Voices: Joseph Lowery

Every Eastern Conference playoff team's strength and weakness

Preseason 2.0 – that’s what I like to call this time in the annual MLS calendar.

Right now, we’re in the short lull between the end of the regular season and the start of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. The playoff field and matchups are set – and Round One will kick off on Nov. 20. Much like preseason, the gap between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs is a time filled with hope (at least for the 14 playoff teams). It truly is anybody’s game.

In this week’s column, we’re going to use Second Spectrum’s data to help us learn more about the playoff field. Today, which will serve as part one of the column, we’re going to look at one strength and one weakness of each Eastern Conference playoff team to help establish a baseline as the postseason grows ever closer. Tomorrow, we’ll do the same thing for the Western Conference.

Let’s get into it.

Strength: Offensive firepower

When you’re watching the Revolution play or when you’re digging through the stats, it doesn’t take much time to find one of their biggest strengths: it’s their offensive firepower. Up top, Adam Buksa is second in MLS in open-play xG (13.2) while Gustavo Bou is 14th in the same metric. Bou is also first in the league among regulars in expected assists per 90 minutes while Carles Gil is second in that category. As a team, the Revs are third in MLS in xG per game, which bodes well for their ability to create danger against their future playoff opponent(s).

Weakness: Controlling the game defensively

New England are dangerous with the ball – and they’re not a bad defensive team, either. However, when looking for vulnerabilities in the Revs’ armor, some of their defensive numbers pop out. Only five teams in MLS have allowed more backline-breaking passes in open-play than the Revolution have this season. When New England turn the ball over, opposing teams have regularly found space to play behind the Revs’ defense.

Strength: Combining defensive pressure and solidity

Jim Curtin’s Union have taken a step back from high-pressing this season – they’re averaging five fewer pressures in the final third per game in 2021 than they did in 2020. Acknowledging the dip in pressing frequency, the Union are still an excellent, all-around defensive team (in fact, they’re probably better defensively than they were last year). They allow the third-lowest open-play xG per game while also averaging the fourth-highest pressing efficiency in MLS. Scoring against Philadelphia is a tall task, especially with Andre Blake in goal.

Weakness: Chance creation

Offensively, the Union play vertically and move the up-field ball quickly from Point A to Point B. Direct play is a part of their tactical philosophy, but at times this season those principles have taken over at the expense of a coordinated possession structure. That lack of structure has, in turn, hurt Philadelphia’s chance creation numbers. After 34 games, the Union are just 16th in MLS in open-play xG per game, 16th in average shot quality and 18th in possessions that end in a shot. Philadelphia may need to manufacture some quality attacking play to have a chance at making a playoff run.

Strength: Rock-solid defending

No one – and I mean no one – defends as well as Gary Smith’s Nashville team. Nashville gave up the fewest open-play expected goals this season and forced their opponents into taking the lowest quality shots in the league. They will venture forward and press from time to time, but Smith’s defensive approach is largely about shifting horizontally, compressing space and forcing high-percentage passes in low-value areas. It’s worked wonders this season.

Weakness: Production beyond Hany Mukhtar

Hany Mukhtar has been phenomenal in 2021, posting 16g/12a. He’s one of the frontrunners for the league’s MVP award and as one of the only players in MLS who's in the top 20 in both total open-play xG and xA, Mukhtar deserves every bit of the praise he’s been getting. After Mukhtar, though, there are questions about Nashville’s attacking production. Randall Leal has been an effective chance creator and CJ Sapong has been a useful presence in quality shooting areas. But given that Nashville are just 19th in the league in open-play xG, it’s fair to ask questions about the team’s production.

Strength: Attacking play

There have been bumps in the road, but NYCFC still have some of the best underlying numbers in MLS, especially when you look at their attacking stats. No team in the league generates more xG per game or completes more passes to players between the lines than Ronny Deila’s squad. WIth Maxi Moralez (fourth among MLS regulars in xA per 90) creating chances and Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Valentin Castellanos (19g/8a) causing major problems for opposing defenses further upfield, New York City’s attack is tough to slow down.

Weakness: Ball-winning

To be clear, there are very, very few statistical gripes one can have with NYCFC. They’re dangerous with the ball, they press high, and they press well. If we’re nitpicking, though, the numbers show they lack ball-winning in the middle and defensive thirds. New York City are 25th out of 27 teams when it comes to their tackle efficiency rate on tackles outside of the final third. Opposing teams may be able to take advantage of that lack of ball-winning in the playoffs.

Strength: On-ball creativity

Atlanta United love to dribble, y’all. They have completed more successful dribbles than any other team in the league by a wide margin and have bypassed more defenders with those dribbles than any other team by an even wider margin. With Marcelino Moreno, Ezequiel Barco and Luiz Araujo three of the top 10 dribblers in MLS based on their number of dribbles per game, Atlanta can be unpredictable with the ball – especially in transition.

Weakness: Turning possession into chances

I specified transition in the paragraph above because Atlanta United, for all of their individual creativity, struggle to turn their possessions into chances. Atlanta average the fourth-longest possessions and the fourth-most passes per possession in MLS, which is all well-and-good when you’re using that possession to threaten the opposition. But Atlanta haven’t really done that this season. Instead, they put together the sixth-lowest xG per game in MLS. If they’re faced with breaking down a solid midfield block, Atlanta could have some difficulties.

Strength: Defensive work

Orlando City’s underlying numbers don’t jump off the page, but they are solid at a few different things on the defensive side. They allow the 10th lowest xG per game and cover the 10th most distance while running at a high speed. With his ability to cover ground and win challenges, Junior Urso anchors their defensive shape and provides real bite in midfield.

Weakness: Reliable goalscoring

Okay, I know Orlando have the 11th most open-play goals in MLS. But I also know they’re over-performing their open-play xG by almost 10 whole goals. Can Daryl Dike reasonably be expected to carry the goalscoring load in the postseason? Can Nani? Can one of the wingers? Statistically, the answer appears to be “no.”

Strength: Restarts

Let’s not kid ourselves: the Red Bulls' biggest strength is their pressing. They’re quick, aggressive and can be borderline dominant with their in-your-face defensive approach. But everybody knows those things by now, so I wanted to highlight a different strength: their work on dead balls. Only two teams in MLS have created more xG from free kicks and corner kicks than the Red Bulls this season. Anyone matching up against New York will want to limit the game’s dead-ball situations.

Weakness: Shot quality

While the Red Bulls are dangerous on set pieces and corners, their open-play shots are lower quality than any other team in the league. RBNY average 0.08 xG per open-play shot, which is a smaller xG value than any team in MLS over the past two seasons. It’s almost impossible to stop and take a breath when you’re playing against the Red Bulls, but opposing defenses can do exactly that in between RBNY’s hopeful long shots.