The MLS Cup Playoffs have reached the Conference semi-finals stage after some entertaining Round One matches.
There was one big shock in the West with Real Salt Lake knocking out the Seattle Sounders on penalties having failed to attempt a single shot through 90 minutes and extra-time. But in the East, it’s been plain sailing for the home teams, with NYCFC, Nashville SC, and the Philadelphia Union all making it through to join the New England Revolution.
Those Round One matches gave us another look at the strengths and weaknesses of the remaining teams under the microscope of a knockout situation. So, before the Eastern Conference semi-finals begin, let’s get into the good, the bad, and the ugly of each team.
If there’s one thing the Union do really, really well, it’s defend. Only Nashville (33) allowed fewer than their 35 goals conceded in the East during the regular season and they scored with an xGA, too, with 40.89. The five-goal disparity is obviously due to the goalkeeping brilliance of Andre Blake.
They’re not the all-out pressing monster they were 12 months ago, but Philadelphia are solid as a rock and definitely have the defensive strength to force the very best out of Hany Mukhtar and co.
Kacper Przybyłko and Sergio Santos missed a couple of huge opportunities against the Red Bulls in Round One, making things far more uncomfortable than they should have been. Whether or not either of them are the best No.9s for the job is still up for debate.
But it’s not all their fault. Through the regular season, only Orlando City (43.55) generated lower xG than the Union (44.71) among Eastern Conference teams to make the Playoffs, and they were third bottom among the entire 14-team field.
That’s not exactly ideal when you’re facing Nashville, the ultimate defensive juggernaut in MLS right now.
When you put the two teams’ difference-makers together, Nashville just stack up better. You’d trust Mukhtar, Randall Leal, and CJ Sapong over the likes of Przybyłko and Santos any day, and Paxten Aaronson is just too young to be consistently relied upon.
Of course, Jakob Glesnes could pull out another of those trademark screamers. But if that’s your plan to win a game, you’re in trouble, especially against Nashville.
What exactly are Nashville bad at? Third-highest scorers in the East, the best defense in the whole of MLS. And in Hany Mukhtar, they have who many believe is the real MVP this season above Carles Gil.
Mukhtar brought his best to make an initially tough tie against Orlando much more comfortable in Round One, scoring twice as Gary Smith’s side ran out 3-1 winners at Nissan Stadium.
Especially away from home, Nashville will be narrow and incredibly disciplined. No team in MLS – not even the all-conquering Revs – will relish trying to break them down.
The only real problem with Nashville at this point is that they must travel to Philadelphia thanks to having fewer wins during the regular season – MLS’ primary tie-breaker ahead of goal difference.
Will they be brave enough to take the game to an equally stubborn Union team? Can they do enough with their possession to create gaps for the likes of Mukhtar and Leal? This is perhaps one area where they do struggle in attack, moving teams around and creating when they’re given the responsibility of dictating.
This match-up at Subaru Park really could be a fascinating game of cat and mouse.
Ugly for Nashville is being unable to break the Union’s bunker, then being sucker-punched on the break by Santos, Przybyłko, or Aaronson. Or falling prey to a wondergoal from one of Philly’s center-backs (Jack Elliott has it in his locker, too).
It sounds cliche, but so much really does rest on Mukhtar here.
Attack, attack, attack.
Yes, the Revs leave gaps, but who the hell cares? They’re phenomenal in attack. Nobody even came close to matching their 65 regular season goals. In Adam Buksa (16g, 3a), Gustavo Bou (15g, 8a), Tajon Buchanan (8g, 5a), and Carles Gil (4g, 13a), they have the best front four in the league, with a mouth-watering mix of creativity, pace, movement, and ruthlessness in the final third. For the record, that attacking quartet posted 43 goals and 29 assists combined in 2021.
And as long as they keep winning, New England keep hosting. They took more points at home (39) than any other side in MLS during the regular season.
Remember when we asked who cares about leaving gaps? Well, Bruce Arena and his defense probably care.
“In certain games this season, we’ve gotten away with things that we won’t be able to in the playoffs,” center-back Henry Kessler told 90min in an exclusive interview in October. “The playoffs is a one-off game so anything can happen. It’s not even two legs anymore, it’s unpredictable.”
The Revs conceded 41 goals in the regular season, which isn’t awful but it’s not what you’d expect from such a dominant team. When they lose the ball, New England leave too much space in behind, while their press can often become disjointed, making it a little too easy for the opposition to break lines and work the ball from front to back.
If they get into a punch-up with NYCFC, the Revs are just going to have to punch a little harder.
By the time they kick-off against NYCFC, the Revs will be coming off a 24-day break in play thanks to their bye into the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Being able to rest your legs like that sounds great, but good teams just want to keep going.
How much rust will they come back with? Will that front four click after so much time away from competitive action? The Playoffs haven’t been too kind to the Supporters’ Shield winners in the past.
NYCFC were second only to the Revs in the Eastern Conference goalscoring charts in the regular season. Taty Castellanos led the charge with a Golden Boot-winning 19-goal return, backed up by Jesus Medina (9), and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi (7). And then, of course, Maxi Moralez enjoyed a late-career resurgence with 12 primary assists, seven of which were for Castellanos, making them the most productive partnership in MLS.
There are so many different ways this NYCFC team can hurt you. They’re measured and confident in possession, regularly breaking lines and progressing the ball into dangerous areas. But they have some huge set-piece threats, too, in Castellanos and Alexander Callens – just ask Round One victims Atlanta United.
Given the Revs’ attacking output, this could be seriously fun.
The stupidly narrow pitch at Yankee Stadium made it really easy for NYCFC to stop Atlanta United moving through the gears and playing up the pitch. The Five Stripes only really managed it once and even then, Ronny Deila’s backline recovered quick enough to force Josef Martinez into a long-range shot on his weaker foot.
The only real worry is the pitch at Gillette Stadium is much bigger, meaning it’ll take more effort and discipline to block passing lanes – it’ll just be far harder overall. Once that first line of pressure is broken, NYCFC are one of the weaker teams in MLS. That leaves them ripe for the picking given all the Revs’ main talent is right at the top of the pitch.
If NYCFC go out, you’d wager it’s because they simply cannot cut off the supply to New England’s attacking quartet and Castellanos has one of those surprisingly frequent off nights where he just cannot finish his chances – it took him a long time to catch up with his xG this season and he only did so thanks to a couple of spectacular strikes.
Oh, and we should mention NYCFC will have to beat Goalkeeper of the Year, Matt Turner.
Once a team crosses the white line, it’s normally all on the players. But Deila has so much work to do here to keep his side disciplined positionally.