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Armchair Analyst: Splitting the defense, speed kills and other Week 24 thoughts

The 2012 MLS season is still my favorite. Partially because it felt like the year MLS started to break through with some mainstream coverage (Beckham's last hurrah), but mostly because everybody hated the San Jose Earthquakes.

And I mean hated. People who had no rooting interest in Quakes games would go out of their way to watch them, and then read articles about them, and then absolutely trash them in the comments section. A 200-word blurb on Steven Lenhart would draw more readers than an epic tome about Thierry Henry or Graham Zusi, and the same was mostly true of Alan Gordon, Chris Wondolowski or Victor Bernardez.

San Jose basically trolled the MLS world by winning the Supporters' Shield that year, which only fueled the hatred.

I loved it, and still do. Sports are more fun when there's a black hat, a role nobody in the last two years has worn quite as well as those Quakes - most fans only seem to resent the Galaxy, or suffer through the Sounders. It's not the same.

As summer turns to fall, and the strech run comes upon us, I'd urge you, MLS fan, to really hate somebody. It makes the world a better place.

Here are a few thoughts from MatchDay 24:


1. Seattle's Mastery of the Third Line

One of the things I've highlighted throughout the season is the Third Line pass. For reference:

See how that initial pass from splits the US defenders? That's the "Third Line" - the one that goes between the defense. The First Line is side-to-side, and the Second Line is around the defense, like so:

The Sounders have been incredibly good at completing Third Line passes all year, particularly when Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey are clicking - which they were in Sunday's 4-2 win over the Portland Timbers, a victory that probably puts an end to the "Will Seattle fold like they did last year?" questions.

Few players in the league are as good at splitting defenders at pace, and what's made those two so dangerous isn't that they're doing it with through-balls; it's that they're doing it in possession, advancing as a unit. 

But nothing in this game is infallible, and as the season's gone on, teams have done more and more to force the Sounders wide. Make them play around the defense instead of through it, and try to reduce the league's most potent attack to a series of crosses.

Portland followed that template, and Brad Evans provided Seattle's answer with a Third Line run:

This isn't anything new or innovative, just good situational recognition from the team in Rave Green, all part and parcel of one of the best build-ups of the season:

Portland did a good job in the first half of forcing the Sounders wide. Seattle - finally - found an answer.

I still think the Sounders are vulnerable defensively, and can be had. But I also think their attack is good enough to keep them at the top of the Supporters' Shield standings - as long as they keep moving with and without the ball like the did vs. the Timbers.


2. Crew Find Balance Without Symmetry

Another hobby horse of mine this season has been "attacking balance doesn't necessarily require attacking symmetry." I think Toronto, for example, are a lot more dangerous when they play a north-south runner on one side of the midfield (usually Dom Oduro) and a guy who can pinch in and become an ad hoc third central midfielder on the other side (usually Jonathan Osorio). Two guys playing the same position, but doing it differently.

Columbus sort of flouted that until early July, when Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram cemented their spots as crucial parts of the midfield. At the same time an injury crisis robbed them of Josh Williams, their best overlapping threat at right back, while their endline-to-endline Engergizer Bunny at left back, Waylon Francis, returned from the World Cup.

Here's how our Crew beat-writer Andrew King described the team's "new" system:

The Crew have gone from a rigid 4-2-3-1 with the fullbacks both pushing up to this new variation on it. With Ethan Finlay playing as a real winger and Justin Meram doing the inside slasher thing, it forces the fullbacks to react accordingly. So while Finlay's outside runs don't allow (right back Eric) Gehrig to push up, Meram's inside cuts put Francis way out wide on the other wing. In possession it works out more like a 3-4-2-1 with Tyson Wahl, Michael Parkhurst and Gehrig in the back, Francis and Finlay on the wings and Meram and Federico Higuain running around behind the target man.

Finlay's become a star in the process as he usually enters the attack a bit after the rest of the attack has carved out space:

It's a little unorthodox, as most wingers with his speed usually get out on the run and stretch the defense (look at the Oduro GIF linked above). Finlay's had his moments with that, but the Crew don't play that kind of open soccer.

And now? Now they've won back-to-back games by three goals, including Saturday's 3-0 romp over Houston. The Crew have gone 4-1-1 in their last six, and are solidly in the Eastern playoff picture.


3. Can't Slow Him Down

The Blas Perez/Chris Schuler incident in FC Dallas' 2-1 win over RSL dominated the Twitterverse on Friday night. Feel free to have it out in the comments section below - I don't really really have a dog in this fight. As far as I'm concerned, the call is the call and the more interesting aspect of it is how it affects the game tactically (and, to a lesser extent, aesthetically).

