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Armchair Analyst: Smallest team in MLS, figuring out midfield & other Week 22 thoughts

This is where the big fight – Helm's Deep-sized – is going to happen this year:

That red line is going to break some hearts in the Western Conference. It'll do the job in the East, too, but it's not like that conference is overflowing with teams that would be overly scary come November.

Let's confine ourselves to the present, though. A lot can change between now and the playoffs.

Here are a few things we saw in Week 22:


1. The Smallest Team in MLS

This isn't about Joao Plata and Ned Grabavoy.

Well, it is about them, but not about how short they are. It's about how small they – and their teammates – can make the game, and how even good pressure becomes just a series of orange cones for them.

RSL, who easily polished off D.C. United to the tune of 3-0, are starting to play like the RSL of old. Part of that is a bunch of key players getting healthy (and getting back from the World Cup), and a nice elevation in positional awareness from Olmes Garcia, who has taken on No. 9 responsibilities of late. He's done a good job of staying central and keeping the attention of defenders, which allows the rest of the RSL attack to drift.

Watch how hard they are to pin to the sideline:

Usually when you get someone along the sideline you’re in good shape, but RSL are actually way more composed when the game is compact like that than when it’s wide open. They’d rather make the game small on one side of the field or the other and create overloads there, and then dare you to chase them. Once you follow their overload, they slide it back central and go right at you, usually down the middle. This isn’t unique in MLS, but they do it better than anyone else in the league.

That's the "pick your poison" aspect of facing this team, which has now won three of four and are unbeaten in five after a pretty lousy June: Follow them to the sideline and they're liable to cut you up with passes like that before swinging back central for Kyle Beckerman, who just loves to create from dead on, about 40 yards out...

– or –

Don't follow them to the sideline and let Plata, Grabavoy, Luis Gil or Luke Mulholland – or even Javier Morales should he drift that high and wide – get unimpeded service into the box.

Most teams choose to try to compress RSL, which is probably the right choice. But not always, and as summer wears on, the Claret-and-Cobalt are finding new and better ways to hurt any sort of overcommitment.


2. Midfield Moves in Red

A couple of interesting things are happening with Toronto FC, who've held up better without Jermain Defoe and Steven Caldwell than anybody had a right to expect.

First (and most important) is that Michael Bradley and Collen Warner are sorting themselves out, with Bradley slowly becoming more of a pure No. 8 and Warner something like a 6.5. He doesn't stay home enough to be a true No. 6, but he's closer than he was just a few weeks ago.

On the left are Warner's defensive interventions vs. D.C. United from a couple of weeks back – an ugly 3-0 loss for the Reds. On the right are his defensive interventions vs. Columbus this past weekend, a well-earned 3-2 win:

Warner's playing a bit deeper and more central, which has allowed Bradley more freedom to control the game – both where it's played and the shape of it.

On the left are Bradley's passes (successful and not) vs. D.C., while on the right is the win over Columbus:

Two things really jump out: vs. D.C., Bradley was incredibly central, and was pretty much reduced to hitting through balls/long balls/chips. Against Columbus, he could drift around more and create a bit of dangerous possession thanks in large part to Warner cleaning up behind him.

There's also this:

This is actually from last week, but it's still applicable. If TFC are going to jump from "pretty good" to "legit MLS Cup threat," Osorio is going to have to be a factor. When he plays inverted on one side of the midfield with either Dominic Oduro or Jackson on the other side, it allows for a level of flexibility that most teams can't account for.

Look at how close Osorio and Bradley are here, and how that opens up a lane for Oduro:

TFC fans now just have to hope Dom can put a few more of those on frame instead of into the 12th row.


3. The Song Remains the Same

Here's what I wrote after Week 1, which saw the Whitecaps stroll to a 4-1 win over New York:

"But... man, the 'Caps had all sorts of time in transition. Nobody on New York was able to even bother the Vancouver build-up, and by the time Pedro Morales came on (and yes, he laid down a significant marker in the "Newcomer of the Year" race), the home team was rampant:

That's bad from the Red Bulls. Transition defense is going to be the first and most important film session of the week in Jersey."

