Slender Leads in MLS Conference Finals Leave Everything to Play for in 2nd Legs

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistNovember 23, 2016

Seattle Sounders forward Nicolas Lodeiro, right, celebrates with defender Tyrone Mears, left, after Lodeiro scored a goal against the Colorado Rapids in the second half of the first leg of the MLS soccer Western Conference championship, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016, in Seattle. The Sounders beat the Rapids 2-1.(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

The 16-day layoff between the Major League Soccer conference semifinals and the first leg of the conference finals allowed all four clubs to produce excitement on fresh legs on Tuesday. 

The Montreal Impact opened Tuesday's two-game slate with a 3-2 win against rival Toronto FC in front of over 61,000 fans at the Olympic Stadium. 

Montreal could've entered the second leg at BMO Field on November 30 with a three-goal advantage, but a tactical switch helped the Reds secure the middle of the park and score a pair of second-half strikes. 

Seattle will take a slim 2-1 edge into the second leg against the Colorado Rapids on Sunday. As he has been since his summer arrival, Nicolas Lodeiro was in the middle of the action for the home side at CenturyLink Field. 

Despite taking one-goal leads into the second leg, both Montreal and Seattle have plenty of work left to do to preserve their respective advantages and move on to the MLS Cup final on December 10. 

The Impact appeared to be on the brink of a berth in the final through 53 minutes, as they sunk three goals into the Toronto FC net before the Reds woke up from their slumber inside the cavernous Olympic Stadium. 

Dominic Oduro, Matteo Mancosu and Ambroise Oyongo all took advantage of the poor marking in midfield by the visitors to power the home side into a 3-0 lead. 

But instead of delivering the knockout blow to their biggest rival, the Impact fell victim to two strikes inside the box to put them on notice heading into the second leg in Ontario in a week's time. 

Toronto's sudden change in style and motivation came after the introduction of Will Johnson in the 57th minute. The Canadian's entrance four minutes after the third Montreal goal locked down the middle of the park, as he played alongside Michael Bradley, who scored the final tally of the night in Quebec. 

Johnson occupied the space left open by Bradley when the American moved forward, and he made sure the Impact had no space to counter, as they had done with great success in the first half. 

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 22:  Marco Donadel #33 of the Montreal Impact and Will Johnson #7 of the Toronto FC battle for the ball during leg one of the MLS Eastern Conference finals at Olympic Stadium on November 22, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The M
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Ignacio Piatti plowed through the middle of the park with ease on a few occasions, and he benefited from Steven Beitashour's poor marking to set up Mancosu for Montreal's second. Oyongo, Montreal's left-back, was allowed to prance into the same vacant space in the buildup to his 53rd-minute strike that should've been stopped by Clint Irwin. 

Johnson brought the stability that Jonathan Osorio and Armando Cooper were unable to provide in midfield, and after his arrival on the turf, Montreal did not attempt a shot on goal. 

Given the stark contrast in results, the Reds will probably line up Johnson next to Bradley to start the second leg. That means Toronto could easily shift into some sort of 4-4-2, or even keep the 3-5-2 with Osorio or Cooper remaining in the midfield trio.

However, it will be tough for Toronto boss Greg Vanney to defend using the 3-5-2 again after Montreal controlled the opening 55 minutes of play, due in part to the problems endured by the Toronto full-backs. 

Vanney's tactics will be key for Toronto's success in the second leg.
Vanney's tactics will be key for Toronto's success in the second leg.Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Even though Toronto will play the more progressive brand of soccer in the second leg, the Reds aren't the surefire favorites to become the first Canadian team to advance to the championship match. 

Montreal's defend-and-counter strategy earned them a road victory over D.C. United in the knockout round and a 2-1 road triumph at Red Bull Arena in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal. 

Letting in two away goals to a dynamic attack led by Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore was less than ideal, but the Impact have the defensive mettle to shut down a high-powered forward line in the playoffs.

All you have to do is look at the job they did against Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan of the New York Red Bulls to see what the Impact are capable of. 

If Montreal's game plan succeeds, there's a good chance Didier Drogba will make a cameo off the bench in attempt to seal a position in the final. The Ivorian might receive an earlier introduction if Toronto open the scoring. 

Drogba may be a vital player off the bench for the Impact in the second leg.
Drogba may be a vital player off the bench for the Impact in the second leg.Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

Given the attacking firepower on both sides, it's hard to see the second leg being a defensive showcase, but if an easy goal is scored on either side, both teams may throw out tactical minutiae and go for the win in regulation time. 

The same can't be said for how the second leg of the Western Conference final will play out. 

Seattle did enough to create plenty of momentum entering Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Sunday, but the Sounders will be tasked with breaking down the sturdy Rapids back line at home, something few clubs did with great success during the regular season. 

Brian Schmetzer's men controlled play and had the better chances over 90 minutes on Tuesday, but they only put in one tally from the run of playand that came off a rebound off the left post. The second Seattle goal came from the spot by way of Lodeiro, who moved his playoff tally to four. 

Outside of the two goals, Seattle couldn't capitalize on the space they found in the organized Rapids defense. That could be seen as a positive for Colorado, but they will be missing midfielder Sam Cronin for the second leg due to yellow-card accumulation.

Cronin is the glue that holds it all together in front of the back four. Without him, the Rapids will turn to Michael Azira to partner Jermaine Jones, who is a bit of a freelancer when it comes to his position on the pitch. 

Jones will anchor the midfield in front of the back four on Sunday.
Jones will anchor the midfield in front of the back four on Sunday.Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Even if they put an early goal into the back of the net at home, the Rapids won't have the luxury of replacing Jones, with Azira available due to Cronin's absence. If Seattle finds a way to get under the skin of Jones from the first whistle, there's a chance the Sounders could create some dangerous set-piece opportunities for Lodeiro. 

The players who line up directly across from Jones and Azira will be the key to Seattle's success in the second leg. Everyone in the league knows what Osvaldo Alonso is capable in defensive midfield, but the emergence of Cristian Roldan as his partner has changed how teams approach the middle of the park. 

As he showed on Seattle's equalizer, Roldan is capable of breaking forward to become another weapon in attack when all eyes are focused on Lodeiro and Jordan Morris. Roldan's shot off the left post bounced right to Morris, who easily beat the offside trap to finish from close range. 

Sunday's second leg could be won in the middle of the park, as it was on Tuesday. Roldan is on the verge of a call-up to the United States men's national team, and if he performs well next to the always-reliable Alonso, Colorado might not get many chances to pounce in the final third. 

If the first legs are any indication of what we'll see in the upcoming days, all it will take is one decision by a manager, or one small breakdown, to change the tides in Colorado and Toronto. 

          

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter; @JTansey90