In this instance, it forced Dallas into a pure bunker-and-counter stance while inviting RSL further up the field. That leaves space in behind, and there's no individual in the league more equipped to take advantage of exactly that than Fabian Castillo:

On the flip side, this is something that's always troubled RSL. I praised them in this space a couple of weeks back for being the league's "smallest" team, one that wants to keep the game compact instead of open. That lets them dominate possession more often than not, and defend the bulk of the time with the ball instead of defending the man.

But when that diamond cracks, you end up with a lot of defenders in close proximity and a lot of acreage to cover on the scramble.

Tough to do that against a team as fast as Dallas - which has been true going all the way back to 2010. This FCD win felt remarkably similar to their win over RSL in that year's Western Conference final, a game in which the speedy Dallas wingers blew the Claret-and-Cobalt out of the water.

RSL, I'm sure, know all this, and have weighed the positives of being a compact team vs. the negatives of this very specific Achilles' heel.

I do wonder, though, if there will be adjustments in store from Jeff Cassar if these two teams meet in the playoffs.


A few more things to ponder...

8. The LA Galaxy have gone 4-1-1 in their last six, and scored multiple goals in five of those games. They smoked Vancouver 2-0 on Saturday, but the big game of their week was the come-from-behind, 4-3 win over the Rapids on Wednesday night.

Obviously a six-point win is great, and obviously getting that shutout on Saturday was very necessary after conceding multiple goals in three straight games. But the best news for LA's hopes is that Gyasi Zardes has remained dangerous and influential even as his goal-scoring output has tailed off a bit.

7. The big story of the weekend is New England grabbing Jermaine Jones. I wrote a bit about that on Sunday afternoon -- you can find it HERE.

Long story short: I think Jones, if fit and healthy, is just what the doctor ordered for the Revs. Even with the 1-0 win over Chivas TBD on Saturday, New England was only barely hanging in the East race - and as pinch-hitter Andrew Wiebe said in last week's Sunday night column, that's where the real fight is going to be:

6. Our Pass of the Week and Face of the Week come from the same game! Let's start with the Pass, a perfect Calum Mallace bender around the New York defense:

Picking that out with a single touch is sublime - easily the best moment for Montreal in Saturday's 4-2 loss at Red Bull Arena.

5. Face of the Week goes to the guy who'll probably be Player of the Week, Mr. Thierry Henry:

As was pointed out on Twitter, it looks like Henry was responding to some (real or perceived) trash talk from somebody on the Impact:

Consider this a heartfelt plea to everybody left on New York's schedule: TRASH TALK THIERRY HENRY!!! I want to see what happens if he plays the rest of this season with a "They don't respect me" chip on his shoulder.

4. Speaking of trash talk, many of the official Twitter accounts have really upped their games. Saturday night was particularly rough for the Whitecaps social media team:

I can't stress enough how much I love this. Our game is more fun when the people who are in it are having fun, and the 'Caps need to get right back on that horse for this coming weekend. 

3. How I feel about Toronto FC's chances in the East depends largely upon how quickly they can get Steven Caldwell back fit. They were controlling the game against Chicago, but ended up with a 2-2 draw after losing their captain and defensive oragnizer to a first-half injury.

TFC's in third place on PPG, but they're far from safe. The Crew and Revs are better than they were two weeks ago, and the Red Bulls have Henry (and Bradley Wright-Phillips, who's only scored 19 goals in his last 17 games). Add in hard-charging Philly - we'll get to them in a sec - and you've got five teams for three spots.

2. The Union are 5-2-4 since the end of May, and have supplemented that run of "pretty good" by winning their way into the US Open Cup final next month. Sunday's 4-2 win over San Jose exposed some of the same old defensive failties - their fullbacks just haven't been up to it defensively this year - but also exhibited their myriad weapons in attack.

One of those weapons is Andrew Wenger, who I keep saying I'd play as a central defender, but who made me look like a fool vs. the Quakes.

It's not just that he scored two great goals: it's that he's using his strength, speed and touch from the wing to start creating real looks for the rest of his teammates. These are his key passes vs. the Quakes:

That's a serious wide threat, one that balances the scorching Sebastien Le Toux up the other flank, and pulls defenders away from Conor Casey in the middle.

Philly's going to be hard to stop.

1. I've given just about every other top team in the league a mulligan, so it's time to throw one to Sporting KC after their 3-0 humiliation at the hands of D.C. United on Saturday. The two things to take away from that game are that D.C.'s really good, and right back is a problem area for Sporting.

Peter Vermes, I'm certain, knows both those things. And given his track record, I'm pretty certain he'll figure out a way to keep his team in the ranks of the elite.

No need to panic just yet, Sporting fans.