The MLS Cup Playoffs started Wednesday with the first two of four knockout round games taking place. If you read my preview from yesterday, you will notice that things went mostly to plan. Toronto and LA both won and are heading to the next round. Who is going to join them tonight?
D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact (7:30 PM ET – UniMas and TSN)
Overview: Montreal’s main story is one Didier Drogba, the headline-grabbing European drama queen who will not be playing in this game due to a back injury. I think we’ve seen the last of Drogba in MLS. Or on a professional soccer field, for that matter.
I will not be mentioning his name again for the rest of this article.
The player we should be talking about when it comes to the Impact is Ignacio Piatti, a best XI shoo-in and arguably the best winger this league has to offer. The Argentine plays freely on that left-hand side, often cutting in and creating opportunities on goal with speedy dribbling and intricate passing. Matteo Mancosu’s crafty movement and Dominic Oduro’s pure pace often open up space for goals from either Piatti or from a late runner like Hernan Bernadello or one of the full-backs.
For D.C. United, they will spread the field and look to play directly to Patrick Mullins, whether to his feet or to his head. Mullins has eight goals in 12 starts for DCU, and his aerial ability will likely be an issue for a Montreal defense that has had trouble defending crosses and set pieces.
Marco Donadel — The Impact’s starting defensive midfielder doubles as their primary distributor from deep. The Italian plays as a pure No. 6 when his team aren’t in possession, but when they pick up the ball, he becomes sort of like a worse version of Andrea Pirlo, sitting in space and hitting balls all over the field. He is pretty important for Montreal’s attack given his ability to find facilitate possession and get players in space.
He’s also 33, and he is not exactly a work-horse type of player. Rather than winning balls and trying to stop attacks early, he relies on his tactical awareness and ability to cut off passing lanes to halt opponents’ goal-scoring threats. The problem with this is that he can get overrun at times, and when that happens, this happens:
Opponents are able to find loads of space on either side of him and through the channels, often forcing Montreal’s backline to stop an a 4v5 or even 5v4 attack. If you notice, Sebastian Giovinco could easily have found a runner instead of taking that shot.
Donadel has to be more mobile in the center and has to make sure not to get caught up the field, because the Impact are not designed to handle an attack without him there to help stop it.
Lloyd Sam — D.C. play to the feet of Mullins and through central creator Luciano Acosta, with late runs from players like Rob Vincent contributing to their assault of opposing center backs. But Ben Olsen needs another player to contribute in the goal-scoring department, and he needs someone else to occupy space in the final third. Lloyd Sam is that person.
Sam plays on the right wing and works hard offensively and defensively, making him a nice asset to have. But D.C. need him to do more. They need him to get in the box, take defenders on 1v1, and provide a secondary goal-scoring threat that Montreal have to worry about.
Prediction: I actually think Montreal will advance, contrary to popular opinion. I think the teams will play fairly conservatively and cancel each other out in midfield before a moment of stardom from Piatti gives Montreal a 1-0 lead they won’t relinquish.
Then again, D.C. will probably win 5-3 now that I said that, so take whatever I say with a grain of salt. This is MLS, after all.
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC (10:00 PM ET – FS1, UniMas and TSN)
Overview: Nicolas Lodeiro is a difference-maker. Benny Feilhaber, mostly, has not been this year. In the playoffs, this is really what it comes down to.
Alvaro Fernandez — The selection of Fernandez in this slot is similar to my Lloyd Sam pick above. It is based around a team’s need for a secondary goal-scoring threat and for a player to challenge backlines from different areas of the field.
The Sounders’ magical No. 10 Lodeiro and forward Jordan Morris (who needs no introduction) make up their main attacking threats. Those are the players they play through and they are relied upon to simply put the ball in the net. The problem is, as you can probably guess, teams can key in on those two and go a long way towards eliminating their impact; that means players like Fernandez and Andreas Ivanschitz need to step up and make themselves a nuisance for backlines. Seattle’s ability to have hit defenses from different places depends on it.
Soni Mustivar — Sporting KC’s starting defensive midfielder, Soni Mustivar’s role is to cover large spaces in front of the backline by stepping fast and condensing the passing lanes through the channel. He is one of the most underrated No. 6s in the league, and SKC have trouble when he is unavailable.
Another one of his main roles is to control distribution out of the back, and to get the ball onto Benny Feilhaber’s feet in space as quickly and as often as possible. Sporting rely on him to set the tone in midfield, and Feilhaber’s ability to connect with Dom Dwyer (who too often is stranded up top) depends on Mustivar. He won’t win the d-mid battle with Ozzie Alonso, but he can do what he can to make sure SKC cover the right spaces and transition smoothly from defense to attack.
Prediction: I’ve got Seattle. A few moments of brilliance from Lodeiro will see Seattle through without too much trouble, although I think Dwyer will score, because he always seems to find a way.
Oh, and if it goes to a PK shootout, Saad Abdul-Salaam will not be high on the list.