And then there were eight.
Let’s dive into the Conference Semifinals of these Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs and come up with one big question – I’m going to try to make it THE big question, not just A big question – for each of the teams left standing.
Here we go, sorted by matchup pairings with the East first then the West.
Can they shake off the rust?
It’s Bruce, so there’s a tongue-in-cheek element. But also, it’s Bruce, so that’s definitely how he feels – which is not surprising given how the Revs, with 90 Play-In Round minutes under their belts last autumn, just blitzed the Supporters’ Shield-winning Union straight out of the postseason. The other Play-In Round winner, Nashville, also advanced, beating a listless Toronto FC side 1-0.
Last year was an outlier in many, many ways, but those results shouldn’t be dismissed, and there’s little to suggest that the bye is actually an advantage. Since the start of the TAM era (2015), teams that earned a bye are just 10-10 in their playoff openers. That’s not great.
“We’re going to prepare, put in a few new things to get ready for the playoff game, and hopefully have them ready,” Arena said at the start of the month. “But no one ever knows the answer to something like this because this is an unusually long layoff.”
The silver lining here: forward Adam Buksa probably needed the extra time off to nurse a foot injury and get closer to 100%.
Can they replicate last weekend’s defensive performance against a full-strength Revs side?
NYCFC were merciless against Atlanta United at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, putting up a barrier about 40 yards from goal and refusing to let the visitors cross it in any sort of good order, save for once when Brad Guzan dimed a defense-splitting outlet to spark a mini-break.
That was it, though. That was the sum total of the danger the visitors created from open(ish) play. And now I will state the obvious: It is easier to put in a performance like that in Yankee Stadium against Atlanta United than it is at Gillette Stadium against the Revs.
New England were the highest-scoring team in the league this season (65 goals). The Cityzens were one of the few teams to shut them out (they won 2-0 in late August), and generally played the Revs better/more evenly than anybody else this year.
But the one time they faced a full-strength New England side, back in mid-June, the Revs hung three on ‘em behind the play of their three DPs. The most recent time they faced New England, back in mid-September, none of the three DPs started and New England won 2-1 anyway.
NYCFC will need their best performance in playoff history here.
Can any of these guys put the ball in the back of the net?
Let’s not overcomplicate things here. We know exactly what the big question is for the Union in any big game.
Will Hany Mukhtar and CJ Sapong be enough?
Nashville’s season of attacking soccer in one clip:
...to the opposing ‘keeper picking the ball out of the back of the net is absurd.
And other than the occasional set-piece goal, that’s pretty much it from Nashville in the attack. They’ve got a lot of other good players, mind you, but none of them are really goal dangerous (Randall Leal can be, but he's scored in just one of his past 10 appearances for club and country, and that was against FC Cincinnati so it basically doesn't count). I’m sure it was nice for everyone to see DP center forward Jhonder Cadiz come off the bench for the icer against Orlando, even if it feels like fool's gold – he has five goals in two years. It’s ride or die with Mukhtar and Sapong.
Will they be enough?
Are any of the attackers able to do it in a big game?
I have made this point elsewhere but I’m gonna do it again here: Colorado’s four-headed attacking group of Michael Barrios, Jonathan Lewis, Dominique Badji and Diego Rubio have a combined 25 seasons in the league, and have combined for two playoff goals in that time. We can toss Andre Shinyashiki and young Cole Bassett in there to take us up to 32 seasons and … yeah, still just two career playoff goals among that bunch.
These guys have either never been asked to be match-winners at this time of the year before, or have been asked and have subsequently been weighed, measured and found wanting.
Of course, that’s the Rapids’ whole thing, right? I called them Distressed Assets FC a couple years back when the front office pivoted on their player acquisition model, and it’s produced a truly enjoyable rise that seems to have culminated with this year – the best in club history, and a subsequent No. 1 seed in the West.
But maybe that’s not the culmination. Maybe the culmination is what’s to come. I look forward to finding out if that’s the case on Thanksgiving Day (4:30 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes).
