Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The MLS Conference Finals, Phase One Review



The only apt metaphor for the MLS Playoffs.
Between both Major League Soccer Conference finals, I missed at least 1/3 of the total action and exactly 3/7 of the goals. For details, see my twitter feed (@JeffBull5) where I bitched and bitched and bitched.

All the same, both final results – each of which featured away goals – set up intriguing second legs for both series. Sure, the Seattle Sounders could fuck it all up right away with an early goal, and Toronto could very well ruin every last thing by doing the same, but they might not. I won’t dwell too much on what I think will happen, not least because that’s bit me on the ass again and again throughout 2016. Think that clich├ęd saying about the weather and sticking around…

Montreal 3-2 Toronto FC
How Much I Missed: Came in around the 29th minute for this one.
The note above means that I only saw Montreal’s first two goals in replays, not real time. As such, I have no clear sense of context – and ESPN’s halftime notes didn’t give me context; they gave me detailed breakdowns of what went wrong, but not a sense of Montreal blitzing at Toronto again and again and again. Montreal did do that later, certainly during the time I watched, even that dried up eventually, if not totally. On Montreal’s first goal, I’d say nothing went wrong in any pure sense beyond Patrice Bernier making the absolute most of a split-second to pivot and provide an inch-perfect pass to Dominic Oduro (seriously, that was a helluva pass). The second goal, though, coming as it did only minutes later and featuring bad positioning from a fullback and a TFC defense that had clearly fallen asleep (otherwise, how does Matteo Mancosu beat two defenders to the ball?), put Toronto in a hole that they barely crawled out of.

Then Montreal scored a third, just a weird thing that saw Ambroise Oyongo dribble from the depths, then into scoring position, then to scoring. A big hole, in other words, and one that involved a lot of digging.

Toronto pulled two back, but only one of them didn’t rely on collective switch-off by the defense (by which I mean, Toronto created enough chaos on the first, but what the fuck happened on that second goal?). But two things stood out in this game, at least from Toronto’s perspective: 1) momentum sloshed around as it would in a pitcher of water on a listing ship, and that suggests broad variances of balance between the teams; 2) in spite of the goal he scored, Michael Bradley was fucking awful tonight, loose in possession and a liability in defense. Two things (might) follow from #2: first, an off-night for Bradley could spell a hidden upside for the second leg, e.g. when Bradley comes good again; alternatively, Montreal should look to hit the exact same spot next Wednesday, because Bradley’s either playing rattled or tired.

For what it’s worth, I think ESPN’s broadcast crew got it essentially right when they talked up Touissant Ricketts’ impact on the game; every part of Toronto’s attack looked better after he, and Will Johnson, came on. Jozy Altidore, especially, went into every tackle like he knew he had cover (or didn’t care one way or the other). I bring these points up to zero in on Bradley: as much as I think Montreal likes to counter down the outside channels – e.g. to play around where Bradley generally sets up - Toronto still needs Bradley to help provide defensive stability. Someone on the broadcast team said something about starting Ricketts, and maybe that’s not a terrible idea. Bradley hardly made good things happen tonight, so maybe having him stay deep and distribute simply is an answer.

Montreal won’t need to game-plan a whole lot differently for the second leg: they’ll stick with absorb and counter by predilection and because it makes tactical sense. Toronto’s first, maybe only, job boils down to avoiding getting victimized by one of those counters. Montreal needs just one goal to turn Toronto’s day into a nightmare. For their part, Toronto needs to push, but, so long as they can keep a clean sheet, they’re one goal away from (the first step to) glory.

Seattle Sounders 2-1 Colorado Rapids
How Much I Missed: Think it was the 38th on this one.
Nice goal, Colorado! I mean the movement. Damn shame it’s the exception. Let me explain…

To reduce the Rapids to the essence on one player, I’m going to go with a guy who didn’t even start, Michael Azira. He came on late today, both to spell a (reportedly) hobbled Shkelzen Gashi and to firm up the Rapids’ defense. While he did both well enough, Azira’s insertion into the game amplified the Rapids’ biggest weakness – i.e. making good, clean, even simple passes. I lead this section with Colorado’s goal because that’s precisely the kind of slick interplay that this team produces according to cycles of the moon. This is a team that disrupts marvelously, that can throw a dozen obstacles at the opposition per player, but one that also struggles when it comes to playing around the same opposition: in other words, they’re sort of Azira in team form. Their players who can pass – Marc Burch, Gashi, Jermaine Jones (when he doesn’t try too damn hard), Kevin Doyle, Sam Cronin (outside the times when the red mist descends) – don’t make up the bulk of the roster; they are, rather, the exceptions to Azira.

Seattle didn’t look all that much slicker, at least not in the portions of the game that I saw. They’re best shot fell to Nicolas Lodeiro (who was better than fine, as per usual), courtesy of a wretched back-pass by Axel Sjoberg; their two goals, while both legit, had a little too much Rube Goldberg in them to inspire confidence (e.g., there were too many dependent factors). No, the curious thing about Seattle’s performance came with the way they did everything the Rapids did, only a little better. And, to return to a human speaking for the team, I’d say Osvaldo Alonso played a little bit better than Cronin, while Tyrone Mears stood a little taller than Eric Miller and on down the line. (Of the latter, if I’m being honest, he’s someone I’d give a good, hard look to in the offseason.)

The way this series sets up plays to Colorado’s season-long strength – e.g. the tired old formula of a one-goal win. Seattle has the pieces to push back – whether through Lodeiro or Jordan or good crosses by Mears (and does that whole Lodeiro/Jordan axis feel a little like Diego Valeri/Fanendo Adi to any Timbers fans?) – but it’s not a simple ask. The interesting thing comes with the fact that Colorado has to chase: they need at least one goal, no matter what. The live question is when they push for it, how much they risk on the way to finding it. Seattle are no slouches when it comes to countering (again, see Lodeiro and Morris) and, based on that, I’d give a thin edge to Seattle for the second leg. If they can steal one even sorta early, Colorado will struggle. Even scoring one goal would probably yank the rug out from under Colorado’s MLS Cup dreams.

Given that, I’d expect the Rapids to come out cagey. Which means that you should expect the opposite. Seriously, what do I know? I posted something just this afternoon saying that Montreal wouldn’t be able to do to Toronto what they did to New York and Philly, but look at what they just did, yeah?

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