MLS News
Toronto FC Breaks into MLS Cup Final on Emotional Night in Front of Home Fans
MLS News
Thursday, 01 December 2016 02:21

TORONTO — As the final whistle sounded after 120 minutes of back-and-forth, unpredictable action in the second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Final, 10 years of emotion was let out in booming roars from BMO Field. 

Toronto FC defeated the Montreal Impact 5-2 in the second leg—7-5 on aggregate—to advance to the club's first MLS Cup final. 

"I can’t even explain it," midfielder Jonathan Osorio said. "The supporters have been waiting a long time for this. They deserve it. They’ve stuck around through everything this team’s battled through." 

The years-long frustration of botched big-name signings, countless managerial changes and failures to reach the postseason were let out at times throughout the night when the Reds needed it most, with the biggest cheer coming at the final whistle as Toronto clinched home-field advantage in the MLS Cup. 

"All week we spoke about what tonight could be," captain Michael Bradley said. "Nobody knew for sure, but I think we all had an idea it could be a special night in terms of atmosphere and emotion, in some ways, 10 years of emotion coming out in one night." 

“Once I took a step back in celebration, I took a moment to think about how many people were in both stadiums (over the two legs)," Toronto head coach Greg Vanney said. "And the excitement of the two games, the quantity of goals, the amount of attacking, and back-and-forth, and twists and turns. I can’t imagine the experience of emotions that people went through. For me, [it's] the most exciting playoff event I’ve been a part of."

The rollercoaster ride of emotions for both sides began in the 24th minute, as Montreal opened the scoring out of nowhere through Dominic Oduro. 

After enjoying the better of the possession and chances for most of the first half, Toronto finally capitalized with a pair of goals in eight minutes by way of Armando Cooper and Jozy Altidore. 

A second-leg victory and hosting the MLS Cup final seemed to be in the bag for the Reds at the halftime break, but the resilient Impact disrupted those plans in the 53rd minute, as Ignacio Piatti equalized the contest and put the teams level on away goals in the series. 

Nick Hagglund's powering header off a corner kick from what seemed to be 20 feet in the air gave Toronto a 3-2 lead in the match.

“We were real close," Montreal head coach Mauro Biello said. "They found a way through set pieces to get those goals. And that’s the difference in us going home and them going to the MLS Cup final." 

Despite being ahead by a goal in the match, the Reds knew how slim the margins were in the final 20 minutes between extra time and the end of their season. 

"At 3-2, it was on a knife's edge because we were pushing, but we were the team that was, for the most part, getting chances, but one play going the other way and all of a sudden we have a lot to do," Bradley said.

All the heartbreak experienced since the franchise's inception appeared all too relevant in the 96th minute, as Sebastian Giovinco—the designated player who has brought Toronto FC to new heights alongside Bradley and Altidore—suffered from serious cramps. Vanney later said Giovinco will be in line to start in the final.

The one man the Reds could count on to make something out of nothing and score a series-clinching goal was suddenly off the pitch. 

In any other year, Toronto would've succumbed to the pressure without Giovinco and lost in extra time or penalties, but this isn't the TFC we've come to know so well. This is a different Reds side that has plenty of character and resolve. 

Seconds after Giovinco left the pitch, the player who entered for him, Benoit Cheyrou, sent the entire stadium into a celebration they've never felt before. 

Cheyrou, a French veteran with 17 years of experience, connected with a Steven Beitashour cross at the left post to put the Reds in total control. 

"(Benoit)'s a guy with a ton of experience, and he sniffed out something would come to the back post and it was a great service by Beitashour," Toronto boss Vanney said. "You don’t have to tell too much to guys who have been around the block like (Cheyrou)." 

The entrance of a key veteran player off the bench is also something Toronto lacked in years past, along with a productive collection of designated players. 

Cheyrou produced two assists in 800 minutes in the regular season, but the lack of playing time didn't phase him much as he came off the bench on Wednesday night. 

Vanney also brought in Canadian forward Tosaint Ricketts, who scored the seventh and final goal of the match, and fellow Canadian Osorio in an attempt to further improve the quality on the pitch with fresh legs. 

"That’s something we really worked on over the past year to try and create some depth and also have guys with experience that we could turn to,"  Vanney said. "Different types of players who can bring different things to the equation."

"It’s taken me a little time to get to know how to best use these guys. I think we’re in a position now where we’ve brought in guys who’ve been able to make a difference. It’s a tribute to them because they keep working hard every day." 

The celebrations will go on throughout the night in Ontario, as the reality begins to sink in that the Reds are not only in MLS Cup for the first time, but they're hosting the league's biggest spectacle as well.

Before you rush to crown Toronto as the team of destiny given their struggles in the past, though, you have to look at what the Seattle Sounders have overcome this season to reach the championship match. 

Although the Reds have suffered for much longer without time in the playoffs, the Sounders have searched for the coveted prize for years and have come up short in every way possible.

Under new boss Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders have turned into a different team from the one that crashed and burned through July under former manager Sigi Schmid. 

In 10 days' time, the same fans will pack BMO Field for what will once again be deemed the biggest match in Toronto FC and Canadian soccer history. Toronto's stars will once again be asked to shine against a talented opponent with no fear. 

