October 29, 2016
The keys to playoff success? Limit your weaknesses and rely on your strengths, depth and an X factor
By Michael Lewis
The Red Bulls and New York City FC embark on the first leg of their respective Major League Soccer playoff series against a pair of Canadian clubs Sunday.
Both New York teams come in confident (after all, they finished one-two in the Eastern Conference).
Both sides have a lethal weapon up front (the Red Bulls' Bradley Wright-Phillips led the league with 24 goals and the Blues' David Villa finished breathing down his neck with 23).
And they both like to go on the attack in their own unique ways.
A winning attitude and celebrating the many goals they score are among each team's strengths.
When City tussles with Toronto FC and the Red Bulls meet the Montreal Impact, they have to play to their strengths and impose their styles if they want to be successful and score a goal or two in an enemy venue.
Then there's the other side of the equation: make sure they limit their opposition taking advantage of their weaknesses.
Now, that's much easier said than done, even for teams that boast unbeaten streaks. The Red Bulls haven't lost a game since a 2-0 defeat at City on July 3, while NYC FC hasn't dropped a game at Yankee Stadium since a 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake on June 2.
But the playoffs are another animal. You can't afford to lose one game 5-2 and win the next one 2-0 and say that you have broken even. In the postseason, you lose, 5-4, and lose the ability to stay in the quest for the Phillip F. Anschutz trophy, given to the league champion after MLS Cup.
The entire world knows the Red Bulls' Achilles' Heel: protecting two-goal leads. Even though they have this endless unbeaten streak, they have added so much drama to their matches over the last four months with a nail-biting finish. This is a bad habit they must jettison for the playoffs; or at least find a way to close out games with not much drama (there is something to be said about the team's ability to grab a two-goal lead).
True, both conference series -- the semifinals and final -- are 180 minutes, plus whatever stoppage time is added (heck, each half can be treated as a quarter for the most tactical of coaches). But goals are at a premium here in an aggregate goals series.
As for NYC FC, its problem is its defense, sometimes the back four, sometimes the team version. If the key players in the back are healthy and Luxembourg international Maxime Chanot (yes, even minnow soccer countries can produce good soccer players, they just don't have that many to put together a respected national team) and Frederic Brillant are paired at center back (and not have mistake-prone Jefferson Mena anywhere the ball) and have Costa Rican international Ronald Matarrita and RJ Allen on the flanks and Andoni Iraola playing in front of the back line, City will have a decent chance of moving on.
If not, well, you will need a calculator to count the goals -- for both sides -- this Sunday and next. And when things get unwieldy in the playoffs, all bets are off.
Of course, depth will play a vital role, whether it is replacing a starter who incurred a surprise injury (come to think of it, most of them are, aren't they?) in the first half to making a tactical substitution over the final half hour to either to shore up the team defense or looking for a boost to find a late goal to equalize or to pull ahead.
Both teams have depth on both sides of the table that have the potential to bolster the team. It will be up to Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch and his NYC FC counterpart, Patrick Vieira, to figure the right moves and the right time to make those decisions. And of course, it will be up to the substitutes to make an impact.
For the Red Bulls, it could be the likes of Daniel Royer, Omer Damari, Mike Grella or Gonzalo Veron on attack (depending on who starts on the left wing).
For the Blues, it could be the likes of Frank Lampard (I doubt he can go a full 90, but what a lethal option off the bench in the second half), Khiry Shelton or Steven Mendoza.
And oh yes, one other thing yours truly forgot to mention -- luck. Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the late Brooklyn Dodgers said it best: Luck is the residue of design.
In other words, you make your own luck. If you are talented and work hard (and have done more than your quota of praying to the soccer gods), sometimes a close call or play will go your way. It's only a matter of inches between a ball hitting the goal line and winding up inside the goal.
In a two-game aggregate goal series, it could come down to one goal, one precious goal that will separate a team from winning and moving on, rather than packing up earlier than expected and going home.