First, Morales is probably leading the "Newcomer of the Year" race since Defoe's been out a bit with an injury, and since Bradley's stats just aren't there (not really his fault).

Second, the thing with playing Vancouver is the same in Week 22 as it was in Week 1: Get pressure to their central midfield or be prepared to get the ball out of your own net.

That story told itself again on Sunday evening against Sporting KC in a 2-0 win for the 'Caps. To be fair to Sporting, they’re basically trying to rebuild their midfield on the fly while still competing for the Supporters' Shield, but they had to do better getting to Morales. The Chilean DP was able to pick his spots early, pinging long passes into lanes and forcing the Sporting backline to retreat. As a result of that, they dropped their line deeper. And as a result of that, this happened:

Then, because Sporting had to chase the game, they brought their line back up, which allowed Morales to play Vancouver’s speedy attackers into space at will. The full match highlights (HERE) are packed with an unusual amount of emergency defense from the champs. Morales is the biggest reason why.

Of course, I’m still not sold on the ‘Caps as a playoff team. Their defense has been dodgy all summer, and they’re a little bit one trick pony-ish in attack.

But it’s a great trick, one that's looking just as deadly in August as it was in March.


A few more things to ponder...

7. Don't touch Diego Valeri because you will burn. The man is on fire, with goals in four straight games and five of six. His latest materpiece came in Portland's comfortable 2-0 win over Chivas TBD, He now has six goals and eight assists in his last 15, and is solidly in the "Who's the best midfielder in the league?" debate.

6. #PrayForDjimi:

Giles Barnes did Djimi Traore something awful there, but Seattle had the last laugh in a 2-0 win on Sunday night. That puts the Sounders back atop the Shield standings on both points per game and total points.

5. I talked a bit about Sporting's midfield above, but spare a thought for their defense. Igor Julião had that horrible own-goal; Matt Besler's hospital ball led to the second Vancouver score, and Aurelien Collin was called for a (dubious) penalty that was saved.

It all led to this glorious Face of the Week from the French All-Star:

4. Friday night was supposed to be about Landon Donovan – and he did have some nice moments. But he also had one very bad one: a midfield giveaway that led to San Jose's second goal in a 2-2 draw (huge point for the Quakes).

San Jose's Chris Wondolowski wins our Pass of the Week for this bit of cleverness that turned Donovan's turnover into a Matias Perez Garcia thunderbolt:

3. The jury's still out on the Philadelphia Union's final form after this weekend's weird 2-1 win over Montreal. They gave up nearly 70 percent possession for the second straight week, and while much of that was down to game states, sooner or later Philly will have to figure out how to hold onto the ball. It can't all be counterattacking, especially since they're not likely to get many more gifts like THIS as summer turns into fall.

That said... they're unbeaten in five, and finish the weekend above the red line for the first time all season. I'm betting they stay there.

 2. Chicago are not going to impress anybody as a possession team, but they have been able to play the ball out of the back a little bit better over the last couple of weeks. It's largely down to moving Jeff Larentowicz to central defense from central midfield, a move that came about after the Fire's disastrous 5-1 loss at San Jose three weeks back.

In the 270 minutes since then – including Sunday's 1-0 win over New York – Chicago have conceded just one goal.

1. Oscar Pareja deserves a mention in any Coach of the Year discussions happening this summer. He pulled FC Dallas out of a springtime death spiral, survived a bunch of injuries and suspensions, and now has his team unbeaten in eight.

Their latest victims were the free-falling Colorado Rapids, who've now lost three in a row and four of five after Saturday's 3-1 win for FCD. Teams just aren't able to find an answer for the speed of Fabian Castillo and Tesho Akindele – and as Dallas showed in 2010, blazing speed when applied intelligently can be enough to drag you to an MLS Cup appearance.