MLS Playoffs: The play-in games for the MLS Cup Playoffs begin Friday with in an international tete-a-tete prior to brand new clubs matching in the Western Conference.
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New England hosts Montreal just after dinner before expansion sides Inter Miami and Nashville SC tangle in Tennessee.
Nashville SC v Inter Miami CF
9 pm ET Friday
Two expansion teams meet in Tennessee, where Nashville hopes its MLS Defender of the Year can thwart one of the best scorers of the last decade in Europe.
Walker Zimmerman is the defender in question and Gonzalo Higuain the forward, as two teams with very different first seasons tangle in a play-in game.
MLS announced Zimmerman’s award on Wednesday. He remains a fierce tackler and well-positioned defender, but he’s advanced the ball more this season and is having his best season in key passes.
ProSoccerTalk asked Zimmerman about what’s different this year, especially given his coach is known for a strict and demanding defensive set-up.
“With every team you’re asked to do different things,” Zimmerman said. “When you play with two holding mids who are diligent in their defensive work, I feel comfortable knowing that Dax and Godoy can move over and step into that space (if he advances). It’s been fun to attack a bit more. I’ve been caught a couple of times this year. It’s my job to make sure I go forward in a smart and controlled manner.”
Nashville is led by a former MLS Cup-winning coach in Gary Smith, whose 2010 Colorado Rapids surprised the field with a run to the cup from the league’s seventh-best record.
Led by Zimmerman, Dax McCarty, and Anibal Godoy, Smith’s men are going to grind against the 10th-seed IMCF.
“They’ve gone about their business very differently to us and that’s easy to see in the way that they’ve put this group together,” Smith said of Miami. “What you see with the two teams is soccer in general… We feel as though we’ve created some very strong foundations and I would suspect maybe there’s a little bit more disappointment in their camp.”
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The Georgia-born USMNT back, 27, has been considered one of the best center backs in the league dating back to his partnership with Matt Hedges.
Back then, we were asking him about his future USMNT hopes. Now he’s a mainstay who may be the best match for the national team’s No. 1 left center back in John Brooks.
Now Zimmerman has 12 caps and two goals for the U.S., whose head coach Gregg Berhalter is weighing up the best options for a center back corps that includes Brooks, Matt Miazga, Chris Richards, Tim Ream, and others.
Zimmerman told ProSoccerTalk he was just as excited as USMNT fans to watch young prospects like Giovanni Reyna and Yunus Musah make their first starts for Gregg Berhalter.
“Really excited, lot of debuts,” Zimmerman said. “I know the staff was excited to get back out there. I know when the next camp rolls around, a lot of MLS guys will be looking forward to doing the same.”
Zimmerman’s award coming while Miazga had one subpar and one poor match in the U.S. shirt has moved him up in our Top 25 players in the USMNT pool.
Nashville and Inter Miami met twice in late summer, with Inter failing to score as Nashville won in Tennessee and drew in Florida.
New England Revolution versus Montreal Impact
9 pm ET Friday
It’s old versus new when legendary MLS coach Bruce Arena goes up against first-time manager Thierry Henry in the 9-10 match-up.
Arena is giving a lot of credit to the former Arsenal, Barcelona, and New York Red Bulls star for his success despite playing away from home for most of the season due to COVID-19 restrictions at the United States border.
He also appreciates the way Henry has marshaled his team.
“He’s been pretty determined about the fact that he wanted his team to play and they build out of pressure and they’ve been pretty consistent with that,” Arena said, via MLSSoccer.com. “That’s not easy to do in a first year with a team, so I give him a lot of credit for that.”
Montreal beat New England on Feb. 29 but has since thrice lost to the Revolution.
Odds and ends (full odds provided by our partner, PointsBet)
New England (-160) v Montreal (+400) | Draw (+320)
Nashville (+140) v Inter Miami (+200) | Draw (+225)
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How to watch MLS playoffs, stream and start times
Match No. 1: New England versus Montreal
Kickoff time: 6:30 pm ET Friday
TV Channel: FS1
Stream: Fox Sports Go
Match No. 2: Nashville SC v Inter Miami CF
Kickoff: 9 pm ET Friday
TV Channel: ESPN2