MLS playoff analysis: One key tactic for all 14 postseason teams

Quick Hits
  • It’s time for the MLS playoffs, people! With just a few days standing between us and the postseason, we’re looking at one key tactic for all 14 playoff teams
  • The playoffs are notoriously chaotic, but these tactics will give you something to watch for as the games start to play out
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Fall is by far the best time of the year. Not because Starbucks gets to charge you more for pouring a little pumpkin dust in your coffee. Not even because you get to make fun of people who eat candy corn instead of throwing it directly into the garbage. 

No, fall is the best because it’s MLS CUP PLAYOFF TIME. 

Last year, the playoffs were littered with drama. 46% of 2021’s postseason matchups resulted in upsets and the actual MLS Cup Final between New York City and Portland showcased two No. 4 seeds. Given how much bigger home field advantage is in MLS compared to other leagues around the world, that was pretty shocking. It told us, though, that anything can happen in the playoffs. 

To help prepare you for the cardiac-inducing slugfests that we’re about to witness over the next few weeks, I broke down a key tactic for each team in the playoffs. With apologies to Jim Mora, it’s time to talk about the playoffs

Data courtesy of American Soccer Analysis unless otherwise noted.

Eastern Conference

No. 1: Philadelphia Union

Tactic: Play Through Bedoya

This goes against the grain, but the most crucial player for the Union’s offense might not be a member of Philadelphia’s fearsome attacking trio of Daniel Gazdag, Julian Carranza, or Mikael Uhre. No, it’s their 35-year-old central midfielder Alejandro Bedoya. According to FBref, the Union average 0.73 more expected goals per 90 minutes when Bedoya is on the pitch. Because Leon Flach, who plays as the No. 8 opposite Bedoya in the Union’s diamond midfield, is more defensively inclined, attacking down Bedoya’s right side has become a key pattern for Philadelphia this year. 

He was certainly missed during their 4-0 loss to Charlotte earlier this month. Philly fans, cross your fingers that Bedoya is ready to play a full 90 next week.

No. 2: CF Montréal

Tactic: Make teams break you down

Analytically, Montréal finished the year with the best defense in MLS by only allowing 35.4 expected goals. A big factor behind their stingy defense is the solid system that Wilfried Nancy has implemented this year. Backed up by Victor Wanyama and Samuel Piette in the midfield, Nancy’s three-man backline led by Joel Waterman, Rudy Camacho, and Kamal Miller has been incredibly solid this year. 

If teams can’t break the backline, Montreal will be tough to beat.

No. 3: New York City FC

Tactic: Keep possession

If you watched New York City play Atlanta United on Decision Day, they looked like two completely different teams based on whether or not Keaton Parks was on the field. 

Finally back from a second blood clot surgery, Parks made his first regular season start since May 28 and NYCFC looked much better on both sides of the ball. With Parks on the field, New York City retained possession and their increased control in the attacking third also allowed attackers to counter press, which is something that had noticeably decreased during Parks’ injury absence. With the lanky Parks ready to scoop up wayward balls and contest aerials, NYCFC are simply a better team with him involved.

Even if Talles Magno is unable to play on Monday after his shoulder injury this past weekend, Parks is the key to New York City’s possession play.

No. 4 New York Red Bulls

Tactic: Don’t Concede Early

One of the exciting bracketology developments in the Eastern Conference is that the top three pressing teams in the MLS (the New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union, and FC Cincinnati) are all crammed into the same section of the playoff bracket. 

Out of those three teams, the Red Bulls are the most dependent on their press, leading the league with 6,273 total pressures in the regular season, according to FBref. That’s 939 more pressures than Cincy and 1,215 more pressures than Philly. However unlike Philadelphia or Cincinnati, who both sport some of the league’s best attacking units, the Red Bulls get into trouble when they have to rely on their attackers to create scoring opportunities on their own. If the Red Bulls can prevent early goals and force teams to play through their press, their chances of making a playoff run increase dramatically.

No. 5: FC Cincinnati

Tactic: Beat the press

FC Cincinnati’s attack was hot in the regular season – they finished second in the Eastern Conference this year with 64 goals. Pat Noonan’s team also shored up its shaky defense by adding center back Matt Miazga in August. Before Miazga, Cincy had the sixth worst defense in MLS, giving up 1.49 expected goals per game as per American Soccer Analysis. Since Miazga made his first start on August 13, Cincinnati have only given up 1.29 expected goals per game, which is good for eighth best in the league. 

With an elite offense, a reinforced defense, and a game coming up against the Red Bulls (and maybe one against the Union), Cincinnati’s main priority should be beating the press. Both the Union and Red Bulls play with aggressive fullbacks, so it will be up to Brenner, Brandon Vazquez, and their wingbacks to find open space in behind and in midfield to transition quickly into the attack.

