Jose Martinez - Philadelphia Union - celebrates after win

Nani's feeling it, Carles Gil's absence felt & more things we learned from Saturday's action | Charles Boehm

The first two matches of the MLS is Back Tournament’s Round of 16 are in the books, and Orlando City and the Philadelphia Union are moving on. Here’s a few observations from Saturday night's action:

Where talent and management meet

The opener pitted two coaches in the first year of their respective processes against one another in Orlando’s Oscar Pareja and Montreal’s Thierry Henry. As fluky as the game’s only goal was, it justly reflected the Floridians’ overall superiority, and underlined the work ahead for the Impact.

We’ve discussed at length on this site how different the Lions look under Pareja, as the Colombian has engineered a dramatic turnabout in both results and culture at a club wallowing in the mire for years. Even taking into account the “tournament effect,” where an event like this compresses the meaning and weight of almost everything, they’ve gone from punchline to contender with stunning speed.

The situation is different in Montreal, yet facing off against Pareja reminded us how IMFC took a risk in hiring Henry, one that will take time to pay off. It’s easy to conclude — as the French legend himself appears to have, based on his myriad tactical tweaks thus far — that there’s just not enough talent on his current roster. The complicating factor here is that Titi is still learning on the job himself, and Montreal have signed on for the ups and downs that this entails.

The Impact could certainly use some high-end reinforcements. But Pareja’s purposeful work this year may have GMs and technical directors around the league wondering what a veteran pair of hands can do with their existing assets. Sometimes experience matters a lot.

Nani is feeling it

The sea change at OCSC has been greatly aided by the prominent presence of their elite Designated Player playing — and leading — like an elite Designated Player is supposed to. It turns out that his pre-tournament Instagram thirst traps were indeed a preview of the Portuguese star’s mental and physical preparedness for this event: He’s playing like he’s got a point to prove and that lifts the levels of everyone around him as well.

Pareja has repeatedly used the term “personality” to describe his squad and Nani is key there. He’s bagged a game-winning goal and two assists thus far at MLS is Back, and he deserved to pad his stats this weekend considering the creativity and work rate he showed in and around the Montreal penalty box. It was his flick that put the Impact defense crosswise on the winner, and this lovely little touch to serve up Mauricio Pereyra was delightful:

As Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle wrote about a few weeks back, Bruce Arena notably once said that “your best players have to be your best players” in order to have postseason success and Nani’s quality and commitment is keeping Orlando in line with that truism. Compare that to the current form of, hmmm, how about Pity Martinez, just to pick a random example, and their respective teams’ form makes more sense.

Carles Gil was missed

Speaking of what DPs bring to the table, a glimpse at the New England Revolution’s scoring difficulties reveals just how much they miss Gil, their Spanish playmaker, who was an absolute chance creation wizard in their tournament opener but has been sidelined by a foot injury lately.

In his absence, we’re getting a much clearer sense of just how much Gil’s vision and technique binds together the Revs’ attack. Against a team as hard-working and well-organized as the Philadelphia Union, the windows in which to unlock a defense close extremely quickly and no one in a blue jersey was able to solve those riddles like the silky Spaniard has in his time in New England.

Philly are damn hard to play against

The Union weren’t at their ruthless best against the Revs, but in doing enough to notch the W they reminded us of just how cohesive and well-drilled they’ve become. From the speed and bite of their pressing to the organization of their team shape, they are about as comfortable without the ball as they are with it, and that’s a trait shared by many a trophy-hoisting side.

“It’s no secret, we have an ability to wear teams down a little bit,” said head coach Jim Curtin after the win. “We have pressing cues that kind of trigger our ability to get to the ball. We're good at pressing any straight ball, that's a real cue for our guys, and we want the ball to be on certain parts of the field and our guys did a really good job of that tonight. And then it comes down, too, to just winning your 1-v-1 duels. More times than not tonight our guys came out of those duels with the ball at their feet.

“Defensively, I think our lines stayed nice and compact,” he added. “We try to keep it as close to 35 yards front to back, from Kacper, our striker, to Mark McKenzie, our center back, for the entirety of the 90 minutes. And it's proven that we're pretty tough to play through right now and obviously it helps when you have the best goalkeeper in the league to bail you out when you need him as well. So we take pride in defense first, and our good defense usually leads to our chances offensively and our counters. Tonight was no different.”

Philly’s XI consistently display a clear understanding of where they’re supposed to be and when, and what to do when they get there. They’re going to be an extremely tough out for anyone at MLS is Back.

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