Sunday's MLS playoff triple-header had it all — from fights and goals to wonder-saves and red cards. It had upsets, bench players stepping up and coaches doing their part to position their teams to deliver big postseason performances.
It wasn't always pretty and got particularly feisty in Toronto, where the TFC-Red Bulls clash saw the kind of tension and emotion we have come to expect from the MLS playoffs. New York City FC helped provide plenty of drama by nearly pulling off a momentous three-goal comeback, only for the Columbus Crew to muster enough energy to hold on and keep their dream run going.
And then you had the Houston Dynamo, who used a patchwork defense to knock off a Portland Timbers side that couldn't overcome an overwhelming rash of injuries to maintain their top seed in the West. The Dynamo spoiled the Portland-Seattle series neutrals around the league were hoping for, but Wilmer Cabrera's team has shown it has the depth and quality to make an even deeper run.
Here is a look back at some of Sunday's MLS playoff storylines:
TFC FIGHTS OFF FEISTY RED BULLS
A halftime skirmish in the player tunnels served as the headline grabber in Sunday's decisive Toronto FC-Red Bulls second leg, but it was how both teams responded in the wake of the red cards issued to Jozy Altidore and Sacha Kljestan that ultimately left TFC standing as the series winner.
Sunday's match was always expected to be intense, but things kicked up several notches as some TFC stars were clearly caught up in the emotion of the match, and the Red Bulls hoped to fan those flames and unsettle the top seed in the East.
Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco let their emotions boil over at separate points in the match, propelled by a combination of Red Bulls antagonism and the pressure to deliver TFC's first MLS Cup title. The Red Bulls fed on that, particularly with Altidore, and while we still don't know exactly happened in the locker room area at halftime, the early reports suggest some Red Bulls players wanted to keep pushing Altidore's buttons when it was clear just before the break just how agitated he was.
"Antagonizing and trying to get the game to be a little chaotic and little bit off tilt was OK for their side," TFC coach Greg Vanney said after the series win. "It is what it is. It's the officials' job to try and keep things under control on the field. I think that was lacking a little bit.
"The game just became a little bit about soccer and a lot about nonsense," Vanney added. "That's irritating, I'm sure, for spectators. It's irritating for coaches, players, and it's irritating for what our league is supposed to be about."
"Any other team finds a way to lose this series," TFC captain Michael Bradley said. "They did nothing. They scored a deflected goal, which makes the last 30 or 35 minutes tight, but we kept our nerve. We made big plays when we needed to make big plays, and we found a way to go through."
The Red Bulls saw their season come to an end, but there is a much different feeling around the team than after the previous two seasons, which saw their campaigns end early following outstanding regular seasons. There were some whispers around the league that the Red Bulls weren't tough enough before 2017, but this year's squad was clearly a more determined and strong team, even if it may have lacked some of the quality of previous years.
"I told them this is the favorite team I've ever coached," Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. "A resilient bunch, a bunch that were committed to each other at the highest level. They cared about all the right things. A young group, a fearless group. A group that got better and better as the year went on.
"We have work to do in the offseason, but I think we have a bright future with this team and with this group."
PATCHWORK DYNAMO DEFENSE HOLDS UP
The Dynamo looked like they might be in for a world of hurt when their series against the Timbers began. The absence of A.J. DeLaGarza and Leonardo threatened to leave them extremely vulnerable against a high-powered Portland attack, and losing goalkeeper Tyler Deric to suspension and DaMarcus Beasley to a late injury only threatened to make surviving the series even tougher.
A combination of stellar play from Dynamo's reserves, coupled with a crippling wave of injuries to the Timbers, helped pave the way for a Dynamo series upset.
Wilmer Cabrera was able to turn to Philippe Senderos, Jalil Anibaba, Dylan Remick and Joe Willis to secure the series win, and as much as Portland was decimated by injuries, the Timbers still had a good chance of winning the series — that is, if the Dynamo hadn't had several players step up and deliver. It took the efforts of the aforementioned defenders, as well as strong outings from players such as Eric Alexander and Mauro Manotas, to put away the Timbers.
There was some feeling in Houston that the Dynamo's triumph wasn't getting the credit it deserved because of the emphasis being placed on Portland's injuries. The reality is both teams had to deal with injuries, but the Timbers were clearly hurt more by the losses in every part of the field, from Fanendo Adi and Darren Mattocks up front, to Diego Chara and Sebastian Blanco in midfield, and Larrys Mabiala and Roy Miller in central defense. That many injuries, particularly to members of of the front six, was simply too much for Portland, or any team, to overcome.
"When the dust settles I think we will look back and realize it was a good season, but it’s also a season where you think to yourself, ‘What if?'" Timbers coach Caleb Porter said. "'What if we were at full strength?' Because at the start of the year and the end of the year at full strength we showed what we are capable of, and even tonight in the first half we showed what we are capable of, but it wasn’t enough."
Acknowledging Portland's misfortune doesn't take away from what the Dynamo accomplished, but it does provide proper context. The reality is that over time nobody outside of Portland is going to spend much time dwelling on the Timbers' injuries, and will spend more time acknowledging what Houston was able to do.
The Dynamo were able to turn to their bench for good performances all over the field — from Willis' work in goal to the strong outings by Senderos and Remick on the back line, and the efforts of players like Alexander and Manotas.
The Crew's late-season hot streak served to overshadow what was also a strong finish to the regular season for Houston, which has flourished under first-year coach Cabrera, who took over a team in dire need of a makeover and helped transform it into a serious contender.
"Sometimes we have to start from the bottom to prove ourselves," Cabrera said Sunday. "The most important is not how you start. When you move, you need to be well prepared because at some point, when the opportunities open for you, you need to be ready and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be ready. I’ve been working hard, we’ve been working hard together and now we’ve been rewarded. But we want more and we know that every time and every game you get something, now it’s more pressure for you. We like that. We really like that.”
BERHALTER BESTS ANOTHER BIG-NAME COACH
When Bruce Arena stepped down as U.S. national team coach after the World Cup qualifying disaster in Trinidad & Tobago, the rumor mill spit out plenty of names of potential candidates to replace him, including Atlanta United boss Gerardo "Tata" Martino and NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira. One name you didn't hear is Gregg Berhalter, despite him being a well-respected tactician who enjoyed a lengthy playing career in Europe, and has had early success with the Columbus Crew.
All Berhalter has done in these playoffs is knock off Atlanta and NYCFC, sending Martino and Vieira to early vacations, and boosting his own standing as one of the best coaches in the league.
"Gregg's brilliant," Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen told Goal. "He's by far the best coach I've worked with. I've learned so much already in my year here. Just the way he thinks about games and thinks about tactics and thinks about his players is amazing, and it's great to be a part of. It's a lot of hard work. He wants a lot from his players, and it's gotten us where we are right now."
Berhalter acknowledged that he feels he is still too young and inexperienced to be thinking about national team jobs, but there is no denying that the work he has put in with the Crew has elevated his standing as one of the league's better tacticians.
As for getting the better of Martino and Vieira, Berhalter wasn't taking the bait on what that might mean for him.
"I got a lot of respect for those guys," Berhalter told Goal. "I look at it as a team going against another team. I don't look at it as a personal battle. I know they're good coaches, I know it's going to be difficult for our team. We try to put ourselves in position to win."
Berhalter did just that with the Crew, and now has Columbus a step closer to a Cinderella run to the MLS Cup final, which would be the Crew's second in three seasons.