What to Watch for in the MLS Conference Finals

This weekend the MLS playoffs march forward, and I’m here to preview the Conference Finals. Even though the local Los Angeles Galaxy will not be playing, 5C students should still certainly tune in for the following exciting matchups as the season nears its end. 

In the Eastern Conference, we have the heavyweight favorites Toronto FC against playoff darlings Columbus Crew. In the West, we have the reigning champion Seattle Sounders facing off against the offensively deep Houston Dynamo. These matchups surprising – many expected Seattle and Toronto to be here, but the Crew and Dynamo were definitely underdogs in their earlier playoff matchups.

Let’s dive deep and see if we can find who should advance to the MLS Cup.

It's an exciting matchup in the East between two very different teams. For the past two seasons, Toronto has played in their unique 3-5-2 formation, which allows for more numbers in attack while also providing an additional central defender for support. These wing backs can press forward and swing in crosses for large forwards like Jozy Altidore, and eventually open up play centrally for maestro Sebastian Giovinco to attack with pace and wonderful skill.

The only problem is Altidore and Giovinco are not playing in the first leg of the conference finals. In the second leg of their playoff matchup against the Red Bulls, Altidore received a red card for getting in a fight in the tunnel during halftime. Giovinco received his second yellow card in the playoff matchup, so he also received a one game suspension. Without these two, Toronto FC are missing two forwards that accounted for almost 50 percent of their goals in the regular season, meaning that their offensive firepower will be seriously lacking. The team will be looking for Michael Bradley, Victor Vasquez, and Justin Morrow, some of Toronto’s best creators, to serve up some opportunities that the backup forwards, Toisant Ricketts and Raheem Edwards, can neatly put away.

As for the Crew, they will be looking for Ola Kamara to continue to be the proven goal scoring forward he has been all year, and for attacking midfielders Justin Meram and Federico Higuaín to put some pressure on Toronto’s back three defenders. In the first leg of their matchup against NYCFC, the Crew took advantage of their home field and beat down NYCFC 4-1. In the second leg, NYCFC faced too large of a deficit to come back and ultimately fell short. If the Crew can punish Toronto FC for their absences and take a large lead after the first leg, Toronto FC may face the same dilemma. If the Crew advance to the MLS Cup, it would continue their lucky run. With the threat of relocation looming, the organization and fans don’t know how many Crew games they have left, so this could be a magical year for everyone in Columbus.

In the Western Conference, we have an intriguing matchup between two very similar teams. Both teams typically play either a 4-2-3-1 formation or a 4-3-3 formation, finished with nearly the same amount of points and goal differential on the season, and have pretty deep attacking forces. Despite missing forward Jordan Morris for the final month of the regular season and all of their playoff matchups, the Sounders are still loaded with talent from Clint Dempsey to Will Bruin, not to forget last year’s playoff MVP Nico Lodeiro. If Morris does manage to come back from his injury, look for him to come off the bench and possibly add a spark in the second half.

However, Seattle may want to play reserved for the first leg. They had one of the best home records in all of MLS this season, so Seattle should look to keep a decent aggregate score before they return home to their amazing crowd in the second leg. While it may make for less exciting soccer, nothing is wrong with playing it safe in a two leg aggregate. If the Sounders can keep a clean sheet in the first leg like they did against the Vancouver Whitecaps last round, I’d expect them to return to the MLS Cup again.

Houston’s main concern will be rest. Houston dealt with a number of injuries in their playoff matchup against the Portland Timbers that will still be lingering come this weekend. On top of that, Honduras’ World Cup qualifying playoff matchup has a major effect on the Dynamo. Honduras played Australia in Sydney on Wednesday and three key players for the Dynamo represented Honduras in the game: Boniek Garcia, Romell Quioto, and Alberth Elis. The Dynamo players then had to fly 18 hours back across the globe, and will hop back onto the pitch six days later. They could be physically and mentally exhausted, and although manager Wilmer Cabrera has been known to rotate around his starting lineup, these three are crucial members to their success. If the Dynamo want to get off to a good start at home in the first leg, they’ll need to make sure Garcia, Quioto, and Elis can quickly recover.

These matchups in theory should be exciting; lots of exciting talent is going to be present. But as we have seen in past years, when it comes to the MLS playoffs, teams take a reserved approach. Neither team wants to overextend itself or push too far early and blow the second leg. While part of me anticipates some possibly boring games this weekend, the optimist in me looks at last year’s thrilling Eastern conference championship between Montreal and Toronto and hopes for a repeat. In reality all I hope for is to see some new faces in the MLS Cup final this year.