If the result is the same on December 10, the celebrations will be even louder in Toronto, but the focus has to turn quickly to the Sounders and what they'll bring to the table before the ideas of a parade in the Canadian city can be imagined. 

“This is a great moment for this club, but everybody in this room wants one more victory," Osorio said. 


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

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. 

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Ignacio Piatti Key to Montreal's Success in Eastern Conference Final 2nd Leg
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MLS News
Tuesday, 29 November 2016 08:37

BMO Field will be littered with superstars on Wednesday night, as Toronto FC host Montreal Impact in the second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Final. 

While the focus may immediately shift toward one of Toronto's three high-profile designated players, the most important player on the pitch will be wearing an Impact kit. 

Argentinian midfielder Ignacio Piatti has been arguably the best player in the league this season—and one of the most underappreciated stars at the same time. 

The 31-year-old's name may not stick out on paper right away like the other stars across the league, but he's been more important to his squad than Toronto's trio, David Villa at New York City FC, Bradley Wright-Phillips of the New York Red Bulls and any of the LA Galaxy's big names.

What sets Piatti apart from everyone else on the pitch is his work rate off the ball. Toronto boss Greg Vanney noted that before the first leg, which Montreal won 3-2 at Olympic Stadium.

"In my opinion, one of his greatest strengths is what people sometimes don’t see what he does before he actually gets the ball," Vanney said. "He’s a guy who’s clever in the moments when he’s helping his team defend and sees that the team is about to win the ball, and then he’s quickly transitioning in attacking action before anyone else on the field is transitioning.

"He’s fragments of time ahead of everyone else, and that’s where he gets his separation from defenders and then what we all see is his ability one-on-one and to score." 

Piatti had some type of influence on all three of the goals the Impact scored in the opening leg of the series. 

He wasn't directly involved in Dominic Oduro's opener, but his presence in midfield attracted two Toronto players near him. With Michael Bradley shading in the direction of Piatti, Patrice Bernier moved into space just past the halfway line to retrieve the ball to pick out Oduro. 

In the buildup to the second Impact goal in the 12th minute, Piatti picked out a gap in the Toronto defense on the left wing with a run that caught Steven Beitashour off guard. Before the ball was even directed toward Piatti, he was making a measured run that kept him on onside. What followed was a first-touch pass into the center of the box that Matteo Mancosu finished. 

Although it may not seem like much, Piatti's run from the center of the pitch to the left wing in the 53rd minute occupied a defender and allowed Ambroise Oyongo to blaze into open space before firing Montreal's third into the back of the net. 

However, Piatti's influence on the match was lost right after Toronto entered Will Johnson into the fray to lock up the acres of space the Reds left open in the opening 55 minutes. 

The challenge for the owner of 17 goals and six assists in the regular season is to break down a Toronto midfield unit led by Michael Bradley and Johnson to earn a vital away goal in the rivalry showdown. 

"For us, it’s about being ready for what Toronto could give us," Montreal head coach Mauro Biello said on Monday. "At the same time, preparing the team so we can unbalance them. In the end, the message to my team is obviously when we don’t have the ball to limit their space and time. When we’re on the ball, it’s about believing that we can score." 

On the line is the first-ever Canadian berth in the MLS Cup final and a chance to gain the upper hand in a growing rivalry north of the border. 

“This is a very important game for us," Piatti said through a translator. "It’s a final and a chance to make history. This is the first opportunity for us to get that far and we are very much ready." 

The Impact enter the second leg with one win at BMO Field in the regular season, a 1-0 victory on August 27 in which Piatti scored the lone tally for the 10-man Impact. 

Piatti's anticipation and knack for the ball were displayed on that strike, as he made a surging run into the final third the second Evan Bush's goal-kick landed just past the midfield line. The run caught Toronto rookie Tsubasa Endoh chasing behind the Argentinian, and it allowed him to pick up the ball without a challenge. 

By the time Piatti was surrounded by two defenders, he already had enough time to plot where he was going to send his shot. It's little things like that that will make a massive difference in Wednesday's match. 

All it takes for Piatti to shine is one moment in which he gains a small advantage over a defender, which is why Vanney considers him as dangerous off the ball as he is in possession. 

“We don’t underestimate (Piatti)," Vanney said. "We know his value to the team and his ability to create and to finish. He’s one of their players that we have to keep an eye on and know where he is at all times." 

If Toronto starts Johnson with Bradley and possibly Jonathan Osorio in central midfield, many would assume that Piatti would struggle due to the presence of an extra defensive-minded player. However, Toronto's potential control of the game through possession could play into Montreal's strengths. 

The Impact have no problem sitting back and waiting for the right time to strike on the counter. Montreal delivered the knockout blow to the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semi-final with this approach, as Oduro and Didier Drogba set up Piatti as the Red Bulls defense scurried back to get into position in the box. 

Montreal can employ this strategy for most of the second leg because Toronto are the team in need of a goal. The Impact would have no problem defending for the first 45 minutes and causing frustration in the Toronto attack. 

If the home side are unable to score in the opening stanza, a bit of desperation could seep into the Reds, which would lead to more space on the opposite end of the pitch. A quick, Piatti-led counter is all the Impact need to strike for an away goal and potentially a berth in the MLS Cup final on December 10. 

