Armchair Analyst: What makes a great MLS playoff team?

One of my favorite quotes from New England Revolution head coach Bruce Arena – and he has had quite a few over the years – came back when he was LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena.

"Why," the question was asked, "do your teams have so much success in the playoffs?" Arena had won two MLS Cups with D.C. United in the late '90s, and then won three more with the Galaxy. It was not a particularly good question, but it elicited a very good answer.

"Your best players have to be your best players," he said. Sounds dismissive, but it's not. Every great playoff team, whether a single-season run or a sustained period of success, has been led by their best players. The guys who are paid the most and whose names shine brightest on the marquee have to be the guys who are delivering on the biggest stage, or you're not going to win anything.

To Bruce's point: In the 1996 MLS Cup, Marco Etcheverry had two assists. In the 1997 MLS Cup, Jaime Moreno scored the opening goal. In the 1999 MLS Cup (Bruce was already gone, replaced by Thomas Rongen, but it was still largely the same group of D.C. players), Moreno again scored the opening goal.

In 1998, when they lost? It was the best player on the other team, the Chicago Fire's Peter Nowak, who ran the show.

Fast forward to the Galaxy dynasty. In 2009, when the Galaxy lost, Landon Donovan and David Beckham were meh, while Jamison Olave and Kyle Beckerman put in dominant performances for Real Salt Lake. In 2011, though, the game's only goal went Beckham-to-Robbie Keane-to-Donovan. In 2012 Omar Gonzalez, Donovan and Keane all scored. In 2014, Keane scored the game-winner.

Tony Sanneh scored twice in two MLS Cup appearances under Arena. Eddie Pope had the game-winning golden goal in 1996. Arena's coached in seven MLS Cups, and his teams scored a total of 12 goals in those. Eleven of those 12 goals were scored either by a current/former/future MLS MVP or a USMNT mainstay. The lone outlier was the second goal in 1996, scored by journeyman forward Shawn Medved (a decent, scrappy super-sub type attacker on that team).

So let's start there: Above and beyond everything else, you need really, really good players, and you need them to show up in the biggest games. It helps to have the best talent.

To put it another way: We remember David beating Goliath because Goliath usually wins that fight. David's big W was an outlier.

A few other things to consider:

Playoff Mentality

I picked my colleague Calen Carr's brain for this, since Calen's Dynamo team of a decade ago was one I think everybody considers a quintessential "playoff team." That group under Dom Kinnear were often able to sort of cruise through the first part of the regular season, kick it into 4th gear around mid-July, then find 5th gear in late September and start charging into the postseason. From 2006 through 2012 they made four MLS Cups in seven years.

"People often say 'playoff mentality' but don't often explain what it means," Calen said. "To me, it means attention to detail and winning in the smallest of margins – set pieces, duels won, transition moments – that often decide games."

In other words, you have to be geared toward those chances. Look at Donovan's match-winner against Carr's Dynamo from 2011, which came in a transition moment:

The Galaxy had been playing gorgeous, dominant soccer all night. This, however, was a semi-blind clearance that ended up leading to another trophy for LA.

In a lot of ways, this is just "good team" mentality, but those attributes become even more important in the postseason.

Flexibility

Toronto FC in 2017 were arguably the most dominant team in league history through the regular season, primarily playing out of a 3-5-2. And they kept playing that 3-5-2 right through the postseason (which was more of a struggle, but still).

And then in MLS Cup itself they... played out of a 4-4-2 diamond. It's not fair to say it came out of nowhere, as Greg Vanney had used the diamond extensively over the prior few seasons, but it was far from Plan A all year at BMO Field. It's unlikely Seattle were entirely prepared for it, and that showed.

Atlanta United, in 2017 and 2018, were primarily a wide-open, high-possession attacking team that occasionally pressed. Come the playoffs, however, they settled into a lower block and looked to hit primarily on the counter. They were able to do that at perhaps an even higher level than their pure attacking stance.

Their great foil those years, the New York Red Bulls, unleashed the highest and hardest press MLS has ever seen, and were dominant with it. But when they tried to sit in a low block vs. Atlanta in the first leg, they ended up taking a memorable and devastating 3-0 loss.

One team had the flexibility to adjust and win in the biggest games. The other did not.

The Right Mix

 Teams built primarily around young players tend not to win championships, but neither do old teams.

"The BEST teams in MLS have found ways to incorporate young talent into experienced playoff teams earlier. Think Seattle with Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris, and TFC with Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado," Carr said. "Get them that experience early in their careers. As the older players more on, those players are depended on now in big games and have learned.

"Now, doing that without many experienced playoff players can work (FC Dallas gave Seattle a hell of a fight last year), but to a limited degree. Frankly, it's the same issue we're finding with the national team. Even going back to the old days of MLS I think having a blend of age really matters."

Sanneh, Pope and Moreno were all young in 1996, but were balanced by the likes of Etcheverry, John Harkes, Jeff Agoos, Richie Williams, Raul Diaz Arce and even Medved. They hadn't done it in MLS at that point (nobody had), but they were long-established pros.

Donovan (19) and Dwayne De Rosario (23) were the goal-scorers for San Jose in their 2001, 2-1 win over the Galaxy. That Quakes team is the youngest ever to win an MLS Cup (and a stark contrast to the veteran KC team that had won in 2000), but the 33-year-old Agoos was organizing the central defense, and 29-year-old Ronnie Ekelund was bossing things in midfield.

Injuries & Luck

Did Atlanta have greater flexibility than the Red Bulls in 2018? Absolutely. Did they also get lucky that Kemar Lawrence picked up an injury while on international duty a week before the game, which probably factored into Chris Armas's decision to abandon the press? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

Neither Atlanta nor RBNY were the hottest team in the league entering the 2018 playoffs; that was actually the Seattle Sounders, who put together the best half-season of soccer, in terms of PPG, in league history. They were heavy, heavy favorites to come out of the West.

But in the first leg of the West semis at Portland, Cristian Roldan got hurt around the 25th minute, and Seattle had to play with 10 men for a few minutes. In the interim, the Timbers scored. Roldan was subbed out a minute later, and then Chad Marshall got hurt and was subbed 10 minutes after that. Neither would play in the second leg.

Portland won the first leg 2-1. They then went to Seattle for the second leg and lost 3-2 before advancing on penalties. If Marshall and Roldan are healthy, do Portland score four goals in those two games? Probably not.

Seattle were less hot and less good overall in 2019, and LAFC were the gigantic favorites in the West final. But Mark-Anthony Kaye had missed the previous three weeks with a hamstring strain and was questionable for the game. He didn't start but subbed in at the break for Latif Blessing, who himself picked up a muscle injury in the first half.

So basically, at no point was LAFC's central midfield whole or fit during the playoffs. If Kaye and Blessing are healthy, do the Sounders waltz right up the gut and score three goals in that game? Probably not.

 


Of that list, I'm going to say the very obvious thing and reiterate Bruce's point from the very beginning: Give me the best talent, or something close to it. That is the best foundation.

Once you have that, the rest of that stuff starts falling into place.

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