Voices: Joseph Lowery

Tactical breakdown: What will decide Eastern Conference Semifinals?


The Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs are about to get wild, people. After a goal-filled Round One, we’re sprinting headfirst into two single-elimination Eastern Conference Semifinals on Nov. 25.

The matchups are Orlando City SC vs. Columbus Crew (5:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), followed by FC Cincinnati vs. Philadelphia Union (8 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

Let’s break down both clashes and decipher who could reach the Eastern Conference Final on Dec. 2.

Orlando City SC (2) vs. Columbus Crew (3)

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Orlando's approach

  • Attacking shape: 4-2-3-1
  • Defensive shape: 4-4-2

Under head coach Óscar Pareja, Orlando have been pragmatic in 2023.

They play out of a fluid 4-2-3-1 shape in possession and defend in a 4-4-2 mid-block, but exactly how much time they spend in one phase or the other may depend on the opponent. The Lions hovered right around 50% possession in the regular season, and they gave Columbus the edge in that category during both of their prior meetings.

Orlando have an elite ball-progressor at center back in Robin Jansson, an elite ball-winner in midfield in César Araújo, and a nice mix of attacking talents higher upfield. That cast of characters has helped them be malleable.

Columbus' approach

  • Attacking shape: 3-4-3
  • Defensive shape: 5-2-3/5-3-2

Unlike Orlando, the Crew have not been malleable this year. Head coach Wilfried Nancy knows exactly how he wants his team to play, controlling possession early and often. No team in MLS averaged more of the ball than Columbus during the regular season.

Playing out of a 3-4-3 shape in possession, the Crew want to bait opposing defenses forward with short passes before quickly knifing into open space in the attacking half. With the ever-dangerous Cucho Hernández running the show in the attack and a lethal counter-press creating a host of chances, Columbus can play through any defense in MLS.

Orlando's X-factor: Pedro Gallese

If you watched the Crew push past Atlanta United in Round One, you know what they do to teams with subpar goalkeeping. Brad Guzan struggled in Match 3 of that series, so Columbus walked away with four goals and an easy win.

On the flip side, Pedro Gallese has been among the better goalkeepers in MLS this year – he finished 15th in MLS in xG saved above expected in the regular season, per FBref. There’s little doubt Columbus will create chances at Exploria Stadium, especially since they finished with more non-penalty xG than any other team in the regular season. Gallese will be tested.

If the Peruvian international is up to the test, Orlando’s odds of reaching the Eastern Conference Final skyrocket.

Columbus' X-factor: Rudy Camacho

I said it above, but it’s worth emphasizing once more: Columbus will create chances. They’re exceptionally well-drilled and incredibly talented. The attack isn’t the question for Nancy. Neither is the counter-press. Rather, the biggest question for the Crew is about defending deep closer to their own goal.

Columbus allowed the 10th-most non-penalty xG entering the playoffs, according to FBref. At times, they fail to put enough pressure on the ball and to suitably track runners inside the box. You can see both of those issues surface on Atlanta’s second goal from Match 3:

As the center-most defender, Rudy Camacho can help organize the Crew’s defense as they deal with Orlando City’s attacking waves.

Decided by: Columbus’ sharpness off the ball

With Orlando playing at home, they’ll have a boost at the start. If Columbus are alert and focused when they’re back defending, they’ll have a big lead in the chance department. If they have a few lapses, Orlando City match what’s likely to be an impressive attacking outing from the Crew.

FC Cincinnati (1) vs. Philadelphia Union (4)

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Cincinnati’s approach

  • Attacking shape: 3-4-1-2
  • Defensive shape: 5-2-1-2

All roads flow through Luciano Acosta – that’s the shorthand way of describing FC Cincinnati’s style of play under head coach Pat Noonan.

Cincy press, but only just more than average. Cincinnati possess the ball, but only just under average. Really, they’re all about doing whatever it takes to maximize the number of touches Acosta gets on the ball in the No. 10 spot of their 3-4-1-2 shape.

With ball-winners and technical strikers around Acosta, along with elite left wingback Álvaro Barreal, Cincinnati are hard to stop.

Philadelphia's approach

  • Attacking shape: 4-4-2 diamond
  • Defensive shape: 4-4-2 diamond

While the Union have become slightly more reserved defensively, they’ve still carved out a nice place for themselves as a transition-heavy, 4-4-2 diamond team.

Philadelphia love to progress the ball through Jack McGlynn on the left side of that midfield diamond, and they love to find their three front-runners – Dániel Gazdag as the box-arriving No. 10 and whoever the two strikers are at any given time – running downhill.

Cincinnati’s X-factor: Yerson Mosquera

To get this out of the way up front: I fully recognize it’s uncommon to spotlight Yerson Mosquera as Cincy’s most important player in this game. It really should be Acosta, Barreal, Brandon Vazquez or Aaron Boupendza. But it’s not.

From the second Matt Miazga got suspended (yellow cards) in the penalty kick shootout against the New York Red Bulls, Mosquera became the pillar for Cincinnati. Keep in mind Nick Hagglund's long-term hamstring injury, too.

Mosquera's going to have to do the heavy lifting at the heart of Noonan’s 5-2-1-2 defensive shape. He’s going to have to help coordinate tracking Philly’s forwards. And he’s going to have to initiate more of their buildup play.

This game will be the biggest test of the 22-year-old Colombian international’s young career.

Philadelphia's X-factor: José Martínez

While Cincinnati are certainly without Miazga, the Union are missing both Jakob Glesnes (injury) and Kai Wagner (suspension). Those are two key defenders Jim Curtin has to game-plan around. In this case, the game plan probably looks something like José Martínez.

Martínez plays as the base of Curtin’s midfield diamond, and he covers a ton of ground. He’s also extremely unpredictable in midfield. Sometimes, he plays like the best destroyer in MLS to the point where he can cover for some of his missing teammates. Other times, he puts in rash challenges, picks up needless cards and ends up putting his team behind the eight ball.

Philly need the first version of the Venezuelan international. They won’t advance with the second.

Decided by: Who deals with adversity

As discussed above, both teams are missing stars. Whoever does a better job of plugging their holes with solid contributions from depth options or elite performances from the usual starters will have the edge in this game.