Adam and Eli chat about the MLS conference finals second legs

Editor’s note: PSP contributors Eli Pearlman-Storch and Adam Cann decided to have a little chat over email about the upcoming final legs of the MLS Conference Finals. Here it is.

Eli Pearlman-Storch: So… After a three-and-a-half month long break, the second leg of the MLS Conference Finals will be contested this weekend. Before the playoffs started, I picked Portland and Houston to make the final, and I’ll stick with that prediction despite the Timbers walking into a buzzsaw at Rio Tinto. That said, if France, of all teams, can find the heart and desire to reverse a two goal first leg deficit, so can Caleb Porter’s men. Who is your pairing for the finals?

Adam Cann: If Caleb Porter can bring Portland back from the brink, he should be installed as France’s coach immediately. Deschamps can come to Portland and bring his stuttering non-formations with him.

And if Jason Kreis was the Ukrainian national team coach, there is no way they blow up and hand France a spot in the World Cup. Kreis out-thought Porter in the first leg, and he has the personnel to neutralize the Timbers this weekend. In order to win, Portland will need either Darlington Nagbe or Will Johnson to have their best game of the season. Diego Valeri is going to be a marked man, but the wealth of talent in the Portland midfield means someone else can step up, but it will have to be a huge step. I still see both Johnson and Nagbe as players who need a Valeri to draw attention away before they can really take over a match. How do you think Porter should deploy his midfielders against Kreis’ narrow but organized diamond?

In the East, there is only one thing to remember: Woe to those who face the Houston Dynamo. Dom Kinnear is a devious genius at putting his teams in positions to win in one-off games. Even when Houston loses MLS Cup finals, they manage to make the games scrappy, ugly, and seemingly without any flow or shape. Can Kansas City, a team that has struggled and whined when they can’t play their fast-moving counterattacking style, deal with a Houston team that can hold a defensive shape as well as anyone in the league?

I think Oriol Rosell is the key man here. In the first leg, he covered a ton of ground to keep Houston from getting into comfortable crossing positions on the wings. With Nagamura staying central, it will be up to Rosell to again offer support on the wings against Boniek and Davis. Can the young midfielder come through on the big stage?

Eli: There is very little nuance in RSL’s back four. They are built to move forward and crush whatever is in front of them. For that reason and Valeri’s marked status, Porter needs to rotate his three attacking midfielders. That not only affords Valeri some relief away from Kyle Beckerman’s watchful eye, as well as the rest of the densely packed RSL midfield, but also allows Portland to diversify their angles of running. Increasing the number of angled runs they make in the final third will serve to destabilize Chris Schuler and Nat Borchers in the center of defense. Additionally, Chris Wingert is good for at least a couple of wild challenges a match. [Editor’s note: Subsequent to this part of the discussion, Wingert was ruled out with an injury.] Exploiting the gap between Wingert and Schuler is definitely doable and should be the first place the duo of Nagbe and Valeri look to attack.

But all this will be for naught if Portland only funnel their runs towards goal. Turning Borchers and Schuler is critical to not only finishing chances, but also in creating the space needed to slice through RSL’s defense.

As for the East, Rosell will no doubt be vital, but hardly as vital as Ricardo Clark. No air was breathed for at least 10 seconds after the US international slumped to the turf in the opening leg. If Clark is at full health, his battle with Rosell could be one of the great 1-v-1s in this season’s playoffs. Where Clark gets a small edge over his Spanish counterpart is his ability to push play forward. For as well as Rosell wins the ball and maintains possession, he simply cannot match the fury with which Clark bursts forward. On paper, Houston may look like a classic empty bucket, but with Clark’s tenacious ballhawking, the Dynamo can usually count on him being in the box at the critical moment.

And it’s a good thing, because who is going to score goals? Will Bruin scuffs as many shots as he hits cleanly, Kansas City’s leading scorer is rooted to the bench, Alvaro Saborio is nicked up and Ryan Johnson’s inability to bring his goal-scoring tally into double digits given his midfield providers is borderline criminal. Seriously, who scores?

Adam: Tracking Clark’s late runs will be a demanding task for the Kansas City midfield. The 30-year old’s early exit clearly gave the KC creators more time, and the fact that most of Sporting’s 12 key passes (passes that create a goalscoring opportunity) came from deep is a testament to the time and space that appeared after Clark left. In fact, only one of KC’s key passes from open play came before the half, indicating that major tactical adjustments were made post-Clark.

