Voices: Joseph Lowery

On the brink: How teams can keep their season alive in Game 2 


They’re down, but not out of the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs.

Teams that struggled in their Round One Best-of-3 series opener have a lifeline. But heading into Game 2, there’s no margin for error from this point forward. It’s make or break.

What can clubs who lost Game 1 do to keep their seasons alive and force a Game 3? Let’s dig in.

Stay compact and get pressure on the ball

You know what can’t happen for the Revs in Game 2? This:

Giving Jack McGlynn time to pick out a pass is a huge no-no for anybody who's facing the Philadelphia Union. It was McGlynn’s passing, mixed with smart running and precise distribution from his teammates on the left side, that undid New England in Game 1.

Even though it sounds like Carles Gil is ready to go after the No. 10 left Saturday’s game with a first-half injury, the best path forward for the Revolution is to play against the ball and try to hit in transition. Yes, the pressure is on Clint Peay’s team to get a result. But they can’t afford to expand their possession shape and take a ton of risks potentially without Gil at 100% or if they choose to start No. 8 Noel Buck as a right winger as they did in Game 1.

New England have to strike a balance between defensive compactness and actual on-ball pressure. If they find it, the Revs will make the Union uncomfortable, force turnovers, and let their speed carry them on the break.

Find Giorgos Giakoumakis’ vertical runs

Atlanta United cannot stop the Columbus Crew’s attack. There’s no shame in that, by the way. But after starting in a 5-3-2 formation without Thiago Almada (red card) in Game 1, Atlanta still found their box under real, consistent pressure at Lower.com Field. Things aren’t likely to get better on the defensive end when Almada returns for Game 2.

So, Atlanta have to prepare for a firefight. Almada will do his thing from the No. 10 position – that’s a given at this point. But to really get an edge, the Five Stripes have to find Giakoumakis’ vertical runs as often as possible. Columbus' central center back, Rudy Camacho, doesn’t have the speed to deal with the Greek striker’s runs.

We saw glimpses of potential in Game 1, but without Almada to play the final pass, Giakoumakis was isolated. That can’t happen in Game 2, where Atlanta will have to use their speed advantage early and often.

Diversify in the final third

If Nashville can find Hany Mukhtar in Zone 14 and can get their wingers running downhill and hitting cutbacks to Sam Surridge on the edge of the six-yard box, they’ll have some joy.

After losing a tight game at Orlando to start this series, Nashville will likely have to drive more of the attacking flow. Gary Smith’s team has been hurting for goals for weeks now, either due to poor finishing, poor chance creation, or some combination of the two. Now, they're trying to find lanes to break through what could end up being a fairly conservative 4-4-2 block from Oscar Pareja’s team.

Tidy things up

The first match of this series had a decent flow, at least from a New York Red Bulls perspective.

It’s impossible to fully separate the goals from the run of play, but Cincinnati had more possession and created basically no “gimmes” with it. Both of those things are positives for RBNY. That’s where the positives end, though. New York did a poor job of getting pressure to and winning the ball in Zone 14 in key moments – and they made mincemeat of their transition defending on Luciano Acosta’s long-range strike into an empty net 10 minutes before halftime.

Those issues aren’t very Red Bull-y, based on what we know about this club. If they can help manufacture a similar flow to Game 2 while cleaning up those uncharacteristic mistakes, they can turn things around in this series.

Do what you were built to do

At this point in the year, opponents know St. Louis’ playbook – Peter Vermes and his squad certainly know the drill by now. Bradley Carnell’s team wants to get in your grill, create as many scraps as possible, and force turnovers that lead to attacks going the other way.

With no secrets left in the chamber, St. Louis can’t afford to be anything less than excellent with their execution in high-pressing and high-stress defensive moments. But in Game 1 at home, they were less than excellent. They struggled to win 50-50 balls (the very thing CITY SC's roster has been constructed to dominate), which came back to bite them in a big way on multiple goals.

In Game 2, SKC likely won’t convert as many chances as they did in Game 1. But St. Louis can’t afford to let them flirt with the ball in dangerous spots. The intensity and execution must be near-perfect this weekend.

Let Diego Luna run the show

RSL, with their their risk-averse tactical approach, were in the mix against Houston last weekend. But to get this series back on even footing, RSL may have to shift their approach ever so slightly. And since the Dynamo are often willing to play against the ball away from Shell Energy Stadium, Pablo Mastroeni’s team will have more than the 29% possession they held in Game 1.

When in possession, Salt Lake must find Diego Luna. The 20-year-old US youth international unlocks defenses like no other RSL player (and few others in MLS as a whole) can.

Luna is still learning to pick his spots – a bad turnover came back to bite him on the Dynamo’s second goal (Amine Bassi's winner). But to create more opportunities, even if striker Cristian Arango (hamstring) remains out, RSL's attacks need to flow through Luna.

Tighten up defensive set pieces

The Whitecaps allowed four(!) goals from set pieces in Game 1 at LAFC. That is absolutely insane. According to Opta, Vancouver allowed the most set-piece goals (14) in the regular season, but their performance in that phase at BMO Stadium was even worse.

If Vancouver stabilize on set pieces, they have a genuine chance to get back into this series. Andrés Cubas had some brilliant moments in midfield, intercepting the ball and feeding Brian White on the 'Caps’ first goal. White and fellow attacker Ryan Gauld will have space to run into behind LAFC’s center backs, just like they did over the weekend. And if it's Richie Laryea and Sam Adekugbe at wingback, the Canadian internationals can fly.

As long as Vancouver don’t keep shooting themselves in the foot, the door is still cracked open.

Eliminate mistakes inside your own box

FC Dallas have a tough road back in this series against the Seattle Sounders after dropping the first game 2-0.

They had chances early on, but Jesús Ferreira couldn’t find the back of the net. On the other end, Jordan Morris took advantage of a total lack of marking from Dallas center backs Sebastien Ibeagha and Nkosi Tafari. And Alan Velasco's knee injury is serious, with the club confirming he's suffered a torn ACL.

At this point, Dallas’ attack rides mainly on Ferreira. But for that to matter at all at Toyota Stadium, they have to stay defensively sound. Nico Estévez's team shifts well in their 4-3-3 mid-block, but FC Dallas can’t afford to give up another simple goal like they did in the second half at Seattle.

If the defense holds, Ferreira and FCD can find solutions (even without Velasco).