Matt "the Armchair Analyst" Doyle breaks down both of Wednesday's Knockout Round games of the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs. Check them out...
At the end of a long, rambling MLS regular season that began with the two contestants from last year's MLS Cup returning mostly the same rosters – and thus being crowned favorites – and ended less than 72 hours ago with those same two clubs brushing up on their Halloween costumes and making long, involved offseason plans, we come to this time and this place.
This time is the hours before the postseason kicks off. This place is... well, it really is the same place as last year's postseason. Unlike 2014, when the LA Galaxy were the clear favorites, or 2013 when it felt like there were three or maaaaaybe four teams who could win the whole thing, this place is wide open. I count nine teams I can talk myself into seeing as believable MLS Cup champions, and may very well add a 10th to that list if Didier Drogba's "back" feels better ahead of Thursday's game.
So yes, it feels like this next month is going to be tough to predict.
Wednesday night, however, should not be too tough to call, as two of the coldest teams in the league stumble into the playoffs.
Let's start in the East:
Toronto FC v. Philadelphia Union
The evening's opener (7:30 pm ET; ESPN2 & UniMas in the US | TSN2 & RDS2 in Canada) features the first home playoff game in TFC franchise history vs. a Union team that's wounded to the extent that they're dying on the ground rather than limping toward shelter.
The trend is not good for Philly. They're winless in seven and losers of three straight, the last two by shutout. They've scored multiple goals only once in that seven-game stretch, and conceded multiple goals five times. By some measures they're the worst team ever to make a playoff appearance, but I actually remember the 1998 MetroStars so I know that's not true.
Nonetheless, the Union are prohibitive underdogs.
For TFC the trend isn't great – if you want to go back over that same seven-game stretch, they've won just twice. But as you've read a bazillion times on this site and others, most of that stretch came without Sebastian Giovinco and since you have two functioning brain cells to rub together you know that the Reds are a better team with Giovinco on the field.
So I'll actually argue that there are two other trends that make more sense to focus on with TFC. First is that in the last 10 games they've been able to play Giovinco up top with Jozy Altidore, they're 7-1-2. And on the flip side, after conceding 29 goals in their first 28 games, they've shipped 10 in their last six.
What Philly will do: Pull the wingers in and try to hit the gaps
The Union don't cross the ball much, and they barely ever hit through balls. Instead, they're far more prone to combining through the middle by having their wingers – probably Chris Pontius on one side and Fabian Herbers on the other – pinch in tight and then move, at pace, off of the hold-up play of C.J. Sapong.
Add in a dose of Tranquillo Barnetta (whose movement is phenomenal even if his final ball is lacking) and Alejandro Bedoya bursting out of central midfield, and you have an entertaining, unpredictable mix. The problem is that for as entertaining and unpredictable as they are, they're also un-productive. Of the five guys listed above only Pontius is an average or better finisher, so far, far too many promising build-ups end with around-the-18 failures.
How to solve it: Quick transition past the fullbacks
As a result of the above, Philly have pushed fullbacks Keegan Rosenberry and Fabinho higher and higher throughout the course of the season. And as a result of that, they're now more exposed than ever.
TFC have noticed. Expect Giovinco to live in that gap between Rosenberry and (most likely) Ken Tribbett.
What TFC will do: Watch that video above again
In Greg Vanney's perfect world he'll have Giovinco running at Andre Blake all night. If that doesn't happen – if Philly play a more compact game and go for a smash-and-grab job (which is what I'd recommend they try for) – then the Reds will shift into a "spray the ball around the final third and combine down the left" mode, which they're quite adept at, thank you very much.
In this set-up Giovinco will often drop into that creative role, while nominal No. 10 Jonathan Osorio becomes a secondary or tertiary playmaker. There aren't a ton of teams anywhere that have played the diamond with that set-up, but it's worked for the Reds.
