Questions to answer for the Eastern Conference play-in teams
November 19, 2020
MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER has made it to the playoffs. Even during one of the most turbulent and unpredictable years to in recent memory, the league and its teams have worked through the COVID-19 pandemic to make it to the annual MLS Cup Playoffs. But it wouldn’t be a pandemic-ridden MLS season without some funky changes to the playoff system: 10 teams from the Eastern Conference and eight teams from the Western Conference qualified for the playoffs as opposed to the usual seven-team format.
On Friday, Inter Miami will travel to Nashville SC and the Montreal Impact have a date with the New England Revolution in Foxborough in the opening play-in matches of the playoffs. Awaiting the winners of these games are the Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC who will play the lowest seeded and highest seeded teams to come out of the play-in game, respectively. To get to a second game in this year’s playoffs, though, I have a question that each play-in team needs to answer if they are to advance to the next round.
Who starts at the 10, Hany Mukhtar or Derrick Jones?
Gary Smith has done a wonderful job transforming Derrick Jones into a focal point of the team’s advanced defensive structure and transitions into offense. This has often come at the expense of dispatching Hany Mukhtar, the club’s first-ever Designated Player, out on the wing where he’s struggled to influence games playing in Nashville’s defense-first system.
To Jones’ credit, he provides the team with another hard-working midfielder that provides the defensive solidity Smith wants and big body to play off in transition or us on set pieces. His presence lightens the load on Anibal Godoy and Dax McCarty behind him, and he makes the simple, safe plays in transition. Even with Rodolfo Pizarro out for this match due to mandated quarantine, Blaise Matuidi and Wil Trapp still pose the potential threats to create opportunities for Miami from deep.
However, as he showed against the Houston Dynamo and in the final 15 minutes against Orlando City on Decision Day, Mukhtar’s natural creativeness makes Nashville a much better attacking team in transition. He could put the game against Miami to bed in the first half like he did in Nashville’s win over the Dynamo, giving the team another confidence boost in a potentially high-scoring win over their fellow expansion club.
New England Revolution
How will the Revs avoid playing into a congested midfield?
The New England Revolution are a scary team to play against having one of the best play makers in the league in Carles Gil feeding one of its most prolific goal scorers in Gustavo Bou. Teal Bunbury’s found his goal-scoring touch as well this season, and Bruce Arena has a SuperDraft-sponsored backline playing sound defense against every team they come up against.
In both of their previous meetings with the Impact this season, the Revolution have come out with two wins but not in the most comfortable fashion. Their 3-5-2 formation congests and disrupt much of the central build-up play the Revolution try to play with through Gil and Bou, and they still haven’t quite figured out how to break it down. The Impact were the masters of their own destruction with a triad of defensive mistakes that gifted opportunities to the Revolution, and their first meeting back in July only ended in a 1-0 Revolution win.
Luckily for Arena, he has two players in Tajon Buchan and Brandon Bye who can exploit the gap’s in behind Montreal’s wingbacks on the right side. Opting to play Bunbury on the left rather than centrally would also give them another fast, wide player to exploit those gaps and keep the Impact on the backfoot.
There’s a clear gap in quality between these teams that favors the Revolution, but Thierry Henry’s men have taken the heads of Toronto FC and the Columbus Crew already this season.
Can Montreal keep their focus for an entire match?
As for how the Impact will potentially take the Revolution’s head in this match lies in whether they can put out a full 90-minute performance.
Watching this team play, you can clearly see why Henry has so many viral moments in which he’s clearly frustrated with his players’ inabilities to perform simple plays at times. They have tendencies to fall asleep on defense and turnover possession trying to make unnecessary high-risk, high reward plays when the simple decision is right in front of them. The Impact simply cannot afford to make those mistakes again if they want to beat the Revolution this time around.
To ensure they stay switched on for the full match, though, they need Bojan Krkic to continue leading the front line as well as he has been recently. His four goals and one assist in his last 10 games have been complimented by a series of performances in which he genuinely looked like a threatening creative outlet. This is some of the best individual soccer he’s played since arriving in Montreal last August, and now he needs to deliver when the stakes are even higher.
Who is going to step up to break down Nashville’s defensive structure?
Blaise Matuidi is not a creative midfielder, and Wil Trapp simply does not have the quality to pick a team apart from a deep-lying defensive role. Gonzalo Higuain has the quality to create opportunities for himself, but he will not be outside of a five-yard perimeter from the nearest Nashville defender. So, who is going to step up and break down Nashville’s defense?
The answer might lie in Lewis Morgan, Miami’s 24-year-old Scottish winger who has quietly had a strong first year in MLS. On the right side of Miami’s midfield, he’s going to be up against Daniel Lovitz at left back and either Alex Muyl or Randall Leal on the wing. If he can get support from whoever starts at right back going forward, he could be put in more romising positions to take Lovitz on in one-on-one situations.
Morgan leads the league in crosses with 129 and sits at third in shot-creating chances with 100, as per FBRef, making him one of the most dangerous and prolific wide playmakers in MLS this year. It may not be the way Miami want to create chances for themselves in the long-run, but Lewis has been one of the more prolific players when it comes to providing the goal scorers on the team with opportunities in front of goal.