Prior to this year, in the Knockout Round road teams had won five of 22 games. They won three of four in 2018. And they did it not by bunker-and-pray – always a worry in single elimination – but by going out there and playing open, loose, attacking soccer. It wasn't always pretty, but it was effective.
And now it's onto the conference semifinals of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs (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 they got healthy just before the clock struck midnight, and over the last 180 minutes they look quite a bit like they rolled back time to six months ago. With Yangel Herrera, Maxi Moralez, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and of course David Villa all healthy, NYCFC trounced the Union both on Decision Day presented by AT&T and in the Knockout Round.
And now they're coming for the wounded and listing Atlanta United.
FORMATION/TACTICS: For a long time under Dome Torrent it changed by the hour. For the last two games, though, it's been a 4-2-3-1 with a real emphasis on winning 50/50s at midfield:
This isn't exactly "classic" NYCFC – they're leaning on Villa's back-to-goal play more than they used to, 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.
Herrera has been dominant since his return from injury. On the game-deciding play against the Union on Wednesday he won the ball at midfield twice in about 10 seconds, and while he didn't register an assist (primary or otherwise), he is absolutely the engine in the middle.
ACHILLES' HEEL: Road form, I guess? And perhaps there is some concern about reading too much into the last two games, since 1) they both happened against the same team, and 2) Villa was teaching a pair of 20-year-old CBs a master-class on how to play the game. They will not face an opponent so green in this round, or any subsequent round.
But they'll worry about their road form when they actually have to play on the road. As for this weekend, they'll be justifiably focused on putting together another 90-minute clinic in the Bronx.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Herrera (CM): The 20-year-old box-to-box midfielder would've been top 3 in this year's 22 Under 22 if he'd stayed healthy, and NYCFC probably would've finished the year on 65 points (or more). Can he go 80+ minutes for the third time in a week, though?
- Alex Ring (DM): He's been a rock for the past two years, and his ability to hold an protect the backline allows Herrera to go hunting those midfield 50/50s. Because of the formation change away from the 4-3-3 their partnership isn't exactly what it was, but has nonetheless been effective over the last 170 minutes.
- Anton Tinnerholm (RB): He's been one of the best attacking right backs in the league, though he didn't have to show it in the Knockout Round. Beware, though: when he goes the NYCFC backline can be exposed, as they were on Sunday when Philly earned a penalty.
PRESSURE'S ON: Maybe nobody, now? The Cityzens were fighting for their lives in the last two games against the Union and Hulked out, reminding just about everyone of how good they can be when they're locked in. Getting to the Conference Semifinals isn't the ultimate goal – this team was built to win MLS Cup, especially since it might be Villa's last season – but they don't have any special pressure on them in that regard (no more than any other Cup contender, anyway).
Torrent's just got to keep riding the horse that brought him here.
Also: Please don't retire, David.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Atlanta are the Cupcake Smashers™. The Five Stripes have spent the majority of their MLS existence first intimidating and then disintegrating any team that ranges from "bad" to "unprepared" to "outmanned." Given the nature of Atlanta's talent, both on the field and on the sideline, that made them clear favorites in most of their games, and it's a tag they wore nicely (69 points is the second-highest total any team's ever managed in an MLS season).
But they've struggled against quality teams (including NYCFC) throughout. And that's why they're in the 2-3 game instead of the 1-6.
FORMATION/TACTICS: Tata Martino has moved away from the 4-2-3-1 high pressing system that defined the Five Stripes in 2017 in favor of a middle-block, possession-heavy scheme that plays out of a 3-4-1-2, a 3-4-3 or a 4-2-3-1.
The idea is to flood out of midfield at pace. If you let them do that, it pretty much doesn't matter how good you are – the Five Stripes are gonna hang two on you.
ACHILLES' HEEL: If you don't let them do that, they're not great. Not bad, necessarily (they can still beat you on occasion with their press, or through final third possession), but not great. They look like a 52-point team instead of a 69-point team, which is significant.
