The long road to the MLS Cup

Bradley Piros , Assistant Sports Editor

The MLS (Major League Soccer) is like no other soccer league in the world. In countries like Spain, Italy, England, France, etc. the team with the most points win the league. Three points for a win, one for a draw and none for a loss. In each of these countries, each team typically plays 38 games and a winner is crowned come May.

That’s generally how the MLS regular season is as well. Each team plays 36 regular season games, and the top four from each conference (East and West) will make the Audi MLS Playoffs.

The top two teams from each conference will have a bye-game, while four knockout round games are played. It’s simple, win those games and you’re in. Lose, and your season is over.

The MLS postseason is about halfway over, with the final culminating the tournament on Dec. 8 and we’ve already seen some instant classics. So, let’s break them down thus far.

Let’s go chronologically, starting with the four knockout round games. The brand-new Los-Angeles Football Club (LAFC) took on Real Salt Lake at home. RSL was the six seed while LAFC was the three, so you could say this was an upset. RSL won 3-2 in comeback fashion to move on to the Western Conference Semifinals. I was saddened by this, because an expansion team has never won the MLS Cup before and I kind of wanted to see it happen.

Moving on though, the Portland Timbers traveled to Toyota Stadium to take on FC Dallas. With a couple of goals from Diego Valeri, the Timbers were able to leave with a 2-1 victory, setting them a date with their heated rivals, the Seattle Sounders, but we’ll get to that later.

Next up was the Philadelphia Union who took on New York City Football Club (NYCFC) at Yankee Stadium. Yes, you read that right. A city with over eight major sports teams has to share stadiums with a baseball team. A regulation size soccer stadium can’t fit in a baseball stadium, especially one of the smallest ones, but I digress. NYCFC won 3-1 to return to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the third straight year.

The last knockout round match was by far the most dramatic. DC United were stunned on their home field when they lost to the Columbus Crew SC on penalties. The match was tied 1-1 after 90 minutes, meaning overtime. Each team would score another goal to make the score 2-2 after 120 minutes, meaning penalty kicks. Federico Higuaín scored both goals for the Crew and converted his penalty. Wayne Rooney’s penalty was saved, and his teammate Nick DeLeon skied his kick over the crossbar to give the Crew the win.

Onto the Conference Semifinals. The format changes into an aggregate score. Meaning the teams will play a home and away series with the other teams. The rules are fairly complicated, but it makes for more drama. Score more goals than the other team after two games, and you win. But away goals are the tiebreaker. Meaning that if two teams are tied at three goals each, but Team A has three away goals while Team B only has one, Team A will move on. Away goals don’t matter in overtime, which is even more complicated.

I’m going to go out of order to save the best for last, so let’s start with the East. The Columbus Crew took on the New York Red Bulls. The Crew won the first match at home 1-0 from a goal from Gyasi Zardes in the 61st minute. It could’ve been worse, as Columbus controlled the majority of that match but couldn’t convert, but it didn’t matter to New York. A 1-0 win in the second leg would take them to overtime, but a 2-0 win would mean they win on aggregate 2-1.

So, they went out and won 3-0 to prove a point. The Red Bulls put on some of the best pressure and caused the Crew to make many mistakes, leading to their win. It was 1-0 after halftime, but Daniel Royer changed that really quick. He scored two goals within three minutes, and assisted on the first goal, to get his team the win.

Staying in the East, NYCFC took on the No. 2 seed in Atlanta United. Atlanta won 4-1 on aggregate, cruising to their first conference championship. They won 1-0 at Yankee Stadium, in a hard-fought match taking that lead back home. Then Atlanta kept their foot on the gas and won that match 3-1 in front of a sellout, 70,000 plus crowd at the beautiful Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which set a playoff record attendance by the way, from a team that’s only been in the league for two years.

Moving onto the West, Real Salt Lake took on Sporting Kansas City at home. The first leg played out to a really boring 1-1 draw, but the series made up for itself in the second leg. SKC won 4-2, but it was a tough win. RSL just never gave up in this match, which is what you love to see in the playoffs. Unfortunately it just wasn’t enough, as SKC scored two goals in each half, to get them to the conference championship.

That leaves one conference semifinal left, and it was by far the best MLS series I’ve ever seen. It had a little bit of everything from fouls to injuries to blown calls to penalty kicks. I’m a little biased because this is my favorite MLS rivalry, and yes there are plenty of good ones, but this one delivered on every aspect.

The Seattle Sounders took on the Portland Timbers at Providence Park in the first leg. The Timbers won 2-1 at home putting them in good shape headed to Seattle. The second leg was tied 1-1 until extra time when Raul Ruidiaz scored the goal to force overtime because of the aggregate 3-3 score line.

Portland scored first in overtime, but four minutes later a penalty was awarded to Seattle. Nicolas Lodiero slotted home the spot kick, and the game finished 4-4 on aggregate after 120 minutes, meaning more penalty kicks. A couple years ago, Seattle won the MLS Cup on penalties, but they feel short against their arch rivals and lost 4-2 from the spot.

Just like that, the MLS playoffs were down to four teams. Sporting Kansas City will take on the Portland Timbers in the West and the New York Red Bulls will have Atlanta United in the East. These games will have the same aggregate home and away format, while the MLS Cup Final is a one game do or die format.

I predict Portland to win the series after penalty kicks, and I think Atlanta will easily get to their first MLS Cup Final. In the final I have Atlanta beating Portland 3-2 after extra time. No matter what happens, it will be dramatic and undoubtable fun to watch. The first leg of conference championships kicks off Nov. 25.