The Play-In matches provided plenty of drama, from a stoppage-time winner for the New England Revolution to a dominant performance by expansion side Nashville SC. Here are my three takes from Friday night’s Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs opening matches.
Bou and Gil guide Revs, but can they do it vs. the Union?
It took a very late winner and a narrow scoreline for the Revolution to advance, but the reality is this was a very comfortable and deserved victory. From start to finish they played on the front foot and looked like they were able to put Montreal away at a moments notice.
To be fair to the Impact, they were shorthanded and missing some key players like Victor Wanyama, who is indispensable to how they play, and winning without him was always going to be a tall ask. In the playoffs you need to be able to count on your very best players and Montreal unfortunately did not have that luxury.
With that said, we have to give credit to the Revolution because they played on the front foot from the first whistle and put in the kind of performance that will make them a true dark horse for MLS Cup. The big question now is whether they have enough to get past the Supporters’ Shield winning Philadelphia Union, and while my initial thought is that Jim Curtin’s men will be a bridge too far, there are some things New England can do to heighten their chances of success.
From the first time I saw Carles Gil play, I knew I was watching one of the very best players in the league and he did not disappoint in this game. He’s clearly still working his way back to optimal fitness, but all the clever touches he produces and his ability to find space where there seems to be none were on full display.
Carles Gil scores stunning opening goal vs. Montreal
Gil and Gustavo Bou, as the two best attacking players available to Bruce Arena, hold the Revolution’s hopes of advancing past the Union. While they won’t be able to play as expansively as they did against Montreal — they will need to be slightly conservative and prepared to play on the counter to give themselves the best chance of winning — they’ll need to give Gil and Bou the freedom to take risks in the final third. You have to be brave in the playoffs and you need your big players to make big plays, but they also need to be put in a position to do so.
The best way for New England to unleash both of those players will be to absorb pressure, allow the Union to commit numbers forward and then try to hit them in transition by getting the ball to Gil as quickly as possible and then having him to combine with Bou and the rest of the attacking group. This is their best chance because if they try to go toe to toe with the Union, they will lose. Philadelphia have a lot more firepower than Montreal, but the Impact, as underhanded as they were, still created enough moments to concern the Revolution and make this game closer than it should have been.
Nashville SC, the offensive juggernaut?
Heading into the game, I thought Nashville would advance against Miami and I was proven correct. However, my inkling was based on their solid defense, so I expected a 1-0 win rather than what we ended up witnessing. The solid defense did show up, but so did a vibrant, fluid and dynamic attack that wasn’t always on display this season. As soon as Nashville found their groove offensively, Miami had no chance, especially given their key absences.
In all honesty, we shouldn’t have been surprised Nashville found the goals they did because even though they struggled to generate consistent offense for large parts of the season, they have only been held scoreless once in their last eight games heading into their playoff debut. While their defensive performances have been solid all season, the attack has gotten better with each passing game and the clearest indication of how in sync they currently are offensively, could be seen in the approach play that led to the penalty from which they scored their second goal.
The intricate passing in the final third, the off the ball running and the perfect timing to connect all the pieces together was something we simply didn’t see from this team until a few weeks ago.
Watch: Inter Miami CF concede a penalty kick against Nashville SC
Still, despite their improved offensive play, I just cannot see them advancing passed Toronto. There is something to be said about playoff experience and Nashville benefited from Miami’s dire lack of it, despite being newbies themselves. They will not have such luck against a very seasoned, battle tested and historically great — at least by recent standards — Toronto team. As I always say, anything can happen, especially in the playoffs, and who’s to say Nashville don’t get another wonder strike like they did from Randall Leal and really put Greg Vanney’s team under pressure early on? It can happen, and it’s the only chance Nashville will have to advance because short of that, they will have to face questions from Toronto that Miami were simply incapable of asking.
Their impressive defense, of which I’ve waxed lyrical about, will have to contend with Alejandro Pozuelo, Ayo Akinola and Jozy Altidore. In order to contain that potent attack, they will have to curb some of their own offensive desires, which will see them play a very deep defensive line and try to deny Toronto space. This will impact the freedom Jhonder Cadiz, Alex Muyl, Hany Mukhtar and Leal got used to having against Miami as they will be required to put in a lot more defensive effort, and do a lot of tracking back, which will pull them further away from the Toronto goal.
That reality, combined with Toronto’s superior quality, especially in the attacking half, will make it very difficult for Nashville to expend enough energy on both ends of the pitch to prolong their season. I repeat, anything can happen in football, but I would be extremely surprised if Nashville were able to summon enough inspiration to knock off a club that has appeared in three of the last four finals.
Inter Miami's biggest offseason need
Ultimately Miami’s season will be viewed as a disappointment because of all the promise that has been floating around them from the moment we knew they’d be joining the league. Personally, I’m torn about how to view their season. On one hand, they made the playoffs and had to play this game without some key starters, but on the other hand, they were knocked out by a fellow expansion team and not a perennial playoff power like Seattle or Toronto. This is a game they should have felt good about winning, even without Gonzalo Higuain and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.
The reason they didn’t win was encapsulated in Nashville’s third goal, scored by Dax McCarty. Letting a player dribble 25 yards towards your goal, unopposed, before unleashing a shot into your net should never happen in preseason or training, let alone a playoff game. When you defend like that, you don’t deserve to win. Harsh but true. In the end, that’s what Miami’s undoing was — their own inability to consistently play at the level they showed glimpses of being able to reach. Too many times this season they made mental errors, basic defensive mistakes or lapses in judgment at critical moments.
Dax McCarty's marauding run and goal
If they want to avoid another disappointing season, the solution is somewhat simple — invest in a defensive leader. They’ve been linked with Sergio Ramos and while that would be hitting the jackpot, they don’t need someone of that caliber. They just need someone who can be to them what Walker Zimmerman has been to Nashville. They need someone who will never accept allowing McCarty to run with the ball at the heart of the backline without receiving so much as an attempted tackle.
Simply put, they must build from the back. Don’t get me wrong, there are issues to figure out on the offensive side as well, but Miami must address the gaping defensive holes that were exposed by their fellow expansion rivals.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.