And since Miguel Almiron got hurt, and Josef Martinez went cold, it's been a lot easier to keep Atlanta in front of the defense and prevent those midfield floods from proving decisive. So much of Atlanta's approach this year was wrapped up in Almiron's ability to get on the ball, hit R2 and achieve warp speed. So much of that has been missing over the past month.
Who are they right now? I'm honestly not sure. Will Almiron play on Sunday? I honestly doubt it. Will he play at all in this series? I'm not going to hold my breath.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Ezequiel Barco (W): The Boat Show has been a disappointment this season, looking much more like a complementary player than a centerpiece. A strong showing in this series could change that narrative – and perhaps the trajectory of his Atlanta career.
- Tito Villalba (W): He's struggled through almost constant injuries in 2018, though he's healthy now. Villalba was the third musketeer in those midfield floods, bursting through the lines (usually off the ball) before finishing plays with either a goal or assist. He'll need to find the game more against NYCFC.
- Eric Remedi (DM): Remedi has been almost entirely nondescript since his midseason arrival. For a d-mid that's mostly a good thing, but in this one he'll have to up his game and give as good as he gets vs. the Herrera/Ring combo.
PRESSURE'S ON: Everybody. Martino's words after the Decision Day collapse in Toronto were pointed, saying "We betrayed ourselves, threw away everything we had worked for this season." That included a trophy.
Now Martino's entering what could be his last two games in charge, and there is likely an entire offseason roster overhaul in the offing. Atlanta were a breath of fresh air when they came into the league – everything from how they played, to where they got their players, to how much they paid for those players, to where those players were in their careers, was different. And that's awesome.
But the goal wasn't just to be different and awesome. The goal was to win a trophy or two. This is their last chance at that before a pretty hard reboot's coming.
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.
It didn't even matter that they had a road game in the Knockout Round, as they went down to Texas and handled FC Dallas with relative ease. Sure does help when future governor of Oregon Diego Valeri goes into God Mode!
FORMATION/TACTICS: After nearly a season's worth of tinkering, Gio 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, and it worked a charm on Wednesday night:
They did that playing 10v11. As long as they have numbers behind the ball, and you're pulling your backline up to exert some sort of possessional pressure, they are a danger to get out there, into space, and make you suffer.
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 (unless they can beat you on set pieces, though that's less of a concern for Seattle on Sunday since Larrys Mabiala's out after getting a red card on Wednesday). 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): That highlight above is very clearly not all about Valeri, as it's Ebobisse's direct run, then elite strength and balance, and unselfish passing that set up the goal. He's made the starting No. 9 job his own by being an adequate goal threat and an elite hold-up man.
- David Guzman (DM): That highlight above is very clearly not all about Valeri and Ebobisse, as it's Guzman's simple, but well-timed ball over the top that catches the Dallas backline flat-footed. Guzman's a World Cup vet and a great complement to Chara who's playing the best ball of his Timbers career recently.
- Liam Ridgewell (CB): With Mabiala out via a red card suspension, this absolutely has to be Ridgewell's backline. He'll be making the reads, calling out the runs, doing the bulk of distribution and taking the hardest assignments on set pieces. Given his spotty 2018 form, that is a huge – maybe the hugest – question.
PRESSURE'S ON: The core group. Ridgewell is part of it, as is Chara, as are 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.
There's also a ton of pressure on Bill Tuiloma, the 23-year-old New Zealand international who's likely to get the start at center back in place of Mabiala (though it might be 25-year-old Costa Rican int'l Julio Cascante instead, and in that case the pressure's on him). Soccer is often a "weak link" game, and especially so in big games. Smart, veteran teams seek out the slowest buffalo in the herd, separate it and run it to death.
Whoever partners Ridgewell can't let that happen.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Their second half was the single-greatest half-season, in terms of points per game, in MLS history. That's pretty, pretty good.
And they needed it to be that great because their first half of the season was abysmal. The Sounders lacked motivation, identity, balance, chemistry, health... it seemed, for a while, like their run of consecutive playoff appearances was destined to end.
It obviously didn't. They got healthy, got chemistry, got motivated and put the ball at Nico Lodeiro's foot. And then magic happened.
