It straight up sucks that D.C. United is not hours (or days, in the case of the league’s best sides) away from an MLS playoff game, but here we are. The knockout round gets underway tonight, with the Chicago Fire hosting the New York Red Bulls in the East and the Vancouver Whitecaps taking on the San Jose Earthquakes, who took the final spot in the West via a stoppage time goal on Sunday.
Chicago Fire (East 3) vs. New York Red Bulls (East 6)
Location: Toyota Park (Bridgeview, IL)
Kickoff time: 8:30pm Eastern
Referee: Ismail Elfath
Projected Chicago starting 11:
The big story here is Bastian Schweinsteiger’s health. If the calf injury that has restricted him to one 19-minute appearance in the last seven games keeps him off the field once again, Chicago will start their first playoff game in five years missing their most experienced, smartest player. Schweinsteiger’s replacement as Chicago’s regista would be Dax McCarty, with 18 year old homegrown midfielder Djordje Mihailovic appearing to have the edge over Juninho and Drew Conner (another homegrown player) to start in the #8 role.
Michael de Leeuw’s torn ACL less than two weeks ago is a sneaky big problem for Chicago. The Dutchman’s movement off the ball may not always end in big scoring chances for him, but it usually opens up space for others. On top of that, his embrace of physical play is a big factor for the Fire in their transition game as well as their counter-press after turnovers. Arturo Alvarez is a good player, but that’s not really his game.
How they’ll play: Veljko Paunovic wants his team to play up-tempo, high-pressure soccer. The fullbacks will push up very high on a regular basis, and in general there will be some pronounced fluidity in the midfield. Don’t be surprised to see Alvarez and David Accam push up closer to Nemanja Nikolic, with Luis Solignac dropping in alongside McCarty or Mihailovic at times. The Fire love to throw numbers forward and eventually overwhelm defenses.
If the game is going well and there’s a lead to protect, Paunovic could bring in Juninho or Conner for Alvarez or Accam, with Mihailovic playing higher up and Solignac moving out wide. Paunovic has also replaced a midfielder with center back Jonathan Campbell, moving to a 541, numerous times this season.
Projected NYRB starting 11:
I’ve been hesitant to give Jesse Marsch the kind of credit other folks do, as the Red Bulls success and playing style in 2015 and 2016 had more to do with Ralf Rangnick’s top-down philosophy for Red Bull teams than anything else. However, this year, confronted with the McCarty trade he engineered, a 4222 that faltered for the second straight year, and injuries hurting his team’s ability to play 4231, Marsch came up with this unorthodox 3331 that has largely worked.
Injury-wise, the Red Bulls have been without Aurelien Collin for a while, and they have two recent additions to their list. Sal Zizzo was subbed off early at RFK Sunday, and his replacement Connor Lade is listed as out for this game. They might be able to gut this game out, but eventually being short of fresh potential wingbacks is going to haunt this group.
How they’ll play: Marsch still wants his team to press the ball relentlessly and spark transition attacks as often as possible. That means the wingbacks push high, and the right-center and left-center backs both have to get out to the touchline in possession. If NYRB is trailing, we could see Alex Muyl come in on the left, with Kemar Lawrence replacing Damien Perrinelle or Fidel Escobar to add speed and the ability to add to the attack. Another potential move? Gonzalo Veron coming in up front, with Bradley Wright-Phillips replacing Sean Davis or Daniel Royer in the attacking midfield trio. It’s odd, to say the least, but Veron has been a good impact sub for a few months now and BWP seems to do just well enough as a midfield grunt to make it work.
Reading material: Check out the previews from Hot Time In Old Town and Once A Metro. I’d also be remiss to leave out this great breakdown of the much-hyped Dax McCarty/Jesse Marsch storyline from Kevin McCauley
Available TV: Fox Sports 1, UniMas
Available streaming: Fox Sports Go, Univision Now
Vancouver Whitecaps (West 3) vs. San Jose Earthquakes (West 6)
Location: BC Place (Vancouver, BC)
Kickoff time: 10:30pm Eastern
Referee: Jose Carlos Rivero
Projected Vancouver starting 11:
Carl Robinson is probably going to use a 4231, though he’s tried a 532 and a 4411 over the last month. The real issue is who ends up on the flanks. Christian Bolaños is probably the best player of the bunch, but at 33 and having started on Sunday, he probably has to be rotated into a sub’s role tonight. That leaves Australian attacker Bernie Ibini-Isea and Brek Shea as my projected starters, though Alphonso Davies and Cristian Techera are both very much in contention.
How they’ll play: Carl Robinson used to play a more vertical, high-tempo style, but VWFC was struggling no matter how many buttons he pushed. Nowadays, they sit deep and play a lot of long balls, even though it doesn’t really compliment Fredy Montero or attacking midfielder Yordy Reyna. There’s a lot of 2014 D.C. United about this approach, with physical play in central midfield and a reliance on set piece prowess a big factor. What will be interesting here is whether this is enough to get the job done at home, given that the Quakes are not likely to show up and play a wide open game on the road and on short rest.
Projected San Jose starting 11:
After surprising observers and entertaining neutrals with a 352, Chris Leitch has seen what happens when your team isn’t that great and you lose the element of surprise. The Quakes went on an absolutely horrific run of road games from July 4th until a 1-1 draw ten days ago against, you guessed it, these Whitecaps. How bad are we talking? San Jose’s goal difference across their previous 8 road games was -21, and that included a 3-0 win in LA. A 4-2 loss at Atlanta was by far the best result they got.
As such, they’ve moved towards a 4231 that doesn’t really have a traditional #10. Chris Wondolowski defends in the spots an attacking midfielder would cover, and then just has 10-15 yards of extra distance to make up to get into the box. Those late runs are demanding on the veteran, but they also tend to let him lose defenders and pop up to score goals.
A big issue for Leitch right now is that Sunday was particularly draining for his side, and his recent lineups point towards settling on a best eleven. There’s not much room for rotation, and the Quakes have hinted that Marco Ureña (whose goal got them to this point) will start on the bench. If there’s any fresh blood coming in, it might be rookies Jackson Yueill and Nick Lima, but most likely it’ll be the same group that started on the weekend.
How they’ll play: My guess, after needing to put absolutely everything into Sunday’s 3-2 last-gasp win over Minnesota, is that San Jose will want to slow this game down and look for the odd counter. Given that the Whitecaps already play that way, we’re not looking at a particularly appealing match-up in terms of style. This game may in fact hinge on things like set piece defense and which team can avoid a red card (since both clubs have some combustible players).
Available TV: UniMas, NBC Sports California (regional only)
Available streaming: Univision Now, MLS Live (for this game, no subscription required)