MLS playoff analysis: Breaking down every game from Round One

Quick Hits
  • The MLS playoffs are here and through six games, we’ve already seen a pair of penalty shootouts, drama, and so much more
  • Today, we’re breaking down each first round playoff game with a quick summary and some expanded analysis

Say what you will about playoff success being an accurate representation of a team’s quality, but oh-boy are playoff games fun.

From Brandon Vazquez burning Aaron Long in the open field on Saturday, to Austin FC just edging past RSL in penalties on Sunday after crossing the ball 193 times, to Gonzalo Higuain playing his last-ever professional soccer game on the same field that the New York Mets play baseball on Monday, there were some great moments in the first round of MLS playoff action.

If you missed any of the six first round games, I’ve got you covered with a 10 word summary of each match and then a bit of expanded analysis underneath. Let’s get to it.

FC Cincinnati 2-1 New York Red Bulls

10 words (or less): Super-subs just might be a playoff cheat code

I watched Saturday’s playoff games while chatting with former MLS player and certified smart soccer guy Bobby Warshaw. As we watched Cincinnati’s comeback against the Red Bulls, Bobby pointed out how valuable super-subs can be in MLS. 

Why? Well, part of it is that few teams have a genuine attacking threat they can afford to bring off the bench late in a game. So when you do have one, it can separate you from the pack. Another part of it is, I’m convinced, that there’s a pretty big gap between the quality of the average attacker in MLS and the quality of the average defender. So a fresh attacker coming off the bench likely has an outsized advantage over a tired opposing defender.

Even setting those theories aside, Serigo Santos changed the game for Pat Noonan and FC Cincinnati on Saturday. His speed to beat Dylan Nealis in behind on the left wing and his composure to find Vazquez in the box ended the New York Red Bulls’ season. Cincy’s decision to trade for Santos looks like a good one right now.

LA Galaxy 1-0 Nashville SC

10 words (or less): LA effectively controlled the game (and eliminated Mukhtar) with possession

The LA Galaxy weren’t dominant in their home win over Nashville, but they were effective. They controlled possession and moved the ball into enough dangerous areas to secure a 1-0 win and a matchup with LAFC on Thursday.

The best part of the Galaxy’s work with the ball didn’t have much to do with their attack, though. No, the best part of their performance on Saturday was how they limited Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar. Mukhtar was still Nashville’s most dangerous attacker, but LA gave him precious few chances to cause problems. According to Second Spectrum, Mukhtar took just 32 touches (sixth fewest in any game this year), 12 touches in the final third (fifth fewest), and only three touches in the box and Zone 14 (third fewest).

With their attacking control, the Galaxy limited Mukhtar’s attacking control. That, folks, is how you win games against a team that lives and dies by a single star player.

Austin FC 2-2 Real Salt Lake, Austin win in penalties

10 words (or less): Brad Stuver might just be Austin FC’s most important player

We hear a lot about Sebastian Driussi – and there are good reasons for that. Driussi is a very good MLS player and he came up big for Austin multiple times in this game. But I have this sneaking suspicion that Driussi isn’t really Austin FC’s most important player. In my mind (and maybe in my mind alone), that honor belongs to goalkeeper Brad Stuver.

RSL didn’t do a whole lot to test Stuver after taking a 2-0 lead in the opening 15 minutes, but they did have an opportunity to test him in this game’s penalty shootout. In the shootout, Stuver made a huge save on Braian Ojeda’s penalty kick to effectively seal the deal for Austin. Stuver has been great this year and he could be Austin’s X-Factor going forward.

CF Montreal 2-0 Orlando City

10 words (or less): Montreal’s possession play is a huge asset

CF Montreal are usually awesome to watch. 

Their commitment to precise possession and their ability to turn that possession into goal scoring opportunities makes them a rarity in MLS (and, really, in global soccer). For the first 67 minutes on Sunday evening, CF Montreal were less awesome to watch than normal. They struggled to break into space behind Orlando City, they lacked one-v-one dribbling ability in their starting lineup, and they looked stagnant. But Wilfried Nancy didn’t change the recipe, choosing to keep his team in their control-heavy 3-4-3 shape. Eventually, Montreal’s persistence paid off.

Ismael Kone’s go-ahead goal in the 68th minute came from a beautiful and dynamic possession sequence. Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. Orlando City blinked and Kone was running into the box, exploiting the open space created by his teammates’ precise passing, and bringing the bit of dynamism that Montreal needed to help them get over the line.

Kone isn’t a perfect player. CF Montreal aren’t perfect, either. But it sure seems like both have bright futures.

New York City FC 3-0 Inter Miami

10 words (or less): Even short-handed, NYCFC still have a great attack

No Talles Magno? No Keaton Parks in the starting lineup? No problem.

Okay, that might be a bit of an overstatement, but New York City FC were dominant in their 3-0 win over Inter Miami on Monday. It certainly helped Nick Cushing’s team that Inter Miami were begging to be broken apart and made enough mistakes to fill a sizable low-light reel. But even short-handed, New York City still have one of the best attacks in the league.

Just look at their second goal against Miami. The play moved from Thiago Martins to Anton Tinnerholm, who slipped Santi Rodriguez into the box. Rodriguez then found Maxi Moralez, who finished the attack off and put the ball in the back of the net. Altogether, it was a lovely 20-pass sequence – one that I have a hard time imagining any team in the postseason pulling off outside of CF Montreal and maybe Los Angeles FC.

New York City are a bit too open defensively, but their attack is firing right now.

FC Dallas 1-1 Minnesota United, Dallas win in penalties

10 words (or less): Remember that guy eating a giant taco? That was fun.

I’ll be honest with you: I really struggled to get into this game. Between the only partially faded American football lines on the field to the lack of, you know, real chances, there just wasn’t a lot of juice. Regulation ended with 0.8 combined xG between FC Dallas and Minnesota United. Dallas failed to break down Minnesota and Minnesota didn’t have enough dangerous fast-breaks to kill the game off.

That’s what you get sometimes when two not-quite-contenders meet in the postseason.

But the guy eating a giant taco that became an MLS Twitter celebrity for a few hours on Monday night? That guy captivated me. 

I want to know more about him. I want to know everything about him. I want to walk a mile in his shoes. And, most importantly, I want one of those tacos. Anyways, congrats to Dallas for booking their spot in the next round.