motivating this team to chase the ball, but their lack of cohesion left gaps everywhere. It was far too easy for the opposition to put a ball in the channel behind the outfielders, or break lines with a cool pass from the front and back.
If Real Salt Lake can dig in defensively like they did against Seattle in Round One, Kansas City will offer chances.
SKC’s 3-1 win over Vancouver in round one was made all the more impressive by the fact that this is an out of shape team. Kansas City lost its last three regular season games and regularly dropped the ball on the stretch.
They face an RSL team that has already defeated them twice this season, and the longer Salt Lake can keep things level, the more uncomfortable things will be in Children’s Mercy Park. Fragile self-confidence is the easiest thing to wash off.
The good ones
RSL spent most of the regular season beating the hell out of the opposition, but left themselves wide open for homemakers. It was great fun, but unsustainable, especially in a knockout situation.
Pablo Mastroeni has clearly worked with the defense and during 210 minutes of football on Decision Day and in round one, they have not conceded a goal.
RSL has left 3-5-2 behind in favor of a narrow, solid 4-4-2, and it has frustrated the lives of two heavyweights from the Western Conference. Defending so much means Salt Lake had to rely on a bit of luck, but they got a good deal of it in their penalty shootout win over the Sounders.
RSL has pulled the handbrake so hard that it seems like they have forgotten how to attack. Against Sounders, they failed to attempt even a single shot – only the third time this has ever happened in the league’s history.
Can they really continue like this? SKC certainly has the ability to open up spaces in the Salt Lake defense, and Salloi and Russell will take full advantage of every chance they get.
Credit must be given to Mastroeni for coaching this team so quickly, but it is also important to remember that only FC Dallas and Austin FC (both 56) conceded more goals than Real Salt Lake in the West this season (54) . How hard are those bandages?
They did it! https://t.co/Z4ZCwf7vXq
– Matthew Doyle (@ MattDoyle76) November 24, 2021
“Ugly” is actually the perfect word to sum up RSL’s chances.
They won ugly against the Sounders and defended with their lives to force a shot. It was only a couple of weeks after they won really ugly against this particular SKC team, where Damir Kreilach made a winner in the 95th minute to beat his ticket after the season. Had it been called a handball on Justen Glad minutes earlier, RSL might not have made it.
If Salt Lake is to shock another favorite in the West, they will have to do it the hard way again.