MLS playoff roundup: Red Bulls and Seattle facing elimination, Atlanta tops NYCFC

Zack Steffen (right), Jonathan Mensah and the Columbus Crew frustrated the New York Red Bulls in Sunday’s 1-0 win. (Adam Lacy/Getty)
Zack Steffen (right), Jonathan Mensah and the Columbus Crew frustrated the New York Red Bulls in Sunday’s 1-0 win. (Adam Lacy/Getty)

The MLS Cup playoffs resumed on Sunday with four conference semifinal first-leg matches. Here’s what you need to know heading into the series deciders next week.

Postseason woes continue for Red Bulls

The Supporters Shield-winning New York Red Bulls are 90 minutes away from yet another early playoff exit after Sunday’s 1-0 loss in Columbus. And because of MLS’s illogical playoff format, the team that compiled the most points in MLS regular season history could actually be eliminated with a home victory in the second leg next Sunday at Red Bull Arena.

That’s right. The league’s continued use of away goals as a tiebreaker and not, say, regular season record or another format that actually rewards excellence over the first 34 games of the campaign means that not only must New York win next week, Chris Armas’ side would have to prevail by two goals should the Crew score again in regulation.

If any team is capable of overturning the deficit, though, it’s these previously unflappable Red Bulls. And New York might’ve walked away from the series opener with a tie, momentum, and a valuable road goal of their own had it not been for Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen’s stone-cold stop of a Bradley Wright-Phillips header in the dying seconds of stoppage time:

Still, the Crew have to like their chances now. Columbus manger Gregg Berhalter’s gutsy decision not to start playmaker Federico Higuain, who’d scored twice in the knockout round triumph over D.C. United three days earlier, paid off when Higuain enteredoff the bench and set up the winner for Gyasi Zardes with a seeing-eye heel flick:

Higuain’s legs will be fresh in New Jersey. Along with the 1-0 aggregate lead, history is on the Crew’s side, too. Columbus eliminated the Red Bulls in the East finals in 2015, when they were also the Supporters Shield holder, and the club has not hoisted MLS Cup in its 23-year existence, dropping its lone final to the Crew a decade ago.

Timbers take narrow lead into Thursday’s decider in Seattle

With the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks at home next Sunday, the second leg of the Portland Timbers-Seattle Sounders grudge matchup will take place on Thursday night, a full three days before all the other deciders. That’s bad news for the Sounders, which squandered Raul Ruidiaz’s early strike in a 2-1 loss in Portland Sunday in Leg 1.

Jeremy Ebobisse leveled minutes after Ruidiaz’s opener to kill the visitors’ buzz. Sebastian Blanco then scored on a spectacular individual effort to put the hosts ahead for good:

Making matters worse for Seattle, midfielder Cristian Roldan and Defender of the Year finalist Chad Marshall were both forced from the match in the first half. The extent of their injuries wasn’t immediately known — Roldan limped off with a sore groin and Marshall, who hurt his knee, was carried off the field on a stretcher — but the short turnaround sure doesn’t help the pair’s chances of being available for to the return match.

Atlanta positioned to advance over New York City FC

Heading into this series, one got the sense that for NYCFC to have any chance of outlasting loaded Atlanta United over 180 minutes, Sunday night’s rumble in the Bronx would have to go their way. Unfortunately for the Pigeons, it didn’t.

Leapfrogged in the Supporters Shield race by the Red Bulls on the regular season’s final day, Atlanta went into Yankee Stadium — the venue many MLS coaches and players believe is the toughest in the league — and put on a defensive masterclass, eventually winning 1-0 on Eric Remedi’s first half tap-in:

The too-small field made for a predictably ugly contest, with the teams combining for 22 first half fouls, more than in any other MLS game in 2018. But NYCFC couldn’t capitalize on their familiarity with the confines, the hosts failing to register a single shot on Brad Guzan’s net.

It was Atlanta’s second victory of the evening, the first being talisman Miguel Almiron’s return to the lineup after missing two games with a sore groin. With a healthy Almiron in tow, United heads south hoping to finish City off in style in front of what’s expected to be another huge crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Real Salt Lake’s run continues

RSL made the playoffs because the LA Galaxy imploded. They’re also now unbeaten through two games this postseason, upsetting LAFC on the road midweek before holding Sporting Kansas City to a 1-1 draw in Sunday’s nightcap.

Real scored another golazo along the way, with Albert Rusnak’s sidewinder finishing off a gorgeous give-and-go with Damir Kreilach, who last week scored a gem of his own:

Kansas City came back to salvage a point through substitute Diego Rubio. They’ll be the clear favorite at Sporting Park. But there’s something special about RSL’s run this year. Don’t count them out yet.

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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