Match Previews

MLS Eastern Conference semifinal preview: How Red Bulls, Impact match up

The Red Bulls are MLS' hottest team, but Montreal already cooled off the league's second hottest in the knockout round. Paul Tenorio previews how New York -- or the Impact -- will win:

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The New York Red Bulls started the season poorly only to rebound and finish atop the Eastern Conference. The Montreal Impact seemed to trip and fall through the end of the regular season only to bounce back with a dominant 4-2 win over D.C. United in the knockout round of the playoffs on Thursday.

Piatti somehow flew under the radar in the MVP discussions this season, but outside of Sebastian Giovinco, he may be the most dynamic difference-maker in this league.

Now, the two teams will meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals, both with arguments as to why they are playing in peak form, with clashing styles of play. The Red Bulls like to high-press and push the tempo. The Impact invite pressure and look to counter through a front line controlled by one of the league’s top playmakers, Ignacio Piatti.

Will Montreal’s strengths play off of New York’s preferred style? Can the Impact’s midfield handle the movement of Sacha Kljestan, Felipe, Mike Grella and Dax McCarty?

A look at the first Eastern Conference semifinal:

Why New York will win…

Since reversing the early-season problems, the Red Bulls have been the most consistent and dangerous team in the Eastern Conference. Usually in two-game series, the best team gets the results. Top-to-bottom, it’s hard to argue against the Red Bulls as the stronger roster.

Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips both enjoyed MVP-caliber seasons. Their connection was key to turning the Red Bulls into a late-season juggernaut. The Red Bulls finished the regular season on a 16-game unbeaten streak. Their last loss: July 3 at NYCFC. It was a remarkable run that culminated with four consecutive wins to end the season.

New York benefits from its high-press and a midfield that constantly pushes to win the ball and quickly move up the field. Without Dax McCarty’s work rate underneath Kljestan, some of that system experienced hiccups. With McCarty back, however, Kljestan is again able to stay free of too much defensive responsibility and find space between the lines. 

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The importance of McCarty can't be overstated. (Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

With Montreal fielding a veteran trio in central midfield, the Red Bulls will have to be smarter about when and how they presses – theys are all players capable of working out of tight spaces and finding the dangerous attacking players higher up the field – but when New York wins the ball, the Impact midfielders will have to be quick to track. McCarty and Felipe will also face a huge responsibility in shifting to Piatti and making sure he doesn’t have room to cut in and cause problems.

If the Red Bulls can win those battles in the midfield, they should take the series.

Why Montreal will win …

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Piatti should've been in the MVP conversation. (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

We saw on Thursday night what makes the Impact so dangerous: it begins and ends with Ignacio Piatti.

Piatti somehow flew under the radar in the MVP discussions this season, but outside of Sebastian Giovinco, he may be the most dynamic difference-maker in this league. He can score goals and set them up, and there is no defender in MLS capable of winning every 1-on-1 battle over the course of 90 minutes. The Impact has, understandably, built its system around getting Piatti into space.

Montreal defends in a lower block and tries to stay organized with seven behind the ball, then break out into a counterattack. With Piatti on the left wing and the speedy Dominic Oduro on the right wing, it’s difficult for teams to not sacrifice something defensively on balance. Neither 1-on-1 match-up is ideal, and yet usually one of them can get on the ball in space in transition. Against D.C. United, it was Piatti often alone against Nick DeLeon. The result: Not good for D.C., very good for Montreal.

The key for the Impact will be staying organized in midfield in front of the back line, especially in transition. The Red Bulls will pressure quickly near midfield, and the Impact can’t afford to get caught with Hernán Bernardello, Patrice Bernier or Marco Donadel too high up the field. If Montreal stays organized and gives Piatti one or two chances to make his mark on the game, the Impact could very well take down the top seed in the East.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.