We're officially in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs. Twelve teams enter, one team leaves. Survival of the fittest. Survive and advance. Win or go home. I stole this lede from last year's column because it's eternally applicable. Don't judge me.
Let's take a closer look at the last two teams who will be in action in Thursday's Knockout Round (you can find times, dates, TV info here):
Let's take a closer look at the eight teams who will play in the Knockout Round, team-by-team (you can find times, dates, TV info here):
New York City FC
WHY THEY'RE HERE: For the first half of the season they were at worst a top three team in the league, suffocating opponents with their press, ripping them apart with their passing, and playing through an injury to David Villa.
In the second half they were mostly pants. But then they came through bigtime on Decision Day, drilling Philly 3-1 at home, and that's why they finished in third despite the tailspin of the last two months.
FORMATION/TACTICS: It really, really does change game-to-game. This last time out it was back to a 4-2-3-1 with overlapping fullbacks, attacking wingers and Maxi Moralez pulling strings from his No. 10 role:
This isn't exactly "classic" NYCFC – they're not really a "run in behind" team, and Moralez's No. 10 role was significantly more defined than it had been when they played mostly out of a 4-3-3 – but it's at least a little bit reminiscent of how they looked when they were at the best, flooding the box and getting the ball on Villa's foot eventually.
They absolutely look like another team when they play at home, by the way. The fullbacks get higher earlier in the play, and it makes a big difference.
ACHILLES' HEEL: At this point I think it comes down to a lack of identity. They don't play the ball from the back as much as they used to, instead settling for long-balls and 50/50s in spots where they used to be able to just play through.
Because of that they've exerted less control over the shape and tempo of the game than they used to, which has meant the have to defend both more and deeper. It's no one thing, but a collection of little things that's made them more and more uncomfortable as the season's gone on.
And while the Decision Day win was nice, it was just their third win in three months.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Yangel Herrera (CM): The 20-year-old box-to-box midfielder – who is freaking awesome, it needs to be said – has gotten healthy just in time. But how much will he have left in the tank after going 90 on Sunday?
- Jesus Medina (W): He finished the year with 6g/7a, which is ok. He hasn't scored since August and hasn't picked up an assist since July, which is not. So this is yet another team that desperately need a winger to carry some of the load.
- Anton Tinnerholm (RB): He's been one of the best attacking right backs in the league, and showed it again on Sunday. But when he goes the ever-more-fragile NYCFC backline can be exposed, as they were on Sunday when Philly earned a penalty.
PRESSURE'S ON: All the players, up to and including Villa, but especially on head coach Dome Torrent. He took over from Patrick Vieira midseason and rather than make little tweaks to the system and approach that made NYCFC borderline dominant, he's brought in new personnel and tactics almost every week.
Perhaps there's been real method to the madness and this team's about to go HAM on the rest of the East. If that's how it turns out, I'll tip my hat. But it hasn't much looked like that over the past three months, and a bad, brief showing in the playoffs will only embolden the segment of the fanbase in the Bronx that are calling for blood.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Like RSL, they're here primarily because they played pretty, good (and pretty good) winning soccer from mid-May onwards. Like RSL, there were some pretty high highs that were followed by some pretty low lows. So it goes with a young team.
"Why they're here" as in "why are they playing on the road in the Knockout Round despite being in fourth place just two weeks ago" is baked into the above. They're a veteran team in some ways, but a very young one in others, and have made a habit this season of coming up short in big games. Individual errors are part of it, but another part is that they use the ball a lot, and it's hard to use the ball a lot when playing against good, smart, well-coached teams. And if you do that, you leave yourself open, and if you leave yourself open, you do something like lose 3-1 on the road at NYCFC on Decision Day.
FORMATION/TACTICS: They play almost every minute of every game in a 4-2-3-1 that can, at times, look like a 4-3-3.
They get heavy usage out of their central midfield, which is designed to control the tempo of the game and where on the field it's played. When they're going good, both fullbacks will push up and the Union will almost envelope teams, stretching them from touchline to touchline.
ACHILLES' HEEL: Push that many numbers forward, and you are bound to get roasted on the counter once or twice. That's one. For two, while their midfield is super-skilled, two of the players (d-mid Haris Medunjanin and No. 10 Borek Dockal) don't provide much in the way of field coverage. Teams that play fast can blow them up.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Medunjanin (DM): There aren't many deep-lying distributors in this league as good as he is at spreading the field and setting the tempo for the game. But he's being targeted by smart teams now, and has become something of a defensive liability.
- Keegan Rosenberry (RB): When the midfield gets gummed up, Roseberry becomes the primary distribution hub. He'll probably have to serve that role in the playoffs while also providing lock-down defense on that flank.
