Armchair Analyst: Tactical preview of DC United vs. New England Revolution in Wednesday's Knockout Round

Weird match-ups make for interesting soccer, and if we treat that as "true" rather than a bunch of homespun, thoughtless bunk, then New England's trip to RFK Stadium on Wednesday evening (7:30 pm PT: UniMas in the US; TSN2 in Canada) should be the most interesting game in the Knockout Round of the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs.

It mostly comes down to where these teams like to hold the ball. New England are second in the league in passes in the attacking third, while United are third from the bottom in that stat. Close your eyes and imagine a "typical" Revs goal. Where did it come from? Where did the sequence start?

Probably in that left-central channel with the ball on Lee Nguyen's foot, somewhere around 25 yards from goal.

Now do the same exercise for D.C. My guess is you'll trace it back to a semi-break out of wide midfield, with either Chris Rolfe, Nick DeLeon or Chris Pontius driving the ball forward along the flanks.

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These are two very different teams.


The Trends: D.C. are 2-6-1 in their last nine regular-season games, and have only two wins over playoff teams since mid-May.

New England have won just once in their last five, and haven't posted a shutout since early September.

Neither team is scorching hot here.


What D.C. Will Do: Counterpunch through the flanks

With all due respect to Rolfe, D.C.'s best attacking player is forward Fabian Espindola. And Espindola is a true forward in terms of the goalscoring threat he brings, but he's a hybrid in terms of how and where he operates.

More than any other forward in the league, Espindola loves to drift wide and bend in crosses. When he does that, he shifts the defense to him thanks to his attacking gravity and as a result opens up the back post for late-arriving runs from D.C.'s midfield:

Yes, the Revs have seen that trick before. I had that clip handy for a reason.

How to solve it: Deny distribution out of midfield

New England are a weird team in that they apply a ton of pressure up high, and a ton of pressure when they're in a low block, but they're not too bothered about letting teams build their play through the midfield. That's why they're a middling possession team even though they're a clever and inventive attacking team.

It's also why they can come undone against early distribution from the defensive midfield. D.C. will know this, and Perry Kitchen will be ready, and that means Nguyen has to be ready to do his part defensively. He'll have to sit on Kitchen and make sure he's not allowed to make field-spreading, rhythm passes that put D.C. into the attacking third at a gallop.


What New England Will Do: Ping the ball around the final third

In my preview of Seattle vs. LA, I pointed out how the Sounders are an outlier in terms of passes per shot. But even Seattle can't compare to New England in terms of final third patience:

Team Passes, Final 1/3 Shots, Total Final third passes per shot
New England Revolution 5230 314 16.66
Seattle Sounders FC 3891 263 14.79
New York Red Bulls 5339 370 14.43
Real Salt Lake 4227 294 14.38
Houston Dynamo 3959 283 13.99
Colorado Rapids 4410 317 13.91
Philadelphia Union 4183 301 13.89
San Jose Earthquakes 4086 298 13.71
LA Galaxy 4393 324 13.56
Orlando City SC 3859 297 12.99
New York City FC 4373 337 12.98
D.C. United 3744 290 12.91
Sporting Kansas City 3895 315 12.37
Portland Timbers 4285 352 12.17
FC Dallas 3718 311 11.95
Columbus Crew SC 4334 369 11.75
Chicago Fire 3994 350 11.41
Toronto FC 3964 349 11.36
Vancouver Whitecaps FC 3907 351 11.13
Montreal Impact 3574 343 10.42

The Revs set up shop in the attacking third and then stay there until you dislodge them. They can do this because they have three immensely skillful individualists in Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe and Diego Fagundez, because they push both fullbacks way up which allows for more passing options, and because both Scott Caldwell and Jermaine Jones are expert at winning the second ball in midifeld, then pinging a pass directly to the foot of one of the true attackers.

So even when you clear, you don't stay clear. It's relentless.

How to solve it: Prevent Charlie Davies from establishing deep position

It's dangerous to play games with the offside trap in the final third, but you kind of have to against the Revs. D.C. will need to constantly be walking their line up a couple of steps on every touch, because if Davies starts getting touches in the 18 they're meat. His strength, low center of gravity and inventive passing bring the rest of the guys into the play at odd angles, and nobody's really able to keep up with that.

It's worth noting that when Davies was good this year, New England was good. And when he slumped, they slumped.

Bad news for D.C.? He had a goal and an assist in the Revs' 3-1 win over NYCFC last weekend.


What's it mean?

I think it means the Revs carve out space, goals, and a road win to start the playoffs.

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