Armchair Analyst: Tactical preview of the MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Finals

One place in MLS Cup has been secured. The Columbus Crew will host the MLS Cup final at MAPFRE Stadium next Saturday (8 pm ET on FOX). But will the Seattle Sounders or Minnesota United join them? Let's break it down:


Columbus Crew vs. New England Revolution

Sunday, Dec. 6 (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada)

What Columbus will do: They will try to possess. They will likely be good at it. Columbus average 4.78 passes per possession (8th in the league) and have an average possession duration of 29.88 seconds (3rd in the league), per Second Spectrum tracking data. They are a top-tier "use the ball to disrupt the defense" type of team ... when they are on.

When they are not on, they can be stagnant and a little bit predictable. Darlington Nagbe falls in love with square passes and maybe the fullbacks don't push up high enough. If that disconnect happens they won't turn the ball over in bad spots a ton, but they can fail to create penetration and danger, and suddenly they get turned backwards.

But if they settle into that rhythm they will bring about seven players into the final third, each of whom can make a play. Both Milton Valenzuela at LB and Harrison Afful at RB have the ability to unlock a defense, while Lucas Zelarayan and Pedro Santos have both had superb playmaking seasons.

None of it works without a center forward as clever and precise in both the timing of his runs and how he sets up defenders as Gyasi Zardes. He had a goal and an assist in the Conference Semifinal win over Nashville, but this flashing run between the center backs and across the face of goal was actually my favorite moment of the game:

He absolutely pantsed Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman there. Here he is doing the same to the Union. Here he is, last year, just ruining Bastian Schweinsteiger. Maikel van der Werff is still trying to find him after this run.

What Zardes does off the ball both sets up and occupies both center backs, which forces them to stay tighter to the central channel. That means the fullbacks often have to rush out to meet Columbus's wingers — likely Santos and Luis Diaz in this one — with the knowledge that help might come later or not at all. Throw in an overlapping fullback, and now you've got to choose whether to bring your own wingers back and get shelled up, or bring a central midfielder out wide in support and risk letting Zelarayan get some space in Zone 14.

What New England will do: Here's what I wrote ahead of the Play-In round:

The problem, though, is all that useful possession has too infrequently turned into high-quality chances, and it's because they have not gotten the sort of elite play from their DPs that Arena's Galaxy teams could always count on:

Gustavo Bou, who was on a heater when he arrived in MLS last year, regressed in the exact manner his xG totals suggested he would. He is a conscience-less gunner who eschews the extra pass for low-percentage shots from waaaaay downtown.

Adam Buksa barely moves the needle. While his individual advanced numbers are promising, he has virtually no teamwide effect as per Second Spectrum tracking data:

  • When Buksa sits, New England overall produce 13.37 shots and 1.17xG per 90 minutes (4th and 10th in the league).
  • When Buksa plays, those numbers marginally increase to 13.78 shots and 1.25 xG per 90 (4th and 9th in the league).

Lots of shots, but a middling ROI. That's Bou's ethos seeping in teamwide.

All of this can be forgiven, to a degree, by the absence of playmaker Carles Gil, who managed to start just four games during an injury-riddled season. No. 10s by their very nature tend to create higher-quality chances, and Gil spent a lot of 2019 doing exactly that. His presence will help, even if he is likely better off picking the ball up in midfield and releasing the likes of Teal Bunbury and Tajon Buchanan into space than he is dictating from the final third.

So the only thing wrong there was "all of this can be forgiven, to a degree, by the absence of playmaker Carles Gil." If I'd just gotten rid of the prepositional phrase "to a degree" it would've been a perfect blurb.

Which is to say that Gil, playing as an inverted right winger in build-up who comes inside as a No. 10 as Bou becomes a second forward in attack, has been spectacular in the playoffs thus far. Buchanan, meanwhile, has been unleashed as an S-Tier overlapping threat since being deputized as a right back. This is just devastating soccer:

The Revs can also press a bit, and because they're so good defensively from open play, they're also able to just sit and counter when they need to. I think they'd rather get on the ball and control the game as they did against all three of their playoff opponents thus far, but they don't absolutely need to.

What they need to do is not give up a ton of set pieces — especially corners. They were among the worst teams in the league defending on restarts this year, and are easily the worst of the four remaining teams. If Columbus get on the ball, pin the Revs back and generate a bunch of corner kicks, they will get at least one goal out of it.

X-Factor No. 1: Which Nagbe will show up? He is the most press-resistant midfielder in MLS history, but sometimes that's all he does. There have to be moments when he evades whatever possession he's getting and immediately turns play upfield. In his best games — I'm thinking particularly about last year's Campeones Cup, when he looked like a $30 million CM — he can do that against anyone.

Getting caught ball-watching on the first goal by the Red Bulls seemed to wake him up and he was more aggressive for the last 70 minutes of that game. Crew fans will hope that's the version of Nagbe they get from the kick.

Revs fans will hope that Bou, who is not known for his defensive work, will be diligent in dropping back and trying to turn him square. 