Regardless of if he's creating space for teammates with his runs, leading the attack himself or tracking back as an extra man in defense, Piatti will have a massive impact on the contest. 

If this season is any indication of what we'll see on Wednesday, the Argentinian will be a key factor in at least one of those facets of the match. 


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

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. 

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Improbable Playoff Run Hands Seattle Sounders Chance to Earn First MLS Cup
MLS News
Monday, 28 November 2016 02:30

The Seattle Sounders weren't supposed to be a participant in MLS Cup. 

The winners of the Major League Soccer Western Conference Championship were left for dead at the end of July following a brutal performance against Sporting Kansas City that led to the dismissal of longtime head coach Sigi Schmid. 

The club, led by interim-turned-permanent boss Brian Schmetzer, were the underdogs against Supporters' Shield winners FC Dallas in the semi-final round of the postseason, but they handled the top dogs of the West with ease over two legs. 

Sunday's trip to Dick's Sporting Goods Park for the second leg of the West final against the Colorado Rapids was supposed to be a task as impossible as they come given the Rapids' terrific form at home in 2016. 

But once again, the Sounders rose up from out of nowhere and clinched the first of two spots in the MLS Cup final on December 10.

If that's not enough to impress you, the Sounders did all of this without Clint Dempsey, who was ruled out for the season with an irregular heartbeat at the end of September. 

On top of all that, forward Jordan Morris, who scored Sunday's game-winner to put the Sounders through 3-1 on aggregate, was playing with flu-like symptoms, according to the ESPN broadcast. 

With everything coming together at the perfect time, it's hard not to believe the Sounders are a team of destiny.

Things could get even sweeter for the Sounders if the Montreal Impact come out on top in the second leg of Wednesday's Eastern Conference Championship. An Impact victory would make the soccer-mad city of Seattle the site of the MLS Cup final. 

All of this has occurred in a wild span of three months and spurred by a change that was brewing for quite some time. 

Despite achieving plenty of success under Schmid, including four U.S. Open Cups, the Sounders were never able to get over the hump and reach MLS Cup, even with players such as Dempsey and Obafemi Martins lighting the nets on fire for long stretches. 

Martins left the club in the offseason after receiving a lucrative offer in China, a transfer that thrust the rookie Morris into a headlining role almost immediately. In addition to suffering a blow in attack, the Sounders had to find a perfect recipe for success at center-back, with Roman Torres recovering from an ACL injury. 

Over the first five months of the season, the Sounders were dealt blow after blow, as they earned just 20 points from 20 matches. During that span, Seattle only picked up points in consecutive games twice. 

With tolerance for Schmid shriveling, the Sounders fell flat on their faces in a 3-0 loss to Sporting KC on July 24. In that game, Seattle mustered one shot, which went off target, enjoyed just 35.2 percent of the possession and completed 250 fewer passes than their opponents. 

The introduction of Schmetzer, who was an assistant under Schmid, instantly brought new life into the franchise. And in a league where parity reigns supreme, the Sounders started a charge into the postseason. 

From July 31 to the end of the regular season on October 23, the Sounders lost twice, to the rival Portland Timbers and to FC Dallas on the penultimate weekend of the campaign. 

A 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake on Decision Day handed the Sounders an improbable home game in the knockout round against the same Sporting KC side they faced on one of the darkest days since their entrance into MLS in 2009.

That's when the Sounders started to trigger the thought that they are a team of destiny. Nelson Valdez, a forward known for his lack of productivity in front of the net, provided the club with an 88th-minute winner. The tally was the first of 2016 for Valdez and only his second in 35 MLS contests. 

Then came the eight-minute onslaught at home in the first leg of the Western Conference semi-final that was led by Morris and midseason acquisition Nicolas Lodeiro. The Uruguayan designated player scored twice after Valdez, the unlikely hero of the postseason run, opened the scoring at CenturyLink Field.

Lodeiro was the driver of Seattle's late-season surge. The 27-year-old is a rare outlier among midseason signings. Normally, new faces to the league struggle to adjust right away, but Lodeiro did his research. He was given a subscription to the league's streaming service, MLS Live, beforehand to see exactly what he was going to be dealing with. 

The attacking midfielder hit the ground running and never looked back, as he scored four goals and provided eight assists in 13 regular-season appearances.

It came as no surprise to anyone that the three key cogs in attack provided the knockout punch in the 56th minute on Sunday.

The electric transfer from South America played a ball to the head off the castoff, who fed the hardworking rookie in the buildup to what will go down as one of the most important goals in club history.

The goal came after a first-half performance that drew comparisons to the lackluster summer afternoon in Kansas City. But just like they did in the regular season, Seattle rose from the ashes to earn the long-coveted place in MLS Cup. 

There's still one match to be played, and an important one at that, but after everything the Sounders have fought through in such a short period, it's hard to argue that they are not a team of destiny. 


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

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2nd Leg of MLS Western Conference Final Will Be Won in Midfield
MLS News
Friday, 25 November 2016 08:52

When the Seattle Sounders and Colorado Rapids take to the pitch at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Sunday for the second leg of the MLS Western Conference final, all eyes will be on the midfield alignment of both sides. 

