We are just days away from the Conference Finals of these Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs, and since every writer we’ve got is already plugging away at covering this joint from every other conceivable angle, I will simply open up the mailbag and let you wonderful readers prompt me.
Away we go!
I am always loath to answer individual matchup questions because soccer mostly doesn’t work that way, save for the madness of Almeyda-ball. Ilie won’t be asked to handle Driussi all by himself – LAFC will tweak their overall scheme to adjust for the Argentine enganche. Ilie will be a part of that, of course, just like the NYCFC center backs will be a part (probably the largest part, but still just a part) of trying to contain Mikael Uhre and Julian Carranza.
So the way I’d prefer to conceptualize this question is less head-to-head, and more “is there one guy from Team A who Team B have really got to work to scheme out of the game, or at least scheme into a more marginal/peripheral influence?”
And the answer to that is Maxi Moralez, because if Maxi gets cooking – if he’s popping up all over the midfield with time on the ball, and the space to pick his passes – then the Pigeons become the best team in the league. He has a Nico Lodeiro-sized influence over the game, but unlike with Lodeiro in Seattle, it all comes from within a structure that can sometimes hide him and emphasize other parts of the NYCFC attack. And then just when you’re sure you’ve got the measure of what they’re doing… there’s Maxi slotting a winger into the box, or playing a 1-2 to release Anton Tinnerholm into the primary assist zone, or hitting the pass before the pass before the pass that unlocks your whole thing because, yes, he does that, too.
Philly are really, really good defensively. By the numbers, they’re one of the best in league history. But they’re not so good they can’t get absolutely rinsed this weekend.
If it plays out that way, it’ll be because of Maxi.
Let me get this out of the way first: I’m a huge fan of the ASA guys and I think G+ is a great proof of concept – that if you give them data, they will squeeze as much out of it as possible. I, however, remain skeptical of its accuracy as an all-in-one stat to determine a player’s overall quality/value.
And there, in part, is the explanation for why it is not in fact Bale Time on Sunday. Bouanga rated well in G+ because he did almost everything well, but was especially good at receiving the ball in high-value spots. To put this in layman’s terms: he always attacks the space behind the backline off the ball and does so even when LAFC are in possession and it doesn’t seem like there’s much space to attack back there.
His only real shortcoming was that he didn’t finish his chances. But, as I predicted, he seems to have rectified that.
WATCH: Dénis Bouanga strikes twice for LAFC in El Trafico!
Bale is a different sort of winger these days, and frankly always has been. The short version: He’s one of the most dynamic open-field athletes I’ve ever seen, but he’s a more static player in possession who does not attack that space behind the backline. It’s just not in his bag.
So when Bale’s out on the field, LAFC are just much easier to defend. The whole game happens in front of the backline unless you’re turning the ball over in stupid spots and just asking for it.
If Carlos Vela couldn’t go, by the way, I’d be all for starting Bale. He’s not as good a playmaker as Vela is, but he’s the closest thing to Vela on the squad, and that ability to hit the final ball balances Bouanga’s skill set in the same way Bouanga’s ability to create penetration (this goes for Kwadwo Opoku as well) balances Vela’s more stationary playmaking.
The other reason it’s not Bale time is he’s played all of five minutes in the past six weeks. If he’s out there from the whistle on Sunday, something’s gone real wrong for LAFC.
Based on everything I know about Bedoya from people who know him well, if he’s good for 30 then he’s good for 45. And if he’s good for 45, then I think you start and make a planned sub (likely for Jack McGlynn) at halftime. That way you get the benefit of him setting the tone and you don’t burn a sub window.
In the past, back in the days of three subs instead of five (or six if it goes to extra time), I’d 100% have said you hold off until the hour mark to bring him on. But things have changed a lot over the past few years with the number of subs increasing, so I think the way coaches approach these kinds of decisions have to change with it.
One note here is while McGlynn is young, he started and played pretty well last week, and he started and played very well last year in this same Eastern Conference Final. So even with Bedoya at less than full fitness, Jim Curtin can approach this decision from a position of strength.
I’m going to skip past the first part of that question – both Ilie and Daniel Pereira have to play well, and though they play the same position they aren’t really battling directly against each other – and address Verde’s tactical approach, which is going to go a long way towards determining how this game plays out.
Because Alex is right in that we’ve seen Josh Wolff bring his team out and bunker their way to a win (2-1 back in the spring in LA), and we’ve seen Wolff bring his team out on the front foot and bludgeon their way to a commanding 4-1 win in late summer. There are arguments for either/both.
Typically, though, we see teams go on the road and play a little more cautiously, and to be honest, I think that’s the right call. As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data (and, you know, the eye test), LAFC have been the best transition team in MLS this year, so you’re playing with fire any time you bring your line up. They are still very good in possession, but not so dominant, coming in at eighth in the league.
The other thing to consider here: from the start of the season until mid-August, a span of 25 games, LAFC were the best attacking team in the league on set pieces, scoring 14 times. In the 10 games since (including their win over the Galaxy), they’ve scored once.
Granted, that one goal was the game-winner from last weekend. But the point is that when you concede possession you’re likely going to concede a few corners and free kicks in dangerous spots, and the Black & Gold just aren’t anywhere near as scary as they used to be on those, not since Mamadou Fall left on loan to Villareal.
It says two big things, I think:
1. Parity is great*. Every team knows – even doormats like FC Cincinnati – they can put together a legitimately competitive team if they get the right people pulling the strings in the front office and steering the ship on the sideline. No one is guaranteed to be a top-four team, or even a playoff team, because they have an exponentially bigger budget.
(*) Parity is great in moderation. I like that we’re seeing less parity than in past eras, though that has yet to translate to consistent excellence from big-spending teams.
2. Many of the historically excellent teams (I’m staring directly at D.C. United, Chicago and the Galaxy here) just have not transitioned well past the MLS 2.0 era (in D.C.’s case they didn’t even transition well into the MLS 2.0 era).
We’re now in, what, MLS 4.0, maybe? There’s the OG 1.0 era, the Beckham Experiment era (that’s 2.0), the TAM era (2015-2019, which makes it 3.0), and now it’s the “Yes, we’re playing in the global transfer market as both buyer and seller” era, as MLS has jumped into or near the top 10 in terms of both transfer fees paid and received over the past six windows or so (MLS 4.0).
A lot of the newer teams have adapted to this more quickly, probably because their thinking wasn’t compromised by antiquated ways of doing business and an outdated understanding of how to build a winning team.
Ok, last one. In order:
1. Seattle. I know they’re getting older and don’t have much flexibility, but I still think this core’s got one more run in them.
2. New England. If they’re able to move on from Gustavo Bou, who doesn’t really have a position for how they need to play (it’s got to be a 4-2-3-1), they have a clear path to upgrade either on the wing or in central midfield, both of which are necessary.
3. Atlanta United. They’ve got a ton of talent and they seem to be trying to learn from their mistakes, at the very least. Plus they can’t possibly get hit as hard by the injury bug again in 2023.
4. Toronto FC. I’m a big believer in Bob Bradley, but it just wasn’t working with that team, was it? They have so many upgrades they need to make, and don’t really seem to have the kind of flexibility they need to make them.
5. Colorado. With their set-piece dominance (finally) proving unsustainable, and the budget staying very, very small while the rest of the West gets ambitious, I just don’t see much of a path for them next season.