How to solve it: Deny early service to the flanks
One of the reasons TFC are so good on the flanks is because Michael Bradley, in particular, is good at getting the ball there quickly and accurately. Barnetta has to live in Bradley's pocket and force him to play square or backwards, because if the US captain is getting his head up and spreading the game from sideline to sideline, it could get ugly quick.
What's it all mean?
Did I mention that TFC are also a better team on restarts than Philly?
I like the talent on this Union team a lot, and their year-over-year improvement is undeniable. But they still have a surfeit of gaps in their lineup, and the difference-makers they do have aren't at the level of TFC's DPs. Add in what should be a loud and rocking home-field advantage, and it's pretty clear that a Reds loss would be one of the biggest upsets in playoff history.
(Torontonians, consider that your warning.)
LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake
The nightcap (10:30 pm ET; UniMas in the US | TSN1 & RDS2 in Canada) sends an RSL team arguably in even worse form than Philly to the StubHub Center to face a Galaxy side that I still, after 34 games, have no real idea of how to categorize.
It's bleak for the Claret-and-Cobalt. Like Philly they're winless in seven, and their offense has sputtered out to the tune of just two goals in their last six. They've also lost their last five road games.
With LA, things are meh. They finished the season with back-to-back shutouts for the first time since July, but one was against a punchless Houston side and the other against an exhausted Dallas team while in the five games leading up to those they conceded 12 goals.
Offensively it's still a smattering of high-quality individual pieces rather than a team.
What RSL will do: Try to isolate their wingers against LA's fullbacks
When Martinez gets going at a back-pedaling defender, he can be damn cruel:
Moments like that have been few and far between, however. And while Plata's been great (9g/11a), he's often asked to drop too deep when he's on the wing, and still looks like much more of a natural second forward for long stretches.
How to solve it: Don't
Martinez and Plata are brilliant on their day, but you're still better off letting them try to beat you 1v1 than you are pulling your whole defense out of alignment and risking exposure in Zone 14. Since the switch to the 4-3-3 Javier Morales has gotten less and less time there compared to RSL's glory days, and that's a relief to each and every opponent RSL face.
Morales isn't the player he was three years ago, but he's still hugely dangerous combining in tight spaces. I'd just keep forcing him deep and making him a distributor rather than a creator and simply take my chances with a standard defense against the RSL front three.
What LA will do: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Like I said, I've got no idea how to categorize this team. Bruce Arena could trot out a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-2, a 4-5-1 or even a 4-3-3 (almost certainly not, but still). We could see Robbie Keane starting, off the bench or not at all. Gio Dos Santos might be on the wing or in the hole, and the same applies to Landon Donovan and Sebastian Lletget. There might not be a more talented attacking group in the league, but I dare you to try to find me a lineup that can get all of them on the field at the same time and not sacrifice anything defensively.
So the only thing we know for sure about the Galaxy is that there will be four at the back, and that Jelle Van Damme will be one of them.
How to solve it: Skip past their forwards, set up shop in the midfield and wear them out
Arena's had to tinker with the lineup so much because the forwards have offered zero resistance on entry passes into the midfield. Look at how easy this is for Sporting:
That said, the above clip comes from a game played in the searing summer heat. Also said, RSL don't really build and possess like that – though maybe they should. Dropping Kyle Beckerman deep to split the center backs, then pushing both fullbacks forward to create multiple passing lanes and potential possession platforms seems like such a natural thing for this group, but it hasn't happened.
Maybe they've just been saving it for the postseason.
* that is going to be completely wrong
What's it all mean?
If the names "Bruce Arena" and "Landon Donovan" and "Robbie Keane" weren't attached to this LA squad, no one would have any particular reason to make much of them at all. True they have the second-best goal differential in the league, but most of that game from a springtime run during which Gyasi Zardes (now injured) played center forward in a 4-4-2, which is a look they virtually never used again.
To put it a different way: They were a league best +12 through the first week of May, and have been a ho-hum +3 since then while going 7-5-13.
Far from bad, and far from great. Yet still good enough to be prohibitive favorites against an RSL group that hasn't won since August.