We're 14 days away from the first leg of the respective Conference Championship series, which mean nothing yet falls under the category of "urgent." That said, film study and tactical prep has already started in New Jersey and Georgia, and Portland and KC. There will be down time, but that will be followed by a week-and-a-half of work.
Each team will have a dual focus. Focus No. 1: Sharpening up the things you already do – making sure passing patterns are well drilled, and off-the-ball movement is clear and sharp, and defensive responsibilities are clear. Focus No. 2: Preparing for what your opponent's going to throw at you. For Peter Vermes, pulling apart the Timbers' low block is a different sort of proposition than surviving RSL's street-ball attack, you know?
With that in mind, here's one big question for each of the four teams remaining in the hunt for MLS Cup.
Can they handle RBNY's press and physicality?
This column is mostly supposed to be a question for each of these teams, but let's not mince words: This is the question for Atlanta United, given how easily and thoroughly RBNY have handled them over the past two years.
The culmination (to this point, anyway), came at the end of September when the Five Stripes went up to Harrison and got both played and kicked off the pitch in a dispiriting 2-0 loss – one that seemed to stick with them for a month. You could certainly say that they weren't the same team in October that they'd been in the six months prior to that.
And guess what? They're still not the same team. And that actually might not be a bad thing because this new sit-and-counter-and-get-into-the-occasional-rock-fight version of Atlanta United seem better equipped to give RBNY fits. Look at what they did to NYCFC on Sunday:
It's all pretty nondescript and even until you get down to total passes, passing accuracy, possession and duels won, and that tells the story. The Five Stripes didn't try to play through NYCFC (another very good pressing team) this series; they invited the Cityzens upfield and then blitzed into the space behind them. They didn't stretch their own backline; they dared David Villa & Co. to bust down the door. And in the process, they won the lion's share of duels – 50/50s, essentially – all over the field.
This is probably what they should do against the Red Bulls. Maybe I'll go a step further: This probably what they have to do against the Red Bulls, given how lopsided the match-ups between the teams have been so far.
And bear this in mind: RBNY don't struggle against pressing teams, and they destroy possession teams. Know what still troubles them every time they see it, though? The bunker.
New York Red Bulls
Will the attack keep sharing the load?
Over the past four years I've harped on the fact that Bradley Wright-Phillips hasn't been quite good enough to carry the Red Bulls through the playoffs on his own, and left unsaid has been the obvious subtext: If the rest of the attack had showed up, he wouldn't have been asked to carry the Red Bulls through the playoffs on his own.
Through one series, 2018 has been different so far. Columbus made a concerted effort to make the other guys do the work and held BWP to a single chance across 180 minutes. They cut him out of the game, and that meant the rest of RBNY would have to answer the "can we actually put the ball in the net?" question.
On Sunday, they did so in the affirmative. First it was Alex Muyl redirecting an Aaron Long shot off a set piece, and then it was Muyl (along with just about everyone else on the field, including BWP) setting up the first of Daniel Royer's two on the night. This is just a spectacular team goal:
Muyl and Royer, and hopefully Kaku and maybe Derrick Etienne Jr. will all have to keep up something close to their recent output for the Red Bulls to get past Atlanta. Partly because we've seen this movie before, and partly because BWP is actually in a bit of a dry spell – he's scored in just two of his last nine appearances, and has only one goal in his last six games dating back to mid-September.
It's a bad time for a slump, but a good time for teammates to get your back.
Are they going to have to open it up at any point?
The Timbers have Diego Valeri and Diego Chara, two of the greatest players in league history at their respective positions. They have, in Sebastian Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse, two starting attackers capable of making a difference in the playoffs. They have a solid if unspectacular backline and 'keeper. They have Dairon Asprilla off the bench, and it turns out that if it's November, Dairon Asprilla off the bench can win you a game or two.
They also have a thing. Their thing is that they don't really want that much of the ball and are perfectly content to absorb and counter. They tried to be different earlier in the season, and it didn't work. So they went back to their thing in early October, and they've looked like one of the best teams in the league ever since.
Here's the thing: That thing doesn't work if they have to open up and chase the result at all. You don't bunker your way to a come-from-behind victory unless your opponent forgets how to soccer.
This, from two months ago, is what it looked like the last time the Timbers had to chase a game:
I expect Gio Savarese to play this one slow and steady at home. The series can't be won at Providence Park, but it can for damn sure be lost in a big hurry. And while SKC haven't been great defensively, their goal at Rio Tinto a week ago is a reminder that they still remember where and when and how to press when they absolutely have to.
Can they defend up the gut?
I feel very much like this is a question submitted from bizarro world, because we're living in a timeline where SKC don't really seem to know how to defend. This is weird.
Sunday was also weird, because they came into the game with a very nice road draw, and then went up 2-0 early. At that point everyone in the world – except, apparently, for the 11 guys in Claret and Cobalt on the field and probably a few on the bench – thought the series was done, dusted and consigned to the trash bin of history.
But credit to RSL: They would not stop going in. And no credit to SKC for never really coming up with a plan to just make them quit it.
That is way, way way way too easy. Throughout the entire second half SKC were unable to navigate the tension between staying compact and getting pressure to the ball, and so they became stretched and ragged, and forced into copious amounts of emergency defense. It is a borderline miracle they did not concede a third goal over the final 15 minutes, and the final scoreline truly did flatter the hosts.
They break down when teams go right up the gut. Valeri, Blanco, Chara, Ebobisse... let them turn inside and start combining, and it gets ugly quick for Sporting.