ExtraTime Radio Podcast
LISTEN: You better catch your breath quickly. Just as we've all recovered from arguably the most dramatic Decision Day of all time, the 2017 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs begin with Knockout Round games full of story lines. The guys break it all down and revisit their terrible preseason predictions. Subscribe so you never miss a show! Download this episode!
And now it's onto the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs. Twelve teams enter, one team leaves. Survival of the fittest. Survive and advance. Win or go home.
We all know what's up. Hit the play button above to get my thoughts via ExtraTime Radio, then let's take a closer look, team-by-team, starting at the bottom:
Really though, they're here because they kept taking care of business at home down the stretch when they needed to, and because they got an unexpected, come-from-behind draw at Vancouver two weekends ago, which meant they equaled FC Dallas on points and pipped them on total wins, which is the first tiebreaker.
The Quakes now head to Vancouver again (Wednesday, 10:30 pm ET: UniMás (w/SAP) in the US | TSN1/3/4/5 & TVAS2 in Canada) for the Knockout Round.
FORMATION/TACTICS: 4-4-2 that often looks like a 4-2-4, with primary playmaking coming from the wings.
ACHILLES' HEEL: Their goal differential of -21 is the worst of any playoff team in league history, and they do not scramble well in transition:
Nobody expects a team with as gappy a defense as this to do anything in the playoffs. It would be a straight-up shock if they won.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Danny Hoesen (F): You know what you're getting from Wondo and Ureña. Hoesen, a former Ajax striker, has a little bit something extra, a little bit something special. If he shows up in a big way, the Quakes can break some hearts.
- Anibal Godoy (M): The Panamanian international is capable of locking down central midfield. He'll need to be at his best.
- Florian Jungwirth (CB): He's arguably been the team's most important player, putting out fire after fire and maintaining his role as the primary distributor from the back in the team's new, possession-heavy scheme.
PRESSURE'S ON: Young goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell. He has been error-prone. And thus there's a bunch on head coach Chris Leitch, who's stuck with Tarbell despite some major flubs.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: A mid-season formation change, a hot streak in July, and then the ability to scrape out just enough points down the stretch to pull away from the rest of the East stragglers.
It really was a season of constant change and flux for the Red Bulls, but the underlying truth is that, at some point, they really did discover who they are and are a pretty dangerous group heading into these playoffs. They're not amongst the favorites, as they were the last two seasons, but that might suit them even better.
FORMATION/TACTICS: 3-3-3-1 that you could call a 3-6-1 or a 5-4-1 or whatever you want. The point is that they push both wingbacks forward, which gives Sacha Kljestan five separate targets to choose from in the attacking third. When it works...
Yeah, it works a charm. Chicago will have their hands full on Wednesday (8:30 pm ET; FS1 & UniMás in the US | TSN3/5 & TVAS in Canada).
ACHILLES' HEEL: Push that many numbers forward, and you are bound to get roasted on the counter once or twice. But the bigger worry for RBNY is that they are very, very very very bad at defending set pieces. Teams that defend set pieces poorly eventually find a way to lose in the playoffs (looking your way, 2016 Montreal Impact).
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Bradley Wright-Phillips (F): He's arguably the greatest regular-season goalscorer ever, but he's come up small in the last two postseasons, and did the same in this year's U.S. Open Cup final.
- Felipe (M): The nature of this formation forces the Brazilian to man central midfield all by himself at times. He's been superb, but it's a big damn job that gets harder at this time of year.
- Aaron Long (CB): Long really has been outstanding in his first year as a full-time, MLS center back. If he has an off day at any point henceforth, RBNY's season ends.
PRESSURE'S ON: Kljestan. He's the orchestrator for this whole thing, and he needs to have a special playoff run in him to cement his status as one of the league's all-time great playmakers. He also probably wants to bury the memory of last year's missed penalty vs. the Impact...
I think it's also safe to say that the pressure's on Jesse Marsch & Co. He took a huge risk this offseason with the Dax McCarty move, and this team spent most of the year being well off the pace. It's Year 3 of what looked like a three-year plan, and are the Red Bulls actually closer to winning MLS Cup?
