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|
|San Jose Earthquakes||4086||298||13.71|
|Orlando City SC||3859||297||12.99|
|New York City FC||4373||337||12.98|
|Sporting Kansas City||3895||315||12.37|
|Columbus Crew SC||4334||369||11.75|
|Vancouver Whitecaps FC||3907||351||11.13|
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.