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.
I can't find the tweet I sent out to this effect in March, so you'll just have to take my word for it: Here were my MLS picks before the season started:
MLS Cup: Columbus beats Dallas
Going 11-for-12 in Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoff picks isn't bad, right? I also batted .500 in predicting the conference winners, which I can live with.
But the point here is that you can see how high my hopes were for Crew SC before the season started. Offensively, they delivered. Defensively, they struggled until very, very recently. It remains to be seen whether or not that's a legitimate change or just a blip.
Regardless, the team I picked to win the MLS Cup before the season started is now up against the team I picked to win MLS Cup once the season ended, as Columbus travel to Montreal to face the Impact on Sunday (7 pm ET; FS1 | TSN1 | RDS2 | MLS LIVE) in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The Trends: Montreal smoked Toronto FC on Thursday and have now won four in a row and seven of nine. They're 8-2-2 across all competitions since the start of September.
Columbus won two straight to end the regular season, and went 10-5-2 in the second half of the season. The big concern there is that when they lose, they tend to lose big - three of those five losses were by three goals, including a 3-0 throttling at Stade Saputo in July.
The good news? Their two-game winning streak came courtesy of back-to-back shutouts, which is a trick they hadn't pulled since April.
What Montreal Will Do: Get Piatti in the slot
Ignacio Piatti has spent most of his still brief MLS career as a trequartista, playing underneath a lone striker. He's obviously excellent there.
However, Piatti played a ton of left wing when he was with Argentine giants San Lorenzo, so when head coach Mauro Biello pushed him back out there in Thursday night's 3-0 win against Toronto FC it was like riding a bicycle. Piatti was a 1-v-1 terror in the open field, he was influential around the box, and he did just enough defensive tracking to help the Impact keep their shape.
And because of the solidity of the central midfield triumverate (Patrice Bernier, Nigel Reo-Coker and Marco Donadel) behind him, Montreal never came close to suffering. Instead they repeatedly found Piatti in the slot between TFC's right back and right central defender:
He had about a million touches in that area. It's amazing he only ended up with one goal and one assist, because he could've had four of each.
How to solve it: Make Piatti defend
The danger of playing Piatti there is that he's not a great defender, and he's certainly not going to stay step-for-step with Harrison Afful on the overlap.
But in order for fullbacks to overlap effectively, the midfield has to have a bunch of the ball in good spots. TFC never got close to that.
If Crew SC suffer the same fate, they could dig themselves a real hole.
What Columbus Will Do: Make the game big
"Long ball" has become shorthand for "plays the game the wrong way." I think that's absurd.
Long balls, when used strategically, open the field and put attackers into space where they can do real, sustained damage. Long balls, when played accurately, give teams a chance to push their defenders forward. Long balls, when played diagonally, give defenders nightmares because it forces them to cover from touchline to touchline.
Nobody in MLS uses long balls as effectively as Crew SC. Here are the top 10 in the league:
|Team Name||Per Game||Long balls||Successful||Accuracy|
|Columbus Crew SC||65.0||2210||1306||59.1%|
|Orlando City SC||62.9||2137||1116||52.2%|
|Seattle Sounders FC||69.2||2352||1181||50.2%|
|New England Revolution||74.1||2519||1229||48.8%|
How to solve it: Push Trapp physically
Trapp is one of the league's best deep-lying distributors, but he can still be overrun athletically. We saw it from FC Dallas, we saw it from Toronto FC, and we saw it from the Honduras U-23s.
Reo-Coker is basically engineered to be a nightmare for Trapp, for what it's worth.
What's it mean?
This is a tough one to call. Both of these teams have been really good, both of these teams have veteran know-how, both of these teams have made serious progress in the last couple of months.
When in doubt, of course, take the home team. Especially when they have Didier Drogba.