During the playoffs, every week takes on a life of its own. There’s a single-minded focus toward the upcoming game: Nothing matters except that one opponent, the one task. With that focus generally comes a buzzword or catchphrase. Everyone buys into the single message, a mantra that will determine success or failure.
Coaches use it in team meetings; players repeat it within the locker room. I took a stab at what the remaining teams will be focusing on leading into Leg 2 of the Audi MLS Cup Playoff Conference Semifinals.
Crew SC 1, RBNY 0
RETURN LEG: Red Bull Arena | Harrison, N.J.
“Keep playing our game.”
After Sunday's Leg 1, Pipa Higuain described his thinking before his sublime, game-winning assist with one of the best soccer quotes I’ve ever read:
“I thought maybe the center back would be very close to me and I risked the ball, as I always do,” he said. “I have to. It’s my job. I’m a No. 10. I have to try to do something different. If not, it’s not enough.”
The quote brings us full circle on the year for Columbus. We started the season – after they had lost last year's leading goalscorers (Justin Meram and Ola Kamara) – saying they need to #TrustTheSystem that head coach Gregg Berhalter has built. Here we see the same thing in the decisive play of the Conference Semifinals.
Let's parse what Higuain said here: “I risked the ball, as I always do.” For the Argentine playmaker, that “as I always do” is vital, and it’s important to break down why. Higuain isn’t on the field slinging through balls every time he touches the rock. He actually makes mostly safe, simple passes throughout the game; Higuain completed 80 percent of his passes in the regular season. But he always goes for the killer pass when it’s the right moment, as dictated by his job within the team.
Columbus complete simple passes as they move the ball to certain zones or situations, then it’s Higuain’s job to create goalscoring opportunities from those chances. When the time is right, “risk the ball.”
His moment of magic against Red Bulls was a phenomenal blend of art and system, creativity and mechanization.
And for it, Columbus are one game away from their third Eastern Conference Championship in four years.
NY Red Bulls
If I’m a Red Bulls player, I’m lying in bed Sunday night thinking to myself, “Seriously, what can we do to stress Crew SC? They passed through our press, they beat us to second balls; the two ways we usually steamroll teams didn’t work. What do we have to beat them with?”
There’s still a question at the core of what Red Bulls are trying to do: If you prioritize off-the-ball actions, do you ever really have the upper hand? Or are you always dependent on the opponent lacking sharpness on the ball? Columbus were confident and clean in possession, and they didn’t cough the ball up under pressure. Is there anything Red Bulls can do to overcome that?
The tie isn’t over. Red Bulls could well steamroll Columbus in Leg 2. But I think they need to address that seed of doubt. They can’t assert the level of intensity required to beat Columbus unless they have full conviction. They don’t need to fix any tactical issues; they need to believe that their approach, if done to its maximum capacity, can supersede that of Crew SC.
Atlanta 1, NYCFC 0
RETURN LEG: Mercedes-Benz Stadium | Atlanta
“Get in the ice bath!”
There’s an interesting pattern in soccer: When most aesthetically pleasing teams are off, it’s often the intensity that determines the game. Thirty-nine fouls. Nearly twice as many as any other game on Sunday. Plus the most defensive-minded, gritty performance Atlanta have put in since March when they beat Minnesota while down a man for 52 minutes.
What a win. It seemed like the perfect confluence of events were happening that would bring Atlanta’s magical season to an end. Miguel Almiron on, Hector Villalba out, NYCFC healthy again, Yankee Stadium looming. But Atlanta put in a performance I wasn’t entirely sure they could do.
They committed 21 fouls, more than any other team on Sunday, and buckled down near their own 18 after taking the lead. I wouldn’t describe the performance as dominant like Matt Doyle did in his weekend recap – I think the jarring effect of NYCFC not totally dominating a game at home against a recently-wounded opponent made it feel like Atlanta controlled more than they did (expectation effect) – but that doesn’t make it any less impressive.
It seems possible Atlanta will run some (very) light training sessions this week. They don’t have anything they need to fine-tune: They’ve proven they can beat teams with the ball, without the ball, and on set pieces. Their only bugaboo is creating chances against a low block, but there’s almost no chance NYCFC sit deep when they need to win. For Atlanta, it’s about getting everyone ready to play at the same level for what will most likely be an equally intense game next weekend.
That’s the last time NYCFC went into Mercedes-Benz. They drew Atlanta 2-2 in one of the best games of the season. NYCFC and Atlanta were clearly the two top teams in the league at that point (given the Red Bulls were just regrouping from a stalled Concacaf Champions League run). NYCFC didn’t look out of place at the Benz at all, and very well could have won. A similar performance could get NYCFC through on Sunday.
It's important to note in that April 15 game, NYCFC didn’t even have David Villa in the starting lineup. If I’m in the NYCFC locker room, I’m reminding my teammates, “We almost beat them there, and we didn’t even have a fully-fit Villa!”
It’s overly-simplified, no doubt. NYCFC have the steepest mountain to climb of any team heading into Leg 2. But it’s also true that this lineup is capable of winning in Atlanta.
RSL 1, SKC 1
RETURN LEG: Children’s Mercy Park | Kansas City, Kansas
“Remember who we are.”
Sporting KC got sucked into Real Salt Lake’s style on Sunday. SKC earned the top seed in the West through controlled, systematic dominance of the ball. But on Sunday, they succumbed to RSL’s open, frenetic (street) style.
We can use Ilie’s distribution as an example. When Ilie usually gets on the ball, he makes quick, short passes to establish Sporting’s control of possession. We can see it in his pass chart against LAFC on Decision Day presented by AT&T, on the left. Against RSL, though, he often took an extra second on the ball to try to play a more complicated pass, shown on the right.
It’s not just the the increased occurrence of the red misplaced passes that matter; it’s the general length of the misplaced passes. It’s not Ilie’s role to play those balls. But he, as did most of his teammates, got frazzled by the type of game that RSL play and reverted to RSL’s “go for it” way of thinking.
The winner next Sunday will be determined by the style of the game. SKC are the better team overall, but RSL are the better team if the game gets open and chaotic; it’ll be up to SKC to make sure they don’t fall into that trap.
“Let's do it.”
This is how RSL have been living these last few weeks. It seems like their season is about to come to an end, but it’s just another day at the office for them. They had an uphill battle to make it into the postseason on Decision Day; then they had an uphill battle at LAFC; now they have it again at Kansas City in Leg 2. It’s just the life they live at this point. Improbable result? No problem.
Also, I loved Mike Petke’s postgame comments about the Nick Rimando gaffe that led to SKC’s equalizer: “I don’t think Nicky’s clearances or distribution was slow. I think what Nick was doing, because he’s a seasoned veteran, is he knows he can wait that extra second and something opens up and he can play that ball.” He didn’t just deflect blame from his player, he actually built him up. Well, the only reason he got into that situation is because he’s so good! That was awesome.