Armchair Analyst- What makes a great MLS playoff team

One of my favorite quotes from New England Revolution head coach Bruce Arena – and he has had quite a few over the years– came back when he was LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena.

“Why,” the question was asked, “do your teams have so much success in the playoffs?” Arena had won two MLS Cups with D.C. United in the late 90s, and then won three more with the Galaxy. It was not a particularly good question, but it elicited a very good answer.

“Your best players have to be your best players,” he said. Sounds dismissive, but its not. Every great playoff team, whether a single-season run or a sustained period of success, has been led by their best players. The guys who are paid the most and whose names shine brightest on the marquee have to be the guys who are delivering on the biggest stage, or youre not going to win anything.

To Bruces point: In the 1996 MLS Cup, Marco Etcheverry had two assists. In the 1997 MLS Cup, Jaime Moreno scored the opening goal. In the 1999 MLS Cup (Bruce was already gone, replaced by Thomas Rongen, but it was still largely the same group of D.C. players), Moreno again scored the opening goal.

In 1998, when they lost? It was the best player on the other team, the Chicago Fires Peter Nowak, who ran the show.

Fast forward to the Galaxy dynasty. In 2009, when the Galaxy lost, Landon Donovan and David Beckham were meh, while Jamison Olave and Kyle Beckerman put in dominant performances for Real Salt Lake. In 2011, though, the games only goal went Beckham-to-Robbie Keane-to-Donovan. In 2012 Omar Gonzalez, Donovan and Keane all scored. In 2014, Keane scored the game-winner.

Tony Sanneh scored twice in two MLS Cup appearances under Arena. Eddie Pope had the game-winning golden goal in 1996. Arenas coached in seven MLS Cups, and his teams scored a total of 12 goals in those. Eleven of those 12 goals were scored either by a current/former/future MLS MVP or a USMNT mainstay. The lone outlier was the second goal in 1996, scored by journeyman forward Shawn Medved (a decent, scrappy super-sub type attacker on that team).

So lets start there: Above and beyond everything else, you need really, really good players, and you need them to show up in the biggest games. It helps to have the best talent.

To put it another way: We remember David beating Goliath because Goliath usually wins that fight. Davids big W was an outlier.

A few other things to consider:

Playoff Mentality

I picked my colleague Calen Carrs brain for this, since Calens Dynamo team of a decade ago was one I think everybody considers a quintessential “playoff team.” That group under Dom Kinnear were often able to sort of cruise through the first part of the regular season, kick it into 4th gear around mid-July, then find 5th gear in late September and start charging into the postseason. From 2006 through 2012 they made four MLS Cups in seven years.

“People often say playoff mentality but dont often explain what it means,” Calen said. “To me, it means attention to detail and winning in the smallest of margins– set pieces, duels won, transition moments– that often decide games.”

In other words, you have to be geared toward those chances. Look at Donovans match-winner against Carrs Dynamo from 2011, which came in a transition moment:

The Galaxy had been playing gorgeous, dominant soccer all night. This, however, was a semi-blind clearance that ended up leading to another trophy for LA.

In a lot of ways, this is just “good team” mentality, but those attributes become even more important in the postseason.


Toronto FC in 2017 were arguably the most dominant team in league history through the regular season, primarily playing out of a 3-5-2. And they kept playing that 3-5-2 right through the postseason (which was more of a struggle, but still).

And then in MLS Cup itself they… played out of a 4-4-2 diamond. Its not fair to say it came out of nowhere, as Greg Vanney had used the diamond extensively over the prior few seasons, but it was far from Plan A all year at BMO Field. Its unlikely Seattle were entirely prepared for it, and that showed.

Atlanta United, in 2017 and 2018, were primarily a wide-open, high-possession attacking team that occasionally pressed. Come the playoffs, however, they settled into a lower block and looked to hit primarily on the counter. They were able to do that at perhaps an even higher level than their pure attacking stance.

Their great foil those years, the New York Red Bulls, unleashed the highest and hardest press MLS has ever seen, and were dominant with it. But when they tried to sit in a low block vs. Atlanta in the first leg, they ended up taking a memorable and devastating 3-0 loss.

One team had the flexibility to adjust and win in the biggest games. The other did not.

The Right Mix

Teams built primarily around young players tend not to win championships, but neither do old teams.

“The BEST teams in MLS have found ways to incorporate young talent into experienced playoff teams earlier. Think Seattle with Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris, and TFC with Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado,” Carr said. “Get them that experience early in their careers. As the older players more on, those players are depended on now in big games and have learned.

“Now, doing that without many experienced playoff players can work (FC Dallas gave Seattle a hell of a fight last year), but to a limited degree. Frankly, its the same issue were finding with the national team. Even going back to the old days of MLS I think having a blend of age really matters.”

Sanneh, Pope and Moreno were all young in 1996, but were balanced by the likes of Etcheverry, John Harkes, Jeff Agoos, Richie Williams, Raul Diaz Arce and even Medved. They hadnt done it in MLS at that point (nobody had), but they were long-established pros.

Donovan (19) and Dwayne De Rosario (23) were the goal-scorers for San Jose in their 2001, 2-1 win over the Galaxy. That Quakes team is the youngest ever to win an MLS Cup (and a stark contrast to the veteran KC team that had won in 2000), but the 33-year-old Agoos was organizing the central defense, and 29-year-old Ronnie Ekelund was bossing things in midfield.

Injuries & Luck

Did Atlanta have greater flexibility than the Red Bulls in 2018? Absolutely. Did they also get lucky that Kemar Lawrence picked up an injury while on international duty a week before the game, which probably factored into Chris Armass decision to abandon the press? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

Neither Atlanta nor RBNY were the hottest team in the league entering the 2018 playoffs; that was actually the Seattle Sounders, who put together the best half-season of soccer, in terms of PPG, in league history. They were heavy, heavy favorites to come out of the West.