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Defense, defense, defense. By the numbers SKC's got the best in the league, and they spent most of the season strangling teams to death from front to back.
They just didn't do it well enough to earn a home game in the Knockout Round. Again.
FORMATION/TACTICS: 4-3-3 with high pressure, though the pressure's neither as high nor as hard as it used to be. And instead of crosses or through-balls, they're trying more to combine around the box than they used to. It's a little bit 2014 Revs-ish at times.
ACHILLES' HEEL: They simply don't generate enough goals, having bagged just 40 on the season. It feels like their best bet is on set-pieces and goalkeeper errors, and to be fair...
...they've got some guys who can punish you in those scenarios. But it hasn't happened regularly enough, and it definitely hasn't happened on the road, where Sporting are just 2-8-7. That includes a 2-1 loss at Houston a couple weeks back, and that's where they'll be this Thursday (9:30 pm ET; UniMás (w/SAP) in the US | TSN4, TVAS in Canada) for the Knockout Round.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Latif Blessing (F/W): Only three goals on the year, but the 20-year-old rose to the occasion in the U.S. Open Cup final. If that's the guy who shows up in the playoffs, Sporting have a shot vs. anybody.
- Benny Feilhaber (AM): He's lost a step and his numbers show it. But he's proved, time and again, that he's a big-game player.
- Ike Opara (CB): Needs to dominate like he did in the first half of the season.
PRESSURE'S ON: The core group. Feilhaber, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza and Seth Sinovic have done some amazing things together, but they're all on the wrong side of 30 and this is the fourth straight season SKC have faded down the stretch. The feeling around the league is that change is coming to SKC this offseason, and that this might be the last chance for these guys to add to what really is a spectacular legacy.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: They got hot, they got solid, and they got the 2015 version of Federico Higuain back right at the perfect time. Columbus are unbeaten in 10 heading into the postseason, and while they weren't exactly going up against murderer's row during that stretch, they did finish it on a high note with a very nice draw at NYCFC.
Any time you haven't lost in almost three months, you're doing a bunch of stuff right.
FORMATION/TACTICS: Gregg Berhalter's experimented a little bit, but down the stretch they moved back to old reliable with a 4-2-3-1, attacking set-up that gets the fullbacks high and demands a ton of the ball.
ACHILLES' HEEL: The backline can still be error-pone in big moments, but I'm more worried about their central midfield's often-too-slow defensive reactions, especially since they'll be playing at Atlanta United on Thursday (7 pm ET; ESPN2 & UniMás in the US | TSN4 & TVAS in Canada), and they do murder in moments like this:
Those reactions have to be tighter and faster, and those gaps have got to get sealed off. If not we'll have Friday morning headlines about Josef Martinez's hat-trick.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Wil Trapp (DM): Quietly elevated his game and had a very good stretch run. He's the most important player on the field for Columbus on both sides of the ball.
- Josh Williams (CB): This unbeaten run coincided with him winning the starting job, and over the last month he's become a set piece weapon as well. His reactions need to be sharp, because Atlanta are going to try to cut Crew SC up at angles off every turnover.
- Jonathan Mensah (CB): He hasn't had a DP-caliber year, but he's been solid since August and his partnership with Williams is working.
PRESSURE'S ON: The entire organization. As a lifelong Hartford Whalers fan I'll be rooting for Columbus this postseason (tho tbh Atlanta are really good and I'll be shocked if Crew SC's postseason lasts longer than 90 minutes).
WHY THEY'RE HERE: They had exactly one losing streak all season: it was two games, it was back in March, and they have just chugged along ever since. Then when they got their chance – a soft part of the schedule with six of seven at home – they took it, going 5-0-2 and climbing to the top of the conference.
They haven't been great since then, and to be honest they've only rarely looked like a top team. But they don't care about "looks like," they care about results.
FORMATION/TACTICS: 4-2-3-1 that you could argue is a 4-4-1-1, and whatever you want to call it the goal is the same: sit deep then unleash hell on the counter. Do. Not. Let. The. 'Caps. Run.
