It’s not at all great that I’m writing this at home rather than en route to watch D.C. United play a second leg at Red Bull Arena, but despite the Black-and-Red’s elimination, the 2018 MLS playoffs roll on. Today we get three separate second legs, with Sporting Kansas City hosting Real Salt Lake starting the day off. We’ll then move on to Atlanta United’s home leg against New York City FC, and finish up in the awkward position of hoping the Columbus Crew (who knocked our boys in black out of the postseason) eliminate the dastardly New York Red Bulls.
Here’s what to know about each game:
New York Red Bulls (East 1) vs. Columbus Crew (East 5)
Update 7:16pm: Here are the lineups for the final game of the night:
No surprises here. This will be a 4231 as spelled out in our projections below.
No surprises here either. There was a chance Josh Williams could start over Gaston Sauro at center back, but the Argentine can start after a full week of rest. Elsewhere, Federico Higuain comes back into the starting lineup as expected, and Pedro Santos replaces Luis Argudo on the right.
NYRB projected lineup: (4231): Luis Robles; Michael Murillo, Tim Parker, Aaron Long, Kemar Lawrence; Tyler Adams, Sean Davis; Alex Muyl, Kaku, Daniel Royer; Bradley Wright-Phillips
Crew projected lineup: (4231): Zack Steffen; Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah, Gaston Sauro, Milton Valenzuela; Wil Trapp, Artur; Pedro Santos, Federico Higuain, Justin Meram; Gyasi Zardes
Savvy tactical execution and good goalkeeping will get you far in this game, and it has Columbus in a great spot to make sure that the Red Bulls once again fail to win MLS Cup. It would be their 23rd such failure. D.C. United won one on their first try! Imagine being a team that still hasn’t won it! Even the Colorado Rapids have an MLS Cup.
Taunting aside, the Crew made a major gamble in their home leg, resting Higuain and changing formations to essentially play the game to a standstill for 45 minutes before bringing “Pipa” in to deliver the goal they had to have. 1-0 in your home leg is a very good result, particularly on short rest after going 120 minutes.
The Red Bulls are going to do what they do: they’re going to press, they’re going to try to make the game less about spells of possession and more about pinball. Chris Armas has done well since stepping in for Jesse Marsch, but he suffers from a similar weakness as Marsch did for his first couple of years: what’s Plan B when the press isn’t making it happen? Despite being the most fearsome home team in MLS, in their last seven home games the Red Bulls only managed two multi-goal wins (a spell that also includes a 3-2 loss to Columbus).
Between that and Gregg Berhalter’s ability to figure out opponents at this time of the year, it feels like NYRB might be in some trouble.
Atlanta United (East 2) vs. New York City FC (East 3)
Update: Here are the lineups:
This graphic is probably wrong. Look for Atlanta to play out of a 352, or maybe even a 3511. The absence of Jeff Larentowicz is potentially huge, but it would still be a monumental upset for NYCFC to win.
This could be 4231 or 433 depending on where Maxi Moralez lines up. We could see both Jesus Medina and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi switch flanks repeatedly here. Other than that, the only mild surprise is that Ben Sweat is going to play through a knee contusion, which means no spot in the team for Ronald Matarrita.
ATL projected lineup: (433): Brad Guzan; Franco Escobar, Michael Parkhurst, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Greg Garza; Darlington Nagbe, Jeff Larentowicz, Eric Remedi; Julian Gressel, Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron
NYC projected lineup: (433): Sean Johnson; Anton Tinnerholm, Maxime Chanot, Alexander Callens, Ronald Matarrita; Maxi Moralez, Alexander Ring, Yangel Herrera; Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, David Villa, Jo-Inge Berget
Tata Martino showed his tactical chops by having his side do something other than standard Five Stripes soccer. With Yankee Stadium’s perverse field measurements and poor surface, Atlanta dropped a third center back in to shore things up at the back first and foremost, and largely played more of an opportunistic game than their normal approach. The result? A 1-0 road win against an NYCFC team that suffered just one defeat in the Bronx all year long.