Both sides play a similar style of the 4-2-3-1 formation, but the Rapids will be forced to tweak their system for the second leg after the yellow-card suspension of Sam Cronin, who picked up his second caution of the play-offs in Tuesday's first leg that was won 2-1 by the Sounders. 

Coming up with a replacement is an easy job for Colorado boss Pablo Mastroeni. The front-runner for MLS Coach of the Year will follow the next-man-up mentality his side has had all year, as he'll bring in Micheal Azira for Cronin. 

“Sam’s been a stalwart for us in the middle all year," Mastroeni said in a league conference call. "He’s played pretty much every game. He’s an important piece to the group. There’s nothing we can do about the situation. Now it’s about the next man up."

"I think Azira came into the game last week and did a very good job of getting on the ball," the Colorado boss continued. "Azira will be a natural replacement for Sam. We’ve had a lot of guys missing and we’ve operated like a team and the next man that steps into whoever’s role comes in and does a fantastic job." 

The intricacies of Sunday's tactical game plan are still being sorted out by Mastroeni, but it looks like Jermaine Jones will revive his role in the middle of the park along with either Dillon Powers or Kevin Doyle in the role behind forward Dominique Badji. 

"We definitely have some options out there," Mastroeni said. "We’ve played with a different look at those three central positions all year. We’re going to have to make one change and how we utilize the other guys will be left to the next couple days." 

If the midfield trio is Jones, Azira and Doyle, the Rapids may be left a bit open on the counter due to Jones' tendency to freelance around the pitch. The United States international can be a vital part to the attack at times, but if he gets left too far forward, Seattle has the ability to strike quick with their speed through the middle of the pitch. 

The Rapids have a natural stop gap in Azira in front of the back four, but the technical ability of Nicolas Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris could put Azira at risk and put more pressure on the back four to make key tackles in and around the penalty area. 

Jones' physicality will be a blessing and a curse for the Rapids. The midfielder has a reputation for delivering a crunching tackle or two throughout big games, but he has to pick the right time to do so against the finesse of the Seattle players. One bad challenge could result in a free-kick opportunity someone like Lodeiro could bury past Zac MacMath. 

Despite being down a goal in the series entering the second leg, the Rapids have plenty of confidence in their ability to grind out a result on home soil. The Rapids went 11-0-6 at home during the regular season, and they outlasted the Galaxy at home in the Western Conference semi-final. 

All the Rapids need to advance in regulation is a 1-0 victory due to the away goal they earned at Century Link Field. Earning the smallest of possible scorelines has become Colorado's specialty. The Rapids have had 14 1-0 matches in 2016. 

"Our goal going into (the first leg) was to make sure we made the second leg relevant and the away goal did that," Mastroeni said "It’s business as usual coming back home and doing what we’ve been good at all year. We’ve found a way to keep teams off the scoresheet." 

As for Seattle, their success also runs through the middle of the park, where Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan and Erik Friberg will be camped out in their version of the 4-2-3-1.

Sounders boss Brian Schmetzer, who took over in July and recently had the interim tag removed from his title, noted the two sides only have a few small differences in how they utilize the formation. 

"The only difference is just based on the personalities of the players in each system," Schmetzer said. "If I’m looking at Ozzie (Alonso), Cristian (Roldan) and (Erik) Friberg, that’s different than Jones, Doyle and Cronin."

"I think the tactical demands of each position, the coaches expectations of each position are pretty similar," Schmetzer continued. "We both like to have fullbacks go forward. They have a No. 9 in Badji who can stretch the field a little bit. Nelson Valdez does a really good job of being a back-to-goal No. 9. Just subtle difference based on personalities of the players." 

The emergence of Roldan and the addition of Lodeiro on the wing have put the Sounders in position to secure a spot in MLS Cup, and possibly a home match if Montreal beat Toronto in the second leg of the Eastern Conference final. 

Roldan has not relinquished his place in the starting lineup over the second half of the season because of the confidence he's gained. 

“At the beginning of the season, I didn’t feel like the game was slow," Roldan said. "Toward the second part of the season, the game slowed down and I was able to pick up my head after my first touch and feel less pressure on the ball." 

Seattle's defensive midfielders will play in a similar fashion to Colorado's pair, with Alonso as the bruiser in front of the back four and Roldan given a license to move forward when he can. The one stark contrast between the two is Roldan's surges into the attacking area are limited and measured.

Roldan, and Friberg to a certain extent, will be asked to drop a bit deeper on Sunday in order to prevent Colorado from striking early and then sitting back to hold on to a 1-0 result. 

One way the Sounders can counteract the Rapids' search for a tally in the first half is to hold possession and slowly break down the home side's back line. That begins with Alonso, who is one of the most accurate passes in MLS. The 31-year-old completed 92.2 percent of his 64 passes in the first leg, per WhoScored. 

If Seattle gain control of the match through Alonso, they'll be able to hunt for an away goal themselves. The Sounders know firsthand how crucial the away goals rule can be in determining a playoff series. 

"We were the beneficiaries a couple years ago against Dallas," Schmetzer said. "We were on the wrong side of the scoreline as far as road goals with LA in 2014. I think it’s part of the rules and we have to deal with the rules."  Don't be surprised if Sunday's second leg comes down to a 1-0 or 1-1 result given the tactical nature of both sides. What we should expect from the start is a measured battle in midfield that could tip the balance of the contest in an instant.  Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @JTansey90. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. 

