Conference Semifinals weekend is on the way
On Saturday we get Orlando City SC vs. Columbus Crew at 5:30 pm ET and FC Cincinnati vs. Philadelphia Union at 8 pm ET. On Sunday we get Houston Dynamo FC vs. Sporting Kansas City at 7 pm ET and Seattle Sounders FC vs. LAFC at 9:30 pm ET. They’re all viewable on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV. We’re almost there.
Nations League continues tonight
The USMNT visit Trinidad and Tobago; first kick is set for 7 pm ET tonight. A 2024 Copa América berth and a 2023-24 Concacaf Nations League semifinal spot are on the line.
Sign up for The Daily Kickoff in your inbox! The Daily Kickoff is more than an article – it can be delivered to your email account as well.
Dear reader, your mission is simple. You are here to ruin things. You are not here to get caught.
We’ve convinced all eight remaining Audi MLS Cup Playoff teams you are a tactical genius set to provide a winning formula for their upcoming Conference Semifinals. They’re coming directly to you as a “secret weapon” who will give them the upper hand. That sounds hard, though. And not nearly as fun. Instead, you’re going to give them a losing formula. But not one so obvious that it’s like “Lol I dunno kick the ball in your own goal, it’ll scare them!” We need to keep the ruse going. We have some ideas on how to do it, too.
We’ll cover the East today and the West tomorrow. Don’t mess this up. Well… mess it up, but not too much.
Orlando City SC: Remind them of how cool the last time they faced Columbus was
Reader, the last time Orlando faced Columbus in Orlando the Lions scored three times after the 70th minute to earn a 4-3 win. Ramiro Enrique scored twice after the 86th minute. You can go ahead and classify that one as the high point of the regular season for the Lions and the low point for the Crew. What you can’t do if you’re Orlando is try and play a similar style of game and just hope it works out the same way.
Your job here is to convince Orlando to abandon their pragmatic approach in favor of playing an open, back-and-forth game against the Crew. In the non-Crew games after Leagues Cup, the Lions allowed two goals just twice in 12 games. They won six of those by one goal. They kept clean sheets in six. To be fair, three of those came against Nashville, but still, they’ve done just fine getting into a fight inside a phone booth and coming out alive. In fact, they’ve kind of thrived.
But, c’mon, boring, right? Let them know real success is purely about playing beautiful soccer and dying in pursuit of aesthetics the internet will appreciate more than 1-0 wins is the only true and noble way to die. Besides, they already won 4-3 against this team. They should be able to do it again. Let’s open this thing up and try to go punch for punch against the Crew instead of limiting their high-percentage opportunities and encouraging them to shoot from distance.
Columbus Crew: Make them believe wholeheartedly that shooters are gonna shoot
The Crew scored two goals from distance in the first 17 minutes against Atlanta United. In particular, Malte Amunden’s dart into the top corner looked spectacular. Your challenge here is to convince the Crew this approach is replicable against Orlando.
Now, typically the Crew are among the best in the league at generating high-quality chances. They finished fourth in MLS in xG per shot. But the two goals that sent them off and running against Atlanta came on 0.06 and 0.04 xG chances. The average shot in MLS is around a 0.10 chance. They were equal parts lucky and equal parts aware of Atlanta’s struggles to close down on the ball and lack of mobility in goal.
It’s going to be a bit different against Orlando. The Lions are more effective defensively. Pedro Gallese finished the year as an above-average 'keeper statistically and has always had the ability to pull off acrobatic saves. Plus, ya know, low-percentage shots are low-percentage shots. You don’t have to really overthink this here.
The Crew do though. Get them to think their success against Atlanta is replicable and have them abandon some key principles in exchange for a chance at glory and a spot on highlight reels. It just might be enough to get them heading in the wrong direction.
FC Cincinnati: It doesn’t even seem like they need Aaron Boupendza
There’s only so much you can do when you’re facing a team as good as FC Cincinnati. But there’s an opportunity here to limit them just enough to make an impact. All you have to do is remind them they haven’t needed DP striker Aaron Boupendza in the starting lineup so far during the playoffs. Why change now?
All you have to do is convince Cincy not to touch anything. It’s not like they’d be poor in attack without him starting or anything, but they would be less dynamic. And MLS games are decided on the margins. It could be enough to mess things up.
Then again, you could go for an even bolder approach and try to convince them not to play him at all after he got sent home from his national team over the international break when he didn’t arrive on time. “Something something very important disciplinary issue more important than winning” could work here.
Then again… again, you could go for an even bolder approach and try to convince them they need to alter their shape and tactics to compensate for Matt Miazga’s absence. Like really get in there and blow things up all in the name of an extra bit of defensive solidity. It’s dealer’s choice here really.
Philadelphia Union: It’s time to abandon the diamond
Philly will be without Jakob Glesnes and Kai Wagner in this one. There were moments this year when, due to injuries, they shifted into what was basically a 3-4-1-2 with a back line that plugged in either Nathan Harriel or Damion Lowe next to Jack Elliott and Glesnes. That includes a 2-2 draw against FC Cincinnati back in September.
Typically, the Union looked a bit diluted in a back three compared to the team we’ve come to expect when they’re in a diamond. Maybe that’s just because they’ve looked lackluster in general at times this year, but now seems like a bad time to change things up too much from the formula that’s led them to so much success over the last few years.
But the sell here is easy: “You stuck with the diamond against New England despite missing Glesnes and Wagner. Cincy are a different challenge though. Do you really want to risk getting exploited by Alvaro Barreal out wide? What if you mirrored Cincy’s formation and tried to slow them down that way?”
On the surface, maybe that’s not actually that bad of an idea. In practice, it feels like Philly would be trying to be better than the best team in the league at their own game. Seems like more of a way to not lose by a lot rather than a way to potentially win. It’s kind of perfect for our purposes here, though. When they call you in, you know what to do.
Good luck out there. Show some enthusiasm.