Armchair Analyst: Tactical preview of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs Play-In matches

The Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs are finally here! And that means a Play-In round, because for some reason 10 teams made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference! It's a little weird and I still don't get it, but what the hell — more soccer is more better.

So let's take a look:

New England Revolution vs. Montreal Impact

Friday, November 20 (6:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes, TSN 1/4, TVA Sports)

What New England will do: It's a Bruce Arena team in the postseason, and Bruce Arena teams are first and foremost about defense in the postseason. Remember his 2011 LA Galaxy side that won the Supporters' Shield/MLS Cup double? That team had Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, David Beckham and Mike Magee, and they won their four playoff games that year 1-0, 2-1, 3-1 and 1-0.

Look at that list of players and then look at those scorelines. That's the Platonic Ideal of a Bruce Arena playoff run.

Now look at that list of players once more, then look at the list of the Revs' best players and... oh dear. It's not quite the same, is it?

New England have by-and-large played good soccer this year out of a 4-4-2ish 4-2-3-1. They generate useful possession out of midfield and get both fullbacks forward into good spots, and defensively they've been one of the best teams in the league on top of the fact that, in Matt Turner, they have the very best goalkeeper in the league.

The problem, though, is all that useful possession has too infrequently turned into high-quality chances, and it's because they have not gotten the sort of elite play from their DPs that Arena's Galaxy teams could always count on:

Gustavo Bou, who was on a heater when he arrived in MLS last year, regressed in the exact manner his xG totals suggested he would. He is a conscience-less gunner who eschews the extra pass for low-percentage shots from waaaaay downtown.

Adam Buksa barely moves the needle. While his individual advanced numbers are promising, he has virtually no teamwide effect as per Second Spectrum tracking data:

  • When Buksa sits, New England overall produce 13.37 shots and 1.17xG per 90 minutes (4th and 10th in the league).
  • When Buksa plays, those numbers marginally increase to 13.78 shots and 1.25 xG per 90 (4th and 9th in the league).

Lots of shots, but a middling ROI. That's Bou's ethos seeping in teamwide.

All of this can be forgiven, to a degree, by the absence of playmaker Carles Gil, who managed to start just four games during an injury-riddled season. No. 10s by their very nature tend to create higher-quality chances, and Gil spent a lot of 2019 doing exactly that. His presence will help, even if he is likely better off picking the ball up in midfield and releasing the likes of Teal Bunbury and Tajon Buchanan into space than he is dictating from the final third.

What Montreal will do: They'll most likely force New England to try and dictate from the final third. Bunbury just had probably his best year as a pro, but he is light-years more dangerous in transition than in front-foot possession. Buksa and Bou are inconsistent. Buchanan is a talent, but is not yet productive.

This is the exact type of team who invites forward and just beg them to bang their collective heads against the wall for 90 minutes, and then try to smash-and-grab on the counter or a set piece. Thierry Henry's team has not been defensively resolute enough to make that work week after week during the regular season, but they've got some rest now, and plenty of tape of and familiarity with the Revs. There won't be many illusions re: what they're facing.

Enter right back/right wingback Zachary Brault-Guillard, who tormented New England when these teams first met in 2020:

His ability to make those direct runs and be dangerous at pace — while reaching a top speed that almost no one else in the league can hit — isn't just a wild card here: It's a devastating avenue of attack that has unbalanced the exact team they happen to be facing in this game.

A lot of things have changed since March, and there will certainly be new and different faces on the pitch for both teams. And I'm not even willing to wager on what formation Henry will play (though if you forced me to, I'd say 5-4-1). 

But one thing I don't think has changed since then is the best path forward for Montreal against this New England side: Up the right flank, to Brault-Guillard, and hopefully (for them) into the next round of the playoffs.

X-Factor No. 1: Whether Victor Wanyama plays or not, the Impact have been soft as hell up the spine and are prone to giving up a ton of room in that gap between the central midfield and central defense. It doesn't matter who Wanyama's been flanked with (Henry has at times fielded three defensive midfielders), nor whether the Impact goes with four or five at the back.

If Gil sets up shop there, Montreal's in trouble.

And also, you can probably tell from my tone above I don't love Bou's shoot-on-sight mentality. But the thing is, sometimes those low-percentage looks go in, and if you're giving him time to wind up from 28 yards and nobody's closing him down, I don't precisely hate his chances. A Bou golazo in those circumstances would surprise no one.

