MLS Team of the Week: FC Dallas Quartet Shine in Conference Semifinal 2nd Leg
The playoff field in Major League Soccer was cut in half on Sunday as four teams secured positions in the conference finals with different types of victories.
The New York Red Bulls opened the quadruple header with a boring 1-0 win over rival D.C. United. Columbus added more excitement to the day as it took down Montreal 3-1 in extra time to advance to the Eastern Conference Final against the Supporters' Shield winners.
In the Western Conference, FC Dallas beat Seattle in an instant classic, while Portland downed Vancouver with a pair of away goals at BC Place.
Some of the best play of the postseason to date came from FC Dallas' win on penalties over Seattle. Due to their impressive performances in the win, four of the playoff heroes for Oscar Pareja's side feature in our MLS Team of the Week. Each of the other three victors also placed multiple players into the best 11 from the conference semifinal second legs.
Continue reading on to see who was named to our latest MLS Team of the Week.
GK: Jesse Gonzalez, FC Dallas
Jesse Gonzalez introduced himself to the the rest of North America with a big match in net against the dangerous Sounders.
Gonzalez, who has been stellar in the FC Dallas goal since the start of October, made two penalty denials and three saves in regulation to help Oscar Pareja's side advance to the Western Conference Final.
In the shootout, the 20-year-old stopped Andreas Ivanschitz and Chad Barrett on consecutive shots to distance FC Dallas from the perennial power in the West.
RB: Sal Zizzo, New York Red Bulls
In order to earn playing time down the stretch, Sal Zizzo shifted from his normal position on the wing to right back for the New York Red Bulls.
In Sunday's Eastern Conference semifinal second leg match with D.C. United at Red Bull Arena, the 28-year-old limited Nick Deleon's influence on the United attack by holding the midfielder to zero shots on target and 47 touches.
Due to a combination of solid defensive play by the Red Bulls and the ineptitude of the D.C. attack, Ben Olsen's side recorded its first shot on goal in the semifinal tie in the 65th minute of the second leg.
Zizzo and the Red Bulls' back four will face a more difficult task in the Eastern Conference Final against a Columbus attack that can hit you from every angle on the pitch.
CB: Gaston Sauro, Columbus Crew
Shutting down Didier Drogba was the main task presented to the Columbus Crew defense on Sunday. Even though the former Chelsea man attempted four shots on target, he was not a key player in the contest for long stretches.
Summer acquisition Gaston Sauro, who starred in a few of Columbus' final regular-season matches, held Drogba in check next to center-back partner Michael Parkhurst in the Crew's extra-time victory over the Impact at Mapfre Stadium.
By keeping the 37-year-old legend out of the match, Sauro was able to stop the Montreal attack from finding a rhythm, especially throughout extra time, when the Crew dominated the majority of the chances.
CB: Walker Zimmerman, FC Dallas
Walker Zimmerman became a playoff legend in Texas in just 36 minutes on the pitch on Sunday.
With FC Dallas facing elimination, the 22-year-old nodded home the team's second strike of the night from close range in the box to force extra time.
After no progress was made in extra time, the center back stepped to the spot and drained the winning penalty for the home side at Toyota Stadium.
Zimmerman's 90th-minute goal was his first in MLS since June 2013, when he scored in two straight games against Sporting Kansas City and Philadelphia.
“That’s the mentality of our team,” Zimmerman told MLSSoccer.com's Scott Sidway. “It’s, ‘Never give up. Fight until the final whistle.’ And even though they got that late goal, I don’t think there was anyone on our team going, ‘This is done. We’re about to lose to Seattle again.’ It was, ‘Let’s score. Let’s win this game. Let’s move on.’”
CB: Nat Borchers, Portland Timbers
Portland continued to reap the rewards of its offseason trade for Nat Borchers as the center back helped the Timbers secure the final berth in the conference final round.
Along with center-back partner Liam Ridgewell, the former Real Salt Lake man held the Vancouver attack to two shots on goal in the second leg at BC Place.
Borchers also helped control Octavio Rivero's activity in the box as the Vancouver forward made 25 touches in 90 minutes up top for the Whitecaps.
The Portland back four will face their toughest test of the season in the Western Conference Final as they go head-to-head with an in-form FC Dallas attack led by Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo.
