Armchair Analyst: Previewing the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Finals

Editor's Note: Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle provided a tactical preview for both Conference Finals. With the Seattle Sounders knocking off LAFC in the Western Conference Final, that leaves one more ticket to 2019 MLS Cup. Who takes it? Atlanta United or Toronto FC?


Eastern Conference Final

Atlanta United vs. Toronto FC
Wednesday, 8 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

It's wild to try to think through and pick apart all the various iterations of this season's Atlanta United team. A small sample: the turgid and slow 3-4-2-1 of the early part of the year; the unadventurous and uninspiring 4-2-3-1 of spring; free-flowing and open 3-4-2-1 of mid-summer and early autumn; the methodical and opportunistic 4-3-3 of the Conference semifinals.

Frank de Boer's first year in Georgia has been a journey. It hasn't always looked nice and it doesn't make sense that they got here looking like this, but they've already won two trophies and are 180 minutes away from a third. You can quibble with the aesthetics, but this is a results business – and the results say something's going right.

Here's what "going right" looks like:

Where's that Pity Martinez been? And Ezequiel Barco had an equally gorgeous assist in Atlanta's first game of the playoffs, a 1-0 win over New England.

This team can throw out a metric ton of attacking talent – arguably more than LAFC, depending upon how highly you rate each side's youngsters.

And even with all that, they're probably better defensively than they are going forward. Their 2-0 win over Philadelphia was their 18th shutout of the year across all competitions, and they've managed it all while juggling some pretty serious injuries and squad rotation throughout the year, especially in October. It's been a seriously impressive title defense, even while being weirdly up-and-down.

How to beat them: Back when they were playing that 3-4-2-1, I would've told you long diagonals to the flanks behind the wingback in order to disorganize the backline. In that 2-0 win over the Union, though, they almost completely took that ball away. Haris Medunjanin had maybe his worst game of the year, and I think I'm chalking a good chunk of that up to Atlanta.

But we don't know if they're going to play a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-2-1, do we? Since Miles Robinson is out and Michael Parkhurst is unlikely to feature, it's likely the former. Or maybe it's the former anyway, given how thoroughly they outplayed the Union.

I really don't know. But I will say this: Atlanta never look good if you get inside their OODA loop. If you press the hell out of them or you possess with purpose, the goal should be to make them react to you and play the game you want. When that happens, they collectively get frustrated – and it shows.

The Big Question: Will the Reds have enough firepower to make it count?

Toronto surprised almost everyone by not just beating New York City FC without Jozy Altidore, but by largely dominating them both in the first half and over the game's final 10-15 minutes. They managed it despite starting Alejandro Pozuelo as a false No. 9, which disoriented the Pigeons' entire defensive structure:

It was a really good game plan from Greg Vanney, and it produced no actual goals. What produced actual goals were catastrophic NYCFC mistakes.

Atlanta haven't made a ton of mistakes this year, and you probably can't count on an inexplicable backpass or one of the worst tackles in league history as a bailout mechanism from week to week. The Reds need to take what possession and danger they create and turn it into actual goals, and 15 minutes of madness against D.C. United aside, they haven't been particularly great at doing that lately.

They will get their chances. They have to do better with them than New England and Philly managed.

Two match-ups to watch:

1) Michael Bradley vs. Darlington Nagbe

  • Bradley has had two strong defensive performances, but it's not exactly a secret that he struggles these days against quick players who are able to progress the ball via the dribble. And nobody in the league is as quick nor as adept at advancing the ball via the dribble as Nagbe, who was poor vs. the Union but has put in some breathtaking performances these days. On the flipside, Atlanta's central midfield (Nagbe included) have to do to Bradley what they did to Medunjanin.

2) Josef Martinez vs. Chris Mavinga

  • By a few measures, I'm actually more impressed by what Josef's done this year than what he accomplished last season, when he justifiably won the 2018 Landon Donovan MLS Most Valuable Player award and then MLS Cup MVP. His goalscoring hunger and ability are unchanged, while he seems to be even more of a leader. And as he showed against Philly, he's still always looking to get out into the open field. Obviously Mavinga – who had his best game in damn near two years against NYCFC – has to make sure that doesn't happen.

X-factor: Parkhurst's health? Altidore's? Omar Gonzalez's?

Yeah, all of those. But I actually think it'll be whatever curve ball Vanney comes up with. The TFC manager conjured up a good one in Queens, and has always been willing to change it up a bit, whether it's formation, line of confrontation, where and how to press, and obviously personnel.

Vanney's been dealt a lot of weird hands as manager and has mostly played them very well. I kind of expect that to be the case again here.

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