Well, that was fun. At least half of it was.
After a NYCFC/Philadelphia knockout match that didn’t involve much drama at all, Columbus and D.C. United treated us to a cracker of a game at a raucous, sold out Audi Field. Federico Higuain’s two-goal night - the second coming in extra time - saw the Crew take the 2-1 lead before Nick DeLeon’s equalizer sent it to penalties. Unfortunately for D.C., its dream season came to an end thanks to a pair of key saves from Zack Steffen and a gut-wrenching miss by DeLeon that would have sent it to sudden death.
With that, the East semifinals are set to begin on Sunday: The New York Red Bulls will travel to MAPFRE Stadium to face the Crew and Atlanta United face NYCFC at Yankee Stadium, with the reverse fixtures to be played on the 11th. We’ll take a deep dive into Atlanta later, but how do things look for RBNY, NYCFC and the Crew?
New York Red Bulls
Why they’ll win MLS Cup: It’s hard not to view RBNY as anything less than the best team in the league right now - with a veteran between the sticks in Luis Robles, one of the more dynamic midfielders in the league in Kaku, to an elite striker in Bradley Wright-Phillips and young talent like Brian White and Tyler Adams. Chris Armas has done an excellent job with this side after taking the reins from Jesse Marsch - while Marsch’s departure could have had a similar effect on RBNY as it did with Patrick Vieira and its derby partners across the river at NYCFC, it’s been able to keep its head above water thanks to an elite defense (33 goals allowed, least in MLS) and plenty of offense (62 goals scored, fifth best in the league). That 14-2-1 record at Red Bull Arena, where RBNY haven’t lost since July 28, doesn’t hurt, either.
Why they won’t win MLS Cup: The Supporters’ Shield winner, for some reason, typically fails to win MLS Cup more often than not - it’s only happened 7 times in 22 seasons, with last year’s Toronto FC team becoming the first Shield winner to complete the feat since the LA Galaxy in 2011. Also, as good as RBNY have been at home, it’s 8-5-4 away from Harrison, and despite ending the season on a five-match win streak, three of those wins (Toronto, San Jose, Orlando) were against teams below the red line. Granted, Red Bulls don’t need to win on the road per se to get where it needs to go - a 1-1 away draw, coupled with its home form, probably means a lot more to it than it does to most teams. Don’t forget, too: RBNY were a Concacaf Champions League semifinalist, so one wonders how much more it has in the tank with 40+ matches in the rear view mirror.
New York City FC
Why they will win MLS Cup: That postage-sized field that is panned across MLS serves a benefit to the Pigeons - they’ve only lost once at Yankee Stadium (12-1-4), which bodes well for them as they’ll have a chance to put Atlanta United in an early hole. Here’s another number for you: 11, the number of goals NYCFC have conceded at home, including in its knockout round win over Philadelphia. In fact, it’s kept 8 clean sheets on its own ground and allowed more than one goal only once, a 2-2 draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps on August 4. If David Villa and Maxi Moralez are clicking, and the defense stands as tall as it has all year long at Yankee Stadium, that’s a big point in NYC’s favor.
Why they won’t win MLS Cup: Away form. Outside of the Bronx, NYC are just 4-9-4 and have let in 39 goals, with the club allowing 3 or more goals in 7 instances and ending the regular season on a 5-game road winless streak (0-4-1) during which it scored just 4 times and conceded 10. It’s scored multiple goals in its last three home matches, but that won’t mean anything if its opponent can nick an away goal and score a couple in the second leg to turn the series.
Columbus Crew SC
Why they will win MLS Cup: There are some teams that you can point to and readily identify specific reasons why they’ll do well. For the Crew, my feeling is that it’s as much to do with the players they have - Gyasi Zardes, Steffen, Higuain - as it does with the level of coaching and intangibles it possesses. And it’s been in the underdog’s role before. This was a team that finished fifth in the East last year, knocked Atlanta out in penalties (sound familiar?), hung 4 goals on second-place NYCFC at home to give itself just enough of a margin to advance despite losing the away leg, and, after playing Toronto FC to a scoreless draw at MAPFRE, were an Ola Kamara away goal miss from possibly going to to the MLS Cup final. The Crew aren’t the best team in the field by any stretch, but bet against them at your own risk.
Why they won’t win MLS Cup: It may sound like I’m contradicting myself, but stay with me. While the Crew have drawn RBNY at home and beaten them on the road (remember that last Red Bulls home loss I mentioned? That was against the Crew), considering the talent the Supporters’ Shield winners have shown across the board, it will still be a tough ask across two legs against a more rested Red Bulls team. If Columbus do advance, a East final matchup against NYCFC would likely be a preference as opposed to one with Atlanta United, but again, how will things shake out across two legs? We’ll have to see what happens.