The playoffs of the MLS Cup 2020 are just around the corner. ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle and Austin Lindberg have broken down the biggest storylines for this postseason and analyzed each matchup as the field of 18 teams was reduced to eight ahead of the conference semifinals.
Matchup Analysis: Orlando vs. New England | Columbus versus Nashville | Seattle versus Dallas | Kansas City versus Minnesota
Everything went according to plan in the first six games of the MLS Cup playoffs. There were a few near misses, but in each case the higher seeds pulled through.
This trend has gone sideways for the past two match days. On Sunday, Dallas FC eliminated the Portland Timbers on penalties and two days later Nashville SC and the New England Revolution dispatched Toronto FC and Philadelphia Union respectively. The Eastern Conference side of the bracket is now wide open, and Columbus Crew SC (# 3) is now the tallest remaining seed.
It could have been worse. Sporting Kansas City (No. 1 in the west) drove goalkeeper Tim Melia’s shootout exploits to overcome the San Jose earthquake, and Orlando City SC escaped the clutches of New York City FC in the most bizarre penalty shoot-out imaginable .
Granted the sample size is small, but that already creates three problems in these playoffs and there are three rounds left. Last year, the first in the league to feature a straight knockout format, there were only four such games in the entire postseason.
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All of this would suggest that the home advantage in these playoffs is not as strong as it normally is due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course the atmosphere is different. While some teams have allowed fans to participate, the numbers have been reduced significantly from a normal postseason. Other venues like Toronto’s temporary home, Rentschler Field in Hartford, Connecticut, have not allowed fans at all.
“I feel that [absence of fans] Everything is a little better for players who may not have felt so comfortable in the past or were not so used to playing in a large atmosphere or in a large audience, “said TFC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg before the start of the playoffs.” For us, BMO is something special, atmosphere and everything, it kind of cripples us. “
That was evident in the second half of Tuesday’s game between the revisions and the Union. With some fans in attendance, there didn’t seem to be much atmosphere in Subaru Park, at least not the kind that would give the emotional boost required for a comeback. (It has to be said, however, that the Union didn’t give the home fans much cheer and fell 2-0 within the first 30 minutes.)
Likewise, it’s possible that a reduced capacity crowd are still doing what they can to electroplate the home team. Melia said that’s exactly what the crowd did at Children’s Mercy Park last Sunday’s game for SKC.
“There was a different energy to this game than it felt like a playoff game,” said Melia. “It felt like everyone was ready there and you could feel their energy throughout the day.”
The lack of fans, however, did not occur in a vacuum, and each matchup has its own folds. Timing can be anything. Nothing affects playoff dynamics like returning to or lacking health. The Revs spent much of the season without designated players Gustavo Bou and Carles Gil. Gil’s recovery from a left Achilles tendon injury, in particular, has given New England a huge boost. The Spaniard contributed to the play-in win against Montreal Impact and two assists against the Union.
On the other side of the ledger, LAFC was missing four players due to COVID-19, including Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi. Given the way Seattle Sounders FC played Tuesday night, it might not matter, but it’s also clear that black and gold were nowhere near their peak.
As the playoffs progress, the impact of COVID will continue to have a major impact both on the field and in the stands. – –– Jeff Carlisle
Eastern Conference Semifinals: Orlando City vs. New England Revolution | Sunday, 3 p.m. ET (stream live on ABC)
OUR PICK: Orlando 1-2 New England
Orlando can breathe a sigh of relief as it reaches the Eastern Conference semifinals and wins its first playoff game in its first postseason after a thrilling shootout against New York City FC in the first round. That feeling of satisfaction will be short-lived, however, as the Lions will have to forego Ruan and goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, who excelled in Oscar Pareja’s defense.
Kyle Smith and Brian Rowe are capable substitutes, but Orlando is hampered by the absence of all-star players in Ruan and Gallese. How Smith handles a Revs squad that can be a threat in transition, with a myriad of threats from wide areas, could be crucial in keeping the disciplined Bruce Arena team at bay.
