The MLS Wrap: Top stars fall as balanced rosters take center stage in the playoffs

In a year that saw MLS welcome in more high-profile stars than ever, the final four teams left in the chase for the MLS Cup have rosters built on balance rather than star power.

Didier Drogba and Clint Dempsey went into Sunday's MLS playoff matches as the biggest stars still alive in the postseason, and it wasn't a stretch to think both just might be able to help lead their respective teams to the kind of high-profile MLS Cup final league officials could only dream of.

There will be no such marquee matchup though. Drogba and Dempsey have joined the rest of the league's highest-paid players on the sidelines, where they will all watch teams built to have balanced rosters, not top-heavy ones spearheaded by multi-million dollar contracts.

When FC Dallas eliminated the Seattle Sounders on Sunday night and sent Dempsey and Obafemi Martins to an early vacation, it ensured that none of the top 15 highest-paid players in MLS would reach either conference final.

What we have instead are four remaining teams that have each been built with an emphasis on balance and depth and mostly modest (by MLS standards) salaries. In fact, only two players left in the playoffs are making $1 million or more (Columbus' Federico Higuain and Portland's Liam Ridgewell). That's fewer than the total number of million-dollar players on the Seattle Sounders alone (3).

To put the disparity in spending into even greater perspective, consider that the combined salaries of the 11 players who started for FC Dallas in Sunday's penalty shootout victory made less than half the salary in 2015 ($1,785,441) that Dempsey made from the Sounders in 2015 ($4,605,941). 

Even among the four remaining conference finalists, FC Dallas is a unique case. Built around a nucleus of draft picks and homegrown players, Dallas has created an alternative blueprint for spending that doesn't cost nearly as much as teams like Seattle or Toronto FC or New York City FC, though continued success will mean salary increases, and eventually tough decisions about which players to keep and which to part with.

The Columbus Crew's roster budget blueprint is perhaps a better example of what a balanced lineup can look like. All 11 of the players who started in Sunday's victory against the Montreal Impact make $142,500 or more, but Higuain is the only player who makes more than $600,000, yet Higuain's seven-figure salary was attained after originally earning $160,000 in his first season in MLS, and playing his way to an improved contract.

The New York Red Bulls are your example of a former big-spending team that figured out a more frugal way to build a winner. After having previously built around high-priced stars like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, who made almost $8 million in combined salary in 2014, the Red Bulls went into 2015 with a different, more frugal approach. Rather than chasing down big-ticket international stars, the Red Bulls gave 2014 MLS Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips a new deal, making him the team's highest-paid player at $660,000 in 2015, and signed midfielder Sacha Kljestan (at a salary or $537,500). Coach Jesse Marsch and technical director Ali Curtis made some smart pickups to revamp the starting lineup, and the result is a Supporters' Shield-winning side that heads into the Eastern Conference finals regarded as the favorites to win their first MLS Cup.

Of the four remaining teams in the MLS playoffs, you could say the Portland Timbers are the closest thing to a big-spending club left in the playoffs, with four players making more than $550,000, including million-dollar defender Ridgewell and $5 million transfer acquisition Lucas Melano, who is due to earn just shy of $800,000 in 2015. The Timbers are far from being on the spending scale of teams like the Sounders, LA Galaxy, TFC or NYCFC though, with several impressive bargains filling out the lineup that coasted to victory over Vancouver on Sunday.

Does the lack of success among big-spending clubs in 2015 mean we are going to see more teams give up their big-spending ways the way the Red Bulls did? Don't bet on it. The Galaxy and Sounders are safe bets to reload, while Toronto FC and New York City FC have defensive issues to address in the offseason, but each will likely stick to fielding a trio of high-priced players, along with what both teams will be hoping are much stronger defenses. The immense success of expensive signings such as Sebastian Giovinco and Drogba have only served to remind teams that spending big on the right star can help transform your team.

What the success of teams like FC Dallas, Columbus and the frugal version of the Red Bulls in 2015 does show is that you don't have to splash around millions to win an MLS Cup title, which is why you can call 2015 the year of smart spending, rather than big spending, in MLS.

