The second leg of the Conference semi-finals will be played this Sunday. This might well be the best day of the MLS calendar. Let the madness ensue.
The regular season is great and all. There are some wonderful contests, some brilliant matches, some crazy results and twisting, turning narratives. But there is nothing quite like playoff football.
When it is win-or-go-home, when the pressure is really on, when it matters the most. That is when the drama comes to the fore. And this day, perhaps like no other day in the MLS calendar, so fantastically and enthrallingly presents us with the most thrilling of storylines.
On Sunday, there will be three second-leg Conference semi-finals played. Each tie is still well and truly in the balance, with all six teams still within touching distance of the Conference Championships and a potential MLS Cup.
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First up is Sporting Kansas City hosting Real Salt Lake. Sporting KC have been waiting five years for a home playoff match. After topping the Western Conference in the regular season, they had to wait out the Knockout Round, and the first leg of the semi-final against RSL, until they could enjoy the chance of hosting another one. On Sunday, that long, agonising wait will end.
It is sure to be a raucous atmosphere, with many tipping KC to go all the way thanks to a suffocating defence and refreshing attacking threat that provides a new element to the previously well-drilled but ultimately limited Peter Vermes iterations. RSL are not out of it. They must score an away goal at some point, and without Albert Rusnak, for that matter, but they are more than capable. That said, KC are the favourites.
Next is Atlanta United and New York City FC. In the first leg, it was Atlanta who travelled to Yankee Stadium and did a job on their hosts. Understanding the attacking threat of David Villa and Maxi Moralez, Tata Martino played it perfectly: a 3-5-2 to clog up the middle of the pitch, prevent NYCFC space on the counter-attack, and nick an away goal, coming from a scruffy Eric Remedi finish off a corner.
It was the perfect away-from-home playoff performance. It certainly wasn’t pretty. But it was effective. And now Atlanta hold a one-goal lead over NYCFC, can sit deep once more and exploit the speed and cleverness of Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez on the break to end the tie. Mercedez Benz stadium will be rocking. There is just one problem. Atlanta, as a city, has been here before. Will the bottle hold?
The day closes with the New York Red Bulls — the Supporters’-Shield-winning New York Red Bulls — hosting the Columbus Crew, needing to overturn a one-goal deficit after laying an absolute egg in the first leg. At home, the Red Bulls have been phenomenal this season, achieving a sensational, MLS-best 14-2-1 record. Their problem, however, is that pesky zero next to their name from the first-leg scoreline.
Away goals are critical in playoff football. The Red Bulls do not have one. Consequently, if the Crew score just one, New York must find three. That is a tall order. Thankfully, Armas’ team also boasts the defensive record in MLS and has the talent to overhaul such a deficit. But the Crew, like Atlanta, can play on the counter-attack, which suits them and Gyasi Zardes down to the ground, as long as they can deal with the suffocating Red Bull press.
I have no idea what will happen in these matches. No one does, really. And if they say they do, then they are lying. But that is the beauty of sport, especially playoff sport. The uncertainty. The drama. The ambiguity. This is the MLS Conference semi-finals. Let the madness ensue.