They'll also happily kill you dead on set pieces.
ACHILLES' HEEL: Their utter lack of possession. They finished the year at 41.48 percent, which is the lowest number we have for as far back as we have data (the 2010 season). What the 'Caps do they do well, but one-note teams rarely get the job done come the playoffs.
And so here's a simple way of thinking about it: If you're scrunched in your own half constantly defending vs. poor teams like Colorado or Orlando City, you're probably not that likely to get punished. Try the same against Portland, or Red Bulls or Seattle? Give them that much of the ball in the final third, that many looks at goal?
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Yordy Reyna (FW): He's produced at close to a Best XI-clip since getting healthy midseason, and adds a turbo boost to that counterattack.
- Tony Tchani (CM): His ability to handle pressure then deliver accurate diagonals is what allows Vancouver to spread the field and rip teams apart. But he's inconsistent, and if he's not locked in – especially defensively – it's trouble.
- Kendall Waston (CB): Simply must be a dominant force, both in the air and on the ground..
PRESSURE'S ON: Fredy Montero, for one – he hasn't scored in a month, which is fine: a slump's a slump. But he's never scored in the playoffs despite playing 830 minutes (14 hours, folks!!!!!) of postseason action for the Sounders back in the day.
Also, goalkeeper is suddenly an issue. David Ousted appears to have lost his No. 1 job to Stefan Marinovic, who gifted a goal to Liam Ridgewell on Sunday that cost the 'Caps their lead, and then eventually the top spot in the conference. Ousted hasn't been mistake-free this season, but making a change at 'keeper in the final month of the season for a team that's in first place? That is a, um, strange decision from Carl Robinson.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Their lows were pretty low, but their highs were pretty damn high and extended. They won eight of nine from May 13 to July 1, and then had a mostly solid September and October, which cancelled out a miserable July and August. MLS is weird.
For the most part, when things were going good it was because they were using the ball in ways that few teams in the league are capable of. The entire pitch becomes theirs.
FORMATION/TACTICS: They've toyed a little bit with a 3-4-3 and a few other looks, but it's a 4-2-3-1 for the most part. The thing that makes it weird, though, is that it's a 4-2-3-1 without a true No. 10. This team's creativity comes from pushing both fullbacks way up the pitch:
A full 10 different players have four or more assists this season, so the last pass can come from anywhere. It's been fun to watch.
ACHILLES' HEEL: When they push numbers forward like that, they're pretty obviously vulnerable to counterattacks – and ball security is a real issue now given Bastian Schweinsteiger's uncertain status. When he's in there they don't turn it over in bad spots. When he's not in there, they do.
More than that, though, is this simple fact: Their central defense can get overpowered whether it's on set pieces or in 1v1 situations. Chicago won't be able to rely upon those guys to pitch shutouts during the toughest part of the season.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Schweinsteiger (CM): He was really, really good when healthy, but he's played just 19 minutes in the last two months. They need him out there, badly.
- David Accam (W): 14 goals, but none since late August. Eight assists, but just one since early July. The Accam of the first half of the season needs to be out there for Chicago to have a chance.
- Joao Meira (CB): When the Fire are going good, and getting a lot of the ball, it's almost always because his distribution from the back is on point.
PRESSURE'S ON: Even if things don't work out, I count this season as a win for the Fire. They've got a core to build around, have the Golden Boot winner in Nemanja Nikolic, and have a playoff game for the fans to enjoy. After years of misery 2017 has been a rousing success no matter what happens Wednesday.
That said... pressure's on, Dax McCarty. Everybody knows why he's going to have a little bit extra motivation with the Red Bulls in town. If he has an un-good playoff performance folks will not forget it.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Because they are ruthless scoring machines who go out every single weekend and try to get six goals. And their defense turned out better than people expected, too!
Really, the Five Stripes are a very balanced and very purposeful group. There's never been a moment's doubt with regard to their identity, and through 34 games there hasn't been a consistent way to stop it.