FORMATION/TACTICS: It's a 4-2-3-1 defined by a few things. First is Lodeiro's utterly free role – he can pop up literally anywhere, and has the engine to do so for 90 minutes.
Next is by the dual d-mids of Ozzie Alonso and Gustav Svensson, neither of whom really push up into the attack that much. Because those two guys are so rock-solid, that allows both fullbacks to overlap at the same time, which isn't something you see that often around MLS. The Sounders stretch teams out like that.
And third is that you generally can't hurry them in possession. Whoever gets on the ball is happy to take whatever space you're giving them, even if it's a CB:
They can do that sort of stuff because of the defensive structure provided by the Alonso/Svensson pairing, and because Lodeiro so infrequently makes costly turnovers.
ACHILLES' HEEL: Right now I'm not sure they have one. Since July 4 they're 15-2-2 with a +23 goal differential, which is absurd.
Force me to come up with something, though, and I'll say that they've been a little too comfortable and passive defensively over their last three games, defending deeper than they need to and relying a little too much on "structure" rather than "ball pressure." If they let Valeri pick passes this week the way they let Jackson Yueill pick passes last week – I'm a big Yueill fan, but he's no Valeri – they're in trouble.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Raul Ruidiaz (FW): Came in at midseason on a big contract and has been worth every penny, putting up 10g/1a in 1100 minutes. He's a fox-in-the-box type whose smart, early movement means he can find chances even when play breaks down a little bit
- Victor Rodriguez (LW): The Spaniard's finally healthy and is showing why Seattle gave him that fat contract, producing 4g/4a in the last five games of the season. His ability to toggle between secondary playmaking and goalscoring duties has taken a bunch of pressure off of both Lodeiro and Ruidiaz.
- Brad Smith (LB): Smith was brought in to start, and looked the part in August and September – he was deadly on the overlap – but Rodriguez's run of form coincided with Smith getting injured. We don't really know if they can play together and produce because we haven't really seen them play together much at all. Sticking with Nouhou Tolo is the safer bet.
PRESSURE'S ON: It doesn't feel like it's on anyone in particular at the moment, which is maybe kind of a worry? Portland played what were essentially two playoff games against RSL to close the season, and then another in the Knockout Round. They are locked in.
Seattle obviously had to fight for their lives throughout most of the summer, but they haven't played against a playoff team since mid-September, and haven't played a game that felt truly urgent since the end of that month. They basically cruised through their October schedule in third gear.
They better shift back up to fifth real quick. This is the Cascadia Derby in the playoffs. To be clear: Pressure's on literally everyone.
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... until Thursday night at Audi Field. Federico Higuain reminded everybody that yes, he is still capable of being an elite No. 10, and Zack Steffen reminded everybody that he's the greatest PK shootout 'keeper this league's ever seen.
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.
Against the Red Bulls they're going to have to do all of the above, only faster. Columbus have had success playing both through and over the RBNY press in the past (including this year), so watch for more direct play over the top, as well as more long, diagonal switches from d-mid Wil Trapp.
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: unless Higuain has another A+ outing in his 34-year-old legs, 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 Justin Meram has not been up to it in 2018 and it looks like Pedro Santos suffered a pretty significant injury on Thursday.
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:
- Trapp (DM): He's been smart and steady for a good chunk of his entire career, and against D.C. was instrumental in severing the connection between Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta. It's a different challenge against RBNY, one focused more on both physicality and speed of play.
- 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. His fitness is questionable and he'll be playing his third game in a week. How much can he give?
- Jonathan Mensah (CB): Mensah's been much better in his second MLS season, and played one of his best games on Thursday night. RBNY will press the hell out of him every time he touches the ball, though.
PRESSURE'S ON: In the Knockout Round it was 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). Whatever happens here, he'll be going into that job with at least some momentum after the Knockout Round win at D.C.
So who's it on now? The players. But most especially: Trapp, Mensah, Meram and Hansen. Those four have to show up in a huge way over the next two weekends for Columbus to have a chance.
New York Red Bulls
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Because they put together the best regular season in league history, collecting 71 points and dominating against even the best teams in the league. They added depth and youth, got great performances from their long-time leaders, and a midseason coaching change eventually only made them better and more tactically flexible (I'll tip my hat to Chris Armas once again here).
