On Sunday, after some interesting and bizarre results in the previous round, MLS will start its conference semifinals round. The Eastern Conference has its two games on Sunday, and the Western Conference will play its two games on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Surprisingly, Toronto FC, NYCFC, the Portland Timbers, and the Philadelphia Union are already gone. The knockout round-style playoffs, introduced last year in place of a two-leg system, produces immensely entertaining and intense games, but it also creates a level of variance that wasn’t there before. Anything can happen in a single game, and with penalty kicks more possible than ever (three games have gone to PKs so far, with another going to extra time), coin flips essentially decide games.
That shouldn’t take much from the winner, though — it just means it’s tough to navigate all the way through it. Sunday’s games will feature some new contenders, an established yet currently unstable contender, and something of a Cinderella story. Let’s take a look at both of the games.
Orlando City SC vs. New England Revolution (3:00pm ET, ABC)
Orlando participated in one of the wildest games in MLS history, beating NYCFC in a ridiculous penalty shootout that saw defender Rodrigo Schlegel save the winning kick. The cost of that wild game is clear, though: both starting right back Ruan and goalkeeper Pedro Gallese saw red (whether justified or not, in Gallese’s case), robbing Orlando of crucial players.
They’ve had to make do all season without some of their best players. They also will be without midfielder Sebatian Mendez, who has been sidelined with an undisclosed injury. It will be up to backup keeper Brian Rowe to make the same game-breaking saves that Gallese was able to make against NYC. Replacing Ruan may be even tougher — his presence as an attacking option from the right flank is an important part of their chance-creation. In order to make up that production and playmaking, they will need some moments of brilliance from Chris Mueller, Daryl Dike, or Mauricio Pereyra.
New England has been getting plenty of those moments, as they have their star attackers back. Gustavo Bou produced a golazo winner in late stoppage time to put New England past Montreal in the play-in round, and against Supporters’ Shield-winning Philadelphia in the quarterfinals, Carles Gil came up with two majestic assists in the first half-hour.
Bruce Arena’s Revs have done a lot of things right, and they might have the upper hand coming into this game. Gil, in particular, is a legitimate superstar, a true No. 10 playmaker who pulls the strings and makes things easier for his teammates. Bou can be frustrating at times, but he oozes natural talent and has shown on multiple occasions that he can make goals out of nothing.
As with any game in MLS’s postseason, this has the potential to be an entertaining, back-and-forth game, despite Arena’s general preference for orderliness.
Columbus Crew vs. Nashville SC (8pm ET, ESPN)
There is a significant amount of uncertainty in this game. Columbus has had a turbulent week, as six players tested positive for covid-19 and will not be available. There hasn’t been much of an indication as to who those players are, and whether those players are important contributors (that, obviously, is secondary to the health of the players).
There also apparently haven’t been discussions of forfeiture. MLS has said they are willing to force a team to forfeit if covid-19 makes playing impossible. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen, but putting the players at risk is worse than any other outcome.
If the game goes on, Nashville will need continued performances from their attackers, who have done just enough to put Nashville and their elite defense past Inter Miami and Toronto FC. Especially if they’re missing important pieces, Columbus will have a difficult task on their hands.
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