FORMATION/TACTICS: High pressing out of that 4-3-3 (though sometimes they'll toss out a 3-4-3 just to liven things up). Tata Martino's teams don't even practice possession; rather, they practice "transition," those moments when the ball turns over and the orientation of the field suddenly tilts in a different direction.
When that happens, they send all four attackers and both fullbacks forward at a gallop, and it has been irresistible, especially against under-prepared teams. If you think you can stroll through a few moments against this team, or play a casual square ball across midfield, your game is already over because Josef Martinez is about to scorch the nets.
ACHILLES' HEEL: The devil's deal they make in playing that way is this: You push numbers forward because it gives you a better chance to create a game-changing goal. But you also leave yourself exposed against a team that's willing and able to play right up the gut:
That's how Jozy Altidore got a goal this weekend, and that's how we've seen this team give up goals in the past. They're also not entirely comfortable playing out of pressure themselves, and remain iffy on set pieces.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (CB): In the 32 games he played they conceded 35 goals (1.09 goals per game). In the two he didn't, they conceded 5 (2.5 per game). That is not a coincidence.
- Jeff Larentowicz (DM): The 34-year-old has had arguably the best year of his career largely because he's in a system where he can read the game, rather than one in which he has to chase the game. His match-up with Higuain, who will drag him around... focus hard on that.
- Miguel Almiron (AM): He's back and healthy, which means the Atlanta attack is back to (mostly) full strength.
PRESSURE'S ON: Everyone and no one. Expansion teams aren't supposed to be this good, but here they are. Teams that spend are supposed to be really good, and here they are. A loss wouldn't be a failure, but it would be. A win wouldn't be a success, but it would be. Atlanta's writing a different sort of script than we've seen in MLS before.
But if I had to drill down onto where the pressure really is? Martino, for one, and Michael Parkhurst for the other. Martino needs to show he "gets it" in terms of his sub usage (a criticism that's dogged him at every stop of his career), and Parkhurst needs to show he's ready to hang, physically speaking, because teams are going to go right at him.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: You can't win the league in March and April, but you sure can give yourself enough of a cushion to survive a few bumps that are sure to pop up later in the year. And that's why the Dynamo are here.
Let's give them credit for that late surge, too, as Houston went 3-0-3 down the stretch including four points from two games against SKC. That seems relevant, right?
FORMATION/TACTICS: You could call it a 4-2-3-1 at times, and a 4-3-3 at other times, and a 4-2-1-3 at times, and a 4-1-4-1 at times as well. What really matters is that Houston attack with four guys: Two wingers spread out wide, a channel-running No. 9 (probably Mauro Manotas), and a pseudo playmaker No. 10 drifting underneath.
They prefer to absorb and counter rather than having a ton of the ball:
This is the Dynamo at their best. That said, they've gotten better at stringing passes together as Vicente Sanchez has found life in his old legs, and as Tomas Martinez has become a bigger part of the attack.
ACHILLES' HEEL: Distribution from the backline can be spotty at best, which is a big reason why they don't really want much possession. Teams that force the Houston central defense into decisive moments have generally found a way to profit.
And look, there's simply something to be said for having a bunch of the ball in this game of ours. Get enough of it and you can make the Dynamo a purely reactive bunch.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Leonardo (CB): He's very quietly had a very nice year, but do you trust him in the playoffs?
- Manotas (F): He's an expected goals machine who's mostly usurped Cubo Torres as the starter, but chances come further and farther between in the postseason. "Clinical" is not a word anybody's used about him just yet.
- Alberth Elis (W): He is a one-man counterattack who's as fast with the ball as he is without it. It doesn't matter how deep you've got the Dynamo pinned in – if you give Elis room to run, you're dead.
PRESSURE'S ON: Literally no one. This is all house money the Dynamo are playing with, and it seems like – whatever happens – 2017 is going to be a wonderful stepping stone toward bigger and better things in 2018 and beyond.
So I guess in that sense you could say the pressure's on the front office to keep this group together and add quality around the edges, but that's a different column for a different day. On Thursday against Sporting, this team should be playing free and easy.