X-Factor No. 2: How good will Matt Polster be? At his best, he looks like a guy who should be in national team contention. At his worst, he basically does the opposite of Nagbe — trying to turn everything upfield, pressing too hard to hit a home run with every touch, while at the same time taking defensive risks.

There's been none of that thus far in the playoffs — Polster's been great. But there's always been a YOLO moment just below the surface.


Seattle Sounders vs. Minnesota United

Monday, Dec. 7 (9:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada)

What Seattle will do: Get the ball on Nico Lodeiro's foot and let him run the show in whatever fashion he desires. The Uruguayan maestro is the league leader in basically everything that screams "work rate" — touches, touches per 90, usage rate, centrality and just simple distance covered. Lodeiro runs a lot, and running a lot if you're the No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 that's designed to just be the structure built for you is an unambiguously good thing.

Because of Lodeiro's work rate and smarts, and because Seattle play two ball-playing CMs behind him (likely to be Joao Paulo and Cristian Roldan in this one), it's almost impossible to bottle this team up. They will get on the ball and use it through midfield, and because they're so good at that, they will also be able to bring both fullbacks up. And suddenly you have five or six guys capable of providing service to Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz, and nobody's really been able to slow that down (let alone stop it) in the playoffs for three years. 

Dallas decided to just drop everyone behind the ball and bunker in. Here's 80 seconds of Seattle being patient and precise with their movement on and off the ball as everyone but the center backs push up and buzz around in attack, working for very good looks against one of the best defenses in the league:

There was not a moment of relaxation from Dallas, or a single moment when anyone switched off. That's the type of pressure Seattle put you under in the playoffs — something they don't always do in the regular season. In the regular season they probably would've settled for a mostly hopeless cross or 30 against that bunker, which are the types of things that can turn into dangerous counterattacking chances.

You generally don't get those looks against them in the postseason. 

Seattle weren't sharp against Dallas, but were nonetheless in control almost the entire time, save for one brief flurry in the middle of the second half. Do we think this team will come out and be not sharp twice in a row at this time of year?

I strongly doubt it.

What Minnesota will do: The Loons' gameplan in Thursday's huge win was as obvious as it was ruthless: drag Ilie Sanchez, Sporting's lone d-mid, out of the middle and force one of the center backs to step off the backline and into the soft spot between the defense and midfield in order to prevent Bebelo Reynoso from running the show.

Sporting's CBs chose ... neither:

That's a lot of time to give to a guy who has quickly become one of the league's best No. 10s. Kevin Molino deserves a ton of credit as well, obviously — it's his brilliant dummy that sets up the whole sequence, and then he times his run perfectly to burst into space beyond the frozen KC backline before finishing coolly past Tim Melia.

This is exactly how Minnesota want to play. With Molino, Robin Lod and Ethan Finlay as a hyper-mobile front three — none of them is a true center forward, and Lod has been lining up as a false 9 — they've regularly been able to attack teams from different angles and force incredibly tough, on-the-fly decisions from opposing backlines in terms of who to track where, and where to step when. Freeze as Sporting did on the first goal, or step too late as they did on the second, and the lights go out real quick.

It's a vastly different approach from what worked for the Loons last year, when they basically had to get their fullbacks up into the final third in order to create any sort of danger. They actually don't take many chances with that now, and instead just sit in a pretty comfortable mid- or low-block, allow Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus to run the show, and let Reynoso pick his spots.

Defensively they risk little since they almost always have six back in a solid shape, and because the front three work so hard (Reynoso's not a negative defensive presence as a No. 10, though he's no Lodeiro). And they are damn near invulnerable to crosses.

X-Factor No. 1: How will Reynoso find that space against Seattle's 4-2-3-1? The Sounders are as good as anyone in the league at closing down the types of spaces that Reynoso worked from on Thursday night. Partially that's talent, but partially that's the baked-in advantage of the 4-2-3-1. It is the best formation for just destroying central midfield and forcing teams to find alternative avenues.

For the Loons the most likely alternative avenue would be Molino somehow getting loose and catching whoever's playing RB for the Sounders — either Alex Roldan or Kelvin Leerdam — upfield. Both Gregus and Alonso (Seattle fans know this well) have the ability to dime a diagonal to a winger in space.

X-Factor No. 2: Tracking Cristian Roldan. Go back and watch those Sounders clips again, and you'll see that they both end with Roldan making bursting runs out of deep midfield.

He's essentially playing as a No. 6 or a No. 8 in this game, but there he is against one of the best defenses in the league, repeatedly finding a ton of space along the side of the box for pull-backs to the spot, which is the money-maker in modern soccer.

And he doesn't just make those types of runs. Watch how after winning the midfield header here he makes a hard, direct run into the box that basically collects three LAFC defenders and opens the top of the 18 for Lodeiro:

Roldan's been brilliant these playoffs. Minnesota need to have a plan for dealing with him, or that back six will get unbalanced. And when the Sounders face an unbalanced defense this time of year, we all know what happens.

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