It's always fun to do a tale-of-the-tape when we reach a new round of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs, and this usually ends with certain like-position battles standing out among the rest as essential to the outcome of their respective ties.
After taking a look at this year's Conference Semifinal matchups, the spotlight just gravitates toward one particular duel to watch in each two-leg bout. The winner of each of these four battles will go a long way toward determining who advances to 2018’s final four.
Kemar Lawrence (RBNY) vs. Milton Valenzuela (CLB)
There are good positional matchups all over the New York Red Bulls-Columbus Crew SC tie. But over two games, few will have as much to say about which club advances as the battle of left backs. They'll almost never intersect on the pitch, but each can tilt an entire flank.
Lawrence was Best-XI material this season and Valenzuela wasn't far behind him. We'll start weighing the duel by what they offer going forward, which is plenty. The Red Bulls left back gets up the field in a flash to support the attack, while his Crew SC counterpart is a deadly crosser.
At the back, Lawrence is the much more active all-around defender, whereas Valenzuela ranks among the league's top tacklers. To put it bluntly, they each will be facing the area of their opponent's offense that scores the least. However, guys like Alex Muyl and Niko Hansen are precisely the type to burn you if granted free space by mistakes.
Who will play a key role in more chance rushes? Who can keep his corner the tidiest? The sum of those answers could certainly tip the scales in an intriguing Eastern Conference Semifinal.
Josef Martinez (ATL) vs. David Villa (NYC)
Let's not beat around the bush on this one. It's the record-setting Golden Boot man up to take the MVP prize against the Yankee Stadium superstar who already has one.
You know they'll be aiming to outscore the other in this tie, and whoever puts his name on the scoresheet the most stands a good chance at surviving this potential track meet. These teams have pitched in evenly to total 14 goals in their four prior meetings. Villa has helped New York City FC against Atlanta United with two goals and three assists. Martinez has a goal in two series appearances.
Martinez is the ultimate MLS cobra head, always cleverly finding his way to the perfect spot for a cool finish. He just busted a mini-drought on Decision Day presented by AT&T. Of course, he's also sweating the fitness of running mate Miguel Almiron. The hopeful news for him is that Atlanta United's one-man engine room has returned to training.
Villa, on the other hand, has already enjoyed key injury returns in NYCFC's buildup crew and has scored in four of his last five starts. The former Spain star is also much more involved in running the attack. Let the Five Stripes, be warned, though: Villa has greatly ramped up his shot attempts total heading into the playoffs (6.3 per game over the last six against 3.6 per game before that).
Diego Valeri (POR) vs. Nicolas Lodeiro (SEA)
This might be the most vital position showdown on the board. Both playmakers do so much more than pull the strings in the final third. Both have already proven they can ramp up that production to spark an MLS Cup title run. It's basically a derby playoff midfield kaiju fight, give the stature of Lodeiro and Valeri in their side's game plan.
Lodeiro, who was truly uncaged when Raul Ruidiaz came aboard, has seven goals and 14 helpers in his last 19 games. That's the best production run of his MLS career, and it comes on top of all the exhaustive navigating he does for the Seattle Sounders. The Uruguay international has notched six assists in his seven Cascadia clashes against Valeri's Portland Timbers.
Valeri is the late-area-run genius who wears his adopted hometown on his sleeve. His offensive output is down from last year's magical MVP season, but he's become more about efficiency in a revamped Timbers system that has him fourth among their midfielders in touches per game. The PTFC captain had been suspiciously quiet in attack before his Knockout Round brace, with but a goal and two assists from his last 11 regular season outings.
Only three midfielders in MLS played more passes per game this season than Lodeiro, so he should be a clear and constant presence in the flow of each game. Valeri will likely need to strategically bide his time until he can "ghost" into situations (think Ant Man & Wasp, not Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore) to cause Seattle trouble.
Johnny Russell (SKC) vs. Jefferson Savarino (RSL)
Of all the potential picks for this tie, and there are some other good ones, the position battle between the right wingers holds the most danger for explosiveness. Russell and Savarino take defenders on, and then they take them on again and again, and then before you know it the ball's in your net.
Russell has been fantastic in his debut MLS season, carving up defenses at will for the West's regular-season champs. He looks for his shot much more often than Savarino, and Sporting KC are 5-1-2 when he scores. Simply put, Peter Vermes needs him to raid the area relentlessly to poke holes in a defensively suspect Real Salt Lake flank.
Actually, Savarino is generally more insistent on the dribble from a statistical standpoint. Like Russell, he is as adept at snaking to find room for a shot as he is with picking out a central runner. What he doesn't have is Graham Zusi backing, if not contributing to, his every move.
Savarino's advantage may be that he gets to play the opening home game without the suspended Seth Sinovic in his shirt. If he can wiggle his way through whatever cover arrangement Sporting go with to provide some offense, it will put big pressure on Russell to match or better that output in the return.