- Fafa Picault (W): Picault has had a good-not-great year diving in from the right wing to become a secondary goal threat. He can disappear from games, though, and the Union can't afford that in the playoffs.
PRESSURE'S ON: The young center back pairing of Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie. They're both excellent prospects who have been, at times, excellent professional defenders this season. And at other times – like on Sunday in the Bronx – they have looked like out-of-their-depth 20-year-olds getting taught a lesson.
Philly are going to, in 2019, stick with the bet they made on them regardless of what happens in the playoffs. But it will be a lot easier to feel good about that bet if they put in a good performance (i.e., the opposite of what they did Sunday) this week.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: From the beginning of March until the end of July they went 12-3-6, which gave them a huuuuge amount of breathing room at the top of the Western Conference.
Over the last three months they've done everything in their power to try to squander that breathing room, going 4-6-3 since the start of August and generally forgetting where the goal is. If the scale is "nosedive" to "tailspin" to "death spiral," and 2017 was definitively a "death spiral," this feels somewhere around "tailspin."
They don't look like a good team right now and haven't for months.
FORMATION/TACTICS: I think we'll call it a 4-2-3-1, though at times it looks like a 4-4-1-1 and at other times it's a 4-4-2.
Whatever you want to call the formation, it usually involves two guys who can really run up top, and two guys who can really run on the wings, and two guys who win the ball and spray in central midfield, and all of that means a lot of counterattacking soccer.
It's become their only way.
ACHILLES' HEEL: It's become their only way. And while good-to-great counterattacking teams have done serious playoff damage before...
...Dallas sure do miss some chances. (Full disclosure: I'm a big Dom Badji guy and I think the move to acquire him will pay out in the long term).
It's going to be weird watching Dallas and the Timbers daring each other to carry possession.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Maxi Urruti (FW): He's basically the No. 10 now, and he just scored his first goal in two months (and only his second since May), and he's had big playoff performances before. He needs to again.
- Carlos Gruezo (DM): There are moments where Gruezo looks like he'll be amongst the league's best No. 6s. There are other moments where he does not. Putting in a big performance against Valeri & Blanco would be a big boost for his rep (and his team)
- Santiago Mosquera (W): Maybe the only guy in this FCD attack who can go out and win a game for you single-handed. But he has been wildly hit-and-miss in his debut season.
PRESSURE'S ON: I'd say Oscar Pareja at least a little bit. Yes, he righted the ship after last season's misery, and yes he's successfully navigated some choppy, player movement-related waters, but this is unquestionably his team now, and he's built a machine that doesn't score goals from open play. It's a problem.
On the field, the pressure's on the entire attack. Period.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: They rattled off 15 unbeaten from April to August, and when you do that you tend to make the playoffs. While the final three months of the year wasn't exactly smooth sailing, and there were times when it looked like they might fall on their faces and out of the playoffs... nah.
For what it's worth, I think Gio Savarese was right to rest his starters and play the B team on Decision Day. But it's got to sting at least a little bit.
FORMATION/TACTICS: After nearly a season's worth of tinkering, Savarese settled on a 4-2-3-1 out of a deep block with a strong hankering to get out on the counter. They do have some other looks they can throw at teams, but that's the main one.
ACHILLES' HEEL: The above is really their only way to approach a game. When they've tried to carry a ton of possession and be that kind of team...
...they've been pretty thoroughly roasted no matter their shape. Savarese threw a lot of stuff at the wall this summer – new formations, new partnerships, Diego Chara out wide, etc. etc. etc., and none of it really worked.
If you don't let the Timbers counter on you, you'll probably beat them. Or at the very least, if you make them carry the ball upfield, you'll get your own chances to blow through their lines and grab a couple goals of your own.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Jeremy Ebobisse (F): The 21-year-old has been excellent in very limited minutes this year, but seems to have locked down the starting No. 9 job. He needs to play beyond both his age and experience, and at the very least occupy the opposing center backs and link play.
- David Guzman (DM): For a guy with his resume he's been wildly up-and-down. They'll need the bests out of the Costa Rican international both in winning the ball, and in getting it to good spots.
- Liam Ridgewell (CB): His minutes decreased for the third straight year and it's clear the 34-year-old has lost a step, to the point that he might not even be first choice at Dallas. If he plays, how he handles the speedy FCD attackers will determine a lot about the game.
PRESSURE'S ON: The core group. Ridgewell is part of it, as is Chara, as are Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco. All of them are 30 or older, and their title window probably isn't going to stay open much longer – you could probably argue that this year is it, considering the age and relative trajectory of the CBs.
The good news is that the two most talented players on the field in this game are Valeri and Chara, and that Blanco might be No. 3. Even in a road game, you have to like a team with those odds if that's the balance of power.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Because they got Wayne Rooney in July and he gave everybody else on the roster superpowers, apparently.
