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Playoff Unlike Any Other

With 15 minutes to go in Saturday’s game between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, I had a bunch of puns ready about the Sound(ers) of defeat and getting off on the wrong foot in the first leg.  Then Osvaldo Alonso hopped on the end of a loose ball in the box in the 90th minute and completely changed the complexion of the semi-final series. By Alex Fordney.

1hRNj9.AuSt.5The Timbers came away with an important game 1 victory

Alex Fordney-

In Game One of the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals fell behind by 8 runs, and only managed to score one run in the ninth inning.  But luckily for the Cardinals they had a clean slate for Game Two.  This is the story for pretty much every league in American sports, where each game in the series stands alone and if you can’t win enough you don’t move on.  In the MLS, even though you may lose the first game, your slate isn’t wiped clean.  If Seattle is able to move on past the Timbers on Thursday, they may look back on that 90th minute goal as the goal that saved their season.

The MLS playoffs are unique among the professional soccer leagues as well as across the spectrum of American sports.  Most European leagues don’t have a playoff at the end of the season.  Some, such as Belgium and Scotland are experimenting with a post-season, but the idea of playoffs is an American idea that the MLS included at the beginning to give American fans a sense that soccer could be American too.  The MLS, however, uses an aggregate system for their initial playoff rounds that sets them apart from every other American sports league.  It is a great feature that creates an incredibly interesting series and deserves more attention than it gets, and Ozzie Alonso’s goal is proof.

The aggregate system, which is used in the UEFA Champions League knockout stage, allows each team to host a game and the combined score of the two matches determines the winner.  If the teams are tied after both games the first tie breaker is which team scored more away goals. So the Sounders’ 2-1 loss at Century Link Field means they must score at least two goals in Portland. If both teams have the same amount of away goals, for instance if Seattle wins 2-1, then they would play 30 minutes of overtime and then if a deadlock persists, onto penalties. The importance of home field advantage, especially after trailing following the first leg, is why the higher seeded teams play the last leg at home.

Portland began the first leg of the semi-final round a bit overwhelmed but thanks to Ryan Johnson’s finish off of Jack Jewsbury’s cross against the run of play, they were able to take the lead.  For most of the first-half Seattle was able to dominate possession.  Portland was able to establish more possession of their own in the second half and when Darlington Nagbe finished for Portland’s second goal in the 67th minute, Timber’s fans were ecstatic thinking about defending a two goal lead in Thursday’s match at Jeld-Wen Field.  With this lead, Seattle would have to win 2-0 in Portland just to force extra time.

By scoring their goal in the closing minutes Seattle made their task a bit easier, but they’re still looking at a very difficult task.  Beginning the second game of the series with a 2-1 deficit, Seattle will have to score at least two goals.  This will mean an attacking formation and strategy that will leave them vulnerable to the counter attack.  Portland will be looking to their stalwart defense to absorb these attacks.  The result of this could a blistering paced game with end to end action. Considering the intensity of this rivalry, don’t be shocked if the game gets heated.  It’s a shame this second leg will be buried on an anonymous cable channel instead of featured on ESPN or NBC Sports where people will be able to watch high quality soccer between two teams that are determined to ruin each other’s day.

As it stands, both of Portland’s goals in the first leg came from counter attacks, so this game seems set to go Portland’s way.  The Great Wall of the Gambia has been fortified with the emergence of Jewsbury on the left side of defense and Portland know neutralizing Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey is key. But that won’t stop their wing backs from getting forward and adding width to Portland’s attack.  Diego Valeri and Nagbe will look to use their speed and deft touch on the ball to spring players forward and put Seattle on their heels.  On paper you’d give the edge to Portland when you factor in a rocking home-field advantage with Portland’s first playoff game at home in their short history. However, Seattle has plenty of experience to not be counted out of this tie. As in any sport, with a one off game anything can happen, so neither team will approach this casually.

I’ve complained before that MLS has been reluctant to incorporate rules and ideas from European soccer due to the fear of casual fans being turned off by the “weird factor”.  As a more than casual soccer fan, I have no problem with a post season playoff and I am glad they decided to use the aggregate system for the early rounds leading up to the final.  While it is different than the other leagues, it adds a very entertaining dimension that can help MLS build a following with casual and die-hard fans alike.

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