Playoffs - 2020 - Carles Gil and Bou celebrate

We saw an attacking masterclass from New England’s duo of Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou, and the Crew were able to outlast Nashville, bringing an end to their impressive inaugural season.

How Gil makes Bou — and the Revs — so much better

The 3-1 defeat to the Revs shouldn’t take away from all that Orlando accomplished this season. I still feel Oscar Pareja should have been Coach of the Year for the leaps they made in 12 months. They played some really great football, made the playoffs, and were a real contender for the Supporters' Shield for most of the season. This team was completely opposite to what Orlando were before Pareja arrived and for that, they deserve our admiration.

In the end, however, it all came down to what I always say about the playoffs — you will live and die by what your best players do. And, while Nani spent most of the afternoon arguing with the referee, Carles Gil put on an absolute clinic to power his side to the Eastern Conference Final.

Before I wax lyrical about Gil some more, it’s important to realize that this was a team effort in every sense of the word. Bruce Arena’s team is peaking at just the right time. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s been happening since I used to face his LA Galaxy teams. They would be bad for two-thirds of the year and then all of a sudden they’d flip a switch and go on a tear to close out the season.

Highlights: Orlando City, 1, New England Revolution 3

The Revs were not bad this season by any means, but they also weren’t everyone’s favorites heading into the postseason due to their inconsistent regular-season form. When we take a closer look at the fact they played most of the season without their best player — the injured Gil — it’s not difficult to understand why they suddenly look much better now than they did at any point this season. If we ask the Sounders to play a season without Nico Lodeiro, they would not be close to the team that they are.

That’s how important Gil is. Sometimes there are complex explanations for why a team has a drastic improvement, and other times it’s as simple as inserting one of the league's best players back into the lineup. 

It’s not just what Gil does with the ball — the mazy dribble, the through balls, the assists and the goals —  it’s that he brings out the very best in his teammates, especially Bou. The extra space Bou has when Gil plays due to Gil attracting a lot of attention, has elevated both of their play during this postseason.

The Revs have scored seven goals in this postseason and every single one has involved either Gil — two goals and three assists — or Bou who has three goals and one assist. Another player who has benefited greatly from Gil’s return is the right back, Tajon Buchanan. He torched the Union’s left side and then went on to do the same against Orlando. He’s done a great job of reading when to overlap Gil and when to support from behind. When he has found himself in the final third he’s been effective with the ball by putting in dangerous crosses, winning penalties and even scoring. 

Columbus await them in the next round, and this will be a formidable test, there is no reason to question whether the Revs can once again upset the odds and advance. They’ve been the best team in the postseason so far and as long as Gil stays healthy, we can expect to see the best of Bou and the rest of the attacking core — no team has been able to live with them so far.

How Columbus finally broke down Nashville

For a large part of the regular season, I called the Crew the best team in the league. I said that when Caleb Porter’s team was healthy and in rhythm. They lost that status when two of their best players — Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan — were out injured but now that their key guys are healthy, they look formidable once again. Three of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference  — Philadelphia, Toronto and Orlando — have faltered, proving just how difficult the playoffs are, so let’s not gloss over what Columbus have been able to do. 

Let me repeat something I said earlier in the season. For a Caleb Porter team to be at its best, a few things have to be present and are non-negotiable. He needs a vocal, emotionally-invested and strong leader at center back which he has in Jonathan Mensah. He needs a ball-playing midfielder who can get out of pressure at will — Nagbe. Then he needs a true number 10 and someone who can put the ball in the back of the net when the chances are there — Zelarayan and Gyasi Zardes fill those roles well.

Flying full backs, dazzling wingers and a midfield destroyer are always welcome of course, but it’s those four spots in particular that have been the strongest hallmarks of his most successful teams. The 2020 Crew have it and he has built a team around them that will play in the way he wants.

Highlights: Columbus Crew 2, Nashville SC 0

In this game, all four of those players were excellent in the second half and that’s how they were finally able to unlock the impressive Nashville backline. Once Zardes began to make diagonal runs into the space and stretch Walker Zimmerman all over the pitch, the Crew looked increasingly capable of breaching Joe Willis’ goal. Zardes' movement allows Zelarayan to unlock his passing ability and it also allowed Pedro Santos to make late runs into the box — into the space Zardes vacated by going wide. And that’s exactly how the opening goal played out. 

The Crew have won both playoff games by being in control for the majority of the game and then relying on their difference-makers to make the necessary plays when needed.

Here's what will decide the Eastern Conference Finals

New England will be the toughest test the Crew have faced so far in the postseason for the simple fact that they are extremely high on confidence and they will be able to ask Columbus some questions they haven’t needed to answer until now. Neither the New York Red Bulls or Nashville possess anyone with the quality of Gil and Bou. If they play on the front foot and are able to force Nagbe and Artur to defend more than usual, it will take away a lot of the good the two Columbus midfielders perform when in possession.

Buchanan will also need to keep being aggressive — can he get up the line enough to force the impressive Santos to track back often and end up being in the defensive half more than he’d want? This is the key for New England — they need to take the Crew out of their comfort zone and force their gifted players into areas they don’t want to be in. There will be long spells of defending for Bruce Arena’s men and so having the ability to get out on the counter in transition is also going to be a really critical area of the game that the Revs need to get right.

Watch: Gustavo Bou scores his first goal vs. Orlando

On the flip side, if the Crew are able to control possession, especially in the midfield area, it could be a long 90 minutes for New England. Denying Gil and Bou the ball is by the far the easiest way of neutralizing them, and keeping possession just happens to be one of the things the Crew do really well.

We also need to see the complete version of Darlington Nagbe. I already know he’s going to complete over 90% of his passes — it’s absurd that this is now a given but that’s the reality — but we need to see him also dribbling and carrying the ball toward the New England goal. When Nagbe is on the ball and he’s driving at the backline, his options will be Zelarayan, Zardes, Santos or Luis Diaz and he normally always picks the right option. How do you defend that? 

Both teams are capable of winning the game, they have shown that so far. It will come down to how much, or how little Gil is able to influence the game. If I’m Columbus, I am forcing any and everyone else to beat us. I wouldn’t man-mark Gil but I’d send a couple of players over to him every time he received the ball in order to force him to find someone else. His influence is so profound that his team's chances of winning almost directly correlate to how many touches he has. Keep him quiet, and the Crew will be playing in MLS Cup on December 12.

Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization