Pros and cons of MLS playoff format highlighted in West semifinals
The good and bad of Major League Soccer's postseason were both on display this past week in the Pacific Northwest.
First in Seattle and then in Portland, boisterous fans filled stadiums with noise and pageantry.
At CenturyLink Field, Clint Dempsey delivered perhaps his signature performance as a Sounder, with the longtime U.S. national team forward scoring twice to fire the defending champions into the Western Conference final. At Providence Park, Houston defender Dylan Remick played the unlikely hero, and the raw emotion of the home crowd was obvious as it came to grips with the end of a campaign that all the way until the final whistle seemed destined for bigger things.
In this corner of the country, at least, the conference semifinals underscored the league's growth and relative good health. The two series also, however, touched on the major flaws of MLS' playoff structure.
The away-goals tiebreaker is purportedly designed to discourage visitors from playing too negatively. By encouraging road teams to attack, and with the presumption that the hosts will be compelled by their home crowd to go for it themselves, two-legged series should be more open and entertaining.
In each of these Western Conference semis, however -- mostly glaringly throughout Seattle vs. Vancouver -- the rule had a different, adverse effect.
At BC Place, despite the Sounders' being down multiple key difference-makers, the Whitecaps sat back and played for a scoreless draw. Coach Carl Robinson ceded as much afterward: His goal was to play for zeroes and try to steal an away goal (and the series) in Seattle.
Thus, perhaps the biggest match in Vancouver's MLS era, played before a crowd of 27,837 fans ready to explode if only the home team gave them something to cheer about, turned into a 90-minute slog. The Caps and Sounders combined for just a single shot on goal. One could sense every television not already tuned into that Sunday's NFL slate channel surfing for an alternative.
At least Robinson's strategy backfired. Once Dempsey scored in the 56th minute of the second leg, it was clear that the Whitecaps had no Plan B and that toggling from all-out defense into an aggressive attack is more difficult than their coach made it sound.
The Timbers-Dynamo series also finished 0-0 through Leg 1 and highlighted another flaw in the away-goals rule: It negates home-field advantage.
Portland surged down the stretch to earn the top seed in the West, while Houston rode out a late-summer slump to finish in fourth. Yet it can be argued that the format benefited the Dynamo. It presents underdogs with a paint-by-the-numbers blueprint for an upset: Keep the score as low as possible at home, and ride your luck in the second leg.
If Vancouver's lack of firepower broke from the template at CenturyLink, Houston followed it to the letter. Dairon Asprilla fired Portland within touching distance of the conference final in the 39th minute, but a single momentary defensive lapse was enough to doom the Timbers. Remick pounced on a failed clearance with a sweetly struck volley right before halftime, and the series was turned on its head. Instead of being level at 1-1, the Dynamo now had the tiebreaker, Portland was forced to commit numbers forward in desperation, and Houston hit on the break 13 minutes from time to clinch advancement.
Which brings us to the third and most glaring defect of MLS' playoff bracket: the FIFA international window that cleaves a long break right when the playoffs start to build momentum.
Seattle-Houston might not be Sounders-Timbers on the hype scale, but there are reasons to be excited about the Western Conference final. Dempsey trying to lead the Sounders to a second straight title after missing last year's run with an irregular heartbeat is a compelling narrative. The Dynamo's rise from last place in the West in 2016 to the brink of MLS Cup is a genuine feel-good story.
But keeping casual observers engaged with those storylines during this comically long layoff will be a challenge. Nearly three full weeks (!) will pass between Seattle's victory over Vancouver and the opening kickoff of the conference final on Nov. 21 in Houston.
Solutions might be on the way. MLS is reportedly considering tweaking its schedule to avoid the international break, and a proposal to shift to all single-elimination would solve both the issues with away goals and home-field advantage. All of those changes would be welcome.
There are positives to build on, as touched upon in the intro. The weaknesses, however, are glaring enough that experimentation is necessary if the MLS Cup playoffs are to ever become appointment viewing for anybody outside the league's current, restricted circle of existing die-hards.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.