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Slender Leads in MLS Conference Finals Leave Everything to Play for in 2nd Legs
MLS News
Wednesday, 23 November 2016 03:49

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. 

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. 

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. 

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 play—and 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. 

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. 

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Deloitte Study Suggests U.S. Soccer Could Benefit from Promotion/Relegation
MLS News
Monday, 21 November 2016 09:08

Whenever the topic of promotion and relegation gets brought up in the American soccer community, a long and heated debate takes place. 

The latest addition to the conversation comes from a Deloitte study commissioned by Silva International Investments. 

"What we’re hoping is that the report and the analysis become part of the debate straight away," Deloitte's head of Sport Business Group Dan Jones said in a phone conversation with Bleacher Report. "And that debate needs to take place on the philosophical and strategic level of: Is promotion/relegation something that is felt to be desirable for soccer in the United States." 

The study states the American soccer pyramid would be able to sustain an open-league system, but it puts no specific timetable on when it should occur. 

“We quite deliberately haven’t put timelines on this because I don’t think it’s our place to do so," Jones said. "I think there would definitely be a lot of detail to be worked through, so it’s certainly not in any sense a prudent thing to do and flick the switch overnight and say we’re going to go from a closed-league system to an open-league system.

"What the report hopes to do is be a thoughtful contribution to that debate and hopefully we would say that there’s clear merit from introducing promotion/relegation and there are also clear challenges, but all of those challenges are capable of being met and dealt with." 

Most of the biggest challenges facing promotion and relegation are financial. Some would argue that an open-league system would detract owners from investing in clubs, but the conductors of the report concluded that ownership in European clubs by American owners could be a precedent for the risk involved in introducing the system. 

"Our reflective reaction here in Europe is that U.S. investors are used to closed-league systems to guarantee profits and that’s the model they use," Jones said. "We’ve seen plenty of U.S. investors come over in European soccer. Clearly there is an appetite among U.S. investors to invest in soccer without those guarantees." 

"People are willing to invest and back themselves and put their money where their mouth is―whether that’s in search for economic or emotional return or a combination of the two," Jones added.

"There is something there that is attractive and interesting about that. I don’t think it’s as simple as to say an idea of an open league would spook all U.S. investors. What’s definitely true is the guys who have invested to date would look at it as a new big economic risk." 

The report also suggests a phased transition could be used to implement promotion/relegation in the United States to ensure a safe switch from a closed- to open-league system. 

“The most obvious element of transition is not to have straight promotion/relegation right away, but to have a promotion/relegation playoff," Jones stated. "The lowest-finishing teams in the top tier face the highest-finishing teams in the lower tier. If the teams trying to come up are good enough, they’ll win the playoff on merit. I think that’s an obvious transitional provision." 

In a survey of 1,000 fans conducted by Deloitte, a ratio of over 8-to-1 fans are in favor of introducing promotion and relegation to the American soccer pyramid. Eighty-eight percent of the supporters questioned believe an open-league system would be beneficial to club soccer in the United States. 

Jones also noted an ESPN FC  MLS player survey from March 2016 in which 49 percent of the players surveyed favored promotion and relegation. 

The interest in promotion/relegation's potential success continues to grow, but the reality is the American soccer pyramid isn't close to getting there yet. 

There's an argument about whether the North American Soccer League or United Soccer League should be the true second division beneath MLS, or if both leagues should be given second-division status. Currently, the NASL is the second division in the United States. 

However, a shakeup is set to take place heading into the 2017 season, as the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury will move to the USL from NASL. 

The USL may seem like it's ready to assume second-division status, but the majority of the clubs in the league have direct affiliations with MLS sides.

All 20 of the clubs who participated in MLS in 2016 have some sort of affiliation with teams in the USL, 11 of which are direct feeder teams including LA Galaxy II, New York Red Bulls II and FC Montreal among others. 

Despite the challenges presented by the conflicts in the lower leagues, Jones believes the hurdles can be overcome at some point down the road. 

“To the point of affiliate or feeder clubs, in European soccer you have that in Spain with the B teams of the bigger clubs playing in the lower divisions," Jones said. "None of these things are insurmountable. There are nuances and complications that need to be brought in mind, but none of these things are insurmountable.

"They could all be dealt with. I think from the analysis that we’ve done, there are very strong arguments for, and the arguments against are very real, but they’re all capable of being managed if people believe in the benefits of promotion/relegation." 

If promotion and relegation is instituted in the United States, Jones suggests certain criteria should also be met for certain clubs to secure first-tier status. 

“Have criteria around those things and have them with a grace period, like a two-year grace period when you first come up to get the stadium in shape or what have you," Jones said. "The examples in other countries reflect that.

"There was a period when in England, in terms of promotion from the fifth tier to the fourth tier, there was a three-year period where the winners from the league below didn’t meet the criteria and therefore didn’t come up. You can put these criteria in place to try and make sure you don’t damage what you already have." 

The challenges are still evident in American soccer, whether it be continued expansion in MLS, development teams in USL or financial troubles in NASL, but the Deloitte study exudes confidence that one day promotion and relegation could be implemented down the road.

