Previewing the MLS 2020 Play-In Games

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

The MLS playoffs kickoff on Friday with the play-in round in the Eastern Conference. While keys to each game are below, there are two important disclaimers based on this strange season:

  • The statistics on some sites are separated out based on the phase of the season, while on others everything is combined; that makes it a bit difficult at times to do rankings and comparisons.

  • Opponents have been limited for everyone - that makes it very difficult to really evaluate teams, and because of that I've heavily depended on head-to-head matchups.

Inter Miami - Nashville SC

Season Head-to-Head Results

  • Nashville 1 - Miami 0

  • 0-0 Draw

Keys to the Game

Neither of these teams has been strong in possession this year; both averaged under 48%, not surprising for two expansion teams that finished near the middle of the conference. However, Miami owned possession in both head-to-head matchups (53.4% and 54.3%). I expect Miami to aim to do the same in this game- they have the more skilled players on the ball and better hold up play overall. On the other hand, I don’t think Nashville will be upset about that either; they’ve struggled at times against the counter but are generally organized in defense. It will be important that they use that organized defense to allow Miami to hold the ball without working it into dangerous areas.

When they do have the ball, Nashville in particular will be looking to create and take advantage of set pieces - these are the numbers 2 and 5 teams in MLS in shots per game from set pieces. While creating slightly fewer shots from set pieces than Miami, Nashville has scored the most goals in MLS from these opportunities. Walker Zimmerman has been key to that, with three of the set piece goals for Nashville. His ability in the air will be crucial for Nashville at both ends if they hope to move on.

The other key players for Nashville will be Aníbal Godoy and Dax McCarty in the center of the field. Their partnership has been vital, and they work well together in providing a well-rounded impact. Each average almost two tackles per game, as well as close to two interceptions. They also are the top two passers on the team in number of passes per game, with Godoy doing so at almost 92% accuracy. Godoy and McCarty aren’t necessarily depended upon to drive the offense, but their steadiness is crucial for Nashville’s success.

In the case of Miami, they will go as far as Lewis Morgan can take them. He drives their success going forward, leading the club in both goals and assists this season. His ability to dominate the right flank, delivering crosses and key passes, is essential to Miami finding the net. This is a team that struggles to score and convert chances, so his ability to create as many as possible is essential. Miami has to hope that Gonzalo Higuain is the key to more of those opportunities being converted into goals. Unfortunately for them while he’s generated shots, his struggles to score have so far carried over from Europe to MLS.

On the defensive side, Miami has to do a better job at tracking late runs and getting reset for second balls. Both of those were issues for them in their prior meetings with Nashville. The one goal they gave up in the meetings was preceded by the screenshot below - after the initial ball, Miami crowds around the six-yard box and leaves Godoy open at the edge of the box.

My Prediction: Miami 1 - Nashville 0

Montreal Impact - New England Revolution

This Seasons Head-to-Head Results

  • Montreal 2 - New England 1

  • New England 1 - Montreal 0

  • New England 3 - Montreal 1

  • New England 3 - Montreal 2

Keys to the Game

New England is elite at shot differential this season, but hasn’t done a ton with those chances overall. At times it seems like the Revolution are too eager to take the first shot they can instead of working towards a better opportunity. That’s led to a team that’s fourth in shots per 90 being just tenth in shots on target and 20th in goals. So far they’ve been more successful in turning their large shot advantage into goals while playing the Impact, and will hope to continue that in this matchup.

Clearly a key to that success will be Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou. Both have had injury issues and could still be limited, but they give New England a much more dangerous offensive dimension. Bou is second on the team in shots per 90, while Gil is by far their best creator - last year, at full strength, he contributed 3.2 key passes per game and 12 assists.

Montreal has almost been the exact opposite of New England - very poor in shots while overperforming that in goals so far. They are fourth-worst in shots against and seventh-worst in shots for; they still have a poor goal differential, but have avoided being quite as bad as that would seem to indicate. They’ll need to be better than that to have any chance against New England.

The key for Montreal will be to find success on the counter-attack; despite the stats above, they are top five in the league in shots created on the counter this season. That has not translated to success in generating goals so far, but it will need to for them to overcome New England. The key to that success will need to be Romell Quioto. Quioto leads the team in both goals and assists, and New England has struggled with him in the past. His speed created multiple opportunities and goals in prior matchups, and the Revolution will need to be much more successful in containing him in this matchup.

Victor Wanyama will be missing due to international duty forcing quarantine; while he hasn’t been great for Montreal, that puts even more of the pressure on Quioto to be a difference maker.

My Prediction: New England 3 - Montreal 1

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