Red Bulls and Timbers facing long odds to book MLS Cup places
The New York Red Bulls and Portland Timbers will both head into their MLS conference finals deciders on Thursday as underdogs to secure passage to the MLS Cup final, but their paths to the championship could not be any further apart.
The Red Bulls put together the best regular season in MLS history, and posted the best home record in the league, but Sunday's 3-0 loss in Atlanta has the Red Bulls facing the kind of long odds few could have expected when the playoffs began.
Not only must the Red Bulls overcome a three-goal deficit, they must do so while also shutting down a confident and dangerous Atlanta United side, all while trying not to succumb to the pressure of the team's brutal history in the playoffs.
Red Bulls coach Chris Armas is approaching Thursday's match in the only way he can, with hope and reminders of how good his team has been Red Bull Arena. The Red Bulls have demolished some very good teams at home, including multi-goal shutout wins against Atlanta United, Portland and New York City FC. Thursday is a different proposition altogether though, because Atlanta has the luxury of a three-goal cushion, and the knowledge that if Atlanta United scores even one goal, it will signal another disappointing end to another season initially filled with promise.
Portland's task isn't quite as daunting as the Red Bulls'. Any win or score draw on Thursday and the Timbers are in their second MLS Cup final in four years. They will be facing an experienced opponent in Sporting Kansas City, and playing in an intimidating environment in Children's Mercy Park, but it's also a venue where visiting teams secured a win or score draw six times this year.
In other words, it's doable, though still difficult against a SKC side that has been on a roll for the past month, and has its own share of championship experience, with several holdovers from the 2013 MLS Cup-winning Sporting KC side. Chief among them is coach Peter Vermes, who has learned from past failures and ensured that his team isn't running on fumes heading into the playoffs, which may ultimately be what helps Sporting KC lift a third MLS Cup.
Here is a closer look at both conference finals second legs:
Red Bulls (0) vs. Atlanta United (3)
WHEN: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET (FS1)
PRESSURE IS ON: Chris Armas has carried the bulk of the blame for the team's first-leg fiasco, and will continue to catch heat if the Red Bulls don't make it at least close with an inspired showing at home.
NEEDS TO PLAY WELL: For Atlanta United, it's Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. Michael Parkhurst is the steady and reliable option in the back, but Gonzalez Pirez has been known to meltdown on occasion. If the Red Bulls are going to deliver the big win they need, it'll have to come through a shaky Gonzalez Pirez.
For the Red Bulls, Kaku must play his best game of the season. Obviously the Red Bulls need Bradley Wright-Phillips to finish chances, but Kaku must generate chances, both for himself and his teammates, if the comeback is going to happen.
OUTLOOK: The Red Bulls paid the price for going away from their high-pressing approach, but they'll have no choice but to return to their proven approach on Thursday.That's even if Armas is still trying to play coy.
“At home against Atlanta with three goals we have to make up, there are no three-pointers out there," Armas said. "So we have to get one at a time and we’ll go about it the right way and whether we are up high pressing or in a deeper block pressing, we will be aggressive.”
As comfortable a lead as Atlanta United has, the Five Stripes aren't a team that's built to sit back and absorb pressure. They can't be careless, but looking to grab the killer away goal early, and punish the Red Bulls if they are too eager, should be the approach.
“For us, we have to look at the game like it's 0-0, like we haven’t won anything,” Atlanta United coach Tata Martino told reporters this week. “For us, it's important not to cede control of the game to the Red Bulls, because that's when they'd be able to do the most damage.”
Sporting KC (0) vs. Portland Timbers (0)
WHEN: Thursday, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
PRESSURE IS ON: Diego Valeri. The Timbers star has struggled to find success against Sporting KC in 2018, and if he can't get it going on Thursday, the Timbers will find goals tough to come by.
NEEDS TO PLAY WELL: For Portland, central defender Bill Tuiloma needs to turn in another steady shift after playing well in place of injured Larrys Mabiala in the first leg. Sporting KC will attack in waves, and Tuiloma and Liam Ridgewell must be ready to withstand the onslaught.
For Sporting KC, veteran left back Seth Sinovic must be solid in dealing with Diego Valeri on the left flank. Whether Valeri works the right wing, or Sebastian Blanco works that flank, Sinovic will be the defender Portland goes after in the SKC defense in search of the valuable away goal.
OUTLOOK: Thursday's match is going to be played in frigid conditions, which could lead to a game that won't be quite as wide open as first expected.
“Whenever you have a match played in these conditions, the weather is going to affect it, profoundly,” Timbers captain Diego Valeri told reporters. “But more important than that, when you begin a game like this, one that gives you a chance to win a cup, you have to have the fortitude to overcome anything.”
Sporting KC is sure to put pressure on Portland's defense, but SKC must also be careful not to leave itself exposed to the Timbers counterattack.
"When the game opens up that's where we have to take advantage of it," said Timbers defender Jorge Villafana, who could be one of Portland's key weapons in punishing Sporting KC for overzealousness.
A six-goal thriller like we saw Sporting KC go through in eliminating Real Salt Lake is unlikely to repeat itself on Thursday, but Portland is a more balanced team than RSL, and more capable of handling the imposing environment at Children's Mercy Park. The Timbers are very capable of winning on the road, but they also have the tough task of stopping an in-form Sporting KC that knows Portland very well.
"There's nothing new that we're going to come out with in this game and there's nothing new that they're going to come out with in this game," SKC coach Peter Vermes said. "I think it's going to come down to being very disciplined, very organized, and at the same time taking advantage of our chances and trying to minimize the ones that we give up."