Jordan Morris – Seattle Sounders – tight shot
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Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Semifinals preview | Doyle & Warshaw

Ahead of the Conference Semifinals later this week, Matt Doyle & Bobby Warshaw discuss each of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoff matches.

Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake

Wednesday, 10 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes in US; TSN1/4, TVAS in Canada

Matt Doyle: You were full of praise for Real Salt Lake after their win against Portland on Saturday night. What was it that you liked, exactly, and will it work on the road against Seattle?

Bobby Warshaw: RSL have become the most democratic team in the league; everyone’s equal, and nobody avoids responsibility. In previous years, Jefferson Savarino, Albert Rusnak and Joao Plata cheated defensively — it was built into the plan; give the three star attackers less responsibility so they have more freedom to attack.  

Those leniencies are gone now. Everyone carries equal weight. As a result, RSL have excellent structure, both with and without the ball. In turn, it’s actually given the attackers more room to create. Sometimes giving someone more structure can actually free the brain to get more creative. 

More specifically, the disciplined foundation helps them dominate transition moments. You’ve written about this… RSL don’t give up goals in transition. Kyle Beckerman and Everton Luiz form a no-nonsense shield in front of the back four. They make teams work for everything. If you can control the transitions against Seattle, in which the Sounders are at their dangerous going forward and most vulnerable after giveaways, you’re in a good spot. 

MD: I think I agree with most of that, but two things still stick out to me about RSL. No. 1 is that they don’t really create good chances — how many did they have against Portland, at home? And No. 2 is the talent gap.

To put it another way, I think we’d both agree that Seattle weren’t particularly good vs. Dallas on Saturday. But they scored via a nice build-up in transition, they scored by playing over the top of the press and getting out on the counter, they scored on a set piece and they scored on a scrum after breaking down a bunker. They have guys who go out there and fully believe they’re good enough to just win the damn game precisely because they’ve repeatedly gone out there and won the game in the past.

Beyond that, I just don’t think RSL are built to trouble Seattle the way Dallas did.

BW: Would RSL getting Sam Johnson on the field change that?

MD: He changed the game vs. Portland for sure. Both he and Plata were involved in the game-winning goal – tip of the cap to Freddy Juarez for those subs.

That’s why I like them both more as change-of-pace guys off the bench. And if we’re talking about RSL mimicking Dallas’s approach – controlling the game via possession – then I definitely wouldn’t expect to see Johnson in the starting XI.

I think it goes back to what you said: RSL will try to control central midfield by destroying it via Beckerman and Luiz. The Sounders can and will get frustrated and turn the ball over in bad spots. At that point, you counter through Damir Kreilach’s hold-up play, hoping that he can release Savarino and Corey Baird into space.

Then in the final 20 minutes, if you’re chasing the result, it’s kitchen sink time.

BW: I’ll take it one step further... RSL should take a page from the Union’s book and target those last 20 minutes. Create a plan that frustrates the Sounders for 70 minutes and keeps the game within reach, then bring on Plata and Johnson for the uppercut.

MD: And even with all that, it might not be enough. I’m gonna mention that talent gap again: Nico Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris and Stefan Frei. I just listed four proven playoff match-winners.

You can solve a lot of things tactically, but if one or two of those guys go into God Mode? Good luck.

Atlanta United vs. Philadelphia Union

Thursday, 8 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN4, TVAS in Canada

Bobby Warshaw: Let’s keep this one simple: Can the Union really do the thing at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, or have they hit their max and winning at Atlanta in the playoffs is still a step too far?

Matt Doyle: Let’s check in with Tom Haverford…

Possible isn’t probable, though. I know Atlanta are hurt, and I know that they have fewer weapons in attack than we thought they would, and I know they didn’t look great against the Revs. But Philly could be without their go-to striker, just spent 120 emotional minutes in a blender and did you see Andre Blake’s performance????

If you’re going to win on the road you need a lot of things to go right. If you’re going to win on the road in a one-off against the defending champs – defending champs who’ve shown that they are capable of beating anyone on the continent when they’re locked in – you need to have everything go right and have a match-winning goalkeeper on top of it.

The Union don’t have that right now. I would be *shocked* if they won.

BW: Let me ask you this: Who has been the better soccer team over the stretch of the year/over the last month/in their first playoff game?

MD: Unequivocally Philly.

BW: Agreed. Everything you said about Atlanta is true, and if they play to their best, they win this game. I can’t, however, look past the fact that Philadelphia have simply been the better team almost the entire year, including this weekend. And regarding the old “do they have it in them to win a tough game” question that’s stuck with them, there are enough data points to say yes — wins at Toronto, at D.C. United, at Minnesota, at San Jose, not to mention fighting back on Saturday against the Red Bulls on Sunday.

I feel more confident saying that Philly will control the flow of the game than I do saying Atlanta are heavy favorites.

MD: I’ll go so far as to say I expect Philly to control the flow of the game. And it’s worth remembering that Atlanta have still never beaten a team that pressed the hell out of them – RBNY for each of the past three years and the Union in both games this year. They get flattened.

But I’m picking the team with Josef.

LAFC vs. LA Galaxy

Thursday, 10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN4, TVAS in Canada

Bobby Warshaw: Can you remember a more anticipated playoff game in league history?

Matt Doyle: Wow. Didn’t expect you to lead off with a Simon Borg question. Two years here has changed you.

Anyway, I’m not sure I can. Last year’s Eastern Conference Championship, with the Red Bulls and Atlanta (who combined for 140 points) was way up there. And the 2012 Western Conference Semifinals, with San Jose’s Goonies hosting the defending champion Galaxy in David Beckham’s swan song… that one was way up there as well. Toronto FC vs. Montreal in 2016 and that 2013 Cascadia derby all deserve mentions.

But I think this is it, and it’s obvious why: pretty much everyone who’s seen them play agree that LAFC are the best team in MLS history. And the one team they haven’t been able to get past are their crosstown neighbors, who are led by arguably the biggest star in MLS history. And every single meeting has been melt-your-brain level dramatic.

I can not imagine what we’re going to see on Thursday.

BW: Honestly, I’m just asking the narrative question to avoid having to provide analysis on the Galaxy.

MD: It’s impossible to analyze the Galaxy.

BW: And that’s part of what makes this game so bonkers. The Galaxy are simultaneously simple about their approach and entirely unpredictable. We know for sure that they will:

  • Try to suffocate the midfield and make LAFC’s three center midfielders as uncomfortable as possible
  • Use Cristian Pavon and Uriel Antuna on the counter after LAFC push their outside backs forward
  • Get at least one ridiculous moment from Zlatan

Other than that, quien sabe

But we do know that their plan has worked against LAFC. So it’s not actually the Galaxy’s approach that’s left to question here… it’s Bob Bradley’s! Does Bradley need to adjust something heading into this game. Can Bradley, after using essentially the same system for 34 games, adjust something? Will he?

MD: There’s no way he changes is, and there’s no way he should. Remember that last El Trafico? LAFC battered the Galaxy for the final 70 minutes and would’ve won 6-3 if Carlos Vela hadn’t gotten hurt.

Plus look at all the space Minnesota’s wingers and overlapping fullbacks found on Sunday night! After watching that game I’m leaning toward “4-1, LAFC.”

The hosts just have to win those second balls in midfield and GO. If that happens, Zlatan will need to score five.

Zlatan was outright bad against Minnesota United, by the way. Will he be bad in this one?

BW: The man has 14 goals in his last 11 games. He has eight goals in the five games against LAFC. So...

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