Two matches left and four teams that are potentially just 270 minutes — and maybe a PK shootout or two — away from a major trophy (yes, I'm counting it as one), a Concacaf Champions League berth and a big old pot 'o cash. These are a few of my favorite things.
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Minnesota United
Saturday, August 1 (8 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada)
What the Quakes will do: Think back to last year's stretch run, the months of August and September during which the Quakes suffered one of the all-time great (bad great, not good great) late-season collapses. They went 2-9-1 over the final 12 games of the season, going from total control of their own playoff destiny with eyes on a home game, to completely missing out on the postseason. They took zero points from their final six games.
What is the difference between that version of the Quakes and this version? Is it a massive personnel overhaul, or a more coherent system, or an unquantifiable team-wide belief?
Nah. It's that the wingers have been putting the ball in the back of the net.
San Jose played much, much better than their record indicated down the stretch last year, but Chris Wondolowski was the only man on the roster who knew where the goal was. Their winger corps — and San Jose's attacking approach is designed to get goals for the wingers — combined for exactly one goal in those final 12 games. And man did they have plenty of looks.
So this is basically the same team with just a few minor changes in the XI, and they are playing basically the same exact soccer as last year. Except Shea Salinas scored the winner three games ago, Christian Espinoza scored the winner two games ago, and Vako scored the winner last game. When San Jose went on that great 18-game run from last April-through-July, it wasn't because Wondo got hot; it was because the wingers were finishing their chances.
Do you trust them to keep doing that?
What Minnesota United will do: Here is how you beat San Jose's man-marking:
Here is how RSL scored their second goal this past weekend, briefly giving them life before Wondo snuffed it:
Here is Michael Boxall making like Franz Beckenbauer last year:
Minnesota have just owned the Quakes over the past year-and-a-half because they're willing to let their CB be the free man and push forward until San Jose's defenders engage ... or sometimes 'til they don't.
It is an obvious "take what the defense gives you" approach.
X-Factors: There's a bunch. One is Wondo off the bench, another is Minnesota's set-piece dominance, a third could be Roman Metanire's injury (not sure on that one yet), a fourth could be Tommy Thompson's penchant for getting into the box and drawing penalties (Minnesota are well aware of that one). A fifth is maybe Guram Kashia's "Keep 'em entertained!" approach to defending.
The difference, of course, is that if you force Nagbe out of the midfield and into the backline, he becomes ineffective because he has never in his life hit a long diagonal. Do that with Yueill and you're actually playing into San Jose's hands, as Yueill's long diagonals to overloaded flanks are the Quakes' bread and butter.
This one's fascinating. I can't wait ...
NYCFC vs. Portland Timbers
Saturday, August 1 (10:30 pm ET | FS1, TUDN, Fox Deportes in US; TSN in Canada)
What NYCFC will do: Well, they'll definitely try to get up early again, because that 1-0 lead inside of five minutes courtesy of Jesus Medina is what set the terms of their dominant win over Toronto FC. The Cityzens were able to just draw a very low line of confrontation, usually defending with all 11 men inside their own half, and then play for turnovers and transition moments.
It was quite obviously the right plan:
Would they be as committed to the counter if they were in the midst of a 0-0 game, or would they try to play on the front foot? Would Portland even let them counter? For all the talk of Cincinnati's deep block on Tuesday night, folks seem to have missed the fact that the Timbers let them have the ball for the game's first 25 minutes and tried to pull them upfield. The Timbers are better in possession than they were last year, but they're still a team most comfortable on the run.
Which is to say that there's a lot of game-within-the-game variables in this one. I think the fact that James Sands now appears to be a permanent starter and Keaton Parks is on the bench — essentially bringing in a destroyer for a passer — suggests that NYCFC under Ronny Deila want the game to be less about possession and positional play than about 50/50s and transitions.
Still expect both fullbacks to get high, and still expect Maxi Moralez and Heber to be awesome if they're both fit. But I'll go ahead and admit I still don't have a great feel for what Deila wants his version of this team to be.
What Portland will do: I assume that they'll drop their line of confrontation fairly deep at the start of the game and try to pull NYCFC upfield, as they attempted against Cincinnati. In theory this gives them the chance to get out on the run in transition, where Diego Valeri has always thrived and where Jeremy Ebobisse, Sebastian Blanco and (hopefully eventually) Yimmy Chara should be able to do work.
The big year-over-year difference, though, is that Portland are much more patient in build-up and much, much much more disciplined about the type of crosses they hit. They are no longer settling for rockets from the touchline and are instead more varied and methodical about getting to the right spots before attempting the final ball:
It's been fun to watch, and the presence of Eryk Williamson in central midfield — a better and more inventive passer than most of last year's options, in addition to being a cleverer off-ball attacker — has been a revelation. He has changed the ways in which Portland can beat you.
But even when it's not Williamson in semi-transition moments, the Timbers are still working for good looks. This is fantastic:
Did the Timbers cross the ball 40 times against Cincy's bunker? Yes. Is that a lot? Yeah, arguably too much.
But were many of them well-worked crosses from combination play with multiple targets in the box?
They sure were. And honestly, getting to the endline for pullbacks — which is what Portland did a lot — is the way to beat a bunker. I was impressed with the patience they showed even when things got frustrating after an hour (though the final 20 minutes weren't great).
This is all by way of saying that if NYCFC drop into that deep block as they did against the Reds, I'm not sure Portland will panic and just start looping crosses in. I'm not going to say that that version of the Timbers is entirely dead, but so far it's not Plan A, B or C in 2020.
X-Factors: Now that we're in the expanded-budgets era we have players like Wondo and Jaroslaw Niezgoda coming off the bench and scoring match-winners (the Winged Hussars have arrived, I guess). I still don't love Ebobisse on the wing, but he scored seven of his 12 goals from that spot last season, and if Portland are pushing for a late goal I like their chances with him and Niezgoda, as well as Valeri and Williamson pushing into the box at the top. It is a very, very useful thing to have that kind of attacking depth.
NYCFC aren't quite there, especially if Ismael Tajouri-Shradi is injured for this one. I'm not sure they can change the game without controlling the game state, though perhaps dropping Sands to the backline and going to a 3-4-2-1 or a 3-4-3 is something we'll see from them even if Tajouri-Shradi is out.
There are options when Deila looks down his bench. Portland's, though, are better.