But in the first leg of the West semis at Portland, Cristian Roldan got hurt around the 25th minute, and Seattle had to play with 10 men for a few minutes. In the interim, the Timbers scored. Roldan was subbed out a minute later, and then Chad Marshall got hurt and was subbed 10 minutes after that. Neither would play in the second leg.

Portland won the first leg 2-1. They then went to Seattle for the second leg and lost 3-2 before advancing on penalties. If Marshall and Roldan are healthy, do Portland score four goals in those two games? Probably not.

Seattle were less hot and less good overall in 2019, and LAFC were the gigantic favorites in the West final. But Mark-Anthony Kaye had missed the previous three weeks with a hamstring strain and was questionable for the game. He didnt start but subbed in at the break for Latif Blessing, who himself picked up a muscle injury in the first half.

So basically, at no point was LAFCs central midfield whole or fit during the playoffs. If Kaye and Blessing are healthy, do the Sounders waltz right up the gut and score three goals in that game? Probably not.

Of that list, Im going to say the very obvious thing and reiterate Bruces point from the very beginning: Give me the best talent, or something close to it. That is the best foundation. read more

French Police Intercept Private Jet For Breaking Lockdown Rules – Time

On Saturday, French police intercepted a group of ten vacationers arriving at France’s Cote d’Azur on a private jet despite a travel ban.

Since March 17, the French government has banned all non-essential travel in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. Only those with an international travel certificate which attests that a journey is essential can enter France.

They were coming for a holiday in Cannes and three helicopters were waiting on the tarmac, a border police spokesperson told Agence France-Press. We notified them they were not allowed to enter the national territory and they left four hours later.

The Embraer Legacy jet, chartered by a Croatian business man, arrived at the Marseille-Provence airport from London at 2pm on April 4, according to the French news channel BFMTV who spoke with local police. The group, consisting of seven men ages 40-50 and three women ages 24-27, had planned to get private helicopters to Cannes, where a rented luxury villa awaited them.

Authorities at the airport contacted the airport border control who fined the vacationers, along with the hired helicopter pilot, and sent them home, according BFMTV.

Currently, commercial flights have been significantly reduced but authorities are keeping a close eye on private jets, especially as rich vacationers look to travel to their second homes for the Easter long-weekend.

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Inter Miami CF goalkeeper Luis Robles- -We can be a conduit of change-

Inter Miami CF goalkeeper Luis Robles admits that considering everything going on in the world currently, the news that MLS and the MLS Players Associationhave come to an agreement on anew CBA that would allow for the leagues season to resume at a tournament in Orlando feels insignificant.

With that in mind, speaking with reporters on a video conference call on Thursday, Robles said his ultimatehope is that a return to the field will be about more than the games being played and give MLS players an expanded platform to help push the conversation forward and be part ofa spark for change.

“Players recognize that we can be a conduit of change, that we can be a force for change and what’s happening across our communities —we have to be able to use our platforms,” Robles said.”So, in order for us to use our platforms in the biggest way possible and the loudest way possible, I think we have to be on the field.

“I’m not saying Orlando becomes this perfect opportunity for us to be an agent of that change, but it helps,” he continued.”So as we look forward to getting back onto the field, as we look forward to progressing this league and getting the results that allow our organizations to be successful, it’s just kind of somber in a way because there’s so much going on in our country. And I think we have a very responsible and insightful player pool that recognizes that and they’ve already reacted in such positive ways to be influential for the right reasons. I think by us getting back onto the field and the spotlight being on our play again, it just opens that up.”

Robles said he was inspired at seeing what players in the Bundesliga, which resumed play two weeks ago, have been doing to speak out regarding the police brutality protests that were sparked all over the world following the killing of George Floyd. Robles citedBorussia Dortmunds Jadon Sanchoand US mens national team and Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie as examples of players who have shown how athletes can use their platforms to help keep the issues of systemic racism and police brutalityat the forefront of our minds.

“What a beautiful thing that we’ve been able to witness in the Bundesliga, with Jadon Sancho, the way that he stood up for George Floyd’s fight and the fight that so many people have taken on,” Robles said. “For Weston McKennie to really galvanize such an incredible group of players and athletes to represent what change could look like, I look at these things and I’m hopeful, I’m optimistic about what change could look like and that change is possible.”

With Thursdays news that MLS has lifted its team training moratorium implemented on March 12 and teams can submit individual club plans to return to full-team training, the hope is that return to the field is on the horizon.

From the soccer side of it, Robles said he and his teammates are looking at the tournament as an opportunity to establish a winning culture for an expansion side that only played two matches before the leagues hiatus, remaining competitive in both, but finding themselves still in search of a first MLS win.

“The incentive is to continue the journey, the journey that started from the moment I signed, to the journey that dates back to the moment David Beckham activated his clause,” Robles said.”As we continue and get back to play in Orlando, we havent won a game yet. Thats going to be a story, when we win our first game. But we want to win. In our mind, were developing a winning culture, our results havent said that so thats something we have to rectify right away.

“We have winners on this team. You look at Roman Torres, you look at [Rodolfo] Pizarro, Lee Nguyen, AJ DeLaGarza, Wil Trapp, I could go on. Theres guys who understands what it takes to be successful and win. So we want that process to continue and we want it to culminate in not only victories, but trophies. And the only way we can do that is to get back onto the field and if Orlando is that then thats what its going to be — an opportunity to continue that journey.”

WATCH: Luis Robles has strong words about the Reyes-Dwyer incidentJuly 9, 2020 (1 min)Doyle: How Miami righted the ship, then came undoneJuly 9, 2020 (2 min)