The New England Revolution defeated the Supporters’ Shield winners Philadelphia Union to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Gil is one of the league’s elite playmakers, and his return from an Achilles injury at the MLS is Back Tournament instantly makes New England far more dangerous opponents. And since Bou is fit again, the Revs will be at full strength in the future. Tajon Buchanan was a significant threat in the first-round win in Philadelphia, but could his determination to move forward prove too adventurous to attack with Nani and Chris Mueller on the flanks?
The persistence of Brandon Bye and Alexander Buttner could help wipe out Lions in large areas, but both were absent from Philadelphia. Arena & Co. could use one or both of their first choice defenders in the starting XI for the trip to Central Florida. – Austin Lindberg
Eastern Conference Semifinals: Columbus Crew v Nashville SC | Sunday, 8 p.m. ET (live stream on ESPN)
OUR PICK: Columbus 1-1 Nashville (Columbus advances on penalties)
The sight of Pedro Santos, Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes in their 3-2 first-round win over the New York Red Bulls is a huge relief to the regular season for Columbus, who have averaged 1.4 goals in their last 10 games . The team must be in good shape to improve on an extremely organized defense in Nashville that knocked out Supporters’ Shield contender Toronto FC for 120 minutes and conceded only six times more than a single goal in the entire season.
The three scorers against the Red Bulls and 2020 newcomer Lucas Zelarayan will have to play big games to advance Columbus in an east conference that is now wide open after Philadelphia and Toronto eliminations. If four players test positive for COVID-19, as the club announced on Wednesday, it will only complicate matters.
Nashville doesn’t apologize for the way it has done this season, often with 10 men behind the ball sitting in their own third place. Gary Smith has trained his side well and knows what it takes to win the MLS Cup after doing so with the Colorado Rapids in 2010. With Walker Zimmerman as Defender of the Year 2020, that defense will be extraordinarily difficult for any opponent to break.
Should the Music City Club manage to keep the crew calm, there is every chance to follow in the footsteps of the Chicago Fire of 1998 and advance to the MLS Cup as an expansion team. The biggest question will be whether any of the club’s attacking pieces are clinical enough to take advantage of the odds presented to them, which was unlikely against Toronto (until it happened). – –– Lindberg
Seattle Sounders versus FC Dallas | Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. ET
OUR PICK: Seattle 3-1 Dallas
Seattle looked devastating in the attack against LAFC. Jordan Morris, Raul Ruidiaz and the incomparable Nicolas Lodeiro were all in great shape. Had the end of the team been a bit sharper, the Sounders would have won the match in double digits. The expected return of center-back Xavier Arreaga should also help solidify the Sounders’ defense. As it stands, Seattle is entering this match as a strong favorite.
Dallas rode their defense, Jimmy Maurer’s goal and an opportunistic strike from substitute Ricardo Pepi in defeating Portland. FCD needs a similar recipe to end the playoff double against Cascadia teams. Can Dallas Get It? For sure. In their playoff match against Seattle a year ago, Dallas pushed the Sounders to the absolute limit and fell 4-3 in extra time. But this FCD team doesn’t seem to be that dangerous offensively. A similar open matter would favor the Sounders. – –– Carlisle
Sporting Kansas City versus Minnesota United FC | Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET
OUR PICK: Kansas City 3-2 Minnesota
Kansas City survived the aforementioned shootout against San Jose and held the insider position for hosting the MLS Cup. There’s also the fact that the Loons have lost each of their previous games in Kansas City by a goal differential of minus 10. Whether striker Alan Pulido will recover from his knee injury in time is not yet known, but the fact that SKC still managed to score three goals after San Jose will give him confidence in his attack.
But, as New England showed in their sixth attempt this year against Philadelphia for the first time, the playoffs past counts little and SKC needs to be careful. The Minnesota attack appears to be nearing its peak, especially now that Robin Lod, Kevin Molino and Emanuel Reynoso feel like they have some chemistry established. It will also benefit from the fact that Romain Metanire is back on the line-up after his quarantine due to international obligations. Given Kansas City’s fragile backline against San Jose, the Loons will have to do a lot to threaten the home team. – Carlisle