The one-off games to start the playoffs used to be called Knockout Round games. Now everything's a Knockout Round game – it's single elimination, which means it's win or go home over the course of any given 90 (or 120) minutes from here on out.
For context: The road team won eight of 26 Knockout Round games over the years, and two of eight MLS Cups. While the majority of those road wins were strict bunker-and-pray – always a possibility in any tournament – last year's Knockout Round upsets were characterized by lower-ranked teams going out there and playing open, loose, attacking soccer. It wasn't always pretty, but it was effective.
And now we dive into the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs (you can find times, dates, TV info here):
Los Angeles Football Club
WHY THEY'RE HERE: They put together the best regular season in MLS history, setting records for points and goal differential, equaling the mark for total goals, grabbing the second-biggest Supporters' Shield-winning margin ever and the second-highest PPG.
They had the best attack in the league by a mile and the best defense by a goal. They had the best player (Carlos Vela), the best d-mid (Eduard Atuesta), the best coach (Bob Bradley) and a handful of other guys who have Best XI claims. They absolutely pounded bad teams and only lost two games all season to playoff teams.
Last year's Red Bulls (71 points) and Atlanta United (69 points) were two of the best teams in MLS history, and combined for a +55 goal differential. LAFC, all on their own, were +48 this year, and I don't think it's wrong to suggest that they combined the best of that RBNY side (press high and hard) and of that Atlanta side (create chance after chance whenever there's an inch of daylight).
FORMATION/TACTICS: It's almost always a 4-3-3 with high pressing, overlapping fullback and lots of interchange along that front line. All of it's in service of getting this guy into positions where he can do the most damage:
Down the stretch Vela has had to swap between his preferred inverted right winger spot and playing as a false 9. He's very good at the latter but it's his work in the former position that drove him and his team to the best single season in league history. In particularly watch for Vela to find the gap between the opposing fullback and center back when LAFC set up camp in the attacking third.
Their own fullbacks, as I mentioned, push high up and Atuesta is the quarterback who dictates play all around the field. They keep the ball on the ground more than anybody else, hit more passes than anybody else and quite honestly play better soccer than anybody else. That's why they are where they are.
ACHILLES' HEEL: What happens when a team pushes its fullbacks that high? They get countered.
Yeah, that's a big old list of what not to do sprinkled with a few ideas of what to do. It's stuff that's worked for the Galaxy, for Colorado and for Minnesota. And without Mark-Anthony Kaye's range and ball-winning ability in central midfield (not confirmed, but he did limp off with an apparent hamstring injury on Tuesday night), LAFC should be more vulnerable to quick-hitters on the break – exactly as they were last year without Kaye.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Diego Rossi (LW): The 21-year-old winger has had a strong second year in MLS with 16g/7a but slumped over the last two months with just 3g/2a over the final 11 games of the regular season. He's got more than just the wing on his plate now, as like Vela he's been playing some as a center forward with Adama Diomande still out.
- Atuesta (DM): He really has been the best defensive midfielder in the league this year, and that's a good sign since you absolutely, positively need a top-tier d-mid to win in the playoffs. But he's been bossed at times by his more veteran counterparts. That can't happen now.
- Latif Blessing (AM): Without Diomande, Blessing has had to step up his game in the attack, becoming better at finishing off plays. In that regard he's been much more miss than hit. Now potentially without Kaye, he'll have to be an even bigger defensive presence. Blessing shocked everyone this year with how good he's been as a destroying No. 10, but he'll have to find a new gear this month.
PRESSURE'S ON: Literally everyone. Win or lose I'll remember this LAFC team as the best I've ever seen in MLS, but they won't be the best in MLS if they don't win MLS Cup. Posterity will remember them as flat-track bullies who couldn't get it done when the biggest games popped up on the schedule – something they're very well aware of given their short but already lamentable history in knockout games.
Worth noting the backline in particular's got a lot to worry about if Walker Zimmerman is not able to return after the concussion he suffered on Decision Day.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Because they're always here. The Sounders have now made the playoffs for 11 straight seasons, an MLS record, and have collected at least 50 points in seven of the past eight. They lost Ozzie Alonso after last season and Chad Marshall two months into this one, and yet they still finished second in the Western Conference for the third straight year.
There aren't many teams with the culture or the talent to have done that. But Nico Lodeiro is still Nico Lodeiro, Gustav Svensson is hella underrated, and when they started leaking goals for a while they decided to settle into a shell and become exactly as pragmatic as necessary down the stretch.
FORMATION/TACTICS: It's a 4-2-3-1 all the time, one that's pretty heavy on wide overloads when they're going forward. Way back at the start of the season Seattle were particularly devastating up that left-hand side:
That was Seattle at their very best, and as you can see it was long, long ago. They haven't quite looked like that for a long time, and it remains an open question as to whether 1) they have the defensive chops to be that kind of team again, and 2) whether Victor Rodriguez will be able to play any part.