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Previewing the 1st Leg of the MLS Conference Finals
MLS News
Monday, 21 November 2016 05:38

After a long layoff of 16 days, the Major League Soccer playoffs will resume on Tuesday with the first leg of the Eastern and Western Conference finals. 

The opening match of the doubleheader will be played inside the Olympic Stadium in Montreal between Canadian rivals Montreal Impact and Toronto FC. 

The second contest features the best defensive team in MLS, the Colorado Rapids, against the dynamic Seattle Sounders led by attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro.

The major plot twist in the Western Conference final is the appearance of Zac MacMath in the Colorado net after Tim Howard suffered an injury on duty with the United States men's national team. 

Below is a preview of both of Tuesday's contests in the MLS Cup play-offs. 


Toronto FC at Montreal Impact (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN) 

The Eastern Conference final is the biggest moment to date for Canadian soccer in MLS.

Toronto and Montreal are heated rivals in every other sport, and the two-legged showdown with a spot in the MLS Cup final on the line will bring a new element to the clash of prominent sports towns. 

"Each time we play these games they're more meaningful than the last," Toronto FC manager Greg Vanney said. "This rivalry continues to grow and become more exciting and more interesting for the fans." 

Instead of playing at Montreal's regular home field, Stade Saputo, the first leg was changed to the Olympic Stadium, where close to 60,000 fans are expected to be in attendance. 

"This is going to be special," Montreal midfielder Patrice Bernier said. "It’s great to see the crowd has responded and we’re able to fill the Big O with 60,000 people." 

“Soccer is the most beautiful and popular sport in the world and it deserves huge attendance, and we can only be more inspired by more people, so the more people, the better for us," Toronto forward Sebastian Giovinco said through a translator.  "It’s more exciting for everybody." 

The Reds are looking for revenge from last year's knockout-round game in which the Impact blitzed Toronto by a 3-0 score at Stade Saputo. 

"We have enough guys on the roster who remember last year, and we were embarrassed on that day," Vanney said. "Our mindset and mentality will be different than it was last year." 

In order to keep the hosts at bay inside the packed house in Montreal, the Reds have to keep Ignacio Piatti from creating a good amount of attacking opportunities. 

The goal for the Reds isn't just to stop Piatti when he's on the ball, it's also to have an eye on the Argentine a few steps before he makes his first touch. 

"For me, what sets him apart is his recognition in his craft to anticipate when transitions are going to happen and to be one step ahead of the opposition when those moments happen," Vanney said.

"For us, we have to be aware of him at all times, especially when we have possession of the ball, making sure that in those moments when he separates, we have a keen awareness of where he is. We have to be organized and aware of his surroundings." 

The same can be said for how the Impact have to mark Giovinco and Jozy Altidore in Toronto's quest for an away goal. The pair of forwards have been tremendous throughout the postseason for the Reds, who are looking to cash in on all their big investments from the last few years with an MLS Cup. 

One of the biggest battles will be waged in midfield between Toronto's Michael Bradley and Bernier. How the power struggle in midfield goes may depend on what formation the Reds utilize. Vanney has brought out the 3-5-2 in recent matches, but he also deploys a 4-4-2 diamond as well.

The Impact's tactics are pretty straightforward. Because of Piatti's technical ability, the Impact are a quick-strike team on the counter. They've also found a consistent scorer in Italian Matteo Mancosu, who bagged a brace in the knockout-round win over D.C. United. 

"He’s given us a different look up front in terms of his profile and quality," Montreal boss Mauro Biello said. "He’s been able to get in behind and constantly be in movement. These are all things that have benefited our team." 

There's a good chance this match won't end scoreless, which means the first goal could be critical in determining the pace of play. 


Colorado Rapids at Seattle Sounders (Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1) 

MacMath has received a ton of attention since he was thrust into the starting role following Howard's injury against Mexico in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. 

The Colorado netminder is no stranger to thriving between the pipes, as he earned six clean sheets in 17 matches before Howard arrived from Everton in July. 

"I think he’s proved that he’s a first-choice keeper in this league," Colorado head coach Pablo Mastroeni said. "He’s fantastic with his feet and great in distribution. He has a great goals-against average this year." 

"Zac’s familiar with the back line," Mastroeni continued. "He’s familiar with the group. This is not about individuals, this is about a collective effort and finding a way to beat Seattle." 

The team approach has helped the Rapids survive injuries during the season to Jermaine Jones, Shkelzen Gashi, Kevin Doyle and now Howard. 

The Rapids possess one of the most underrated midfield duos in the league in Sam Cronin and Michael Azira, while Axel Sjoberg is as good as they come at center-back. Add in Jones to the spine of the squad, and you have a side capable of silencing the dynamic Sounders. 

Lodeiro is the focal point of Colorado's defensive game plan. The Uruguayan scored four goals and contributed eight assists in 13 regular-season matches, and he's added a trio of postseason tallies. 

“The guys have played against the best forwards in the league week in and week out," MacMath said. "We have to continue to defend as a group and let the guys make decisions during the game that they think are best to help us keep a clean sheet in Seattle." 

Seattle's been on a meteoric rise since Brian Schmetzer took over for Sigi Schmid as manager. The Sounders were left for dead at the end of July, but they fought back to earn the fourth seed in the Western Conference. 