They're deep and committed and the most dynamic defensive team in league history, as well as being a pretty good attacking team to boot. They're Supporters' Shield champions for god's sake, and their reward is... Crew SC. The only Eastern Conference playoff team that won their season series against the Red Bulls in 2018.
How about that.
FORMATION/TACTICS: RBNY play the pressing-est high press that ever pressed, though it's been dialed back a little bit under Armas after starting the year, under Jesse Marsch, by turning everything into a 50/50.
Armas' gamble – I still think it was a gamble – paid off. We talked a lot about that after they won the Shield on Decision Day:
The Red Bulls possess a little bit more now. They try to be a little bit more precise in the passes they pick. They sometimes try to control tempo, rather than just ramping the game up to its highest setting and playing demolition derby.
They still do the demolition derby thing often, and better than any team in MLS history save maybe Sporting KC in 2013. And it all comes out of a 4-2-3-1. But they're not one-trick ponies by any stretch.
ACHILLES' HEEL: Even with the changes in approach I still wonder – still sort of suspect – that you can bunker on them and get away with it. The Red Bulls are better with the ball than they were earlier in the year, but they're not exactly 2017 TFC or the 2014 Galaxy.
Berhalter surely knows that, by the way. When these teams met in the 2015 playoffs (RBNY weren't quite as press-y back then, but still), he happily had his possession-heavy Crew SC side sit back and absorb all the way to a series victory and a spot in that year's MLS Cup.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Bradley Wright-Phillips (F): The greatest regular-season striker in league history has had his share of playoff goals, but most of them have come after the game or series was already out of reach. As it stands, his defining postseason moment is a yellow card against New England in 2014. He needs to change that this year. (Ed note: He scored a brace against SKC in the KO Round that year and scored the opener vs. D.C in the next round. Scored the clincher against D.C. the following year. -Ben Baer)
- Tyler Adams (DM): It's a crime that BWP was not on the MVP shortlist, but here's a confession: I truly believe that the d-mid on the league's best team is almost always the actual league MVP. This year it's Adams, whose comfort on the ball has increased exponentially, as has his reading of the game. And his ability to eliminate space remains god tier.
- Kaku (AM): If they're going to get on the ball and try to break down a bunker, you know who's going to have to provide the final ball more often than not? It's the little Paraguayan playmaker (Argentina-born, to be clear), who's been worth every penny the club spent on him last winter.
PRESSURE'S ON: The whole club, top-to-bottom. The Red Bulls have given their fans three Shields in six years to celebrate – and they really do celebrate each of them in epic fashion – but they would really, really like to hear the end of the "Why does Red Bull come in cans?" chant (the answer is "Because they have no cups.")
MLS Cup is it. The fanbase is dying for it, the players are dying for it, the front office staff is dying for it, Armas is dying for it. BWP is not going to get any younger this offseason and Adams is most likely going to be working out of the company's German offices starting in January. There will never be a better chance for this team to win the Cup.
Real Salt Lake
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Mike Petke, after the drubbing at Portland two weeks, 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.
And they have the blessings of the soccer gods. That legendary goalkeeper put in a legendary performance, and Damir Kreilach crane kicked himself into Claret-and-Cobalt lore forever on Thursday at LAFC.
RSL put two shots on goal for the whole game, and they somehow scored three goals. MLS. You can't explain it.
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). Pay special attention to Brooks Lennon pushing all the way up from right back. He was key on Thursday.
The play really loose through the midfield, and try to press the tempo way up towards "frenetic." It's a trip.
ACHILLES' HEEL: They've conceded 58 goals, which is easily the worst of any playoff team. And no matter who the personnel is, gaps have a way of appearing where they really, really shouldn't:
There's no pressure on that pass from midfield, the backline is a mess both vertically and horizontally, and... yeah I just don't get it.
Can RSL win? Absolutely. But they got outshot 21-4 by LAFC on Thursday night, and I didn't see anything from that backline and midfield that suggest they can hold together against an equally relentless Sporting KC press.
