Portland's instant-classic win over Seattle epitomizes unpredictable conference semifinals
The MLS playoffs are down to their last four teams, with the Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City in the Western Conference and top seeds New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United in the Eastern Conference. Here's a look back on a wild conference semifinal round in MLS' postseason.
Portland edges Seattle in instant classic
There was already plenty of anticipation about a Cascadia clash in the playoffs between archrivals Seattle and Portland, but what the two teams delivered on Thursday will go down in MLS lore, with the Timbers winning 4-2 on penalties after a 3-3 aggregate draw after 180 minutes and then the teams trading goals in extra time.
You could say that the zaniness of this second leg started even before the opening whistle, as the match was pushed up three days in advance due to the Seattle International Auto Show already being scheduled at CenturyLink Field.
In many ways, the Seattle-Portland second leg was a reflection of MLS as a whole. It is a league that can produce some wildly entertaining moments, but often only because of some jaw-dropping mistakes. Take for instance Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella's howler that allowed Raul Ruidiaz to score the first Seattle goal. That simply can't happen in a big game like this, or really ever, but these are the MLS playoffs, so of course it did. Sebastian Blanco's equalizer for Portland and Ruidiaz's second were also the result of mistakes, with both defenses failing to clear their lines.
Adding to the "only in MLS" fun was a number of the Portland players believing they had won after scoring an away goal in extra time. Soccer-wise it was imperfect in many ways, but the manner in which these two teams traded punches for 120 minutes made for an instant classic that both sides will remember.
"More than what I'm feeling is how exciting the game was for everybody that came to watch," Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said postmatch. "I felt it didn't disappoint. Seattle and Portland brought the rivalry to this match, and it was incredible."
Sporting hang on against RSL
Of the three games on Sunday, perhaps this one was flying the most under the radar in terms of hype, but in true MLS form it produced the most thrills, with Sporting Kansas City advancing with a 4-2 win.
SKC did their darndest to try to give this away. Holding a 2-0 lead in the second half, Peter Vermes' bunch got sloppy, took their foot off the gas and gave Real Salt Lake an opening that almost ended in disaster for the home side.
There will continue to be talk that the penalty call that led to Sporting's third goal -- Nedum Onuoha colliding with Diego Rubio -- was soft, but that's going to be whistled by most referees. It summed up what was a rough outing for the RSL center-backs. Onuoha and Nick Besler were ripped open on the first two Sporting KC goals in the first half, plus Besler wasted a golden opportunity to give RSL a late third goal that would have swung the tie in their favor.
The performance of Besler calls into question RSL boss Mike Petke's decision to go with Besler over Justen Glad, and it was curious that a single game swayed his opinion over Glad's body of work throughout the course of the season.
"Going back to Nick's performance the last time we played them, the 1-1 tie here, it was a very tough decision," Petke said postmatch. "Justen has played 33 games for us this year, and Justen is still a huge part of our future. But coaches have to make tough decisions, and it was the decision I went with."
It's easy to nitpick, though, because most of the other decisions made by Petke in this playoff run have been pretty spot-on, and credit is due to him for taking a young team and leading it to a whisker of MLS' final four.
Atlanta gets its swagger back
While Atlanta United's first official playoff victory came a week ago in the Bronx, Sunday's 3-1 triumph in front of 70,000-plus fans on home soil felt more like vindication for a team that previously hadn't shown up in big moments in its young history.
The penalty-kick loss to Columbus last season and this year's capitulation on the last day of the regular season in Toronto to lose the Supporters' Shield raised plenty of doubts about Atlanta heading into the postseason. Add to the fact that coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino is leaving at season's end and you had all the makings for more disappointment.
Yet a pragmatic 1-0 win last week in Yankee Stadium eased the tension, and then Sunday's victory brought the Atlanta swagger that fans have so often seen in the regular season. Miguel Almiron is creating scoring chances again, in addition to scoring golazos, while it is a very positive sign that Josef Martinez is rounding into goal-scoring form again after a late-season slump.
Red Bulls get over conference semifinal hump
For whatever reason, the New York Red Bulls usually bid adieu to the rest of the league at the conference semifinal stage, outside of conference final berths in 2014 and 2015. Sunday was different, though.
Not only did the Red Bulls overturn a 1-0 deficit against Columbus with a 3-0 win, but they did it in style, with suffocating pressure that never allowed Crew playmaker Federico Higuain any chance to create. Daniel Royer was fantastic with his two second-half goals, and Sean Davis was a workhorse in midfield, winning just about everything in sight.
Because of their history, Red Bulls fans will be cautious heading into the next round against Atlanta, but the soccer displayed by Chris Armas' men, especially in the second half, was some of the best in the league this season. It is starting to look like this year is indeed the year for this MLS Cup-deprived franchise.