ACHILLES' HEEL: Is it their defense? Well, they did finish the season with shut outs in three of their final four games, including a pair of 1-0 wins at San Jose and vs. Minnesota United in the last two games of the season to claim that third spot. Despite the string of zeros, I'm not entirely convinced by those performances – the woodwork was kind to them repeatedly.
If you want to go in another direction it's this: Man-mark Lodeiro to take him out of the game and it's not clear to me how the Sounders can generate any sort of consistent attack.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Jordan Morris (W): Morris has been playing some of the best soccer of his career – arguably the best to be honest – over the past few months, and his had a hand in a number of important goals for the Sounders. His pace and power, and ability to turn nothing into something is crucial for a team that at times struggles to build out.
- Raul Ruidiaz (F): Ruidiaz has only been pretty good this year. In 2018 he was exceptional. They need that clinical, ruthless, cold-blooded 2018 version of him back for the playoffs.
- Roman Torres (CB): The big Panamanian has had a hell of a year, complete with a 10-game PED suspension that only just ended. He celebrated his return in style with a headed goal in the season finale to give the Sounders a 1-0 win over the Loons. They'll need Torres to be a mistake-free leader now in the postseason.
PRESSURE'S ON: It's got to be on Morris and Ruidiaz, I think? They're both paid like they're among the best players in the league at their respective positions, but for the most part they really haven't been.
If not them then it's on the entire back six. If Seattle fall on their faces this postseason it'll be easy to point at that and say "See? Ozzie and Chad were propping them up all along." And I don't think that'd be wrong.
Real Salt Lake
WHY THEY'RE HERE: They took a side road. RSL started 1-4-1 in their first six, and then went 5-4-0 in their next nine and... meh. It didn't seem like they were ready to take a step forward after last year's surprise playoff appearance and even more surprising win at LAFC.
But they came out of the Gold Cup break a changed team, going 10-5-4 in the final 19 games with only 14 goals allowed. They were constantly difficult to play through, almost never let you get out on the break and scored just enough to make it all matter.
If you go through two-thirds of the season beating the teams you should beat, you'll make the playoffs. And you might even snag a high seed while you're at it.
FORMATION/TACTICS: They're another 4-2-3-1 team. They just want to make it miserable to try to play through them in central midfield, they don't take too many chances with their fullbacks and when you come too far upfield, they love to pounce on your mistakes:
They will almost always have numbers behind the ball and are totally content to rely upon pure speed or individual brilliance in the open field to generate their chances.
ACHILLES' HEEL: Doing the above means you don't generate a ton of chances – RSL are at or near the bottom of every attacking metric (advanced or otherwise) of all the playoff teams. And while "we're going to wait for you to make a mistake" is a good way to win regular season games against not-great teams, against playoff caliber teams RSL have fared much, much worse.
- Five wins all year against other playoff teams, worst in the postseason field
- 1-9-2 against the other Western Conference playoff teams
- 0-4-1, -6 GD in their final five games against playoff teams
They don't have match-winners. They either need to play perfect or hope they get lucky, as was the case last year at LAFC.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Jefferson Savarino (W): If anyone on this roster has the ability to just blow up and become a top-tier star over the next few weeks, it's the Venezuelan winger. But for all his talent, he delivered just 8g/5a this year.
- Everton Luiz (DM): There are a lot of reasons for this team's 17-goal improvement in terms of goals allowed over 2018. The biggest is probably the presence of the Brazilian destroyer, who has an Alonso-type effect on opposing attackers trying to play up the gut.
- Nick Rimando (GK): The best GK in MLS history will obviously want to go out with a bang, and his distribution is still tops in the league – sometimes it seems like he's as likely to ping one of the wingers into space as anyone on this team. But he's been error-prone this year, which will not fly in the playoffs.
PRESSURE'S ON: The center backs – whoever they are. Interim head coach Freddy Juarez has rotated a bit between Justen Glad and Marcelo Silva, with Nedum Onuoha as the constant. Given that the position's kind of unsettled, whoever gets the starting nod will naturally have a bit more pressure on them than otherwise.
Regardless, they have mostly been very good. But sometimes they have been very, very bad, and that's usually been against playoff-caliber opposition.
Minnesota United FC
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Let's let Adrian Heath tell it:
They did indeed get better players – at center back, goalkeeper, both fullbacks and both d-mid spots. There are as many as seven new starters on this team compared to last year, and most of them are in defense, and most of them are good-to-excellent. And so you have a veteran team that doesn't give up many goals, or even many chances.
FORMATION/TACTICS: This is another team that plays primarily out of a 4-2-3-1, though Heath has gotten funky at times with different looks – including in big games like the U.S. Open Cup final, which saw the Loons play a much more defensive 4-3-3.
