In the parity-driven world of MLS, losing one influential attacker can be a crippling blow. Losing two of them? Better luck next year.
Yet many a pundit still liked FC Dallas' chances of making a deep postseason run this fall, despite Fabian Castillo's messy midseason departure and Mauro Diaz's recent Achilles tear. While there's a lot to admire about that sturdy back line and deep crop of central midfielders, most of this belief on the FCD bandwagon was hitched to Oscar Pareja.
Perhaps regarded as the league's most tactically astute coach, Pareja led Dallas to the U.S. Open Cup title and Supporters' Shield by crafting a system that hinges on organization but also gives Dallas' difference-makers ample opportunity to shine. With the two most influential playmakers out of the picture, there was reason to believe Pareja would think outside the box — as he's done to great success before — and reinvent FCD en route to the MLS Cup.
Sure enough, Pareja broke out a rarely used formation for Dallas' Western Conference semifinal first leg at the Seattle Sounders on Sunday. What we didn't expect? That Seattle interim coach Brian Schmetzer would best Pareja with a wrinkle of his own.
The average formations for Seattle (left) and Dallas on Sunday. Note the positioning of Sounders forward Jordan Morris (No. 13).
As Pareja turned to a 3-5-2, Schmetzer countered by pushing forward Jordan Morris to the left flank in Seattle's 4-2-3-1. That decision largely was made to accommodate striker Nelson Valdez, who earned the start with a late winner off the bench in the knockout round triumph over Sporting Kansas City, but it was Morris' positional tweak that undid Dallas.
Playing an unfamiliar role on the right side of a three-man back line, Walker Zimmerman often found himself pinned back and pulled out wide, where Dallas was ill-equipped to deal with Morris' speed and tenacity. As Morris cut inside, Seattle central midfielder Cristian Roldan floated to the left flank to provide width. Left back Joevin Jones attacked with vigor on the overlap. And there was no true winger on the opposite flank, with Nicolas Lodeiro and Erik Friberg both tucked in to further overload the left side of the field.
The eventual result: three goals in eight minutes early in the second half, as Valdez opened the scoring and Lodeiro provided a quick-fire brace. Jones set up two of those goals while Morris orchestrated the other, giving Schmetzer's Sounders a commanding 3-0 lead heading into the second leg in Frisco, Texas.
Dallas isn't done just yet — but Pareja really needs something special now to keep the treble dream alive.
While Dallas' 3-5-2 fell flat in Seattle, Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney has enjoyed better fortune with that alignment this postseason. Having used the formation sporadically, Vanney turned to it for a win over the Chicago Fire in the regular season finale and has struck with the look through a pair of postseason matches.
So far, so good: After a 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union in the knockout round, TFC got late goals from Jozy Altidore and Tosaint Ricketts en route to a 2-0 first leg victory against New York City FC on Sunday.
The average formation for Toronto FC on Sunday. Note the positioning of wing back Justin Morrow (No. 2).
One reason TFC hasn't missed a beat? In execution, the alignment actually isn't a huge departure from the 4-4-2 the club has often used this season. Toronto largely falls into a traditional four-man back line of (right to left) Steven Beitashour, Eriq Zavaleta, Drew Moor and Nick Hagglund. That leaves Morrow — listed as the left wing back — to push higher than any player not named Jozy Altidore or Sebastian Giovinco.
You also have to give credit to midfielder Armando Cooper, a mid-August signing who made just six regular season appearances but could leave a lasting impression on this postseason. Playing on the right side of a three-man central midfield, the Panama international did far more than frustrate David Villa — he connected on 26 of 27 passes and led all of Sunday's matches with 14 duels won and six fouls drawn.
Following an offseason makeover, the LA Galaxy entered 2016 with one of the more decorated central midfield duos MLS has seen: Nigel de Jong and Steven Gerrard. But with De Jong now playing for Galatasaray and Gerrard working his way back from a hamstring strain, it's been Sebastian Lletget — a reserve winger as recently as August — who has been pulling the strings in the middle.
Lletget had himself a game Sunday as the Galaxy earned a 1-0 win over the Colorado Rapids in the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal series. Completing 63 of 69 passes, the 24-year-old kept the ball moving with pace and precision while covering plenty of ground.
It's also worth noting that Lletget topped all players Sunday with three dribbles completed, proving that his one-on-one tendencies don't go to waste in central midfield. And don't forget that Lletget's performance came against the Rapids' Sam Cronin and Michael Azira, who quietly formed one of the league's best midfield partnerships this season.
— In terms of midfield trios, the New York Red Bulls' Dax McCarty, Felipe and Sacha Kljestan comprise the league's cream of the crop. So it was impressive to see the veteran contingent of Hernan Bernardello (30 years old), Marco Donadel (33) and Patrice Bernier (37) hold their own in the Montreal Impact's 1-0 first-leg victory, just three days after a knockout round win over D.C. United.
Donadel was particularly crucial, making eight interceptions, winning a game-high eight duels and creating three scoring chances, including the over-the-top ball that set up Matteo Macosu's winner.
— A 36-year-old who has been a part of the Seattle organization since 2002, Zach Scott is finally calling it a career at season's end. Having made just one start since early July, Scott seemed to have already played his last match.
But with Roman Torres sidelined by a hamstring injury and Brad Evans not at 100 percent because of a back problem, Scott got the call against Dallas and led all players Sunday with seven interceptions as the Sounders kept a clean sheet.
— Patrick Vieira's possession-driven philosophy saw NYCFC complete 79 percent of its passes during the regular season. With Andrea Pirlo sidelined by a calf injury and Vieira implementing more conservative tactics, NYCFC strung together just 70 percent of its passes at BMO Field.
— Alan Gordon continues to start up top over Robbie Keane for the Galaxy, and his consistent hold-up play is a big reason why: The 6-foot-3 striker connected on 35 of 38 passes and won eight duels against the Rapids.