Rooney was the key to putting together one of the most remarkable second-half turnarounds in league history (and to be clear, he didn't do it all himself). Also key was having 15 home games crammed into the second half of the schedule.
And guess what? They played so well they have another in the Knockout Round. You couldn't really have asked for more if you were a D.C. fan.
FORMATION/TACTICS: Since Rooney came and Russell Canouse got healthy they've usually played out of a 4-2-3-1, scrapping the 4-1-4-1 they'd used earlier in the season. It allows them to press a lot higher, which they've put to good use:
They've also put Rooney's passing ability to good use. He's their No. 9, and functions as a No. 9, but also functions as a No. 10 at times when necessary. That's allows Lucho Acosta in particular to get waaaaaay more goal dangerous, and has led to some very pretty interplay through the second half of the year.
ACHILLES' HEEL: It feels like they don't really have one right now, since their attack has mostly been humming along, and since their defense has given up more than a single goal just once in the last two months (and that was against the Supporters' Shield-winning Red Bulls, so I'm gonna give them a mulligan).
The reality, though, is twofold: First, they've kind of stopped getting goals from the wing – none in over a month. Second, I'm just not sold on Frederic Brillant as a playoff-caliber center back. Just look at his record with NYCFC where he started all four games over in 2016 and 2017 as they conceded 11 goals and were eliminated. He's had a solid enough second half of the season, but his lack of mobility is a problem. Especially given how much overlapping Ben Olsen demands from his right back.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Yamil Asad (W): No goals since Aug. 4 for the Argentine, who is probably the most talented attacker of D.C.'s winger corps. He doesn't need to be a star, but he does need to be a threat.
- Paul Arriola (RW/RB): He's spent time at both spots, and his positional flexibility allows Olsen some tactical flexibility (i.e., be more attacking or more defensive?). I love Arriola on the overlap for what it's worth.
- Steven Birnbaum (CB): He's quietly bounced back after a tough 2017, re-establishing himself as a dominant aerial presence and a rock of a defender. There's nothing fancy about him, but when he keeps the game in front of him he's very good.
PRESSURE'S ON: Everybody's got a little. Olsen has to curb his BennyBall instincts and put out an XI that will actually go on the attack; Birnbaum has to marshall the backline; Rooney has to be Rooney, and Acosta has to be the little No. 10 who buried folks the second half of the year.
But really, I think it's mostly on Bill Hamid. This time six years ago, he was considered the best young goalkeeper in the US pipeline. This time two years ago, and he was considered the best goalkeeper in the league. This time in 2018? He's rarely mentioned in that company, and a strong playoff run could help propel him back into the conversation.
United will call on him to produce some big saves. He's got to be up to the task.
Columbus Crew SC
WHY THEY'RE HERE: They spent most of the year being really hard to beat in large part because they play the most defined and structured system in the league. So their lows were never really that low, save for gakking up an L at Orlando City in Week 34.
But because they don't have much top-end talent, their highs never got particularly high. Put Ignacio Piatti on this team and I legit believe they'd be the best in the league, but the production from their wingers has been something substantially less than Piatti-esque.
FORMATION/TACTICS: It's a 4-2-3-1 almost all the time. The d-mid drops between the CBs to split them and distribute, the fullbacks push up high, the center forward occupies both opposing CBs – but they don't want to play through him, they want to play to him. Oh hell just take a look:
This is maybe the Crewiest Crew SC goal of the year. They're really, really good at getting into those spots where killer balls come from, and because they're so structured they're really, really hard to counter on or break down.
By the numbers – boxscore and underlying – they had one of the league's best defenses.
ACHILLES' HEEL: By the numbers – boxscore only – they had one of the league's worst attacks. Gyasi Zardes had 19 goals, but beyond that they got consistent production from exactly nobody, and massively underperformed their expected goals.
Simply put: Columbus are at a talent deficit in their attack against any other playoff team. Maybe Niko Hansen (who had the assist on that clip above) is ready to break out and be a difference-maker in the playoff pressure cooker. They probably need that from him, since neither Justin Meram nor Pedro Santos have been up to it in 2018.
For what it's worth, Hansen is a much more direct type of winger than the other two, who are both pocket wingers. He does a good job of getting to the endline and extending the field, which can pay dividends (again, look at the above clip). That personnel change could usher in a slight enough tactical change to push Columbus through.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Wil Trapp (DM): He's been smart and steady for a good chunk of his entire career, and will now need to play one of his very best games trying to keep Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta under wraps.
- Meram (W): His return to Ohio has been a happy one but not yet a productive one, and it's been more than a year since he looked like an elite attacker in MLS. The talent's still there, and now he needs to bring it to bear.
