Armchair Analyst: Master plans, dangerous leads and set pieces in the Conference Championships

I'm told that a two-goal lead is the most dangerous in soccer, but I'm pretty sure that's wrong. And I'm pretty sure that both Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers, each victorious at home in today's first legs of their respective Conference Championships of the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs, are very happy to have that nice, multi-goal cushion to sit upon and think about while they chow down on turkey and stuffing and everything else that's good to eat during the week to come.

It's telling that Columbus in their 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls, and Portland in their 3-1 win over FC Dallas, each put the pedal down for the game's final 5-to-10 minutes, trying relentlessly to earn a bit of breathing room. Home field has been crucial throughout this November, and both teams desperately pressed to make it really, truly count.

"We’re still going to have to play," said Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter after his team's win. "This series is not over, trust me. They’re going to come out hot in Harrison."

True, the Red Bulls are going to spit hot fire, and this is a franchise that knows all too well how quickly two-goal leads can disappear (2005 playoffs, y'all). But because of that hole, the danger of every forward thrust is magnified, and the frustration of each missed pass is compounded. Everything that happens to and for RBNY in the second leg is going to weigh a million pounds, and a goal against is basically death (if they concede one, they'll need to score four).

It will be a slightly lighter burden for FC Dallas, who at least have the cold comfort of an away goal. Still though, Nat Borchers knows exactly what he did with that last-minute goal.

“It was very important. If we can get that first goal next Sunday, it will put them under massive pressure," Borchers said after Sunday's first leg.

The weight, in other words, is waiting. Dallas are probably feeling it at about 100 psi; another goal by Portland, and you can tack another zero onto the end of that number.

These haven't been a playoffs for the faint of heart. Generally speaking it's been the more aggressive team that's advanced, and by staying aggressive, Columbus and Portland put themselves in position to keep that streak alive next weekend, and make their way to the 20th MLS Cup.

Here's how they did it:


The Milk-And-Honey Route

Columbus led the league in completed long balls, but the types of long balls they tend to hit are diagonals to the flanks. The idea is to draw the defense to one side, then switch the point of attack and force them to scramble to the other side.

In the process of scrambling, gaps can and will open up. Good, creative teams exploit those gaps and turn them into danger.

That's not the type of Crew SC long-ball folks will be talking about after the first leg:

This was not something unexpected, according to RBNY midfielder Dax McCarty.

"The second time we played them here in the regular season when they beat us 2-1, they played direct and they played off [Kei] Kamara and he just flicked it on and they had runners running off it," McCarty said. "They do it five, 10 seconds into the game and for some reason we are surprised and we don’t defend it properly."

Head coach Jesse Marsch echoed McCarty's comments, saying "we talked all week about those kinds of plays and them playing direct to Kamara and [Ethan] Finlay running off and we don’t do well enough. Purely don’t do well enough on a play that we talked about and prepared for all week."

While audentes fortuna iuvat came into play from the first kick, it's worth trying to understand just how important Columbus's ability to stretch the field vertically was. Finlay didn't have a ton of good touches in this one, and one very memorable and very bad breakaway, but he constantly pressured the RBNY backline with his movement and forced a disconnect between left back Kemar Lawrence and the midfield.

Want to know what's a key part of a good midfield? Support in possession and pressure from the fullbacks. Want to know what was missing for New York today? Either/both from Lawrence, because he was constantly stretched by Finlay's movement.

This was pretty obviously according to plan for Columbus -- it's both Finlay's role, and how he best helps the team on both sides of the ball. System fit is crucial in any player's development, and what Crew SC do as a team allows Finlay to excel, while what Finlay offers individually allows the system itself to function. This is the definition of a virtuous cycle.

So Columbus constantly overloaded on their own right side to send wave after wave of attacks at Lawrence with the idea of slipping Finlay in behind, like an old-fashioned off-the-shoulder forward:

In the process they turned one of RBNY's season-long strengths into a weakness, and they knew it. By the time Finlay made way for Cedrick Mabwati with 10 minutes to go, the left side of the New York defense had nothing left in the tank.

"I think a lot of credit goes to our assistant coach Josh Wolff, who pointed out how fatigued [Ronald] Zubar and Lawrence were," Berhalter said. "They were struggling and Cedrick is the perfect weapon to put in at that time because he’s electric, he has pace and he showed it a couple times today."

Including and especially on the second goal.

New York have got themselves in a hole, and Columbus have themselves a gamplan that works. It's tough to see that changing enough over the next week for the Red Bulls to advance.


Man With A Plan

I had a whole list of things that the Portland Timbers needed to do to walk away with a win.

First, they needed to protect the space in behind the fullbacks -- to make sure that neither Alvas Powell nor Jorge Villafana got caught on the overlap. And they needed to make sure that Mauro Diaz didn't get in a rhythm, that he wasn't able to control the game with his elusiveness and his passing. And they needed to make sure that none of the Dallas forwards had any kind of impact.

Here's how that went for the hosts:

It turns out my list was bad and I should feel bad, because Portland accomplished none of the above and still walked away with a convincing win. They were content to play an open, back-and-forth game, and were happy to rely upon their own magician, Darlington Nagbe, in the middle.

5. The Columbus central midfield of Wil Trapp, Tony Tchani and Federico Higuain thoroughly outplayed their RBNY counterparts. Sacha Kljestan drifted, and Felipe struggled to exert any kind of (attacking) influence on the game, while McCarty had an outright shocker:

New York's inability to move the ball through midfield led to them swinging in a ridiculous and impatient 34 crosses.

4. Harrison Afful is the best right back in MLS.

3. The Crew SC pressure unnerved RBNY and forced them to play long... and pretty often, those long balls were dangerous. Marsch brought big No. 9 Anatole Abang in for the game's last few minutes, and I suspect we may see more of the youngster next week if they're chasing a goal late.

2. More Diaz magic:

Dallas absolutely had their chances in this one.

1. The last MLS team to come back from any kind of two-goal deficit to win a series were the 2013 Houston Dynamo, who went down 2-0 to the Red Bulls in the first half of Leg 1, but came back for a 2-2 home draw. They then went to Red Bull Arena for a 2-1 win.

The last MLS team to come back from a two-goal deficit at the end of the first leg? You'd have to go all the way back to 2004, when Kansas City (then known as the Wizards) followed a 2-0 loss at San Jose with a 3-0 home win.

The game-winner in that series was scored by none other than Jack Jewsbury. I'll leave it to Portland fans to determine whether or not you think that's a good omen, or a bad one.

See you all next week...

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