We stand two games away from a potential MLS Cup final rematch, but as much as Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders are in favorable positions heading into their conference final deciders, there is still work to be done.
Toronto is back at BMO Field on Wednesday night to play host to the Columbus Crew after their 0-0 first leg draw in Ohio. TFC is feeling good about its chances, not only because of its league-best home record, but also because Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore are back from suspension. The Crew can make things tough, though, as Gregg Berhalter's side looks to continue riding the momentum of an outstanding past two months.
The Houston Dynamo face a much tougher task than the Crew after a 2-0 first-leg loss at home to the Sounders. That means Wilmer Cabrera's men must find a way to earn a multi-goal win at CenturyLink Field, something no visiting team has been able to do in 30 matches. New York City FC was the last team to record such a result, back on June 25, 2016.
Here is a closer look at the key talking points heading into the conference final second legs:
GIOVINCO'S FREE KICKS COULD BE KEY
After Giovinco made New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles the latest victim of his sharp-shooting free kick ability in the Eastern Conference semifinals, TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono made a point to console his counterpart after the match by letting him know there wasn't much he, or anyone, can do to stop the Italian's set pieces when he's in the form he's been in lately.
"I went up to [Robles] and said, 'Listen, I’ve seen that same free kick after training 100 times,'" Bono told Goal. "The more you see it, the more you realize you’re never going to get close to it."
That is the challenge facing Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen as he prepares to face Giovinco, who is back after missing the first leg of the East final because of a suspension for yellow card accumulation. Giovinco has converted on free kick goals in two of his past three matches, including his series-clinching strike against the Red Bulls. The 30-year-old now has 14 free kick goals in MLS play since arriving in 2015, shattering the record previously held by David Beckham.
"He just has this way about him that he always seems to find the back of the net," Bono said. "And he always seems to hit it so sweetly and so perfectly. I know it’s been a nightmare to face, but it’s been a real pleasure to watch.
"Whenever it’s in Seba range I’m glued in back in our goal. It really is a joy to watch."
So what makes Giovinco so dangerous on free kicks?
"He can disguise it anyway he wants, and that’s what makes it so deadly," Bono said. "You can’t cheat it because he’ll put it back on the keeper’s side and it’ll be on your shoulders."
It will be up to Steffen to try and keep Giovinco off the scoreboard Wednesday. He has been studying Giovinco's free kicks and is fully aware how tough it will be to stop him if he is given a look from close range.
"He puts a lot of pace on the ball, he puts it where he wants it," Steffen told Goal. "It’s going to be tough, but I’ll have to keep an eye on him and be smart when he’s in the game. When he’s around the 18 we’re going to have to be smart and not draw any stupid fouls to give him that chance because he’s obviously lethal."
While Steffen will be busy trying to stop Giovinco, Bono will be across the field, hoping to stop any shots that go his way. He won't have to face Giovinco free kicks Wednesday, but he has faced them enough in training, and knows that saving them can feel as good as making a save in a real game.
"You do build a certain level of confidence from it, especially when you haven’t saved one and you’re able to get a hand to it," Bono said. "[Giovinco] will be the first one to smile at you and give you the thumbs up."
DYNAMO FACING TALL TASK IN SEATTLE
The Dynamo aren't raising a white flag, and they aren't going to skip the Western Conference second-leg trip to Seattle. There will be no forfeit. The Dynamo are still heading into Thursday's clash intent on pulling off an upset for the ages, even though their 2-0 loss in Houston has made the tough task of dethroning the reigning MLS champions a supreme long shot.
"In Seattle, can we win? Yes," Dynamo coach Wilmer Cabrera said shortly after his side's first-leg loss. "We’re going to go with the mentality that we can win that game because we have a good team. We can be dangerous."
The Dynamo can be dangerous, but there are plenty of factors working against them. For starters, they will be missing star striker Alberth Elis, who is out because of yellow card accumulation. Elis' speed on the wing will be sorely missed, even though the Dynamo have other attacking options to help fill the void.
The Dynamo will also be down to their third-choice right back after Jalil Anibaba's first-leg red card and A.J. DeLaGarza's torn ACL suffered at the end of the regular season. Cabrera could turn to Boniek Garcia to fill the role, but the midfielder will have his hands full with whichever left-wing option the Sounders go with, be it Joevin Jones or Victor Rodriguez.
