FOXBOROUGH – Postseason elimination games tend to turn into conservative, tactical duels. In the MLS Cup playoffs, caution can be taken to an extreme, as shown when Real Salt Lake failed to take a shot in regulation and extra time before eliminating the Seattle Sounders on penalty kicks after a 0-0 tie on Wednesday.
Such a scenario probably won’t happen when the Revolution meet New York City FC in the Eastern Conference semifinals at Gillette Stadium Tuesday. Both teams are confident with the ball and are willing to take risks, relying on skill and the belief they can outmaneuver the opposition via creativity, speed of thought, and flat-out speed and quickness.
“They’re very talented, a lot of good pieces, they know how to play, and they’ve been playing together for a long time, a lot of their core group,” Revolution midfielder Tommy McNamara said of NYCFC. “Both teams want to be positive-thinking, attacking-thinking, and that should make for a difficult game but an exciting game.”
McNamara, who played three seasons at Brown University, was with NYCFC from 2015-18. The club is part of City Football Group, which operates 10 teams in 10 countries, including Manchester City, which has led the Premier League in scoring the last four years and won three titles in that span.
“That’s in their identity, that’s City Football Group, that’s how they play,” McNamara said. “They want to be proactive, they want to play through lines, and attack the ball and play exciting soccer. We want to do the same thing so it should make a good one for the supporters.”
The Revolution led the league with 65 goals (1.91 per game) and NYCFC was tied for third with 56 this season. NYC’s Valentin Castellanos won the Golden Boot with 19 goals - the Revolution’s Adam Buksa was tied for fifth with 16.
But these are not careless sides lacking tactical discipline. NYCFC’s goals against total of 36 (1.06 per game) was sixth in the league, three goals more than leaders New York Red Bulls. The Revolution surrendered 41 goals (1.19 per game), ninth-best.
And though the teams’ styles can produce plenty of fireworks, there is no guarantee of high scoring.
Castellanos’ goals per game average (0.59) was the lowest for a league leader since 2006. Buksa (16 goals) and teammate Gustavo Bou (15) combined for fewer goals than the 2019 Golden Boot winner, Carlos Vela, who converted 34 for Los Angeles FC that season.
Goals or not, the matchups should be worth watching. The Revolution hope to neutralize the wings via outside backs Brandon Bye and DeJuan Jones, who have emerged as lockdown defenders.
In midfield, both teams boast experienced, skillful leaders, who also happen to be the most inconspicuous players - off the field, anyway. Revolution captain Carles Gil, who stands 5 feet 7 inches and NYC’s 5-foot-2 Maxi Moralez. Gil led the league with 18 assists; Moralez, the top playmaker with 20 assists in 2019, had 11 assists this season.
The supporting midfielders are combative and tactically savvy, and the Revolution could have an advantage with Matt Polster and McNamara, since NYCFC will be without Keaton Parks (season-ending leg injury). The wild cards in midfield are the Revolution’s Tajon Buchanan, who emerged in the playoffs last season and has scored eight goals this year, plus another five in international play with Canada; and NYC’s Brazilians Thiago Andrade and Talles Magno, plus Jesus Medina.
Bou and Buksa will be up against NYC central defenders Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot, and Castellanos will be matched against the Revolution’s Andrew Farrell and Henry Kessler. Bou has been given the freedom to find the game, and can perform as a playmaking forward or finisher; Buksa has proven to be among the top hold-up strikers in the league, and developed into an effective finisher in the air or with either foot. Castellanos, meanwhile, performs several roles: back-to-goal target man, playmaker, and goal-scorer.
The Revolution boast a slight advantage in goal – Matt Turner has been named Goalkeeper of the Year and is contending for a starting position on the US national team, while NYC’s Sean Johnson has been in the running for No. 3 for the United States.
Expect both Turner and Johnson to be busy, if the offenses are clicking in the Revolution’s first postseason home match with fans since 2014 (they defeated Montreal, 2-1, last year behind closed doors).
“We have really good attacking players, that’s our strength, so why would we not play to that?” McNamara said. “It wouldn’t make sense to reign those guys in and ask them to do things that aren’t their strengths. We need to be smart and we can’t take unnecessary risks, of course. When the ball turns over we need to make sure we’re in good spots and recovering and communicating very well, and organize before the ball turns over and after the ball’s turned over.”
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.