“Every game since we’ve taken over has been a must-win game," Schmetzer said. "Every single game we’ve had to this date has had a big meaning." 

In addition to Lodeiro in the playmaking role, the Sounders will need a strong performance out of midfield bulldog Osvaldo Alonso, who will be fighting to control the match through ferocious tackles and a possession-based game. 

Seattle also contains plenty of threats on set pieces, but they will have to deal with the 6'7" Sjoberg when they launch crosses into the box. 

"Nico’s delivery has been tremendous," Schmetzer said. "We know Colorado is the best team in the league defensively, and we will just go out there and play Seattle Sounders soccer. If we create enough opportunities, I think we have the quality to be able to finish one of those." 

Colorado won't sit back and defend for 90 minutes given the importance of the away goals in the series, but this match should be a little less open than the one in Montreal. A 1-0 final wouldn't be shocking. 


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

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard Underline That MLS Is No Retirement Home
MLS News
Thursday, 17 November 2016 07:19

There is a certain quirk in the universe’s space-time continuum, perhaps something cosmically charged, something written in the stars, that links Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. For as long as the two have been professional footballers, their careers have intertwined in one way or another.

One cannot exist without the other. They are each other’s reference point.

So considering how Gerrard and Lampard were Premier League stars at the same time, played for England at the same and made the move to the United States at the same time, it was little surprise that they both announced their decision to leave Major League Soccer in the same week, within 24 hours of each other.

After 18 months Stateside, Gerrard is departing the L.A. Galaxy with Lampard similarly calling time on his stint at New York City FC. Neither player has divulged much beyond that, with both thought to be considering one last spell as a player somewhere in Europe. But to continue the theme, Gerrard and Lampard are leaving behind a similar legacy in MLS.

While most North American fans would admit there was a certain novelty to having two players of such repute playing in the league, neither Gerrard nor Lampard truly excelled Stateside. Gerrard’s spell was especially disappointing, with his time at the L.A. Galaxy becoming synonymous with a period of underachievement for MLS’s most illustrious club.

The Liverpool legend never really fitted in at StubHub Center. Manager Bruce Arena did his best to accommodate Gerrard in a team that didn’t have a natural role for him, but the former England captain was something of a misfit for the 18 months he was in California.

“When I left Liverpool, I came to Los Angeles with the goal of helping the Galaxy lift another MLS Cup,” Gerrard said via a statement published on the L.A. Galaxy’s website on Tuesday (h/t the Guardian). 

“I am of course disappointed to have not achieved that objective, but I can look back at my time at the club with pride at what we accomplished, including two straight playoff appearances and countless memorable moments on the pitch. I am now looking forward to spending time with my family as I consider the next stage of my career.”

Lampard fared a little better in New York, netting an impressive 15 goals in 29 appearances for NYCFC. But that’s just it—the former Chelsea midfielder struggled to make the field over the course of his time in MLS, whether that was down to injuries or his ill-advised loan spell with Manchester City when his new club needed him most.

It was during this time that Lampard became a figure of hate at a club he hadn’t even played a game for yet. His own supporters implored him to go home, making the point that if he didn’t want to be in New York for the first few months of the season, he shouldn’t be there at all. He eventually endeared himself to the sometimes volatile New York City FC support, but his MLS legacy had already been tainted by then.

But the duo did succeed in underlining an important point about MLS in their time Stateside. The American game has long struggled with its reputation as a retirement home for fading European stars.

It’s true that once the country’s top flight was the domain of those wishing to pick up one final paycheque before calling time on their careers. That is no longer the case, though, and Gerrard and Lampard’s time over there illustrates that.

Gerrard in particular never truly committed to the task at hand with the L.A. Galaxy. He moved to California for the lifestyle, admitting that much upon signing for the club. He highlighted upon signing for the Galaxy how Los Angeles as a city had been a draw for himself and his family, as per the L.A. Galaxy website. In truth, that’s what he moved to MLS for. That’s what he is leaving behind.

Questions were asked of Lampard’s commitment to the cause as well, with the midfielder seemingly more intent on initially using NYCFC as a way to prolong his Premier League career, joining sister club Manchester City on loan for a season and only making the switch to MLS midway through the 2015 campaign. It made the wrong statement about what the former England international wanted from his time in New York.

Even when both players were present and playing, things didn’t come easily to them. Lampard took until the summer of 2016 to find his place in Patrick Vieira’s team, enjoying a spurt of eight goals in eight games over June and July. Gerrard, on the other hand, never showed his true ability for the L.A. Galaxy.

The Carson club has seen some great Designated Players over the years—David Beckham and Landon Donovan to name just a couple—but Gerrard didn’t add his name to such a revered list.

So given the struggles of both Gerrard and Lampard, will MLS finally shed its image as a place footballers go to enjoy a comfortable close to their careers?

It’s a league that takes a lot to succeed in. The quality of play certainly isn’t as high as it is in the Premier League or elsewhere in Europe, but it mustn’t be understated just how taxing the travelling and conditions are on players, even the very best ones. That is what Gerrard and Lampard discovered for themselves.