Atlanta is thus heavily favored to coast through to the Eastern Conference final, but it’s by no means a given. Jeff Larentowicz is questionable, and the MLS veteran is a major part of what Martino wants his team to do. One assumes he’d be in his normal midfield role rather than playing as part of a back five, but in either case his experience and ability to keep things simple for those around him are enormous for the Five Stripes.
On top of that, Miguel Almiron might only have an hour or so in his legs after managing just 45 minutes (and, at one point, holding his previously injured hamstring). Last week he was replaced at halftime by Hector Villalba, who was also returning from injury. The latter was then substituted after about 35 minutes of play, calling into question what he can actually contribute at the moment. That’s a lot of potential absentees for an Atlanta team whose one real flaw is a lack of quality depth.
On the other side, NYCFC at least has a straightforward way to think about this one: Win, or the season is over. That could also mean a farewell for David Villa, and might signal a sea change for the Pigeons for 2019. The good news for NYCFC is that, between Villa, Maxi Moralez, and a few other attackers, they have the firepower to put some goals on the board. They might have an issue at the back, with Ben Sweat dealing with a knee contusion, but if they can grab a lead in Georgia this game might become a classic.
Kickoff time: 5:30pm Eastern
Referee: Mark Geiger (so prepare for something bizarre)
Available TV: ESPN, ESPN Deportes
Available streaming: WatchESPN, ESPN3, ESPN Deportes+
Previews: Dirty South Soccer and Hudson River Blue
Sporting KC (West 2) vs. Real Salt Lake (West 6)
Update 5:34pm: Well that was nuts. KC went up 2-0 (3-1 on aggregate) by halftime, only to completely unravel defensively in the final 30 minutes. With just one goal separating the teams, Nick Besler had the game on his foot but opted to take one too many touches, and Daniel Salloi’s 97th minute goal made sure the Sporks would go through despite themselves.
Update 2:31pm: Here are the starting lineups:
Personally, I’m surprised to see Diego Rubio get the nod over Khiry Shelton. KC’s record when starting Shelton and using Rubio as a super-sub is really good, even though Shelton’s productivity is quite low. Other than that, no surprises here, as Sinovic comes in at left back after missing the first leg due to suspension.
RSL’s lineup is wild. With Marcelo Silva out injured, all signs pointed to Justen Glad stepping in. Instead, Nick Besler will start, reducing their size and strength but adding something on the passing side of the game. Luke Mulholland over Sunny is also a surprise, as playing at KC means getting physical (something Sunny is far more suited towards).
However, the biggest shock by far is Corey Baird being out of the 18 entirely. You have to suspect there’s an injury there, because otherwise this is inexplicable (further update: he picked up a concussion and was not cleared to play). Former United attacker Luis Silva gets the nod instead, which is fascinating. Look for him to drop off the front line frequently, while Damir Kreilach surges forward (a bit like the Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta dynamic we know and love).
SKC projected lineup: (433): Tim Melia; Graham Zusi, Ike Opara, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic; Roger Espinoza, Ilie Sanchez, Felipe Gutierrez; Johnny Russell, Khiry Shelton, Daniel Salloi
RSL projected lineup: (4231): Nick Rimando; Brooks Lennon, Justen Glad, Nedum Onuoha, Aaron Herrera; Kyle Beckerman, Sunny; Jefferson Savarino, Damir Kreilach, Joao Plata; Corey Baird
KC gets Sinovic back from suspension, which should help them out after playing back-up playmaker Yoann Croizet there in the first leg. The bigger news is that Albert Rusnak (10 goals/7 assists) is suspended due to yellow card accumulation. That’s an enormous loss for RSL, and I don’t see them being able to replace his creativity. Most likely, they’ll bring Baird in up top and drop Kreilach in as the #10, but they could also try a 433 (perhaps by starting Luke Mulholland) and keep Baird available as a pace-changing substitute for the front line.
Expect KC to control possession for long spells, with RSL playing on the counter. RSL isn’t going to set out to play out of a low block for 90 minutes, but the Sporks may end up pinning them deep regardless due to their ability to keep the ball. The odds are that KC should be able to advance somewhat comfortably against the worst road team left in the playoffs.
One final note: this post will update as the games go on, so stay tuned!