Here is a closer look at all four of Sunday's conference semifinal second legs:


RED BULLS MIDFIELD DOMINATES AS D.C. ATTACK IS TOOTHLESS AGAIN

The New York Red Bulls thoroughly dominated D.C. United on their way to a 1-0 victory, and while the Red Bulls didn't score goals in bunches, they did hold a 62-38 possession percentage advantage and completed nearly 100 more passes than D.C.

Leading the way was a midfield led by the impressive Dax McCarty, who put together a Man of the Match-worthy performance. McCarty, Sacha Kljestan and Felipe Martins made the middle of the field a no-go zone for D.C. United, which deployed a 4-4-2 formation once again, leaving D.C. outnumbered in the middle of the field.

D.C. offered up very little in attack, managing just two shots on goal, which was meager but still better than the zero D.C. United managed in the first leg. Ronald Zubar turned in a solid showing in central defense, while Matt Miazga enjoyed a stellar outing in his final match before taking part in his first U.S. national team camp.

A second straight season ended by the Red Bulls in the playoffs leaves Ben Olsen's team searching for answers as it heads into the offseason with a plethora of needs to address. D.C. is in dire need of a playmaker, a striker and some help on the wings, but it remains to be seen whether D.C. ownership is ready to spend some real money to improve the roster.


KAMARA AND FINLAY FIND REDEMPTION, CREW DEFENSE CORRALS DROGBA

After being largely silent in the Columbus Crew's first-leg loss to the Montreal Impact, Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay went into Sunday's second leg needing to show the form they'd shown all season if the Crew were going to beat the Impact. The dynamic duo did just that, combining for all three goals in the Crew's 3-2 second-leg victory.

Kamara looked like he might have cost his team the chance for a win when he called off regular Crew penalty-taker Federico Higuain in order to take a Finlay-drawn penalty himself. Kamara proceeded to miss the penalty, but wasted little time atoning, as he started the sequence that ultimately led to Finlay pouncing on a saved shot to bundle home the series equalizer.

Finlay came through again in extra time, dribbling around the Impact defense before laying off a pass to Cedrick Mabwati, who delivered a perfect high cross into the penalty area, where Kamara skied up to head home the series-clinching goal.

Another Crew player who enjoyed some sweet redemption is Michael Parkhurst. The veteran defender committed a costly turnover late in the first leg that gifted Montreal a vital goal, but Parkhurst rebounded in the second leg and played the kind of poised and mistake-free match Crew fans have grown accustomed to. He and Gaston Sauro combined to shackle Didier Drogba, who managed four shots on goal, but none of the truly dangerous variety.

For Montreal, Sunday's loss provided a painful end to the season but doesn't diminish what was by any measure an impressive year for the Impact. A trip to the CONCACAF Champions League final, coupled with a strong finish to the season and playoff victory against rival Toronto FC is a good year to build on, and with owner Joey Saputo being known as someone who isn't afraid to spend on his team, the Impact should be a major contender in 2015 assuming they can keep their nucleus of top stars intact.


TIMBERS HAVE TURNED INTO ROAD WARRIORS

If you watched Sunday's Portland Timbers-Vancouver Whitecaps match and ignored the crowd shots and stadium signage, you might have thought the Timbers were the home team the way they bossed the game and knocked the ball around the BC Place field with unyielding confidence. What you would have been watching is the Timbers full-blown evolution into the toughest road team in the league.

Sunday's 2-0 second-leg victory not only gave the Timbers a comfortable path to the Western Conference final — Portland's second West final in three years — it marked the Timbers' fourth straight victory on the road.

So how is Portland suddenly so tough to stop away from home? It starts with the Timbers play in midfield, which has taken control of matches and allowed Portland to win the possession battle and keep home teams from developing much momentum. The outstanding play of the Timbers' defense has also kept home attacks from generating much offense to get their crowd's going.

Sunday's victory in Vancouver was hardly a surprise though, given the Whitecaps relative weakness at home — Vancouver had the worst home record of any of the teams that qualified for the playoffs — but what was surprising was just how dominant the Timbers were.

