MLS Team of the Week: Dempsey, McCarty, Waston Shine in Conference Semifinals
The four first legs of the conference semifinals in Major League Soccer produced more grind-it-out results on Sunday than the overwhelming excitement produced by the knockout-round matches on Wednesday and Thursday.
With more strategy involved, including playing for away goals in the first leg, the eight teams who stepped onto the pitch on Sunday all remained alive because of hard-fought contests.
Seattle and Montreal made the biggest splashes at home, but both sides conceded an away goal to FC Dallas and Columbus respectively.
The New York Red Bulls took advantage of D.C. United's putrid attacking play to head into the second leg at Red Bull Arena with a 1-0 lead, while Portland and Vancouver failed to break their deadlock after 90 minutes.
Since goals came at a premium for forwards on Sunday, we shaped our MLS Team of the Week in a 4-5-1 formation.
Continue reading to see who were the best 11 players during Sunday's slate of contests.
GK: David Ousted, Vancouver Whitecaps
David Ousted flashed his Goalkeeper of the Year credentials with the best save of the weekend in the 71st minute of Vancouver's 0-0 draw with Portland.
The Danish goalkeeper leaped toward the right post and knocked away Diego Valeri's perfectly placed free kick to keep the Whitecaps level with the dominant Timbers at Providence Park.
Ousted, 30, recorded a total of six saves in the goalless draw, which may end up benefiting Portland more depending on how many goals are scored in the return fixture at BC Place.
Full Back: Donny Toia, Montreal Impact
Donny Toia's name was not called much during the broadcast of Montreal's 2-1 win over Columbus. For a defender like the 23-year-old, that's a good thing.
Toia held Columbus winger Ethan Finlay, who was one of three players with 10 or more goals and assists in the regular season, to 20 touches in 66 minutes.
By shutting down Finlay on the right flank, Toia was able to disrupt the rhythm of the Crew attack, which sputtered at times without the contributions of Finlay.
Toia finished the match with five tackles, four interceptions and one foul, which may be the most important stat of them all.
CB: Kendall Waston, Vancouver Whitecaps
Both Vancouver center backs are deserving of this honor after the first leg of the Western Conference semifinal, but we decided to go with Kendall Waston because of a few key involvements he had in the penalty area.
Waston and partner Tim Parker marked Portland forward Fanendo Adi out of the game with physical play and strong positioning in the Cascadia Cup clash.
The Costa Rican, 27, also made a big sliding stop early in the second half as the ball bounced off Ousted following a save by the goalkeeper. If Waston had not cleared the rebound, Diego Valeri was waiting to pounce.
Marking Adi out of one game is an impressive task given his recent form, but doing it twice in seven days will be a challenging task for Waston and Parker.
CB: Laurent Ciman, Montreal Impact
Laurent Ciman also marked a powerful forward out of the match during his 90-minute shift on Sunday.
The Belgian lynchpin of the Montreal back line took Columbus' leading scorer, Kei Kamara, out of the match with his strong style of play in front of the Montreal net.
Ciman, 30, held Kamara to one shot, which went off target, and just three successful passes in the final third at Stade Saputo.
Full Back: Jorge Villafana, Portland Timbers
Many were mesmerized by the standout defensive performances in the Vancouver back line at Providence Park on Sunday, but the Timbers received one of their own from Jorge Villafana.
The left back held Cristian Techera's influence on the match to a minimum, which forced Vancouver to rely too much on Kekuta Manneh in his individual battle against Portland's better full back, Alvas Powell.
In 90 minutes against the diminutive winger, Villafana restricted Techera to one shot off target.
If he is able to produce the same effort in the second leg at BC Place, the 26-year-old will hand the Timbers a massive boost in their quest to reach the Western Conference final.
AM: Andreas Ivanschitz, Seattle Sounders
Everyone expected Seattle to equalize in the final match of the day in some fashion, but no one thought it would come on a marauding run by Andreas Ivanschitz.
In the 67th minute, the 32-year-old picked up a turnover just past midfield, made a curling run toward the left side of the box and powered Seattle's first goal of the night into the bottom-right corner of the net.
Although the Sounders have plenty of options to choose from on the wings, we should expect to see Ivanschitz back in the starting XI for Sunday's trip to Toyota Stadium.
CM: Federico Higuain, Columbus Crew
Federico Higuain was one of the few Columbus attackers who actually showed up at Stade Saputo in the first-leg loss to Montreal.
The 31-year-old was a force in the final third from the outset, but he unfortunately did not receive a ton of help from Ethan Finlay and Kei Kamara.
The Argentinian pounced for the Crew's lone goal in the 33rd minute, knocking in an errant Didier Drogba clearance.
In order for Columbus to make up the one-goal deficit and move on to the Eastern Conference final, Higuain must play at the level he did on Sunday and receive some help from the rest of the Crew's front line.
CM: Dax McCarty, New York Red Bulls
The captain of the New York Red Bulls took matters into his own hands on Sunday, as he scored the lone goal in the club's 1-0 win over D.C. United at RFK Stadium.
Dax McCarty worked his way around the D.C. defense in the 72nd minute and nodded home Sacha Kljestan's free kick to hand the Red Bulls a vital away goal.
The defensive midfielder was also a vital part of the Red Bulls defensive setup that held D.C. to zero shots on goal and a 55 percent pass accuracy in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal tie.
With an away goal on their side, the Red Bulls seem to be in full control entering the second leg at Red Bull Arena.
CM: Patrice Bernier, Montreal Impact
Patrice Bernier produced one assist in 20 games in the regular season.
In two postseason games, the midfielder has two goals for the Montreal Impact.
Bernier continued his hot spell of form in the 37th minute, as he nodded in Marco Donadel's corner to level the Impact's match with the Crew at one goal apiece.
The equalizer from the 36-year-old came three days after he netted one of Montreal's three goals in its knockout-round victory over rival Toronto.
AM: Fabian Castillo, FC Dallas
Fabian Castillo's price tag went up once again in the 18th minute on Sunday, as he struck first for FC Dallas at CenturyLink Field.
The dynamic Colombian winger put Oscar Pareja's side in front with a shot into the right side of the net off a brilliant counter sprung forward by Ryan Hollingshead and Mauro Diaz.
Despite failing to net a second strike in Seattle, Castillo remained active in the final third and attempted the most shots of any player on the field with four.
FC Dallas will need another impressive performance out of the 23-year-old to take advantage of their away goal and win on aggregate in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinal.
FW: Clint Dempsey, FW, Seattle Sounders
Clint Dempsey may not have delivered the knockout punch to FC Dallas in the 86th minute on Sunday night, but he certainly delivered a blow to the gut with his free kick.
The 32-year-old put the Sounders ahead late in the second half with a thunderous free kick that flew past Jesse Gonzalez and into the right side of the net.
The United States international wasn't the only player originally lined up over the free kick, but as Ivanschitz told Matt Pentz of the Seattle Times, Dempsey made sure he was the one taking the critical set piece.
Dempsey's strike handed Seattle a one-goal advantage heading into the second leg in Texas. The Sounders still have plenty of work to do, but they certainly have the upper hand in the semifinal fixture entering the second leg thanks to their pair of late goals.
GK: Bill Hamid (D.C. United)
CB: Tim Parker (Vancouver Whitecaps)
CM: Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew)
CM: Johan Venegas (Montreal Impact)
AM: Kekuta Manneh (Vancouver Whitecaps)
FW: Obafemi Martins (Seattle Sounders)
FW: Maxi Urruti (Portland Timbers)
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.