MLS blog: Glancing at the Eastern finalists

MLS is down to its Final Four following Sunday’s results.

Your conference finalists are:

Houston, which dispatched top-seeded Portland, vs. Seattle, which thumped Vancouver, in the West.

Columbus, which held off NYCFC, vs. Toronto, which did everything it could to lose, but pushed away New York Red Bulls, in the East.

The first legs of the conference finals will be Nov. 21. The second leg in the East will be Nov. 29. The second leg in the West will be Nov. 30.

Let’s take a look at the East:

Columbus vs. Toronto

Season series: Columbus won 2-1 on March 5 at MAPFRE Stadium, lost 2-1 on May 10 at MAPFRE Stadium, and lost 5-0 on May 26 at BMO Field.

About Columbus: Though Toronto’s Greg Vanney will likely win the coach of the year in MLS, it’s difficult to argue that Columbus’ Gregg Berhalter is the better coach, especially when you consider the amount of money spent on the players on each team. As of April, Toronto spent $22 million on its roster, including inexplicably giving $6.5 million to Michael Bradley, which is almost as much as Columbus spent on its entire roster ($6.7 million). Seriously, as of April, Toronto spent almost as much on Bradley, a defensive midfielder who doesn’t shoot, provide assists, key passes or make tackles, than the Crew did on its entire roster. Crazy, right?

Columbus plays a style similar to Atlanta United: The Crew builds from the back, likes to pass, features technically gifted players and will make runs from different angles to unusual spots on the field.

Underrated player: Zack Steffen. Until stoning Atlanta United in the first round of the playoffs, he hasn’t typically been one of the group of guys included in lists of goalkeepers the U.S. should call into a camp. Now, it seems probable that the 22-year-old has earned a look.

Overrated player: Ola Kamara. It’s hard to argue that a player with 18 goals is overrated, but Kamara is a pure poacher, a one-touch scorer. That’s not a bad thing, but imagine what Columbus could do with a guy with a skill set like Josef Martinez or Hector Villalba, instead of a guy with a skill set like Kenwyne Jones’?

About Toronto: Well, Toronto spent enough money, not all of it wisely in my opinion, but secured the Supporter’s Shield in a record-setting season. Its offense was the best in the league (74 goals) and its defense good enough (37 goals) to give Vanney flexibility to alter the formation as needed and still secure positive results. They can play down the flanks or up the middle. They can counter-attack or win with possession. The acquisition of Victor Vazquez proved genius, Alex Bono grew into a solid goalkeeper, and Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore are the league’s best striker tandem. The big question is can they win without either of them after Giovinco foolishly picked up a yellow card on Sunday and will now be out because of accumulation and Altidore either picked up a red card or second yellow after getting into a fight with New York Red Bulls midfielder Sacha Kljestan during halftime in the tunnel of Sunday’s game.

Underrated player: Justin Morrow. He scored a career-high eight goals and had an assist. He can play numerous positions, which again makes Vanney’s job that much easier. He’s big, physical and fast. 

Overrated player: You can probably guess where I’m going with this one. Though Bradley is the league’s third highest-paid player, I would argue he’s not even among the top-five most valuable players on his team. As I noted earlier, he’s a midfielder who doesn’t score (0 goals), doesn’t provide assists (2 … in a league that does recognize secondary assists and on a team that led the league in goals) and seldom makes tackles or key passes, so he’s not really freeing up teammates to do those things, either. He did lead the league in recoveries (331), which is an action when a player wins a ball back after it has gone loose or when it has been played directly to him. It’s an odd stat.

What exactly is Toronto getting for more than $6 million? 

I know there are folks out there who will say Bradley provides intangible things, such as game management. OK. There are lots and lots of players who can frequently pass the ball sideways or backward. And a lot of them don’t cost more than $6 million. And a lot of them don’t need someone beside them to free them up to do those things, which is the most common refrain I hear when analysts discuss Bradley: how he was left isolated, how he needs a partner, etc.

I used to love watching Bradley play in Holland and Germany. And then, sometime in the year before the World Cup in Brazil, he changed from a player who would push teams forward with runs and aggressive passes to a player who became enamored with keeping the ball with no discernable purpose. The casual jog replaced the sprint. The sideways pass replaced the diagonal into space. Attempted tackles were replaced by what I describe as the “Bradley crouch”: where he gets into a defensive posture but that’s where the defense starts and stops.

Bradley’s a good player. He’s not a great player. In a league with a salary budget, he’s certainly not worth what he’s getting paid.

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