The MLS Cup Playoffs are a challenge all their own; it doesn’t matter how you got there, just that you made it. Whether your team finished first or seventh in their conference, everyone has a chance to make something happen. While form is the best indicator of your chances in the postseason, the tactical side of the game is more important than ever when so much is on the line.
From a tactical perspective, Dallas and MNUFC are fairly familiar with one another at this point, having played twice already. The visiting team left with three points on both occasions, a trend the Loons will hope to see continue. Beyond the results of their matches this season, there are plenty of trends and tactics that could play a role in this playoff kickoff. We’ve taken a closer look at the elements that will make or break this game, and have distilled them down for your reading pleasure.
I’ll Give You the Formations for Free
Both of these squads have well-established styles and systems in which they play. FC Dallas plays a fast-paced game, moving the ball with speed and cycling their players around the pitch to create space. Their 4-3-3 formation allows them flexibility in transition, adding numbers to the attack when necessary and providing help on defense in a pinch. This game plan comes with a ton of physical demands, requiring players to cover great distances each 90 minutes.
On the other side of the ball, Minnesota United’s 4-2-3-1 takes a more narrow approach to the game, allowing the team to stretch the length of the field rather than the width. Their typical double pivot is meant to provide solidity in front of the backline, but the rigidity of the formation can create some vulnerabilities against a free-flowing Dallas forward line. On top of that, the space left in the midfield between Emanuel Reynoso and the holding midfielders gives Dallas room to work in.
Ultimately, this game could be decided in the first few minutes; whoever comes out faster and with more energy will likely dictate the shape of their opponent. Dallas will try to spread the field wide, isolating MNUFC defenders and working in the gaps they create with their width. If the Loons can start like they did last time they played Dallas, they can take advantage of the built-in support that their lengthy formation provides to stop their opponents from getting into a rhythm. Either way, the first few minutes will likely set the tone for the rest of the match.
As previously mentioned, the Loons looked good in the first half last time they played Dallas. They were moving the ball quickly and freely, operating perfectly off of the base of their double pivot. Creative runs and ambitious passes highlighted a good run of play for the Black and Blue, keeping them in a tightly-contested match. However, that play seemingly stopped in the second half.
Without teammates moving up front and shifting the defense around, it is going to be virtually impossible for Rey and company to break down the league’s second-best defense. It is absolutely imperative that the front three are mobile on Monday. Otherwise, MNUFC’s attack will be far too predictable once again.
Though they scored two goals last time they were in Dallas, neither Lod nor Taylor’s goals were the result of breaking the opponent down. It’s certainly important to crash the box and take chances however they arise, but no team wants to rely on luck or mistakes from their opponent. To score from the run of play, the Loons are going to need to find a lot of energy within themselves to force Dallas’ backline into making uncomfortable decisions.
Death by Passing
In both matches this season, MNUFC have lost the possession battle. In May, Dallas kept 67% possession and completed 598 passes, 306 more passes than the Loons. When they met again in June, the stats were slightly closer; Dallas maintained just about 60% of the ball and completed just 153 more passes than MNUFC. Despite the closer margin, the trend here is clear; more often than not, Dallas are going to have the ball and Minnesota United are not. So what can they do about that?
If you remember that May match at Toyota Stadium, you’ll recall that the Loons scored two rather unconventional goals. First, Lod followed a freekick, slotting in the rebound after the keeper failed to deal with the initial shot. The second goal was a hit-and-hope from DJ Taylor, who was positioned at the top of the 18 to clean up anything that found its way through after a second consecutive MNUFC corner.
Obviously, one way to score on this team is to take advantage of your set-pieces. With someone like Emanuel Reynoso providing the service, this might be the best bet for MNUFC. Alternatively, breaking the initial press of the Dallas midfield could open up the field for a well-executed counter-attack. It’s not going to be easy, but moving quickly in transition will be key to creating any offense for the Loons.
Goals are often scored by forwards and kept out by defenders and keepers. However, most games aren’t decided on the goal line; rather, the real battle is won or lost in the midfield. On Monday, the midfield matchup will be crucial. Whichever squad controls the middle of the pitch will gain a valuable edge.
For Dallas, a midfield trio of Sebastian Lletget, Paxton Pomykal, and Edwin Cerrillo have developed an incredible understanding with one another. In possession, the entire midfield shifts, with Pomykal creating overloads on the ball-side while Cerillo drifts behind to support. Lletget stays central, though he slides over just enough to stay connected to his midfield partners. When they lose the ball, all three collapse quickly, either winning the ball back or clogging up the center of the pitch to delay the progress of their opponents.
For the Loons, two things are certain; Rey will spearhead the midfield and Trapp will be the anchor. To complete the three, one of Lod or Arriaga will probably be employed. While both players bring a fantastic workrate, Lod’s positional awareness and quality on the ball would better enable the squad to connect the field and keep the ball. Arriaga, on the other hand, compliments Trapp’s game when MNUFC are playing a more defensive style. Regardless of who Coach Heath decides to play, they’re going to need to be ready to cover the entire length and width of the pitch, just to keep up.
Don’t Switch Off
Alright, let’s address the elephant in the room. Last time MNUFC played Dallas, the Loons allowed three goals in as many minutes. In every game of soccer, mistakes are going to be made. It’s not the mistakes you make that really matter, though, it’s how you respond to your slip-ups that shows who you really are.
To avoid another blitz, the MNUFC backline cannot afford to switch off for even a moment. Arriola and Ferreira will be moving constantly, keeping Boxall, Kallman and company on their toes and attempting to create space for one another. They strike quickly and efficiently; whether it’s a cross from wide or a through ball straight up the middle, this team knows how to score. Proper spacing across the back will be massive in shutting down passing lanes and keeping this attack quiet.
If Dallas does find a way through at some point, it’s important that heads don’t drop for the Black and Blue. After scoring, they won’t take their foot off the gas. Switch off for three minutes, you might find yourself down three goals. In the words of Troy Bolton, you gotta just keep your head in the game.
In every corner of the pitch, this game is tailor-made to be exciting. Add in the do-or-die element that the playoffs bring with them and it can only get better. A spot in the conference semifinal is there for the taking; if the Loons can rediscover their dynamic, free-flowing form from midseason, nothing is out of reach.