SmorgasBorg: MLS Cup playoff pressure brings out a different side in some MLS head coaches
They say the playoffs are a different beast. A new season.
There wasn't a sports cliché that rang more true after the first leg of the Conference Semifinals. Because just when you thought you had some teams figured out after 34 matches of the regular season, the postseason brought out a different side in some of them.
Just look at the usual in-your-face Portland Timbers, who had their rival Seattle Sounders on the ropes, up 2-0 on the road. What better time to attack, attack, attack?
Instead of going for the knockout punch, they took off their best player – Darlington Nagbe – in place of the defensive-minded Ben Zemanski in the 73rd minute. Even though Nagbe started every match in 2013 and was subbed out in the 73rd minute or earlier only five previous times.
The Timbers dropped deep and paid the price when Osvaldo Alonso scored.
WATCH: Alonso scores on Timbers
Or how about the New England Revolution and their champagne soccer? At home for their first playoff series since 2009 and up by a slim goal in the aggregate goal series, Jay Heaps decided to put that champagne on ice and he finished the match with two defensive midfielders (Scott Caldwell came on for Dimitry Imbongo in the 71st minute).
Real Salt Lake did the opposite. For the first time in recent memory, they went with two holding mids to start the match at StubHub Center against the defending champions.
And RSL looked uncomfortable doing it, with plenty of gesticulating and in-game chatter among the players in between countless turnovers. Ultimately, manager Jason Kreis scrapped the experiment and went back to their tried-and-trusted diamond, which almost helped them nick an equalizing goal.
Portland, New England and Real Salt Lake will hope their deviating from their regular season behavior doesn’t come back to bite them like the audacious moves of the Colorado Rapids and Montreal Impact did in their Knockout Round eliminations.
Colorado's Oscar Pareja shocked many by benching right back Marvell Wynne (started 13 of team's last 14 regular season games) and playing the rarely used Germán Mera. The Colombian defender fared well, but the Rapids could have used Wynne's speed down the right.
WATCH: Rivas shown red card
Montreal own the shock lineup move of the playoffs, giving Nelson Rivas his first start of the season in a losing effort against Houston. Rivas didn't have a bad game except for that second-half red card which sealed the Impact's ouster.
Managing a two-leg playoff series sometimes does require a shift to more results-oriented thinking. Or maybe not. But there is little margin for error if you don't make the right decision. And that's the essence of the playoff pressure which different people respond to in different ways. Some were even prepared to give up what they believed in for months and months. To give up on the approach that got them to the playoffs to begin with.
Now all these head coaches are exposed to the second-guessers out there, who will be out in full force in time for the second legs in midweek.
But by then, we'll probably have a few more surprise moves to add to the list.