The 2016 MLS Conference semifinals have concluded their first legs, after a solid day of soccer that saw Leslie Jones spark an affection for the sport.
Man every time @NewYorkRedBulls get a chance to score they loss ball! This is hard!— Leslie Jones (@Lesdoggg) October 30, 2016
Umm why no one told me about this dude pic.twitter.com/k7DvSvAA7b— Leslie Jones (@Lesdoggg) October 30, 2016
Jones and everyone else watching saw a procession of games that followed one of the more established patterns of MLS: home teams tend to win. The home team was the victor in every match, winning the four first-leg games by an aggregate score of 7-0.
L'Impact nicked a 1-0 win over RBNY.
TFC left it late, but took a 2-0 lead into the second leg after tallying twice in the closing minutes against NYCFC.
Over in the Western Conference, LA hammered at Colorado Rapids but could only find one goal - and that was essentially an own goal. Axel Sjoberg managed to intercept Giovani dos Santos's shot, but could only divert to the far side of the net he was defending.
Seattle found three goals in an eight-minute stretch of the second half to record the heaviest win of the day.
The MLS Playoffs "reward" regular-season performance with a seeding system that sees the team with the better league record hosting the second leg. As such, the clean sweep of first leg wins for the lower-seeded teams in each match-up appears to threaten the primacy of those sides that performed better in the regular season. Hosting the second leg is billed as an advantage, and every team hosting a second leg will be at a distinct disadvantage next weekend.
But, of course, the point of the playoffs is not to crown the team that performed best in the league - that is the point of the Supporters' Shield. If you want to know the best team in MLS this year, take a look at the league table (or just take my word for it: it's FC Dallas). Instead, the playoffs will crown the team best equipped to handle the particular challenge of besting three or four relatively good opponents at this particular time of year: when the regular season is over.
And FC Dallas has had the misfortune of limping into the playoffs having shed its two best attacking players over the course of this season (Fabian Castillo was lost to a murky transfer deal; Mauro Diaz has been sidelined by injury). The team that looks like it has very probably just bounced FCD out of the playoffs (since Dallas needs a 3-0 win to force extra time, or to win by four goals or more if Seattle finds an away goal in the second leg), Seattle Sounders, had to fight its way back into the post-season after appearing to have lost any hope of playing soccer beyond the standard 34-game league schedule.
FCD was the best team in MLS this year, but the Sounders won eight of their last 13 league games to make the playoffs, having lost 12 of their first 20. Seattle is hot, FCD is good but not as good as it was when it had either Castillo or Diaz, and definitely not as good as when it had both.
Lower seeds winning games doesn't mean the playoffs are broken, it just means they're different from the league, with a different dynamic and their own momentum.
As it stands, the Conference semifinals' first legs have delivered exactly the sort of results MLS might have been hoping for: all four higher seeds are going home needing a win. We are promised games in which the presumed better side will chase goals with the crowd behind it.
Only one match-up - FCD vs Seattle - seems to be beyond the reach of the home team in the second leg. NYC FC might also have a little trouble getting the two-goal win it needs to get by TFC, but those two teams finished a point apart in the standings and Toronto's late-season form was weighed down by the absence of its attacking star, Sebastian Giovinco. There is a suspicion that a full-strength Toronto (which was threatening to run away with the East until Giovinco went down) is a lot better than NYC FC; quite possibly, a full-strength TFC is a lot better than any team in the Eastern Conference. TFC couldn't stay at full strength throughout the season, and paid for that by bowing out of the race for the East (and a brief interest in the Shield).
LA's narrow 1-0 lead over Colorado might be more robust than it appears. The Rapids only scored 39 goals in league play: the joint-second lowest total in MLS this year. The team's strength is its defense, not its ability to overpower an opponent with goals. The prospect of Colorado needing to chase a game - albeit at home - against an experienced and capable LA would seem to favor the Galaxy.
The New York Red Bulls, conversely, should arguably still be favored to get by Montreal Impact. The story of RBNY's season was a terrible start and a constant struggle to find wins on the road. The Red Bulls won the East because they won at home: 13 in the regular season; the most in MLS 2016. Heading home needing a win is what RBNY has been doing all season. It surely would have preferred a slightly less demanding task for the second leg, but it is also a team that is well used to the pressure of needing to win a home game because results on the road have left no margin for error.
The winners of the first legs of these semifinals will not inevitably be the Conference finalists, each must now travel and defend their leads. If that was easy, then the higher-seeded teams - who enjoyed more rest and preparation time before this weekend's games - would presumably have successfully avoided defeat in the first place.
The first leg results don't mean the playoffs are broken (though they may have broken a very good FCD team). They simply mean the playoffs are not the regular season. And the best teams over a long run from March to October might not still be the best teams during a short sprint to December 10. Ultimately, unless the playoffs are stacked so outrageously in favor the Shield-winner as to make them a meaningless victory parade, the end-of-year tournament should be expected to confound expectations.
The first round of the playoffs saw one favorite (based on seeding) fall. The semifinal round may yet see a few more -maybe even all - of the top seeds tumble. And that is just fine for the competition as whole, disappointing as it will be for the supporters of those favorites that drop out ahead of their expected schedule.