There is also the fact the Dynamo were one of the worst away teams in the league for the better part of the season. They were 1-9-7 on the road in 2017, but they also have the confidence gained from their road playoff win against Portland in the West semifinals. Winning in Seattle is a much tougher task though, as the Sounders were 11-1-5 at home during the regular season.
The Sounders are facing their own lineup question marks heading into Thursday's second leg. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei's return from a hamstring injury is still uncertain, meaning Tyler Miller could get another call after posting a shutout in the first leg. Roman Torres is suspended because of yellow cards, meaning Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer could choose to deploy the versatile Gustav Svensson in central defense. The Sounders, though, likely need Svensson in a defensive midfield role in place of injured star Osvaldo Alonso, who has been sidelined with a quad injury.
"He's played probably more positions than he would like," Schmetzer said of Svensson. "As he's grown into the group, and the season has progressed, he has played a big role in a lot of our successful matches."
If Svensson plays in midfield, then Schmetzer could turn to Tony Alfaro to start alongside Chad Marshall. A second-year pro, Alfaro managed just eight starts in 2017, with the Sounders earning just one win (1-4-3) in those matches.
The Dynamo will be sure to try and go after Alfaro, with Cabrera likely to choose Erick Torres and Mauro Manotas up top because of the suspension of Elis.
"[If] Tony gets on the field, he'll do fine," Schmetzer said of Alfaro. "He'll be able to handle it."
Whatever lineup Schmetzer settles on will carry a big advantage into the match, but the Sounders coach has made it clear to his team that a series win can't be taken for granted.
"You have to remind them that this isn't finished," Schmetzer said. "This game could take a turn for the worse. If they score early then they think they have a chance."
It will be up to the Sounders' attack to put the series away before a monumental comeback can even get started. The onus will be on Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro and Will Bruin to punish the Dynamo defense much the same way they did in the first leg. If Dempsey can continue his torrid form and Bruin can land a third goal against his former team, the Sounders will be a good bet to move a step closer to a repeat MLS Cup tile.
CREW-TFC SHOULD HAVE MORE FIREWORKS
The first leg of the TFC-Crew series turned into a defensive struggle, as TFC successfully neutralized the Crew's attack and accomplished its mission of having the series come down to the second leg in Toronto. Now, with Altidore and Giovinco back from suspension, TFC should be on the front foot in Wednesday's second leg.
That, coupled with the Crew's desire for a potential series-turning away goal, should lead to a more wide open second leg in Toronto, with both teams chasing goals.
Berhalter wasn't about to give away his team's strategy for the second leg, and stayed coy when asked whether his team would look to be aggressive in Toronto.
"In general, it's good to get a good start to the game," Berhalter told reporters, "whether that means attacking fiercely in the beginning of the game, or sitting back and being compact in the beginning of the game."
TFC coach Greg Vanney was a bit more forthcoming about his team's approach, though it isn't really a revelation that the home team plans to attack.
"The most important thing tomorrow is that we put them on their heels," Vanney said. "Force them to have to adapt to us and we force them to have to make plays to keep themselves in the game. That's what our intentions are. We need to be forward thinking and we need to be aggressive and try to get as many opportunities as we can on their goal."
With the series scoreline currently 0-0, TFC won't be abandoning the defensive focus that led to the shutout in Columbus, and the emphasis on keeping the Crew from getting too comfortable in possession should remain.
"For us, it's not about chasing them around all over the place, it's understanding where the gaps are, and the spots are.
"Different people will show up, it doesn't matter who shows up, it's to make sure we understand where those spaces are that they're trying to exploit and deal with that."
The TFC attack will be bolstered by the returns of Giovinco and Altidore. That missed game, coupled with the recent international break, has meant a 24-day gap since the pair last played in a match. As much as rust might play a part in how the tandem performs Wednesday, the Crew know full well how dangerous they still are.
"To me it's a logical conclusion to make that if they haven't played in 24 days they're going to be somewhat rusty," Berhalter said. "But when you take quality like that, them somewhat rusty is still pretty good for the level of quality they have."