Portland's midfield, led by a red-hot Darlington Nagbe, proved too much for Vancouver to deal with, especially after an injury forced the speedy Kekuta Manneh to leave the match. Manneh's departure made the Whitecaps much easier to defense, and allowed Jorge Villafana to attack more down the left flank, giving the Whitecaps defense even more to deal with.

The Timbers will face a much tougher road trip in the Western Conference finals, when they travel to Frisco, Texas, where they suffered a 4-1 loss to FC Dallas back in July, and where Dallas posted one of the best home records in MLS. That said, the current Timbers are playing their best soccer of the season, meaning their next trip to Frisco should be a much more competitive one.


FC DALLAS MORE THAN JUST A YOUNG TEAM NOW

FC Dallas spent much of the season being seen as a very good team, but a young team. After eliminating the Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas has earned the right to stop being seen simply as some overachieving band of youngsters.

Oscar Pareja's side thoroughly outplayed the Sounders for much of Sunday night's match, and though Chad Marshall nearly came through with an improbable goal that threatened to eliminate FC Dallas from the playoffs, FC Dallas responded in impressive fashion to rally to a defining victory.

Dallas' youngsters were at the forefront of the victory, with 20-year-old goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez playing the hero in the penalty shootout, and young defender Walker Zimmerman delivering the series-tying goal and series-clinching penalty kick. Young midfielder Kellyn Acosta was also outstanding in his return from injury, while 2014 MLS Rookie of the Year Tesho Akindele came off the bench to deliver an important goal.

The most impressive aspect of Sunday's victory was the fearlessness Dallas showed facing off against a high-profile Sounders side that went into the series as the favorites. Last year's playoff series between the two wound up being decided by away goals, and that experience clearly helped prepare FCD for the rematch this time around, and over the course of the two legs, Dallas looked like the stronger team.

Now FC Dallas heads into the Western Conference finals as the favorite against Portland, and one thing we shouldn't hear anymore is how this team is too young to win an MLS Cup. It showed in the Seattle series that is has the maturity and toughness to lift the club's first title.


IS THIS THE END OF THE ROAD FOR THE SCHMID'S SOUNDERS?

Sigi Schmid's seventh season in charge of the Seattle Sounders ended with a whimper, as an injury-hit and aging Sounders team was made to look very ordinary against an energized and confident FC Dallas side. Given the expectations placed on the 2015 Sounders, ending the year without a single trophy, and without having managed to reach the team's first MLS Cup final, makes the year feel very much like a disappointment.

Schmid doesn't see it that way.

"I thought the team did well considering all the obstacles and all the difficulties we had this season with all the injuries and people being out," Schmid said. "At the end of the day I think they showed a lot of character, a lot of desire, the three games in one week, winning all three of those games and pulling back today when we went down 1-0. I think there's a lot of character that's really been brought out by this team, but at the end of the day it wasn't enough."

Schmid entered the 2015 season with a clear mandate to deliver the club's first MLS Cup, and now that he has fallen short in the quest to win it, Schmid finds himself very much on the hot seat heading into the winter. Asked whether he wants to return to Seattle next year, Schmid made it clear he wants to be back.

"Yeah, but obviously that's not my decision," Schmid said. "That's ownership's decision and they'll decide that, but I feel fine and I still feel capable of coaching."

Schmid has yet to capture the elusive third MLS Cup title he's been chasing since he left an MLS Cup-winning Columbus Crew side for Seattle after the 2008 season. In his seven years in charge of the Sounders, Schmid has helped turn the Sounders into a regular powerhouse, with five pieces of silverware to show for his work. It is the one trophy that is missing that has some Sounders fans believing it's time for a coaching change.

"The (MLS) Cup is what we haven't given them yet, we've given them four Open Cups, we've given them a Supporters' Shield," Schmid said. "Our trophy case has a lot more in it than Dallas' trophy case has in it, as an example."

Whether Schmid gets to add any more hardware to the trophy case in Seattle remains to be seen. The availability of Jason Kreis, who worked with Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey when both helped build Real Salt Lake into an MLS Cup champion in 2009, makes Schmid's future in Seattle very questionable.