The fact that D.C. United is not in today's MLS playoff matches is deeply unpleasant, even if their conference semifinal defeat was not exactly a shock. Putting aside personal rooting interest, though, I think it's fair to say that MLS's four best teams are the four teams playing in tonight's conference finals. In the East, the New York Red Bulls have unfortunately been by far the most consistent side, while Columbus Crew SC are probably the most enjoyable team to watch in the conference.
Out west, FC Dallas has a team largely built from youngsters that plays lightning-quick counter-attacking soccer. The Portland Timbers, meanwhile, made a late-season move away from being one of the least adventurous teams in MLS to being arguably the model for positive, aesthetically pleasing soccer in the league while maintaining their excellent defensive record.
Columbus Crew vs. New York Red Bulls
Key question: Who gets to play their game today?
NYRB wants to press, as you probably already know. What that means is that they stay compact both horizontally and vertically, because you can't press if your players are far apart. Columbus, meanwhile, wants to spread play out and horde possession. The Crew system is designed around stretching teams out - particularly from touchline to touchline - and then either firing in crosses or freeing up Federico Higuain to create danger in the middle.
That presents a very fascinating tactical battle. If NYRB can stay organized and compact, they'll be able to restrict the chances for Higuain, Ethan Finlay, and Justin Meram to tear open the defense. Furthermore, they'll give Kei Kamara less space to get open, which dulls the danger from the Crew's cross-heavy attack.
However, if the Crew can stretch NYRB out, they will rob the Red Bulls of their ability to press as quickly as they like to. It's a simple matter of space: If you have to defend all the way out to the touchline, you can't immediately hunt the ball in packs when it turns over. Jesse Marsch has likely instructed his team to try and turn the ball over along the touchline, which effectively gives the pressing team an extra man. However, if it's executed poorly Columbus will easily be able to play inside to Higuain while catching NYRB with 2-3 players totally out of the play.
Match date/time: Sunday 11/22, 5:00pm Eastern
Venue: Mapfre Stadium (Columbus, OH)
TV: ESPN (English), ESPN Deportes (Spanish)
Online: WatchESPN (English)
Portland Timbers vs. FC Dallas
Key question: Will Portland's suspensions force the Timbers to simply play for a shutout?
Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace are both suspended for the Timbers, which is huge. Valeri is as good of a #10 as you'll find in MLS, while Wallace brings some much-needed speed and enthusiasm to PTFC's left flank. Vitally, Caleb Porter has no direct replacement for either. Valeri will be replaced by Will Johnson or Jack Jewsbury, neither of whom has real playmaking qualities. Wallace's understudy will be Lucas Melano, who hasn't yet adjusted to MLS.
Here's the problem for Portland: If they adopt the possession-hungry, attacking mindset their current version of the 433 is built for, they'll be taking a huge risk. Dallas is the best counter-attacking team in MLS thanks to a midfield that includes Fabian Castillo, Mauro Diaz, and Michael Barrios. Oscar Pareja's team is very comfortable staying compact and ceding possession before flying forward at high speed. Without Valeri's scheming and Wallace's physicality, Portland is going to have an even tougher time breaking down FCD than they would under normal circumstances, and every mistake in possession carries with it the chance that it's the turnover that gives Dallas an away goal.
Porter is thought of primarily as an aesthete's kind of coach, but the 2015 Timbers have largely been more direct and focused on security than anything else. Porter's a smart guy, and he knows full well that without a true 10 - and Darlington Nagbe, for all his talents, is a facilitator rather than a 10 - his team will struggle to break FCD down. It probably behooves the Timbers to go back to the dull but safe soccer they played throughout the season to prevent giving up a road goal. They'll look for set pieces, and they do have a size advantage over Dallas in that department.
If that sounds like it won't be a fun game to watch, well...if the Timbers succeed at this hypothetical Plan A, it probably will be. However, if Dallas scores, Porter will have to open up, and we could see a thrilling conclusion.
Match date/time: Sunday 11/22, 7:30pm Eastern
Venue: Providence Park (Portland, OR)
TV: Fox Sports 1 (English), Fox Deportes (Spanish)
Online: Fox Sports Go (English), Fox Soccer 2Go (English)
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