NYCFC players celebrate their win over Inter Miami CF. (Mark Smith-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis
FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

New York City FC might have cut through the Inter Miami CF defense with relative ease in its first playoff match on Monday, but the Cityzens know they will have their work cut out for them against CF Montreal.

City dominated a Miami team that gave away the ball in at times looked like a one-sided, half-field game for the hosts, who posted a 3-0 triumph over Miami in the opening-round of the MLS Cup Playoffs at Citi Field on Monday night.

Montreal, which finished in second place in the Eastern Conference, is expected to be a much greater challenge when they clash in the Eastern Conference semifinals at Saputo Stadium on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

“It’s one of the toughest opponents we’ve faced this year,” NYCFC right back Anton Tinnerholm said during a Friday Zoom call with the media. “Maybe the toughest one, so it’s going be tough.”

For a number of reasons.

Montreal (20-9-5, 65 points) lost out to the Philadelphia Union on winning the conference crown. NYCFC (16-11-7, 55) took third. Sixth-seeded Miami (14-14-8, 48) , which qualified for the playoffs by the skin of its teeth, deployed what can be called a Swiss cheese defense against NYCFC. The hosts took advantage of that by outshooting Miami, 27-11.

Sunday’s foes have similar styles as they like to possess the ball and both squads like to use either three or five players on the backline, depending on their formation.

“We always want to have the ball and they always want to have the ball,” Tinnerholm said. “So, in that case, we play familiar and then they play with the three back or five back or whatever you want to call it as we do as well. So, it’s a lot of similarities between the teams.

“I think it’s going to be a great game. … When you play the same style as of the opponent it can be a fantastic game that goes back back and forth for or you play each other into their other hands. So it’s going to be 0-0. You never know what what to expect, but he quality is there. It’s going to be a tougher game than the [Miami] game.”

NYCFC won the season series with a a 1-0-1 mark. The Cityzens rolled to a 4-1 victory at Yankee Stadium on March 12 before playing to a scoreless draw at Saputo on July 30.

“They’re a really good team,” interim head coach Nick Cushing said. “I think you have to stop them causing you problems in and around your box. I think we’re probably better in the nil-nil game of defending because if you look at the goal that they scored in the [4-1] game, and they put us under pressure.

“WWe defended the game really, really well at Montreal. The problem was we didn’t have enough of the ball. We know they are a team that wants to keep the ball. … It’s about trying to stop, deny them space, whether it’s spacing around our goal. It’s about not being pulled apart and try not to have that period that we had at Yankee Stadium where they put us under a lot of pressure.”

NYCFC must come out strong against Montreal or suffer the consequences. It comes down to Cushing making sure the team is properly focused.

“It’s about making sure the players are prepared, but also making sure that they’re hungry and that they have a huge desire to go into the Montreal game and put in a performance,” he said. “You’ve got to trust and rely on the players that they will do everything that they can do within the process that we work in – and us as staff put in place – to be fresh and to be hungry.

“I think that we’ve done that really well, leading into the last four games. We’ve done the same this week. We follow the same process. We follow the same principles and for us. It’s about freshness.

“The most pleasing part of the game [on Monday] was the intensity that we played. The performance was key for us to continue to grow in confidence, to continue to grow in performance. … If we play to that intensity with and without the ball, we know we can make the game difficult for the opposition.”