X-Factor No. 2: The Revs are one of the best teams in the league defending from open play, but are among the very worst defending on set pieces — corners in particular. Montreal aren't anything special on restarts, but you don't have to be to find paydirt against New England.

Nashville SC vs. Inter Miami

Friday, November 20 (9 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, TSN 1/5, TVA Sports)

What Nashville will try to do:Nashville beat pretty much everybody's expectations, including my own. I had them pegged for an Orlando City-esque opening season — close to the playoff race throughout the year, but eventually finishing just shy of the dance. The difference would be the 2015 Orlando City side did it with their attack, while this Nashville team was obviously built to defend.

And defend they did, right from the jump. In fact they defended so well they survived having the league's worst attack right up until mid-September. And since then they've kept defending well, while the attack has evolved to "pretty ok-ish, and sometimes even good."

And that is why they're in the playoffs. Nashville really did earn this spot.

To reiterate, though: It's defense first, and quite often it's defense first, last and always. Nashville are prone toward parking themselves — almost always in a 4-2-3-1 — right in goalkeeper Joe Willis's lap and just living off of their ability to clear their own area and then counter. Per Second Spectrum tracking data, Nashville are:

  • 2nd in the league in sequences per 90 minutes that begin in their defensive third, and 2nd in the league on transition sequences that begin in their defensive third (effectively tied for first with Portland (19.554 vs 19.552).
  • 3rd in the league on live ball turnovers per game that are won in the defensive third, behind only Portland and Dallas.
  • 8th in the league (33.143 passes per game) in long-balls, which they attempt, on average, 4th furthest from the opponent’s goal.

If you let them sit and defend a million crosses, and then give them room to counter, they will hurt you.

That said, they have progressively added more to their attack over the course of the season, including a bit of pressing:

To be perfectly honest, I think they should press the hell out of a dodgy and lacking-in-any-sort-of-chemistry Miami side as soon as the whistle blows and not stop until they've got a two-goal cushion. But we didn't really see a ton of that version of Nashville.

What Miami will try to do: I kind of have no idea. There were so many changes throughout the year from Miami — personnel, formation, tactics, line of confrontation — that it's almost impossible to predict what, exactly, we could see from them in this one. Maybe it all comes together and clicks and their multi-million-dollar global stars look like multi-million-dollar global stars. Or maybe they bag a couple of set pieces like they did on Decision Day presented by AT&T (please note: It's easier to do that vs. Cincy than against Nashville), or maybe they... just do what they've done all year.

"What they've done all year" is have a lot of the ball and struggle to turn that into high-percentage chances. Their best looks usually come when winger Lewis Morgan is released down the right side and can pick out whoever's making the back-post run. Know who was most effective at that in 2020? Brek Shea. Brek Shea is key to this team's playoff hopes, folks.

I tend to think Morgan and Shea will start on the wings, with Rodolfo Pizarro (if he's back in time) as the No. 10 and Gonzalo Higuain as the center forward. Higuain has been brutally bad in front of goal — he has just one goal, which was a direct free kick, in 802 minutes since his arrival — but has actually done real and effective link-up work with his back to goal. He has arguably been the best playmaker on the team.

When you have a No. 9 doing that and two wingers who like to get to the edges of the box and a No. 10 who's more of a runner than a playmaker, it becomes obvious what the gameplan is: Have Higuain check back to the ball and try to draw one of the Nashville center backs out, then use coordinated patterns of play to exploit that space said center back just vacated. It is easier said than done.

I do think we're likelier to see a 4-2-3-1 than a 3-4-2-1, though neither would surprise me from Diego Alonso.

X-Factor No. 1: Nashville's line of confrontation. I said above that I'd press the hell out of Miami — just rattle that backline early and often. They will break if you do that.

X-Factor No. 2: DP quality matters. Neither of these teams can look at their top-end talent and be happy with what was delivered this year, but if you went into the playoffs with Higuain and Pizarro as your match-winners vs. Jhonder Cadiz, Randal Leal and Hany Mukhtar, who are you taking?

I am a big "You win with 1-through-30" guy during the regular season. But in the playoffs, sometimes it's "you don't lose with 3-through-15 and you hope Nos. 1 & 2 get you the dub."

Unless Walker Zimmerman goes HAM on restarts — and he might! — Miami are better suited for that kind of competition.