Whichever look it is, Minnesota are a much deeper-sitting team this year than the last two and are much, much much much better about preventing other teams from building to and through Zone 14. Adding Alonso will do that for you; adding Alonso and Jan Gregus, one of the best newcomers in the league this year, makes it particularly hard to batter the door down against this team.
ACHILLES' HEEL: Over the final 10 games of the season they scored 10 goals, and only two in their final four. It is conceivable that both DP attackers – Darwin Quintero and Angelo Rodriguez – will start (and finish) on the bench in any given game. Mason Toye was white-hot in July and August, but justifiably played his way out of the lineup in September and October.
Who's gonna make match-winning plays? Darwin's the best bet, but Darwin's got all of 5g/2a in the past five months. He's basically a part-time starter at this point and his body language has been... not great when he's been subbed off.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Romain Metanire (RB): So much of Minnesota's forward thrust early in the season came from their new right back, who overlaps as high and as often as almost anyone in the league. It hasn't happened as much in the second half of the season, but it might need to for the Loons to get any real push upfield.
- Ike Opara (CB): Know why Metanire can push so high? Because Opara's an eraser behind him, covering ground both vertically and horizontally better than any other CB in the league. He should be the Defender of the Year.
- Kevin Molino (W): Like everyone else in the Minnesota attack, Molino has been wildly inconsistent. But he's also shown flashes of true brilliance on the ball, and his ability to hit the final pass is probably the best on the team.
PRESSURE'S ON: No one. The three-year plan was to get to the playoffs, and not only did they make it, but they earned a home game against Zlatan and the Galaxy to boot.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: They got off to a hot start, had a really, really bad and extended middle, and then ripped off a three-game winning streak in mid-September.
They're also here because they have arguably the most talented front six in the league, one of the best finishers of all-time in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and another high-level match-winner in Cristian Pavon. When the Galaxy are feeling it they can out-talent almost anyone, and often in this game of ours talent is more than enough.
FORMATION/TACTICS: Stop me if you've heard this one before: It's a 4-2-3-1 that sometimes looks like a 4-3-3. They don't sit particularly low, though (more on that in a moment), and I still have a hard time explaining what their tactical approach is aside from "get it to Zlatan." To be fair, that's not a bad idea:
There's not a real way to stop stuff like that. Nor is there a great way to stop Zlatan at the back post, rising up for a cross – which the Galaxy bend in at a staggering clip.
"Just get it to Zlatan in the 18 and let him do stuff" was good enough for the Galaxy to grab 58 goals this year, tied for third in the league.
ACHILLES' HEEL: They also gave up 59 goals, worst of any playoff team, and they're one of just two playoff teams with a negative goal differential on the season, which is obviously not great.
Unlike a number of the other lower-seeded teams, the Galaxy can't just drop numbers behind the ball and wait teams out defensively. They are too error-prone and disorganized at the back, and give up shot after shot after shot. David Bingham had the most saves this year are the most any 'keeper's had to make since 2007. He's been bombarded.
The more-than-slight worry is that the Galaxy are equally vulnerable defensively when they try to come upfield and play, and have conceded some truly mind-boggling goals this year.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Giancarlo Gonzalez (CB): The Costa Rican World Cup and Serie A veteran was supposed to lock down the backline when he arrived midseason but... my word has he not done that. Is the guy who was so reliably good on some of the world's biggest stages in there somewhere? The Galaxy need him.
- Jonathan Dos Santos (DM): Replace JDS with a league-average DM and the Galaxy would've been a 40-point team at best. His field-coverage, ball-winning and passing ability are all top tier, and are essential for this team's chances of generating anything from open play.
- Romain Alessandrini (W): I mean, maybe? The Frenchman is reportedly training again and while he wouldn't fix a single one of LA's defensive issues, he gives them a more plausible path to a deep playoff run thanks to a bunch of 4-3 wins.
PRESSURE'S ON: It should be on Zlatan – this team functions almost entirely to get the ball to him and let him do work. It's the only way you can use Zlatan anymore (some would say "ever"), since he brings nothing to the table but his finishing.
That said, Guillermo Barros Schelotto has very quietly gotten a pass for not being able to instill anything particularly new or exciting or effective year-over-year. The Galaxy are better than they were in 2018 because they're a more talented team than they were last year, not because they're actually "better."
WHY THEY'RE HERE: From April 20 to September 7 they went 13-6-3, which allowed them to survive an abhorrent start to the season and a sluggish ending.
Throughout that run it was hard to pinpoint one specific thing they did extraordinarily well except get out on the counter and just eviscerate teams. And also... just having a lot of talent helps a ton. If you're a very talented team, things have to go really, really wrong for you to miss the postseason. So when other teams were grinding through the year and trying to figure things out, guys like Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Brian Fernandez were winning games for the Timbers.