- Jonathan Mensah (CB): Mensah's been much better in his second MLS season, and will almost certainly be back in the XI after missing Decision Day via yellow card accumulation.
PRESSURE'S ON: Gregg Berhalter. I think he's an excellent tactical coach, and I like watching his team play, and I'd be fine with him as USMNT head coach (which is an idea we should all get used to). He'll want to go into that job with as much momentum as possible, and a listless Knockout Round loss at D.C. would not be the way.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Because they came out of the gates hot and spent most of the year playing good, solid, and at times wildly entertaining soccer. Their worst stretch was when they went winless in five in the middle of the summer, but they followed that up by going unbeaten in six.
In other words they're a good, deep, talented team. But they're also a little bit soft and sloppy in their defensive third, which is why they're playing in the Knockout Round instead of skipping the midweek fun.
FORMATION/TACTICS: It's mostly what I would consider to be a 4-3-3, though at times it's definitely been a 4-2-3-1 with Carlos Vela as a pure No. 10 operating in the hole underneath a center forward.
Either way, the idea is that the center forward occupies both opposing center backs, pins them, and that creates gaps for goal-scoring wingers to hit off the ball at speed. The Black-and-Gold scored 68 goals this year so it's worked pretty, pretty well.
ACHILLES' HEEL: Playing pretty soccer has come at something of a price, as their 52 goals conceded is second-worst amongst playoff teams behind RSL (who they'll be hosting, so the game should be high-scoring, but because it's MLS this is definitely going to PKs after 120 goalless minutes). Bob Bradley's spent a good chunk of the year going sans d-mid, which has posed occasional problems:
A pure d-mid tracks that run.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Danilo Silva (CB): Silva played at a good club (Dynamo Kiev) for a long time, but it's hard to miss how slow he looks at times on an MLS field. He will be hard-pressed to keep track of all RSL's jitterbug attackers.
- Adama Diomande (F): He was dominant when he arrived in June, but has been a bit more passive lately. It's clear that he's the starting No. 9 now, and it's clear that he has to be goal-hungry in his movements and overall approach.
- Eduard Atuesta (DM): The young Colombian is the closest thing LAFC have to a real d-mid, and it's worth noting the above goal came after he was subbed out at the half. If he's healthy and able to go 90, and then plays like he did in September, that can elevate the whole team.
PRESSURE'S ON: Nobody reaaaaaallly. Sure they've spent a lot of money, but they just set the single-season points record for an expansion team and are going to have at least one game at home. It's a cool story, just like Atlanta last year.
That said, Vela's been billed as and treated as a superstar from the moment he put on that hat and looked up. He's had a very good year, but a lot of that has been overshadowed by other stars doing bigger, better, brighter things.
Real Salt Lake
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Mike Petke, after last week's drubbing at Portland, said it was a "one in a million" shot that the Claret-and-Cobalt would make the postseason. That man should've bought a Mega Millions ticket last week.
RSL are here because the LA Galaxy had the worst final day breakdown I've ever seen in this league, coughing up a 2-0 halftime lead at home to lose 3-2 against a Dynamo side that had nothing to play for and had been acting like it over the past month. That second half was inexplicable.
But RSL are also here because by mid-May they started playing pretty well, and mostly kept playing pretty well throughout the rest of the season save for that unfortunate home-and-home with the Timbers. They are not spectacular at any one thing, but they have a lot of very good attackers, a defense that can win on the day and a legendary goalkeeper. They're prohibitive underdogs going to LAFC for the Knockout Round, but weird things can happen when you play with house money.
FORMATION/TACTICS: It's a 4-2-3-1 that relies upon overlapping fullbacks, wingers who roast defenders in isolation, and some unusual interplay between the center forward and No. 10 (which will be Albert Rusnak).
ACHILLES' HEEL: They've conceded 58 goals, which is easily the worst of any playoff team. And they are just a wee bit susceptible to speed out of the midfield:
If you can dominate their midfield three and make them ragged, you put pressure on the backline to make plays. And for good chunks of time, the backline has not been able to make plays.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Damir Kreilach (F): Yeah I've got him listed as a forward, and to be honest he's been pretty good playing as a sort of No. 9. He'll have to find gaps and keep the LAFC backline honest, because if they compress the midfield RSL's in trouble.
- Corey Baird (W): When RSL needed a win in what was, at the time, their biggest game of the season, Baird dominated a decent New England side. He should start against LAFC even if it means benching a higher-priced player.
- Marcelo Silva (CB): Silva's generally been pretty good in his 2,200 MLS minutes, but he was a disaster against Portland last weekend. They need the reliable, veteran version to show up in the playoffs.
PRESSURE'S ON: The whole backline to get on the same page and stop allowing huge gaps. Do that at LAFC and you'll take another L.