Armchair Analyst: Tactical preview of the MLS is Back Round of 16 matchups

And then there were 16.

Ok, that has no ring to it, but the point stands. We're in the knockout rounds of the MLS is Back Tournament, and that means it's win-or-go-home henceforth.

The Knockout Stage is well underway and in just over two weeks one of the teams will be much richer and have a ticket to the annual Concacaf Champions League ball.


Columbus Crew vs. Minnesota United

Tuesday, July 28 (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada)

What Columbus will do: The Crew's brand of soccer thus far in 2020 is very similar to Toronto's, in that the prime goal of their possession is to suck the opponents upfield, get them compressed and committed to one particular zone, then play through them when "commitment" turns into "over-commitment." As so:

Columbus have three technical midfielders and the league's most technical pair of fullbacks. They have center backs who can pass the ball, and they have wingers who are comfortable operating inside or out wide. And they have a center forward whose link play, while far from elite, has become very underrated.

And so, of course, the foundation should be what they do with the ball. But what's set Columbus apart thus far in this tournament is how comfortable they've looked doing these relatively high-level things with the ball. The second half against Atlanta wasn't great, but the previous five halves? Best overall team in the tournament.

The Crew, playing out of their 4-2-3-1, have scored seven goals and conceded zero in three games. Yeah, they've got injuries starting to pile up a bit, but I'm not sure it's enough to derail them at this point, especially with Lucas Zelarayan playing as he has done.

What Minnesota will do: The Loons have been resolute at the back even without Ike Opara. I thought (as did most others) that missing 2019's Defender of the Year would doom them in this tournament, but that hasn't been the case. Jose Aja's done just enough, and the attack has found a way.

Kevin Molino, in particular, has been unplayable when healthy:

The problem is Molino can't stay healthy. He was subbed off at halftime in game 2 vs. RSL and then didn't play in the third game of the group stage for Minnesota. His injury's reportedly a hamstring strain, and he was reportedly a gametime decision on Wednesday, so hopefully that means he'll be good to go for the knockout round. If he's not, the Loons are an order of magnitude less dangerous.

But still very dangerous when right back Roman Metanire gets forward on the overlap, as he showed vs. Colorado! Metanire is one of the league's very best in that situation, and Finlay is excellent at finding space for one-time finishes.

The problem, though, is that without Opara Minnesota is very, very vulnerable if Metanire strays too far upfield. Jonathan Lewis terrorized the right side of the Minnesota defense on Wednesday, and I'm sure that's something Columbus noticed.

X-Factor: It might be Homegrown rookie No. 6 Seb Berhalter, who has done some Wil Trapp 2.0 stuff for Columbus throughout the group stage. I'm not sure he's going to play (my money's on Artur getting the start at CM), but when he's been on the field he's been dropping deep to split the center backs, then pushing the fullbacks forward to act as wingbacks with their starting points and hitting long diagonals.

This is a 2016-ish look that kind of disappeared over the past couple of years, but I welcome its return. Functionally it puts the opposing wingers in a bind: Do they stay with the fullbacks or press up against the Crew CBs? And if they pass off the Crew fullbacks to their own fullbacks, what happens when, say, Zelarayan makes a bursting, diagonal run out of midfield?

I love watching these sorts of tactical problems unfold.

The good news for Minnesota is that in Adrian Heath they have a gaffer who's able to find fuel to motivate the troops in unexpected places:

For what it's worth, I do expect Minnesota to show up and I'm not crowning Columbus champions just yet. But yeah, they're the favorites in this game. It'll be up to the Loons to prove that assessment was mistaken.


Portland Timbers vs. FC Cincinnati

Tuesday, July 28 (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada)

What Portland will do: The Timbers have changed their ways! Last season they were too in love with hopeless crosses from the touchlines and too prone to playing guys out of position. It made for a pretty stale mix.

In 2020 it's been a different look, one with the fullbacks being less involved and more flowing from central midfield:

It hasn't all been perfect and smooth, and there were times — especially in the third group game against LAFC — where the Timbers were on the back foot for a while. That game was on the verge of getting ugly pretty much from minutes 40 through 75.

But ... it didn't. And then Gio Savarese made some changes and Portland basically played the final 15 minutes on even footing, finding the equalizer and damn near snagging a winner. They're still dangerous when crossing the ball, but the attack has become more varied and the defense, playing out of the 4-2-3-1, less exposed.

They no longer really run out of ideas when they're in control of a game. And given the opponents in this one, the smart money is on Portland controlling the game via Eryk Williamson, Diegos Chara y Valeri and Sebastian Blanco.

What FC Cincinnati will do: I ... don't know? They've played a 5-3-2 for the past couple of games and won them both, so I suspect that's a good place to start. They don't mind defending deeper — to be clear, they're much, much better when defending deep — and Jaap Stam has been happy to toss out a pair of attack-minded wingbacks who can, in theory, get upfield and set up chances on the break.

In practice it hasn't really worked like that. Even against bottom-dwellers like Atlanta and RBNY, Cincinnati had to do a ton of defending. Their goals came off of a golazo, a massive blunder and a set-piece own goal. It's been opportunistic, and I'm not sure there's a way to color it beyond that.

Of course, being opportunistic in attack isn't enough to get you points, much less wins, unless you're doing things at least a little bit right in defense. They had to ride their luck pretty hard against the Red Bulls (there's a couple of chances Omir Fernandez wants back) but they're not the first team to ride their luck in a tournament setting, and they won't be the last.

Anyway, if they avoid sloppy turnovers and win their 50/50s, they've got a puncher's chance.

X-Factor: I had my doubts about how Siem De Jong would fit into the same midfield as Haris Medunjanin entering the season, and those doubts were born out in Cincy's opener against the Crew.

But with Stam moving away from the 4-3-3 and toward a 5-3-2 with Medunjanin at the back point and two energetic shuttlers in front of him, De Jong could maybe be a more natural fit as a second forward. He is not a speedster by any stretch, but you don't have to be the fastest player in the world to be great on the break (you've all seen Diego Valeri play soccer, right?).

It's entirely possible that those wingbacks could become much more dangerous if De Jong's getting on the ball in transition moments.

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