Two more bonus questions:
- Can they handle the bye week? (see the Revs section for more on that)
- Can their unsustainable (oh damn they’ve sustained it for three years now) regular-season set-piece dominance translate into the postseason?
Will they sit back or play on the front foot?
It really is pick your poison here for the Timbers, who did each of the above for stretches in their Round One win over Minnesota but who, in general, have struggled when playing in a set defense this season. We saw a bit of that the last time these two teams played each other, a month-and-a-day ago, when Colorado just undressed a static Timbers backline with a long diagonal and a simple pullback for Diego Rubio’s goal.
And the Second Spectrum numbers back up the eye test here: Portland gave up more expected goals (xG) in organized defense than anyone except Cincy. They are not great when putting numbers behind the ball.
But, man, is it risky to come out and try to play the Rapids toe-to-toe in midfield at 5280. Colorado will run you into the ground if you give them the chance, and as we saw on the first goal in that Rapids win last month, any sort of gap or slow transition from attack-to-defense means runners coming at you from four different angles and one of Badji, Lewis, Rubio, Barrios etc. getting a chance.
I still think Portland have a very good chance here because, in Sebastian Blanco and Diego Chara, they’ll have the two best players on the field. But the first toss of the dice from Gio Savarese is “where will we draw our line of confrontation?” I honestly don’t know what the right answer is, but I do know that if Gio doesn’t get that one right from the jump, this one could be over quick.
A bonus question for the Timbers is about their Jekyll/Hyde thing with set pieces. Sometimes they are utterly dominant, as was the case this weekend vs. Minnesota. Other times they are borderline hapless, as was the case last month when these teams met and Colorado repeatedly got great looks off of Jack Price’s always pristine corner-kick service.
Can they break down RSL’s bunker without exposing themselves in transition?
Sporting KC were once again one of the very best attacking teams in MLS this year. Once again, though, it came at a cost, as for the third straight year Sporting were one of the worst teams in the league defending in transition, as per Second Spectrum.
This is no longer a secret. The blueprint on how to attack Sporting – play direct balls into the channels for your winger to run in behind the KC fullbacks – is very much out, and it was costing them games down the stretch.
Peter Vermes adjusted for the playoffs by no longer pressing, ceding 60% possession and only rarely pushing his fullbacks high. The Whitecaps were unprepared for this tactical gambit, and as a result, they got cooked.
RSL will 1) be prepared for this tactical gambit, and 2) won’t care, because based upon their recent play, they will only cross the midfield stripe if handed a gold-plated invitation. They are not going to push numbers forward and risk getting gashed over the top or via those big Zusi-to-Salloi switches like Vancouver did.
So Sporting’s going to have to get on the ball, and are going to have to use it to break RSL down and win this game. They just have to figure out how to do that without getting counterattacked to death.
Can the bunker continue to hold?
Yeah there’s no mystery about how RSL’s going to come out anymore, is there? Those fun and fancy free days of late summer and early autumn, when Pablo Mastroeni had them trotting out in a 3-5-2 playing open, expansive soccer, were interesting and entertaining, but end up on the wrong side of too many 3-1 and 4-3 and 6-1 scorelines, and that goes by the wayside.
So it’s been a 4-4-2 mid-block that drops into a 4-5-1 bunker for the past 210 minutes, with only occasional forays forward. That was good enough to get them a 1-0 win on Decision Day against this very same Sporting KC side, on this very same field, and that was good enough to take Seattle all the way to penalties on Tuesday night despite not logging a single shot at goal.
It’s not going to win any beauty contests, but RSL are still standing.
One note: You can’t play for penalties against Sporting. Tim Melia has the best career save percentage on penalties in MLS history, is unbeaten all-time in penalty shootouts, and he literally shut the Quakes out in a PK shootout in last year’s playoffs. That is one of only two times an MLS team has been completely shut out in a PK shootout.
The other? The 2010 US Open Cup Round of 16, when Charleston Battery beat the Chicago Fire 3-0 in the shootout after a scoreless draw. Charleston’s goalkeeper that day? Tim Melia.