Here’s hoping you’ve emerged from your Thanksgiving food coma. Let these four questions about the remaining Eastern Conference teams left standing in the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs marinate before we hit the Conference Semifinals.
As an added bonus, I’ve included something about each team I’m thankful for. Best to dwell on those things now. See you on Monday with the same column about the Western Conference.
Orlando City SC (4) vs. New England Revolution (8)
Sun., Nov. 29, at 3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada
Orlando City – Will the moment be too big for Chris Mueller and Daryl Dike?
There is a more obvious question: Can Brian Rowe make Pedro Gallese’s absence moot? Orlando City gave up more than enough chances to lose in Round One, but El Pulpo was palming balls out of thin air … until he came off the line early once the game went to penalties. The ball is in Rowe’s court now.
That’s not my question, though. I’m more curious to see how a pair of young Americans who put in Best XI seasons – Mueller was in my team, and just look at Dike’s per-90 numbers – respond to the biggest game and most pressure they’ve faced in their young professional careers. Neither were Best XI quality against New York City FC. This is a formative game. It could be a launching pad, individually and for the club. It could be a second straight relatively silent match for both. It could be the last we see each before a December call-up to the US men’s national team.
I’m thankful for … Oscar Pareja’s ability to create commonality within a squad. Think of all the teams you’ve been on in your life, from formal (sports, work or otherwise) to informal (friend groups etc.). It’s almost always the case that there is dysfunction, jealousy or, at the very least, an undercurrent that, in certain circumstances, is a little off. Surely those things exist in Orlando. Professional athletes, amirite? And yet, this team feels relatively pure from the outside looking in. That alone gives me joy.
New England – Can Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa take advantage of the Carles Gil effect?
"I think if you look at, with any team in MLS, there's always that one guy that kind of calms everything down in a way. So for us it's Carles. If you can find him the ball as quickly as possible, he makes things happen. It's pretty simple and he's super composed on the ball and he's able to break pressure for us, create chances.”
Orlando City give up chances, and I think the Revs are well-positioned to create them with Tajon Buchanan overloading on the right and Gil’s movement and passing ability allowing Gustavo Bou to float and look for shooting opportunities. Then there’s Adam Buksa providing an aerial threat and occasional brilliance on the ball in the 18-yard box. But will they finish? That was no guarantee during the regular season, during which the Revs were two goals better than Nashville SC and one better than Inter Miami CF.
And perhaps just as importantly, how will Oscar Pareja attempt to take Gil out of the game? Feels like a job for Junior Urso.
I’m thankful for … Bruce Arena coaching near the field microphones. PUT A FOOT IN! CLEAR THE BALL! PRODUCERS, MAKE SURE YOU PICK UP THIS MAN’S SOUND!
Columbus Crew SC (3) vs. Nashville SC (7)
Sun., Nov. 29, at 8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada
Columbus Crew – Who will be medically cleared to play?
Six players have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week, a figure confirmed by Crew spokesman Tim Miller to Jacob Myers at The Columbus Dispatch.
First, I hope the players affected are recovering well. Second, and a distant second, I’m left to wonder what those absences might mean for Columbus’ stated goal for 2020: MLS Cup. All eyes will be on Caleb Porter’s lineup and bench.
I’m thankful for … Gyasi Zardes’ quiet excellence. I just keep watching that cushioned header back from Round One. It was perfection, and we’ve largely come to expect it from Zardes. I’m ready to see what he can do in the new-look, young-buck USMNT.
Nashville SC – Will the Designated Players keep showing up?
Don’t take the phrasing of this question the wrong way, Nashville supporters. Hany Mukhtar, Jhonder Cadiz and Randall Leal have been very good in the past month, which makes sense because they weren’t together with any regularity until the past month.
I don’t have any questions about the eight guys behind them, but I do still wonder if this recent production is going to hold up. If it does, they’ll likely march on to within one game of MLS Cup. If it doesn’t, well then Gary Smith is going to be hoping for a Walker Zimmerman set-piece masterclass. I only doubt because…
- Muhktar: 5g, 4a in 17 games … decent but not spectacular or consistent
- Leal: 4g, 4a in 23 games … decent but not spectacular or consistent
- Cadiz: 2g, 0a in nine games (only two starts) … Still finding his form (and the offside line)
The key word above is “consistent,” which frankly their goal production hasn’t been this season. All it takes is an off day for Nashville’s season to end.
I’m thankful for … underdogs that don’t want to be treated like underdogs. R-E-S-P-E-C-T to Nashville SC for listening to the doubt, shrugging, bearing down and just making it happen. They are 90 minutes away from the Conference Finals, and there’s every reason to believe they can get there. Hell, shoot for MLS Cup. Successful expansion season? They checked that box awhile ago.