A tale of two Conferences
Better late than never. After a gruelling week of waiting due to the international break, the MLS Cup playoffs were back for the first leg of both Conference championships on Sunday night. In the East, the Supporters’ Shield winners, the New York Red Bulls, faced off against Tata Martino and Atlanta United FC, while the Portland Timbers hosted the top dog in the West, Sporting Kansas City.
Considering the importance of away goals in a home and away series, defense ruled in Sunday night’s matchups; just one team out of four managed to find the back of the net, although posts were plentiful, and a goal was cancelled in both matchups. Let’s dive into the details.
Grabbed by the horns
There are turning points in every walk of life; moments that define the scene and what happens next. In the first leg of the Eastern Conference final between the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United, that moment came when referee Kevin Stott disallowed Bradley Wright-Phillips’ equalizer right after the break, because of one of his teammates being in an offside position and influencing play.
Instead, the Five Stripes pounced in their Mercedes-Benz Stadium fortress, forcing the Red Bulls into a three-goal deficit heading to New Jersey. Not that it isn’t fully deserved: Tata Martino’s men controlled midfield, allowing them to quickly transition from defense to offense, and their big guns showed up, with the league’s leading scorer Josef Martinez notching the game’s opening goal. Defensively, they limited Chris Armas’ men to just one shot on target.
Atlanta United’s first ever win against the Red Bulls cannot have come at a better time. It certainly looks like Tata Martino will get a chance to play the MLS Cup final in his last season in charge.
No breakthrough in Oregon
It’s a case of mixed feelings for the Timbers; true, they didn’t concede that all-important away goal, which can end up being a huge advantage if they can find the back of the net at Children’s Mercy Park in the second leg, but you get the feeling that Giovanni Savarino’s team would have loved to score one at home. They did come close, though: Jorge Villafaña struck the inside of the post a few minutes into the game, while an offside was called after further review on a Timbers goal in the 70th minute.
Credit to goalkeeper Tim Melia, however, who made six saves, all more impressive than the last, to keep the score level heading into the second leg. SKC, on its end, will need to do better than just one shot on target if it hopes to book its ticket to the MLS Cup final for the first time since 2013, while making sure they don’t lapse defensively.
Second leg schedule
New York Red Bulls v Atlanta United FC (0-3) – Thursday, November 29 at 7:30pm EST on TVA Sports 2
Sporting Kansas City v Portland Timbers (0-0) – Thursday, November 29 at 9:30pm EST on TVA Sports 2