Voices: Steve Zakuani

Seattle Sounders' star trio may be unstoppable, plus how Nashville and New England pulled off upsets | Steve Zakuani

Seattle Sounders - 2020 - playoffs - postgame celebration

The Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs continue to deliver! A Nashville masterclass gave us the biggest upset so far, only for New England to one up them by knocking out the Shield winners. Elsewhere, Seattle sent LAFC home for the second year running. 

Nashville got what they deserved

When the final whistle blew, the only surprise was that Nashville didn’t dispatch of Toronto by a bigger margin. It was not close by any metric — the measurable stats were in Nashville’s favor but so were the intangibles like heart, passion, desire and grit. This was a tremendous effort by Nashville from top to bottom. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you will live and die by your best players in the playoffs. If they show up and play to their level, your chances of success are that much higher. If they don’t, you cannot win.

I know he missed a big chance, but how brilliant was Hany Mukhtar tonight? He was brave, wanted the ball and made things happen when he got it and he didn’t let the big miss affect him as he was instrumental in the play that led to the winning goal. He wasn’t the only bright spot, everyone on Nashville played up to par.

I hate to single individuals out but Brian Anunga put in a monster shift in midfield as he helped Dax McCarty run the show and relegate Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio to mere spectators for much of the game. With Anibal Godoy out, Anunga had big shoes to fill but he typified everything about Nashville’s attitude in this game — they sensed an upset and went for it with zeal but never lost their cool or got frustrated. 

All year long I’ve talked about their great defensive organization and it was also on display as they denied Toronto’s danger men the space they crave, but tonight I want to give the attack some serious credit. I’ve been in games where no matter what you do, it feels like you just won’t score. You’re creating chances and doing everything right in the approach play but for some reason you just can’t capitalize on that final play.

Normally, the opponent goes down the other end and scores with their first real chance of the night and you’re left with nothing but that horrible “what if?” feeling. Nashville didn’t allow that to happen because they never let their heads drop. They kept going, kept believing and in the end got exactly what they deserved.

What went wrong for Philly?

In the end, I think the two week layoff really affected the Union. Sometimes when you’re on a roll, you just need to keep playing every few days to keep your good momentum going. The break, plus facing an opponent who came into the game on a high after winning their Play-In game, ended up being more than they could overcome. I do not want to take anything away from New England because they fully deserved this win and there was nothing lucky about it. But I do think it’s fair to look at what went wrong for Philly. 

They didn’t manage the transitions from attack to defense well at all and they were uncharacteristically passive in one on one defensive situations like on the Tajon Buchanan goal. That’s a tackle Kai Wagner has made all year long, but tonight he was too weak in the tackle and allowed the Revolution right back to beat him far too easily before slotting the ball home.

The Union never recovered after those two quick goals — sure they probed and pressed and created some chances, but they looked a shell of the team that lifted the Shield just two weeks ago against this very same New England team.

It’s never a good idea to have an off night, especially when facing a team that seems to be growing more and more in confidence and belief. You could sense it right from the off — New England had heard the noise, seen the projections, read all the previews and were relishing the opportunity to ruin all of our brackets. It was an extremely disciplined performance as they worked hard in midfield to take away the space the Union need to really let Brenden Aaronson and Jamiro Monteiro loose.

Whatever Bruce Arena’s instructions to Matt Polster and Scott Caldwell were, they worked. Those two covered every blade of grass defensively and marshaled the spaces that Philly normally do some of their best work. It also doesn’t hurt that Carles Gil has been getting fitter and better with each game.

The cast around him — Teal Bunbury, Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou — compliment him so well because he’s a master at leading the counter or penetrating through the lines and all three of those guys have excellent off the ball movement that allows Gil to flex his great vision and passing ability. This was the toughest test of the season for New England and they passed with flying colors. 

No stopping Seattle's brilliant attacking trio

I told you this could happen. There’s simply no answer for Jordan Morris, Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz when they are in this kind of form. There’s no right way to defend them because every decision you take opens you up to more problems.

If you play Morris tight, you leave space in behind for him to turn and run into, with Lodeiro is usually the one playing the pass. If you drop off and deny the space in behind, then you are giving Lodeiro all the space he needs to operate in the final third and that’s just not a good idea. If you somehow figure out the Lodeiro-Morris connection, you still have to account for Ruidiaz — a man who needs very few touches to destroy even the best game plans. They are simply brilliant and LAFC found out the hard way — yet again.

Seattle were good all over the pitch — Alex Roldan again shone in the right back role — but the headlines will belong to those three monsters in attack because there is no stopping them when they are in the mood.

Morris has developed an incredible composure in front of goal in 1v1 situations that never used to be a part of his game. It’s like the game slows down for him and he can pick out his corner, whereas he used to seem rushed. Ruidiaz has no interest in having the most touches on the pitch, but the few touches he does have, always count for something. He’s more than a goalscorer too, look at the ridiculous low cross he sent to Morris for the opening goal by Lodeiro. Any winger would have been proud of that! 

And then there’s Nico, by far my favorite player to watch and I’ve told him this. I watch him every week and I can’t figure him out. He’s not the traditional playmaker in the Diego Valeri or even Javier Morales mould, and he isn’t a great dribbler and runner like Miguel Almiron either. He’s sort of a combination of all the best playmakers in one. Most playmakers specialize in one or two things that they do exceptionally well, whereas Lodeiro doesn’t necessarily do any one thing exceptionally well, he’s just really good at doing 20 different things.

That’s the best explanation I can come up with for a player who is on his way to having a statue somewhere in Seattle when he retires. No one in MLS is more important to their teams style of play than he is and as long as he remains in this kind of form, and has Ruidiaz and Morris helping him in attack, I have a hard time seeing the defense that can stop this team from returning to. MLS Cup — at the very least.

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