Matt "the Armchair Analyst" Doyle breaks down both of Thursday's Knockout Round games of the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs. Check them out...
After night No. 1 of the playoffs, I'm feeling pretty good about picking chalk. I'll be doing the same for night No. 2, but it's a much tougher ask.
Thursday's games present a couple of variables that Wednesday's just didn't have, and because of that there's a legitimate chance of upsets. And make no mistake: If either of the road teams win, it would definitely be an upset.
But nowhere near as huge as something on Wednesday night would have been.
Onto the games...
D.C. United vs. Montreal
The opener (7:30 pm ET; UniMas in the US | TSN1, RDS2 in Canada) features two teams that decided to rest most of their starters for Decision Day, punting on a chance to host this particular match. Both teams got thumped by multiple goals, which kept the status quo, which means D.C. got away with it and Montreal didn't.
To that point: It's been kind of a charmed life for D.C. lately. The Decision Day loss was just their second since mid-July and it had no consequences. They were winners of four straight before that, and have been the league's highest-scoring team since slotting Patrick Mullins into the center forward role full-time.
"Highest-scoring" almost does them an injustice, to be honest. They've scored multiple goals in nine straight games now, and are just ripping teams to shreds in all phases of the game. It's the antithesis of what some of the more cynical D.C. supporters had termed "Benny Ball" in previous years.
The trend for Montreal is less good, though not entirely hopeless. Their 3-0 Decision Day humbling in Foxborough took some of the shine off of the three-game unbeaten run they had entering that game, and obviously the Didier Drogba stuff was an even bigger distraction. Still, it seems that with Drogba mostly/probably out of the picture, this team is free to go forward and play how they want.
What Montreal will do: Keep the midfield tight and counter via the front three
Look, Ignacio Piatti is going to put you in a blender:
How to solve it: Drag Feilhaber out of the central channel
Much was made about Feilhaber's downturn in terms of productivity this season compared to last year's Best XI campaign. Part of that was him just not playing as well, part of it was Sporting missing Krisztian Nemeth, and part of it was "miscellaneous." In that misc. file includes "he's getting on the ball in good spots less frequently."
That started to change down the stretch as Feilhaber came to life with 2g/9a in the final 11 games of the season, but you can still neutralize him if you force him to defend for long stretches. And while his defensive effort waxed and waned during the regular season, Feilhaber's always been a big big-game player – he'll turn it on and track runners if that's what's called for in this one.
So if I'm Seattle, I overload one side and try to force him to track all the way to the touchline.
What Seattle will do: Play Jordan Morris through off the foot of Lodeiro
Lodeiro's been impossibly good in every phase of the game since his arrival. His set-piece delivery is elite; his combination play around the box has been superb; his finishing has been better than advertised; his defensive work as a No. 10 is up there with Sacha Kljestan comprising the league's elite.
The best part of his game, though, has been this:
Seattle would love nothing more than to get him into pockets of space, running at a retreating backline with Morris sneaking in behind.
How to solve it: Pull the fullbacks inside
And here's the Sophie's Choice for Vermes. If he doesn't push Abdul-Salaam and (likely) Jimmy Medranda forward, the attack is probably going to sputter. If he does, however, that means more lanes for Lodeiro to carve up.
Road teams usually bunker. Take that under advisement.
What's it all mean?
I think that this game will end up being tight in open play. Neither team, as currently constructed, is an attacking juggernaut, and both coaches lean toward older, more conservative, secondary options in attack rather than younger, potential game-breakers. The likes of Evans and Zusi aren't spectacular, but they're reliable.
So I expect this one to be decided on set pieces, which is where Seattle have a pronounced advantage. Both Torres and Marshall are imposing figures attacking anything in the air, and that part of Morris's game has been better than advertised. Add in Roldan – his timing in the air is great, and he has a real nose for second balls around the box – as a wild card to go along with Lodeiro's service, and you have a pretty great mix.