Of course, MLS will continue to court big names as long as it wants to grow. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney have recently been linked with a move across the Atlantic, per John Cross and James Nursey of the Mirror, and as David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco have shown, big names can enjoy big success in MLS, but only if they grasp exactly what they are getting themselves into. 

MLS isn’t easy. Thierry Henry was considered a success for the New York Red Bulls, yet for all his efforts, he failed to win the MLS Cup he wanted to end his career with so badly. That almost says as much about the quality of the North American game as much as anything Beckham said or did during his time there.

Derision of MLS is still common in European footballing circles, but Gerrard and Lampard’s spells at the L.A. Galaxy and New York City FC respectively underline how there is no longer a basis for such an opinion. Given the parallels drawn between their two careers, it was fitting they discovered that at the same time.

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Steven Gerrard to Depart LA Galaxy: Latest Comments and Reaction
MLS News
Tuesday, 15 November 2016 11:25

L.A. Galaxy have announced former England captain Steven Gerrard is set to leave the MLS club following the conclusion of his deal with the Californian team. 

The club's official website shared the news, revealing the Liverpool legend will not return for the 2017 season.

The midfielder joined coach Bruce Arena's outfit in 2015 after opting to leave the Premier League and has scored five goals and provided 14 assists in 34 MLS appearances, per the club's official website.

Gerrard explained his disappointment in not securing silverware during his stint in the United States, per the website:

When I left Liverpool, I came to Los Angeles with the goal of helping the Galaxy lift another MLS Cup. I am of course disappointed to have not achieved that objective, but I can look back at my time at the club with pride at what we accomplished, including two straight playoff appearances and countless memorable moments on the pitch.

He also thanked the organization and the fans for a positive experience:

I would like to thank Mr. Anschutz, Dan Beckerman, Chris Klein and Bruce Arena for this opportunity. I would also like to thank my teammates, the coaching staff, all of the support staff and most importantly the fans for their fantastic support during my time at Galaxy; I am excited to see this league and this great club continue to grow. I am now looking forward to spending time with my family as I consider the next stage of my career.

Arena led the tributes to Gerrard once the iconic individual made his decision to part company with Los Angeles, per the club's official website:

We were honored to have a player and person of Steven’s caliber represent the LA Galaxy over the past two seasons. His experience, class and leadership made him a valuable member of this team both on and off the field. I will always remember his last kick for the LA Galaxy as he smashed home his penalty against Tim Howard. We thank Steven for his time and contributions to this club and we wish him the best in whatever comes next. He is one of the most iconic players of all-time and he will always be a part of the LA Galaxy family.

Gerrard is one of the most lauded players of his generation, famous for his heroic efforts at Anfield and on the international stage.

The 36-year-old made his Liverpool debut in 1998 and captained the Reds to a number of trophies, including the 2005 UEFA Champions League against AC Milan—one of the most fabled finals in the modern era, as the Merseyside giants recovered from a three-goal deficit.

Gerrard has cemented his position as a Premier League great after his years of service to Liverpool, but he was unable to bring glory back to L.A during his short time at the StubHub Centre.

His departure leaves a gap in the club's squad for next season, and the Galaxy will want to attract a big name from Europe or South America to fill the void.

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Frank Lampard to Leave New York City FC: Latest Details, Comments and Reaction
MLS News
Monday, 14 November 2016 09:44

New York City FC have confirmed that Frank Lampard is to leave the club when his contract expires at the end of the MLS season.

The team announced the decision on their official Twitter feed:

In a statement on their website, the 38-year-old thanked those who had made his time with the franchise memorable. 

“My team-mates have been a pleasure to play alongside. The amazing fans have given me incredible support and backing,” he said. “I have very much enjoyed my time, and I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to play for such a great club and in such an incredible city.”

Bleacher Report UK also reacted to the news:

Lampard, described as “the most prolific goal-scoring midfielder of his generation” in the statement, ends his time as a NYCFC player having turned out 31 times in the sky blue shirt, scoring an impressive 15 goals in the process.

Initially, things were tough in the States for Lampard, as injury problems and a loan to Manchester City in 2014 did little to curry favour among the New York fanbase; he was even booed by his own supporters in May this year when coming on as a substitute, with the team suffering an embarrassing 7-0 loss to rivals New York Red Bulls.

However, the former Chelsea man turned things around brilliantly. In July, he scored the first hat-trick in NYCFC’s history in a 5-1 win over Colorado Rapids, before netting key goals to help the team qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time ever. They were eventually eliminated by Toronto FC by a 7-0 aggregate scoreline.

As noted by Richard Jolly of ESPN, Lampard’s time in the United States added more gloss to his astonishing career record:

Indeed, Lampard is best remembered for his remarkable feats at Chelsea, where he established himself as one of the finest midfielders in the world. When he left the club in 2014, he did so as the leading scorer in the Blues’ history, having netted a remarkable 211 times.

During his time at Stamford Bridge, he also won the UEFA Champions League, as well as three Premier League titles and four FA Cups.

Naturally, questions will be asked about that the future holds for Lampard following his release. He has proved recently that he has what it takes to score goals at a decent standard, and he's still in tremendous shape—there's likely to be plenty of teams that’d love to have a man of his experience around.

In a statement on his Instagram account, the veteran has confirmed that he will be making an announcement "very soon" about his next move.  

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