Disturbingly for Kansas City, even with Clark absent their midfield was swinging for the fences and struggling to hold possession. Nagamura and Rosell were the team’s best midfield passers, working at about a 66% success rate. Rosell completed the most passes with 28. Sporting is never going to own the ball like RSL or LA. But to be effective, they need to be smarter out of midfield, or the attack becomes direct, predictable, and impotent.

And you’re right. Portland’s midfield movement was key in their strong performances against RSL this season. It’s important to note that “movement” doesn’t mean you should see the midfielders sliding around like hockey players preparing to assault the opponent’s zone. Portland’s midfield movement is all about pushing higher or wider in order to give Valeri more spaces to pop up in. When Portland should have beaten RSL in August (Cole Grossman in the 93rd to tie? Really??), Nagbe stayed deeper than normal, only pushing deep when the defense got too high. Rodney Wallace pushed extremely high, opening a gap on the left side of midfield from which Valeri operated with almost a free hand. Diego Chara followed Valeri around offering an easy outlet at all times. This spacing and support troubles the narrow RSL midfield and often forces the aforementioned crushers in defense to step higher than they would prefer. But it requires a high work rate from Portland’s own crew and a good understanding of which pockets the defense is allowing to develop.

In the East, I’m seeing a tight game that could be won by a single goal (hardly a bold prediction in a Houston match). In the West, I think the entire complexion of the game changes with an early Portland goal. Suddenly RSL has to be even more conservative, and the Timbers can play a controlled possession game rather than operating in frenetic need-to-score mode. If KC or Portland score early, how do you see these games playing out?

Eli: If Sporting manage to get a quick goal, all bets are off. Houston may remain cautious knowing that a late goal gets them to extra time on the road. On the other hand, If Sporting scores and drops back to defend their lead, Houston could really lean on them, exploiting their ability to control the wide parts of the field with Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia. One thing that is hard to argue is that an early goal for the hosts would make for the most interesting contest to watch.

Unfortunately for impartial viewers, I don’t see this happening. None of Dom Dwyer, Soony Saad, Teal Bunbury, CJ Sapong or Jacob Peterson are in anything even resembling goal-scoring form. What’s more likely is that we will be treated to another ill-tempered, hot-blooded slugfest, where the teams exchange heavy challenges rather than scoring chances. Played at a snail’s pace with constant whistles interrupting the flow of the game, Houston becomes the favorite. The longer the match goes without a goal, the more the Dynamo will like their chances.

Out west, a quick Portland goal would be ideal for the neutral supporter. The Timbers will come in waves from the opening whistle. They need goals and are not shy about their desire to impose their will on the game, especially in front of their home crowd. Should the Timbers quickly pull the aggregate score within one, Kreis will not be naive enough to think that his club can endure the rest of the match without conceding again. This is the best chance of a flowing, end-to-end match.

Look for RSL to do everything in their power to slow down the game and keep the ball pinballing around the center circle. If they can make it to halftime still in possession of a two-goal cushion, they will like their chances of seeing out the result.

So, after all that. How do you see it playing out?

Adam: Coaching playoff soccer requires such a strange hybrid set of skills. Even in Europe, you normally play league games in between Champions League matches, so your team has this breathing period before you turn back to your European opponent. Playoff soccer is laser focus on one opponent for at least a week, and in the current two cases, almost a month.

With that in mind, I’m betting on Jason Kreis and Dom Kinnear. Both guys drill a playing style into their players, but they seem to know when to let up and not overcoach. In big games, their teams play structurally sound soccer, not scared-to-lose soccer. Porter and Vermes face more pressure and have to deal with home expectations, which means attacking from the opening whistle. I think Houston grinds out a result, and RSL holds on early and then sucker punches Portland quickly in the second half.

But all that said, I agree with you: An early goal from KC or Portland will completely change the nature of these games. So that’s what I’ll hope for, even if I can’t logically expect it.

Eli: Fair points, but I’ve got to stick with the teams that got me here. I think Kinnear and Houston do the business in the East. But out West, I’m going to stay with Portland to pull off the impressive comeback. There’s just something about Porter and this Timbers team. And on Sunday night, it might be that RSL’s beating heart now resides in the Rose City. This game screams for Will Johnson, and if the Canadian comes to play, he can lead his team into the MLS Cup Finals.

One Comment

  1. Fun match last night.
    So… Benny Feilhaber and Freddy Mercury: separated at birth?

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