Matt "the Armchair Analyst" Doyle breaks down all of Sunday's first legs of the Conference Semifinals of the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs. Check them all out.
Let's just get it out of the way: Nothing that happens between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls at RFK Stadium on Sunday (3 pm ET; ESPN | MLS LIVE) will top what went down three years ago:
That broke my brain. I still can't believe everything that happened in those particular 24 hours.
With that out of the way... I still expect their Eastern Conference Semifinal series to be at or near peak entertainment value in terms of the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs. United and the Red Bulls don't know how to play a boring series (last year's was excellent, remember) and the contrasting styles make it an enjoyable watch.
Here's what we'll see:
The Trends: D.C. went 3-1-0 in October. All three wins came at home, and Fabian Espindola accounted for two goals and three assists in those games. The one loss was last weekend's 5-0 #DecisionDay blow-out at Columbus.
Since the end of June, D.C. are 1-6-2 away from home in league play with the lone win being a 1-0 decision at pre-Drogba Montreal in which they were out-shot 25 to 1. So it's safe to say they need to do most of their damage at RFK on Sunday.
For RBNY, it's worth focusing on their 2-0-1 regular-season record against United even though Espindola played in none of those games. Usually you can kind of throw out results from early in the season -- two of their previous meetings were in the spring -- but both of these teams have kept their identities throughout 2015, so I'm going to actually give this a little bit of weight.
To sum up: New York scored multiple goals in each meeting against D.C.
What D.C. Will Do: Amorphous Attacking Blob
Espindola and Chris Rolfe have been and will remain D.C.'s best attacking players. Their best assets are their ability to adjust and improvise. Neither's a pure channel runner, neither's a No. 9, neither's a winger, neither's a wide midfielder, neither's really a game-controlling trequartista.
Both are just "attackers," and their job is to make the game go where the defense is it, then solve mysteries together:
Spot on the field where Espindola likes to connect with Rolfe? Literally anywhere. pic.twitter.com/QxF7rUhz5s— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) October 30, 2015
Nonetheless, it's pretty illustrative of the pain New York's high press can cause.
How to solve it: Boot it out
Given the potential injury absence of Chris Pontius, there's a decent chance Rolfe is moved to one of the wings and Alvaro Saborio starts up top with Espindola. If that's the case then United have A) an aerial threat, B) a No. 9 who can link the other attackers, and C) another attack-minded winger who can get behind the fullbacks.
That brings up New York's major defensive flaw all season: runners behind the defense. Rolfe doesn't have the sheer pace that the guys they've struggled with (like Chicago's David Accam) do, but he'll recognize the gaps early and give himself a chance to win some second balls, then create on the run.
What's it all mean?
I actually think D.C. were helped by going down early against New England, because it forced them to come out and play more than usual. This is a team that's more skillful than they like to let on, and they can be pretty good when chasing the game because of it. Add in Bill Hamid's goalkeeping heroics, the recent home form, the success of home teams in the playoffs thus far -- four for four -- and the actually pretty good record of teams on short rest this year and you have a good enough formula.
But in all honesty the Red Bulls should kick themselves if they don't take advantage of a Boswell-less United here. Maybe they don't win outright, but anything less than multiple road goals to bring back to Harrison would be a disappointment.