By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 21, 2022) US Soccer Players – Sunday’s two Major League Soccer playoffs matches won’t feature the top seeds in the Eastern or Western Conference. They won’t feature the league’s most historically successful club or the team that put together the biggest turnaround in the span of a year. But they will feature two of the league’s best and most surprising teams against stiff opposition with their own reasons for belief.
CF Montreal’s challenge for the top spot in the Eastern Conference came up short on Decision Day. However, finishing second assured them of home-field advantage through this round. Montreal’s surprising regular season showed an intelligent and patient team that rarely lost a lead. It could be the platform for a first-ever MLS Cup championship.
In round one of the playoffs, Montreal handled Orlando City at Stade Saputo in a 2-0 win. The task in round two gets decidedly harder as the defending MLS Cup champion travels north from New York City with designs on defending its title. NYCFC arrives as a confident group that looks a lot like the team that won three road games on its way to a championship in 2021.
Under Wilfried Nancy, Montreal grew in confidence following the disappointment of dropping out of the Concacaf Champions League in the quarterfinals and a three-game losing run to start the season. After that, Montreal never went more than two games without a win. The club finished out the regular season with a four-game winning streak and posted its best-ever point total at 65.
Montreal finished third in the conference in goals scored. While not one of the league’s top defenses, they made up for some of that by posting more road wins than any club in MLS.
The one match Montreal played against NYCFC at Stade Saputo this season ended in a goalless draw on July 31. A look at the numbers from that game suggests that result was more about CF Montreal. They outshot NYCFC 13-2 and dominated possession, finishing with a 60-40 advantage in that category. Keep an eye on the flanks, particularly Montreal’s left, and NYCFC’s right. That’s where Montreal prefers to attack.
For NYCFC, going on the road in the playoffs is now standard operating procedure. On the way to lifting the MLS Cup trophy last season, they beat New England, Philadelphia, and Portland away from home. Two of those wins came on penalties, including the victory over Portland in the MLS Cup final. NYCFC knows how to handle the pressure of the playoffs and won’t be awed by the scene in Montreal.
Using Citi Field on Monday, NYCFC beat Inter Miami 3-0. Interim coach Nick Cushing won his first playoff match without key figures Tales Magno and Keaton Parks in the starting lineup. US international Alfredo Morales also missed out with a calf injury. Parks entered as a substitute against Miami and should play a role in Montreal. The statuses of Magno and Morales are unclear.
In these playoffs, the terms “favorite” and “underdog” only have so much utility. Few will be shocked if NYCFC beats CF Montreal at Stade Saputo, even if Montreal is the home team and the higher seed. A similar dynamic is set for Sunday’s Western Conference matchup when Austin FC hosts FC Dallas in a Texan battle for a berth in the conference semifinals.
Austin is the surprise number two seed in the West after a sophomore year in which Josh Wolff’s team made massive strides. A few smart offseason moves and the development of a dynamic attack led by MVP finalist Sebastian Driussi pushed Austin up the table early in the regular season. Any doubts around Austin’s status as a contender melted in the heat of the summer and disappeared entirely after a 4-1 win over LAFC in late August.
Austin’s first playoff game tested the club’s mettle. Real Salt Lake took an early two-goal lead, with Austin coming back in regulation to push the match into extra time. Moving to penalties, Austin handled the moment perfectly by making three kicks while goalkeeper Brad Stuver made two saves.
The playoffs present a simple task, survive and advance. Austin did that. In the thick of the fight, there’s no reason to worry about the next game, not when you’re not sure there will be one.
Still, the effort needed to overcome Real Salt Lake on Saturday is something to consider at this time of year. One-hundred-and-twenty minutes of high-intensity soccer will sap any team. Fortunately for Austin, FC Dallas arrives in the Texas capital after putting in the same amount of work to defeat Minnesota on Monday night, which means less rest.
Dallas is the underdog in the all-Texas affair, but only slightly. They did what was needed to take care of Minnesota United and executed a perfect penalty shootout. Winning in the playoffs is rarely about playing pretty soccer. Most often, it’s games that you win by any means necessary. Dallas is capable of playing very good soccer and needs to find a rhythm on the road in a hostile environment.
Dallas subbed off Paxton Pomykal at halftime against Minnesota, but he should be available for head coach Nico Estevez. That’s a boost for the visitors. Pomykal could be key to preventing Austin from getting service to the always-dangerous Driussi. Pomykal also makes life easier for the key players in FC Dallas’s attack, Jesus Ferreira, Paul Arriola, and Sebastian Lletget.
Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
More From Jason Davis:
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- Are all playoff teams contenders in MLS?
- Minnesota vs Vancouver, Real Salt Lake vs Portland, and Orlando vs Columbus highlight Decision Day
Photo by Daniel Lea – CSM via ZUMA Press Wire – ISIPhotos.com