LB: Ryan Hollingshead, FC Dallas
Ryan Hollingshead turned in a massive shift at left back in FC Dallas' second-leg victory over the Sounders at home.
The 24-year-old, who has gotten better with every game on the left flank of defense, made 12 interceptions, seven tackles and two clearances in the third match of Sunday's playoff slate.
Thanks to his stellar play, Nelson Valdez and substitute Cristian Roldan failed to make a legitimate impact in the Sounders attack over the course of 120 minutes.
Hollingshead and the FC Dallas back four will now face another difficult test in the Western Conference Final as Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri and the Portland Timbers await them in two weeks.
AM: Mauro Diaz, FC Dallas
Mauro Diaz may not have recorded a shot on target on Sunday night, but he still had a major say in who came out on top at Toyota Stadium.
The 24-year-old Argentinian led all players in touches with 112 and drove the FC Dallas attack forward in search of a crucial goal at home.
In addition to driving the entire Seattle defense insane, the midfield magician also opened the penalty shootout with a goal.
CM: Dax McCarty, New York Red Bulls
As expected, the captain of the New York Red Bulls turned in a complete performance in front of the back four for the second consecutive week against his team's biggest rival.
Dax McCarty helped the Red Bulls maintain 62 percent of the possession battle with 85 touches and a pass-accuracy percentage of 87 on 69 passes.
The 28-year-old midfielder also made an impact in the final third as he made three key passes. McCarty and fellow central midfielder Sacha Kljestan combined for seven key passes as the Red Bulls attempted to put away D.C. early in the second leg at Red Bull Arena.
The veteran of the league will face stiff opposition in the Eastern Conference Final in the form of Columbus' young midfield pair of Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani.
AM: Ethan Finlay, Columbus Crew
Ethan Finlay rebounded from one of his worst games of the season with a strong performance in front of the Columbus faithful at Mapfre Stadium.
The top moment from Finlay's second-leg showing against Montreal came in the 78th minute, when he knocked home a rebound to put the Crew ahead in the match and level on aggregate.
The 25-year-old American continued to thrive in attack during both periods of extra time as Columbus used the momentum from his goal to surge forward in search of a series-winning tally. Gregg Berhalter's side finally received that in the 111th minute on a Kei Kamara header.
FW: Kei Kamara, Columbus Crew
Kei Kamara experienced a wide array of emotions in Columbus' win over Montreal.
The 31-year-old put the home side ahead in the fourth minute with a leaping header, but he was unable to convert from the spot in the 68th minute. Kamara took the ball away from regular penalty taker Federico Higuain and struck a poor shot into the body of Evan Bush.
Luckily for Kamara, he was bailed out by Finlay and the match proceeded into extra time. In the second half of extra time, the Sierra Leone international used his strong ability in the air to nod in the winning goal of the semifinal clash.
“I wasn’t as involved in the last game and I wasn’t so happy about that,” Kamara told Andrew King of MLSSoccer.com. “I pushed myself during the week and said, ‘It doesn’t matter what happens because it’s do-or-die in this game. If we don’t win it, there’s no other chance that I’m going to get. So no matter what’s happening, I just have to keep pushing myself.’ That’s what I did today, and there were great crosses into the box.”
FW: Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers
Fanendo Adi scored the most important goal of Portland's season to date in the 31st minute of the club's victory at BC Place.
The 25-year-old received a pass at the top of the box from Diego Valeri and rocketed the ball past David Ousted to hand the Timbers a vital away goal in the Cascadia Cup showdown.
The lanky Nigerian also helped the Timbers finish off the match in the 94th minute as he dropped a pass over to the feet of Diego Chara on the midfielder's first goal of the postseason.
“They play for each other; they’re very hungry,” Timbers boss Caleb Porter remarked to MLSSoccer.com's Dan Itel. “Last six games we’re unbeaten and last six games we’ve been in playoff mode. We’ve been under massive pressure, and for this group to play the football they’re playing under massive pressure is a really good sign."
GK: Bill Hamid (D.C. United)
RB: Alvas Powell (Portland Timbers)
CB: Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders)
CM: Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew)
CM: Diego Chara (Portland Timbers)
FW: Tesho Akindele (FC Dallas)
FW: Didier Drogba (Montreal Impact)
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.