Even by MLS standards, the opening of Tuesday night's Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs conference championships was bizarre. Like the rest of you, I literally watched paint dry for 30 minutes.
And then for 180 minutes I saw some pretty damn good soccer that leaves both series up in the air.
Let's start in Montreal:
Train in Vain
Both Montreal and Toronto had been defined by late-season adjustments, new formations and new XIs. For the host Impact, it was all about the re-adoption of a low-block 4-3-3 that's designed to snuff the game out about 60 yards from goal, and then play their fleet-footed front-line into space.
That is, of course, what happened for the first 60 minutes (and especially the first 15). The midfield trio of Hernan Bernardello, Patrice Bernier, and Marco Donadel rotates as well as or better than anyone in the league. That makes them close to impossible to pull apart, while leaving them in position to mark space and not worry as much about taking on individual runners. So you have to go around them -- and if, on occasion, you do risk a through ball, you're risking a counter-attack in the other direction.
So how do you pull that apart? Well, for TFC, it was a case of not outright scrapping the 3-5-2 that had served them so well over the past month, but rather adjusting it into a 3-4-1-2. Right around the hour mark Greg Vanney brought on Will Johnson and Tosaint Ricketts for Armando Cooper and Jonathan Osorio, and that changed the game.
How? Well, partially it was just adding another body up top -- Ricketts has speed, and he's fairly big and freaking relentless, and Montreal struggled with that. Just getting him in the attacking third makes TFC more dangerous.
More important, though, were two other things that came with the adjustment: Johnson sat deeper, helping Michael Bradley shield the backline. Sebastian Giovinco also dropped into the hole behind Ricketts and Jozy Altidore, acting as a true playmaker rather than a second forward.
Stationing Giovinco there almost entirely eliminated Donadel as a defensive presence. On the left are his measurable defensive events for the first hour, according to Opta, and on the right is his final half hour:
He was so busy trying to keep track of Giovinco that he didn't have time to protect that crucial turf in front of the central defense, and that's how TFC eventually got both of their goals.
It sets up what will be both a chess match and a barn burner in Leg Two. I wouldn't be shocked if TFC came out in the 3-4-1-2 from the start, and I'm curious to see what kind of counter-punches Mauro Biello can unleash.
The Magnificent Dance
I feel like I've been writing about Nicolas Lodeiro every week since he arrived, and I'm sorry, but I just can't pick another angle to work from following Seattle's 2-1 win over Colorado in the Western Conference first leg.
Lodeiro was everywhere. No attacker in the league covers as much ground or can hurt you in as many ways:
He popped up for a header in the box that forced a great save out of Zac MacMath, then 20 seconds later put a cross into the mixer for Nelson Valdez that asked for (and received) an even better stop for the Rapids 'keeper. He beat Jermaine Jones to a loose ball in midfield to set up the equalizing goal for the Sounders; he drew and then converted the game-winning penalty; he played perfectly weighted balls down each flank; he drew fouls everywhere.
Lodeiro is money well spent not only because of what he brings to the field as an individual, but also because of what his individual abilities bring out of his teammates. The Seattle front four was dancing throughout this game; their movement was spectacular. Only an outstanding performance from MacMath kept the game from getting out of hand.
But as is always the case with Colorado: It didn't get out of hand, did it? A 2-1 loss in the first leg is just fine, especially since they're going back to a place where they seem to win every game 1-0.
A few more things to ponder...
5. Cristian Roldan quietly had another gigantic game. His biggest improvement this season has been both how he weights his passes, and his timing in releasing them. Back in the spring he was just a technical kid; now he's out there helping his team establish a rhythm.
4. There is no one quite like Jermaine Jones in MLS, and few like him anywhere in the world. These are two absolutely stunning passes:
Look at this absolute filth from Jermaine Jones...https://t.co/zEKXdttV0F— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) November 23, 2016
He drives me nuts because he's all id out there, and that often costs his team (as it did on the first Seattle goal). But he just leaves my jaw on the ground sometimes with the stuff he'll pull off.
3. The loss of Sam Cronin for the second leg of the West finals is low-key huge for the Rapids. Cronin is a vocal and heady organizer who covers for the mistakes of his teammates, keeps the lines tight in defense and keeps the whole team compact. His absence likely means Jones will start deep in midfield with Micheal Azira, and those guys have not spent a ton of time together in those roles.
Keeping track of Lodeiro will be tough.
2. Evan Bush was once again superb, and has been for the better part of two months now.
1. And finally, I remain utterly confused as to how and why Canada were not able to build a more-than-competitive national team around Bernier, Johnson and Atiba Hutchinson for the last decade. It makes no sense to me.
That is as good as pass as anyone's hit all playoffs. Bernier doesn't even pick his head up -- he somehow feels the lane, and splits the defense with that through-ball. Valderrama would be happy to claim that one.