No. 6: Inter Miami

Tactic: Create chances with through balls

Inter Miami’s playoff hopes have a lot to do with how good they are at finding ways to create scoring opportunities for Gonzalo Higuain. Despite a slow start to the year and the lack of a clear role, Higuain finished the regular season as the hottest striker in MLS, leading the league with 0.82 goals per 90, according to FBref.

With the Herons playing on the road against NYCFC at the narrow confines of Citi Field, capitalizing on through-ball opportunities against their opponent’s high defensive line will be a major offensive priority.

No. 7: Orlando City

Tactic: Defend the counter

Orlando City will have their hands full on Sunday trying to break through CF Montréal’s vaunted defense. However, if they extend too far forward, the Lions run the risk of creating spaces for Montréal’s dangerous attackers to release on the counter. Oscar Pareja has a tactical reputation of playing more conservatively on the road, so it’s probably a safe bet to see Orlando City use a lower block to prevent any fast-break opportunities for their opponents.

Western Conference

No. 1: Los Angeles FC

Tactic: Dominate central midfield

Sure, Carlos Vela and Gareth Bale are the big-name stars, but it’s the midfield of Jose Cifuentes, Kellyn Acosta, Latif Blessing, and Illie Sanchez that really drives LAFC on both sides of the ball. 

No playoff team dominates the midfield quite like LAFC, at least when applying American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric to zones in the middle of the field. On offense, LAFC’s midfield helps progress the ball into dangerous areas either via the pass or the dribble. On defense, the midfield’s activity is a key part of LAFC’s ability to retain possession with their counter press and their ability to generate high-quality scoring opportunities off of those turnovers.

No. 2: Austin FC

Tactic: Create space for Driussi

Plucked off the Gregg Berhalter coaching tree, manager Josh Wolff has implemented a possession-focused system with Austin FC. One of the main beneficiaries of that style has been star attacking midfielder Sebastian Driussi. A core tenet of positional play is the use of elements like passing triangles, numerical overloads, and fluid player movement to drag defenders out of position. When defenders get pulled out, space then opens for attackers like Driussi to operate and produce.

When Driussi is picking up the ball in valuable spaces, Austin’s attack is hard to stop.

No. 3: FC Dallas

Tactic: Press and run

One of the keys to the offensive production of FC Dallas’s attacking trio of Jesus Ferreira, Alan Velasco, and Paul Arriola has been Dallas’ use of the counter press. Dallas finished the regular season with 1,236 pressures in the attacking third, which was good for fourth best in the league. 

According to Second Spectrum, FC Dallas generated more shots (58) after regaining possession in the attacking third after an opposing turnover than they did in any other phase of play. When Ferreira, Velasco, and Arriola are all in sync, these turnovers can lead to dangerous scoring opportunities because all three are excellent at playing off their teammates and making intelligent runs in the box.

No. 4: Los Angeles Galaxy

Tactic: Limit set pieces 

Look, Hany Mukhtar is really good at soccer. But stopping him in the open field isn’t the only thing the LA Galaxy will have to worry about against Nashville SC. Nashville also led the league in goals (15) and expected goals (12.65) generated off corner kicks and free kicks in the regular season.

The Galaxy have given up the fewest shots (66) off corners and set pieces in MLS this season, which is an encouraging sign for them. They’ll have to keep up that trend in Round One.

No. 5: Nashville SC

Tactic: Unleash Hany on the counter

There’s no denying that Mukhtar is more important for Nashville than any other outfield player in MLS is to their team.

The German attacker capped off his 2022 season with the Golden Boot and a 44.2% share of Nashville’s goal production, which is a really high figure. Nashville’s offense simply wouldn’t exist without Hany and it’s safe to say that he’s going to have to be dangerous in the playoffs for Gary Smith’s team to punish opposing defenses. Look for Nashville to be as direct as possible to get Mukhtar on the ball in space as quickly as possible.

No. 6: Minnesota United

Tactic: Play through the middle

Minnesota United’s engine is Emanuel Reynoso. If you’ve spent much of any time watching Minnesota, you probably already know that. You also probably already know that Adrian Heath’s team is best when they play through their star No. 10 in the middle of the field.

When you compare Minnesota United’s wins and losses this year, the big difference has been in the central channels. According to Second Spectrum, the Loons tend to generate more shots from crosses in losses than they do in wins.  In some of those losses, the Loons were pushed out of central spaces and forced to play more hopeful passes into the box. 

If Minnesota United can get Reynoso touches in central spots, they can be tough to beat.

No. 7: Real Salt Lake

Tactic: Long balls, baby

Pablo Mastroeni’s Real Salt Lake team loves long balls and counter attacks. According to FBref, no team in MLS has played more long balls than the 3,642 that RSL played in the regular season. RSL’s goalkeepers also lead the league in launched passes (passes over 40 yards) with 770. 

With Austin playing a possession-based attack, RSL’s ability to play long balls over the top could be key to breaking their opponent’s defensive line.