FORMATION/TACTICS: Oh wow, another deep-lying 4-2-3-1 team! The West sure had a look this year.
The thing with the Timbers – the big reason for their late-season slump – was that they really didn't have a way of breaking you down when they were in possession. If you weren't letting them counterattack, they'd just cross the ball 35 times a game, which worked just often enough:
They push both fullbacks way upfield when they're forced to carry possession, and if they remember to put enough runners in the box they can be very dangerous attacking those crosses. Too often, though, there are only one or two guys in the 18, and then it's just a clearance-fest.
They're better when they try to combine through the central channel, which they've gotten better at now that Blanco has returned. But it's hard to say that's their bread & butter.
ACHILLES' HEEL: They're 6-3-2 on the road since April 20, so they are probably the one team in the league that was relieved not to have home field advantage in the playoffs. They are devastating when they can run.
But they haven't run often over the past few months, and with Fernandez sidelined it's unlikely they'll run as well as they did back in April and May, when the lion's share of those wins happened. They are, in other words, short one high-level finisher, which showed down the stretch.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Jeremy Ebobisse (W): With Fernandez out, Ebobisse's all alone as the club's leading scorer – and he's done it in some big spots, repeatedly making plays in do-or-die games. The fact that he's had to make those plays out of position on the wing has upped the degree of difficulty, but he's kept delivering.
- Cristhian Paredes (CM): It's been an open competition all year long to see who's the best fit next to Diego Chara deep in central midfield, and for my money it's the young Paraguayan who makes the most sense at that spot. He chews up ground, breaks up play and gets forward to good effect.
- Jorge Moreira (RB): Sometimes he looks like the best right back in the league. Other times he looks like a full-fledged liability who leaves his teammates stranded. So it goes, I guess, but I think everyone in Portland would be a little more comfortable with the Timbers if Moreira was a little more selective about when he pushed up.
PRESSURE'S ON: Ebobisse, Blanco and Valeri. Losing Fernandez is obviously a huge blow, but the Timbers should still be able to look in the mirror and recognize the attacking group that made it all the way to MLS Cup last season. They are still, on balance, one of the most talented attacking groups in the league – especially if Playoff Dairon Asprilla shows up to lend a hand.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Because they kept winning in Frisco. They thundered into the playoffs with a resounding 6-0 win over Sporting KC on Decision Day, capping off a 10-1-6 regular season in north Texas. Thirty-six points at home is one of the best marks in the league, and when you collect at that rate, you're probably gonna be in.
It wasn't always easy, mind you. But they mostly took the points they were supposed to and avoided any extended troughs.
FORMATION/TACTICS: It's a... 4-2-3-1. Yes, you guessed it.
The difference between Dallas and most of the rest of the Western Conference playoff teams is that FCD aren't a sit-deep-and-counter team, but are more of a sit-deep, then build methodically from the back. They were among the league leaders in possession and passes per possession, and led the entire league in passes completed in their own defensive half as per Opta. This is what they want:
Dallas love to run, so they'll counter you if they can. They'll also try to break you down if you shell up and force them to have possession in the attacking third. But they live for those moments when they can turn a four-to-six pass transition sequence – one in which they're making you run at your own goal – into a shot. That is their thing.
ACHILLES' HEEL: It's feast or famine with them, and that nice home record doesn't matter much when they'll be playing every single game from here on out – unless they meet the Revs in MLS Cup which, come on – on the road. And on the road they are every bit as bad as their 3-11-3 record indicates. They have not beaten a playoff team on the road since April 20, and have just one away win since then against anyone.
And also, their finishing's not great.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Zdenek Ondrasek (F): The big Czech center forward has had quite a few months, banging home goal after goal for Dallas and then doing the same in his international debut vs. England. I think he's got to start, even if he's often a major defensive liability when it comes to closing down the distribution of opposing CBs.
- Bryan Acosta (DM): He has the talent to be one of the best d-mids in the league but often lacks the discipline. When he goes chasing, Dallas lose their shape and it suddenly becomes very easy to run at a not-all-that-fleet-of-foot backline. Acosta has to protect Zone 14 and spray.
- Matt Hedges (CB): It's almost always an advantage having an MLS veteran CB in the playoff – guys who've been there before like Michael Parkhurst, Drew Moor, Chad Marshall and Nat Borchers. Hedges would some day like to join that group, I'm sure.
PRESSURE'S ON: Their attack. Ondrasek, Santiago Mosquera and Michael Barrios were supposed to do more – or at least do what they do more consistently, and it mostly hasn't happened. Was that explosion vs. Sporting a one-off against a team whose season was already over, or a sign of things to come?
There are going to be roster changes for Dallas after this season, mind you. It's probably at those spots where one should start looking.