Monday MLS Breakdown: Tight first legs adhere to established conference semifinal trend

The Breakdown places the meager offensive output this weekend in context and surveys the landscape ahead of the second leg in midweek.

The paucity of goals this weekend did not happen by chance.

Consider the modest output of five goals as a rather unfortunate product of the situation at hand. The base objective in a two-legged tie – maintain viable hope heading into the second leg – does not mesh well with attacking intent. The tension creates a structural issue not solved by the introduction of away goals or some other measure designed to goose offensive production. As long as coaches have a second leg on the schedule in a parity-fueled league, the majority of them will likely plot to keep matters relatively tight in the first match to ensure it actually matters.

Those priorities rose to the fore in each of the four series. Houston probably did the best job of balancing its demands (employing a strong defensive shape while also nabbing two goals to provide a second leg cushion) and D.C. United and Seattle also pressed forward at points in their matches, but the vast majority of play adhered to the expected norm. Forget the beautiful game for the moment. Remember the need to play for the next game.

The pragmatism did not necessarily detract from the entertainment value. Three of the four matches offered something – a great goalkeeping performance in Seattle, a pair of ridiculous own goals in Washington, D.C. or a ruthless home performance in Houston, depending on the encounter – for the neutral to appreciate. The fourth encounter perked up in the final quarter of an hour and yielded a stunning late winner at the Home Depot Center last night. Quibble about the technical merit on display in some of these matches if you must (Houston and Sporting Kansas City combined to complete 65 percent of their passes on a football-marred field at BBVA Compass Stadium, for instance), but each affair at least offered talking points even as it fell in line with the well established trends at this stage of the postseason.

(Note: This article does not pretend to present statistical norms for two-legged ties across the world or supply sweeping generalizations about the format itself. The statistics may work out differently in the UEFA Champions League, CONCACAF Champions League, Liga MX or any other competition with two-legged ties. The trend merely applies to the conference semifinal stage of the MLS postseason.)

MLS transitioned to the current, two-game conference semifinal format in 2003. In the previous eight years, the combined number of goals scored in the second leg exceeded the number of goals scored in the first leg on seven occasions. The number of first leg goals varies from year to year, but it almost always falls significantly below the production inspired by the do-or-die second legs:



First leg – goals scored

Second leg  – goals scored































The numbers make for generally dire reading for those people hoping for open first legs. Barring a massive structural change (and perhaps not even then), the relatively unproductive first legs are likely here to stay. Every so often, some team will win a series in the opening match (step forward, Real Salt Lake). Those outliers merely reinforce the need for prudence next year. And so the circle continues.

For now, those concerns about the output in conference semifinal first legs are in the rear-view mirror. The stakes increase in midweek. Fortunately for those eager supporters anticipating the matches to come, the goals should, too.


D.C. United @ New York (Wednesday, 8:00p.m. – Series tied 1-1 on aggregate): New York sits in a nice spot. United came untethered in the second half at RFK Stadium, lost Andy Najar for the second leg in the process and squandered an opportunity to create a cushion ahead of the second leg. Now the Red Bulls return to Red Bull Arena on level pegging and with the chance to atone for a fairly disappointing display in the District. United isn't out of this tie by any means, but the Red Bulls – even with their vexing playoff history – can point to Thierry Henry and wonder whether a better game from him and him alone would be enough to ensure their positive home form continues (11-2-4) with a victory in the second leg. And then the discussion about swapping the home legs can flare up once again.

Houston @ Sporting Kansas City (Wednesday, 8:30p.m. – Houston leads 2-0 on aggregate): Houston reduced Sporting to a shell of itself at BBVA Compass Stadium on Sunday afternoon. That scenario must change dramatically and quickly in order for the Eastern Conference favorite to pull back into the tie. An early goal, in particular, would help to restore some belief in the side after five consecutive games without a win against the Dynamo. Jermaine Taylor's left knee injury may just provide Sporting with a way into the series if he cannot feature in the second leg, but it is a potential opening that requires some action to exploit. Sporting must do some of the dirty work itself – better performances all around would help – and polish off their chances in front of goal (Graham Zusi's second-half miss on Sunday afternoon looms large right now) to keep hope alive.

Los Angeles @ San Jose (Wednesday, 11:00p.m. – San Jose leads 1-0 on aggregate): Neither side looked particularly interested in scoring for much of the match on Sunday night. Los Angeles will rue its conservative approach after a truly appalling piece of defensive work in second half stoppage time created an unanticipated deficit. Even if the second leg opens up considerably, the Galaxy will struggle to outscore the Earthquakes on home soil unless Bruce Arena manages to tap some well of energy for his veteran stars on short rest. San Jose should enter the second leg confident of securing the draw required to advance to the conference final.

Seattle @ Real Salt Lake (Thursday, 9:30p.m. – Series tied 0-0 on aggregate): RSL did the hard bit at CenturyLink Field with a significant amount of help from Nick Rimando. Now it must find a way to exorcise its second-leg demons by taking care of business at Rio Tinto Stadium. The home side has defended well as of late, but it needs to create more chances in front of goal and offer Álvaro Saborío some support to emerge victorious. Seattle will likely need to have Eddie Johnson in the lineup (his directness adds a nice contrast to the technical buildup play and his aerial presence offers a reasonable chance to win a cross in the air after Sounders FC floated 30 of them toward the penalty area on Friday night without any tangible success) to stand a chance of breaking its lengthy postseason drought.

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and Contact him with your questions or comments at and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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