It’s time for the Major League Soccer playoffs to resume, with just four teams left in the chase for the MLS Cup. On paper, the matchups in both conferences are mismatches, with a clear favorite in each of the two-legged series, both of which begin Tuesday and conclude the next week.
In the Western Conference, Seattle takes on Houston, the team that nobody expected to still be hanging around. Injuries and a suspension have weakened Houston’s defense. It probably should have lost to Kansas City in the knockout round. It probably should have lost to Portland in the semifinals. It probably should not have even made the playoffs. But an impossibly good home record got it over the line and into the bracket. The Dynamo keeps doing just enough to move on, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it win the conference finals. It’s just impossible to logically construct an argument for why it would happen that way.
Seattle, the defending MLS Cup champion, is Houston’s opposite. You could easily see how it would win another title, except the team has been less than dominant this year. The Sounders have a solid defense and an excellent collection of attacking talent, but they occasionally struggle to connect the two. When that happens, its games can turn into stalemates, a never-ending series of 1-1 draws. Still, though, the Sounders are favored to reach the final.
In the Eastern Conference, Toronto is, like Seattle, the big favorite. The Reds are the best team in MLS history, setting a league record for most points in a season en route to winning the Supporters’ Shield. They won the Canadian Championship as well. The MLS Cup’s spot in the club’s trophy case was nearly filled last year, when Toronto lost to Seattle on penalties in the league final. Betting against Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley would be foolish.
But Columbus has a bigger cause to play for — the future of the Crew franchise. Owner Anthony Precourt is threatening to move the team to Austin, Texas, if the city of Columbus won’t build him a new stadium. So far Columbus has, understandably, told Precourt it’s not interested in building the team a second stadium in two decades. The clock is ticking on one of MLS’ original franchises, and the league has been disappointingly compliant with Precourt’s blackmail. The timing coincides with the Crew’s best form of the year. Perhaps the wave of #SaveTheCrew support is enough for Columbus to pull another upset.
Could Columbus be the one to knock off Toronto, which is missing Giovinco and Altidore because of suspensions in the first leg? Can Houston keep finding unexpected ways to win? Or will the MLS Cup final be a Seattle-Toronto rematch? The final matchup will be decided over the next two weeks.
• Many people joked on social media about the potential for a losers’ World Cup next summer, featuring the United States, Italy, the Netherlands, Chile, Cameroon and various other international soccer heavyweights that failed to qualify for the actual World Cup. (Other suggested names for the tournament: Soccer NIT and some less-printable variations.) Days later, though, various reports indicated that U.S. Soccer was actually looking into trying to create such a tournament. Somehow, the idea of U.S. Soccer trying to turn a profit off its greatest failure seems less like a fun idea and more like a reason to replace everyone at American soccer’s governing body.
• It sounds like Minnesota business owner Elam Baer is getting out of the soccer ownership business. Last year, Baer purchased National Women’s Soccer League side FC Kansas City, but multiple reports indicate that the team is moving to become part of the Real Salt Lake organization (though it will be treated officially as an expansion team and not as a franchise move).
• You could spend almost all of Saturday watching some of the soccer world’s biggest rivalries. For local rivalries and passion, it doesn’t get much better than this.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Tottenham at Arsenal, 6:30 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. The North London derby is upside down. After decades of Arsenal dominance, Tottenham now has the upper hand and is the one desperately chasing league leader Manchester City. The Gunners, though, would love nothing more than to reclaim bragging rights and slow down the Spurs.
Serie A: Lazio at Roma, 11 a.m. Saturday, beIN. Both Rome-based teams are among the glut of well-known teams at the top of the Italian standings, giving the first “Derby della Capitale” of the season a little extra meaning. Roma boasts the league’s best defense, Lazio one of its most prolific attacks. Which side of Rome will have bragging rights?
La Liga: Real Madrid at Atletico Madrid, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, beIN. This is a classic Atletico team — hard to score against and hard to beat. Atletico has allowed just six goals all year and hasn’t lost but is still in fourth place thanks to a ton of draws. Real Madrid should find it tough going across town to new Estadio Metropolitano.
Liga MX: Tigres at Monterrey, 7 p.m. Saturday, Univision. There’s always something on the line when these two crosstown rivals meet, but it’s not always the playoffs’ top seed. Monterrey has led the standings most of the year, but if Tigres can pull off a road victory, it will finish atop the regular-season standings. The Clasico Regio has plenty on the line.