One more game, that’s all that’s left in the 2021 MLS regular season. After the dust settles on Decision Day this Sunday, we’ll have a solidified Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs field.
In the Eastern Conference, only four teams have clinched playoff spots, which means that there are still three spots up for grabs. It’s a similar story in the Western Conference, as four teams have secured playoff berths, leaving three open slots to be claimed.
Two of the nationally televised games on Sunday could have a major impact on postseason proceedings. First in the East, Nashville SC host the New York Red Bulls (3:30 pm ET | ESPN). Then the LA Galaxy host Minnesota United FC (7 pm ET | FS1) in a high-profile West clash.
All four of those teams are in the thick of the playoff conversation. Nashville have already clinched a top-four spot but could climb to second in the East, while the other three are fighting to stay above the line.
Let’s dive into these two Decision Day games to learn more about all four teams and figure out what we can expect when the pressure ramps up even further.
Gary Smith and Nashville SC have done some phenomenal work this season. After finishing seventh in the East during their expansion season last year, Nashville could climb to second place if the Philadelphia Union drop points on Sunday against New York City FC (3:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+). For a second-year club, being one of the top teams in your conference – and in the entire league – is a truly impressive accomplishment.
What Nashville bring
Nashville’s on-field recipe that combines defensive solidity with some attacking quality has worked wonders for them in 2021. They have the lowest open-play expected goals allowed in MLS this season with 0.76, which is the lowest total in Second Spectrum’s database from the last two years.
Typically playing out of Smith’s 3-5-2 shape, Nashville spend little time high-pressing. Instead, they shift laterally and force the opposition to play high-percentage passes in low-value areas in hopes of eventually breaking into a high-value area and creating a shot. Nashville bend but don’t break. No team in MLS allows their opponents to pass the ball in possession more than Nashville do, but that’s by design: their opponents end up taking the lowest quality open-play shots in MLS.
When they have the ball, Nashville aren’t a dominant chance-creating team, but they do have two of the top 20 players in MLS when it comes to expected assists. Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar are 17th and 19th in the league in xA per Second Spectrum’s model. When you add Mukhtar’s ability to find good shooting areas and score goals (he’s eighth in MLS in xG and is the highest non-full-time forward in the league in that metric), you have an attack that should not be overlooked.
What New York bring
Looking at the other half of this game, the New York Red Bulls have turned their season around in a major way over the last six weeks. Gerhard Struber’s team has won seven of their last 11 games, tied three and lost just one.
One of the most intriguing parts about this game, outside of whether RBNY can cap off their incredible run of form with a playoff berth, is how statistically similar the Red Bulls are to Nashville SC in both the open-play xG for and xG allowed categories.
- Nashville allow the lowest xG and create the 18th-most xG
- RBNY allow the second-lowest xG and create the 19th-most xG
The raw chance creation and chance denial numbers are almost identical. But the tactical approaches behind how those teams have reached those numbers are very different. As mentioned above, Nashville don’t like to press. The Red Bulls do. They press a ton. No team has registered more presses in the final third than the New York Red Bulls.
And it’s not just that the Red Bulls press a lot – it’s that they’re very, very good at it. With their 49.2% high-pressing efficiency rate, RBNY are the best high-pressing team in MLS over the last two seasons. They also force their opposition into having the shortest possessions and the fewest passes per possession in the league.
Regardless of who Struber decides to start against Nashville, you can expect them to press, counter-press and cover ground.
Will RBNY’s hyper-aggressive defensive approach be enough to disrupt Mukhtar? Will Nashville be able to play through or over the Red Bulls’ pressure? Will either team be able to overcome the other’s defensive prowess to create consistent chances? There are no shortage of fascinating tactical narratives surrounding this game.
Sunday’s game between the Galaxy (seventh in the West) and Minnesota United (fifth in the West) is a battle between two teams whose playoff fate still hangs in the balance. It’s also a battle between two teams who approach soccer very differently.
What LA bring
The Galaxy have undergone a tactical overhaul this season. Under Greg Vanney, LA turned away from an attacking style that was built on hopeful crosses into the box and have become a team that dominates the ball with short passing. Vanney’s Galaxy are third in MLS in possession and pass the ball more in each possession than any team in the league (5.4 times per possession).
While their means of advancing the ball into the box has changed from 2020 to 2021, this year’s Galaxy are just barely more effective at creating chances than last year’s version. Their open-play xG is sitting at 1.103 per game this year, which is up slightly from 1.081 per game last year. Still, that 1.103 figure puts the Galaxy ninth in MLS in xG per game this season.
Defensively, the Galaxy don’t spend much time high-pressing (they are 16th in pressures in the final third per game), which makes sense given their roster construction. Without many high-energy players in the attacking line, LA tend to sit in a mid-block.
Despite their reserved defensive tendencies, the Galaxy aren’t especially good at controlling space and limiting their opponents’ shooting opportunities. They give up the sixth-most open-play xG per 90 (1.19) in MLS and they allow the seventh-most xG per 90 while in an organized defensive state.
What Minnesota bring
That all should be music to Emanuel Reynoso and Minnesota’s ears.
For all of the changes that the Galaxy have gone through this season, there aren’t a lot of surprises when it comes to MNUFC. Their open-play xG is almost identical from last season to this season and their passes per possession and possession duration are almost identical from 2020 to 2021.
Their main man in the attack is, of course, Reynoso. Reynoso is one of MLS’ highest-volume players, meaning that he gets more touches per 90 minutes than almost every other player in the league. In 2021, Reynoso is getting on the ball 64.8 times per 90 minutes, which is 15th in MLS and first on his team by a wide margin.
Reynoso’s role in possession is one thing that has changed for Minnesota this year – he’s getting the ball five additional times per 90 minutes in 2021 compared to 2020. And Reynoso is doing some impressive things with those extra touches. His 8.5 expected assists put him fifth in the league and his 0.32 expected assists per 90 minutes put him sixth in the league among regulars.
Still, despite how much the Loons revolve around Reynoso, he’s far from their only impact player. Franco Fragapane has been a productive player for Adrian Heath, playing on the left side of the attack and regularly combining with Reynoso and creating chances himself. Fragapane is in the 91st percentile in MLS in total xA this season and in the 94th percentile in xA per 90 minutes.
In contrast to Vanney and the Galaxy, Heath likes his Minnesota United team to press. Their 66.3 pressures in the final third per 90 minutes are fifth in the league, but their 40.4% pressing efficiency rate in the final third is only 13th in MLS – one spot below the Galaxy. LA’s desire to play through Minnesota United’s pressure and use the ball to create chances could be a big part of this Decision Day game, as could Reynoso’s ability to create chances against a struggling Galaxy defense.
While it’s impossible to predict how these two nationally televised games will turn out, one thing is certain: With postseason spots still up for grabs, Decision Day is going to be wild.