What to watch for in the 2021 MLS conference finals

Written By Harrison Hamm on December 3, 2021

This MLS postseason has been all over the place.

We’ve seen the regular season champion New England Revolution eliminated in a penalty shootout after a wild 2-2 game. The Seattle Sounders, mainstays deep in the playoffs, lost in the first round to Real Salt Lake despite not conceding a single shot. Favorites Colorado and Sporting KC went down in the conference semifinals.

This weekend, we’ll have two conference final matches to determine who will play in MLS Cup. Almost no one would have predicted these four finalists a couple of weeks ago, but that’s the unpredictability of MLS (and one-off games).

Let’s take a look at what to watch for in both games.

Portland Timbers vs. Real Salt Lake (Saturday, 6:30pm ET, Fox Sports 1)

Portland -105 | Draw +270 | Real Salt Lake +290

Neither of these two teams had a positive expected goal differential in the regular season. The Timbers leaked chances all year, relying on a deadly counter attack and the stardom of Sebastian Blanco, who lit up the scoresheet after he returned from injury. RSL barely snuck into the playoffs, only managing the seventh seed on goal differential over the LA Galaxy.

But both of these clubs have shown something in the playoffs that they didn’t have in the regular season. As it turns out, they are uniquely equipped for the intense and competitive environment of winner-take-all playoff games.

Portland has managed to keep teams in front of them, only conceding one goal through two games. They got out in transition in their first round win over Minnesota and then beat Colorado on a last-ditch set piece in stoppage time. They haven’t possessed the ball all season, and while they’re playing at home against a bunkering opponent, I wouldn’t expect them to start trying to play on the ball.

RSL is simply very effective at stopping opponents from generating chances. They were the team that beat the Sounders despite never registering a shot — they won in penalties after a scoreless 120 minutes — and they defeated SKC by erasing their attack. Sporting, who lost 2-1, generated just 0.17 open-play xG.

There is nothing complicated about what RSL does. Led by interim coach Pablo Mastroeni (who longtime MLS fans will remember from that defensively-stout 2016 Rapids team), RSL make sound rotations and mark star players out of the game. They are disciplined and tough to break down.

Something has to give between RSL’s desire to play deep and the Timbers’ desire to get out in transition.

Philadelphia Union vs. NYCFC (Sunday, 3pm ET, ABC)

Philadelphia +140 | Draw +230 | NYCFC +205

While the Revolution were certainly favorites, it’s not surprising to see Philly and NYC playing for a spot in the final. They finished second and fourth in the Eastern Conference, just three points apart, and boast talented, well-coached teams.

A big part of the story will be how well NYC plays without four important starters. Keaton Parks, Anton Tinnerholm and Nicolas Acevado have been out since the beginning of the postseason with various injuries, and now star forward Valentin Castellanos will be suspended after picking up two yellow cards against the Revs. Castellanos, especially, is a big loss — he’s their main scorer, with the ability to open space for teammates, and he’s also an elite defensive forward.

They’ll need a big performance from Maxi Moralez. Expect them to keep possessing the ball and trying to create through passing, putting Moralez in positions to generate chances.

Philly is known as a solid, effective defensive team with a coordinated and calculated press. Games between these teams are always interesting because it’s a tactical matchup of the Union’s press against New York City’s possession. The difference-maker for the Union will be the production they can get from their attack, which does not have the same sort of elite talent.

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