So then the question becomes this: Will SKC gift RSL three goals the way LAFC did?
I honestly can't see it.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Sunny (DM): I am guessing he'll play this weekend in place of Luke Mulholland, who was 1) excellent, and 2) completely winded by the end against LAFC. I can't imagine Mulholland will have any gas left in the tank. Sunny needs to have a big game controlling the space between Khiry Shelton and the SKC midfield.
- Joao Plata (W): He got benched, which was a long time coming. And then when he came on at the hour mark, he played with a real spark for the first time since August. Message sent and received, perhaps? RSL need that to be the case, as a locked-in Plata is a match-winner.
- Marcelo Silva (CB): Silva's generally been pretty good in his 2,200 MLS minutes, but he was a disaster against Portland last weekend and not a ton better against LAFC on Thursday. He and Nedum Onuoha have to create some chemistry fast.
PRESSURE'S ON: Nobody. House money.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Because for the first time in forever they were better in August, September and October than they'd been in the first half of the year. Sporting are deeper and more dynamic than they've ever been, and they leaned on that through both injuries and clogged parts of the schedule.
They've also spun their identity as a press first, press fast, press hard gang into more of a pure possession team. They can still get on you when they need to, but putting more focus on the build-up has allowed them to win games with their attack as often (or more) as they win with their defense. SKC are really, really good.
FORMATION/TACTICS: They are doing all of the almost exclusively out of a 4-3-3. Peter Vermes has changed his tactics drastically over the years, but the formation has stayed the same.
This year's version of SKC, though, are all about unbalancing you with the ball, not without it. Key No. 1 is overlapping right back Graham Zusi, who hit infinitely more passes in the attacking third than any other fullback in MLS. It is a risk to push him so high up into the attack, but the reward – another playmaker, another ball-winner, another midfielder in the final third – has been more than worth it.
Key No. 2 is the way SKC's goalscoring wingers and central midfielder Felipe Gutierrez play off of their goal-shy No. 9, Shelton:
Shelton is both smart and brave in his movement, which means he drags defenders with him wherever he goes and doesn't mind taking a beating while doing so. And that opens up gaps for Felipe, Daniel Salloi and the rest.
After 65 or 70 minutes if SKC still haven't scored, they can sub on a more direct goal threat in Diego Rubio. It's a devastating change of pace.
ACHILLES' HEEL: Playing pretty soccer has come at something of a defensive price. Again: With Zusi pushed up, you can attack into the space he leaves behind, and neither Ilie nor Roger Espinoza really has the speed to run down speedy attackers. That forces Ike Opara to come way out of the middle to try to make plays, and while he's really good, nobody bats 1.000. When SKC have hit rough patches this season, that's been the spot on the field opponents have targeted.
In fact, that's the exact spot RSL targeted back in July when they drubbed SKC 4-2 in Sandy.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Salloi (LW): Nobody does more with the room Shelton creates than the winger, who really does play the spot like more of a second forward. He has a poacher's sense of time and space in the box, and is tough to track because he attacks from the outside in. Given how high Lennon pushes for RSL, this is a potentially decisive area in the series.
- Espinoza (CM): Still the beating heart of that SKC midfield, he'll be expected to set the tone both physically and emotionally. He's also expected to be the guy who, when the ball is won at midfield, hits the pass before the pass.
- Jaylin Lindsey (LB): With Seth Sinovic suspended and Lindsey called back from the U-20s, my guess is the 18-year-old Homegrown (who's a natural right back) gets the start. LIndsey's had a few good moments this year pushing forward, but my guess is that on Sunday his instructions will be simple: Take very few risks and keep play in front of you.
PRESSURE'S ON: The wingers (Salloi, Johnny Russell and maybe Gerso Fernandes) and Gutierrez. By opting for Shelton as the starting No. 9, and by pushing Zusi so high, Vermes has wagered that sacrificing some goalscoring from center forward and a good chunk of the team's defensive solidity is worth the trade-off if it gets those guys into positions to finish.
They will get their chances to prove him right. If they do not, RSL will harvest their souls.