Playoff Update: The Conference Semifinals

Playoff Update: The Conference Semifinals

The 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs are down to the last eight. Orlando City, the Columbus Crew, Nashville SC, and the New England Revolution remain in the East, while Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas, Minnesota United, and the defending champion Seattle Sounders make up the final four in the West. 

Here’s a look ahead at all four conference semifinals.

Eastern Conference Semifinal #1: #4 Orlando City vs. #8 New England Revolution
Sunday, November 29 - Exploria Stadium, Orlando, FL - 3 pm, ABC

The Orlando City game kicks off the slate for the second straight round, with the Lions welcoming the New England Revolution for the first time in 2020. The last time the two teams met was over 14 months ago, when the Revs escaped a wild night in Orlando with a 3-3 draw in a game the Lions had to win.

This is a far different Orlando City side, though, and Oscar Pareja will have his Lions ready despite some key absences. Ruan and Pedro Gallese are suspended due to the red cards they picked up in last weekend’s insane win over New York City FC, leaving Brian Rowe and likely Kamal Miller to fill in the gaps. Rowe started three playoff games for the LA Galaxy in 2016, conceding just two goals across 300 minutes. 

Rowe’s head coach in those games? Bruce Arena, who now leads a dangerous and uninhibited Revs team to Central Florida. New England stunned MLS observers by comfortably dispatching Supporters Shield-winning Philadelphia on Tuesday night, but it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise–the Revs have all three of their Designated Players fit and look like the team many pegged as a potential Eastern Conference favorite before the start of the year. Former Premier League and La Liga playmaker Carles Gil, who missed all but six games of the regular season, is fit and in terrific form, while Gustavo Bou can score from anywhere at any time.

Forget the “8” next to New England. This is a top team and this game, despite coming at home, will be an extraordinarily difficult test for Orlando City. They’ll be counting on their dynamic front four to punish any mistakes the Revs may make.

Eastern Conference Semifinal #2: #3 Columbus Crew vs. #7 Nashville SC
Sunday, November 29 - MAPFRE Stadium, Columbus, OH - 8 pm, ESPN

The late game sees Columbus, who survived a close call in the first round against the New York Red Bulls, welcome a Nashville team that won over many en route to a shocking defeat of 2-seed Toronto in the first round. 

The Crew’s defense, so ironclad through the first half of the year, has become rather leaky as of late, but it’ll be their offense that has to come through for them. They certainly did against RBNY, as three of their top players–Pedro Santos, Darlington Nagbe, and Gyasi Zardes–all found the back of the net. After a rash of injuries in October, the Crew are completely healthy and will look to get back to their dominant run from July to September.

It’s going to be hard work to break down this Nashville team, which has recorded 210 goalless minutes of playoff soccer over the past week. 2020 MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman leads an organized and compact defensive set-up that proved far too much for Toronto, as the powerful Reds were left punchless in a 1-0 extra time defeat. Nashville don’t score much, but they have players in Jhonder Cádiz, Hany Mukhtar, and Randall Leal that can hurt you on counterattacks or set plays.

You’d think Nashville’s Cinderella run would have to end at some point, and it would be no surprise if the Crew put them down, but it seems foolish to bet against a team that’s playing with as much belief and togetherness as the Tennesseans. 

Western Conference Semifinal #1: #2 Seattle Sounders vs. #6 FC Dallas
Tuesday, December 1 - CenturyLink Field, Seattle, WA - 9:30 pm, FS1

After all the hype, Seattle vs. LAFC in Round One ended up being a routine affair, as the Sounders cruised past an obviously overmatched and badly shorthanded LAFC side. 

The attacking trident of Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, and Raul Ruidiaz is utterly terrifying for any opponent, and if you wanted to call the Sounders favorites to repeat their title because of them, no one would blame you. All three got on the scoresheet against LAFC, and two of the goals (Lodeiro’s and Morris’s) saw the other two assist the third in scoring. Lodeiro is the unstoppable engine, Morris the dynamic and physical dual threat, and Ruidiaz the ruthless finisher. 

Fortunately for FC Dallas, their defense is a strength, with veterans Matt Hedges and Ryan Hollingshead anchoring a good back line in front of goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer, who has been one of the feel-good stories of the season. The issue for Dallas has been scoring goals. FCD’s mark of 28 goals this year was by far the fewest of any Western Conference playoff team, and they barely managed to squeak past Portland with a last second equalizing goal from Homegrown forward Ricardo Pepi before winning in penalties. 

FC Dallas have a shot here, but they’ll probably have to do better than one goal to beat the Sounders, who look merciless and motivated to defend their crown.

Western Conference Semifinal #2: #1 Sporting Kansas City vs. #4 Minnesota United
Wednesday, December 2 - Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, KS - 9 pm, FS1

Were it not for Orlando-NYCFC, Sporting Kansas City might have played the wildest Round One game. Teenager Gianluca Busio scored what looked like the winner in the 91st minute, only for MLS goals king Chris Wondolowski to tie it at the death to go to extra time. Then came the penalty shootout, where Tim Melia saved all three spot kicks from the Earthquakes to put SKC through.

SKC did not have their two best players, Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda, in the XI last Sunday, and Peter Vermes will hope both return to full fitness for this one. Busio had a great game against San Jose and helped bolster their midfield options alongside longtime Kansas City stalwarts Ilie Sanchez and Roger Espinoza. The fear for SKC is at the back, where they have been a bit shaky for two seasons now, particularly in the game against the Quakes.

Minnesota United loves to cry underdog, and they might be right this time. Their 3-0 scoreline over Colorado was a bit harsh on the Rapids, who controlled large portions of the game but failed to finish their chances. Not so for the Loons, who got a clinical performance from Kevin Molino and more encouraging signs from big-money playmaker Bebelo Reynoso. 

Like Seattle, SKC is the better team in this matchup should be able to navigate their way through. Minnesota is very dangerous if you give them the opportunity to be so, though, and the Loons could very well spring another surprise.

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September 11, 2020: Major League Soccer has announced the 2020 regular season schedule through the end of September. From September 18-27, each MLS club will compete in three regular season matches. Additional 2020 MLS regular season matches will be announced pending further developments regarding travel protocols. Attendance at matches will be determined in accordance with applicable state and local guidelines.