"The season for us really starts now," Michael Bradley said on Saturday, and even if he was only talking about Toronto FC, his words apply across the board. The World Cup "break" is over, and the mid-summer grind has truly begun.
Let's take a look at some things from MatchDay 17:
1. How to build the league: Part 1
The point I want to focus on in particular, of the five that Will made, is No. 3: "Create a crucible that can forge world-class players."
Of the five on his list, that is unquestionably the toughest, and one that will require both bottom-up and top-down effort from people mostly at the club level. MLS teams, in other words, will have to do an increasingly better job of identifying top talent (bottom-up), an increasingly better job of developing it (process), and an increasingly better job of integrating it into the first team (top-down). Organizations have to work in concert from U-10s all the way up to the big club in order to be the league that we all want to see, and there aren't really any shortcuts.
But... there are catalysts. And the difference between MLS in 2014 vs. MLS in 2011 or 2007 is the way the league invests in what are, in my opinion, the right catalysts.
Bradley is one of them. He's 26 years old, in the prime of his career as a central midfielder. He's a star for the USMNT, with eight World Cup games under his belt already. He turned down lucrative offers from Serie A and Bundesliga clubs to play here.
I've used this space to repeatedly stress what a great passer Bradley is, because there is a persistent (and infuriating) narrative that he is really just a plodder, all effort and no creativity. As if his assist to Julian Green last week - one of the best of the World Cup - was an exception rather than the rule.
Hell, let's watch it:
Brilliant, right? When Bradley plays behind two actual forwards and with one north-south midfielder, he's been good for one of those chipped assists a game - to Fabian Johnson vs. Turkey, to Jozy Altidore vs. Nigeria, and then not at all (don't get me started!) until playing that role once again in the last 15 mintues vs. Belgium
But that's not the crucible of playing against Michael Bradley. This is:
This was Toronto's lone goal in a 2-1 loss to D.C. United, one that D.C. largely deserved. But they did manage to learn a lesson or two along the way.
In this case, D.C. d-mid Perry Kitchen - who is well on his way to inclusion in Jurgen Klinsmann's plans for the 2018 cycle - got a first-hand look at what elite off-the-ball movement can do, and why communication is a crucial part of his job.
Here is the start of the sequence. Kitchen has pushed high to track Bradley:
Here is three seconds later after TFC have found Jackson pinching in from the wing. Kitchen recognizes that he's the only one preventing a 4-v-4 break and has just turned on the jets to try to close Jackson down.
He is, however, too late. Jackson has released Jermain Defoe, who - of course - made a diagonal run between the two central defenders. This is the danger zone for D.C., and now everybody has to talk and rotate to close down the threat.
Now comes the lesson.
Bradley has been trailing the play, showing his patience and letting the thing play out without dragging defenders closer to the ball. Then when he sees Kitchen and Sean Franklin struggling to figure out who to stay with, he kicks in his burners to hoof it to the back post.
Kitchen checks over his shoulder, and identifies the threat...
...but by going with Bradley, Jackson is allowed a golden look from the top of the box. He doesn't score, but Luke Moore puts home the equalizer.
Kitchen shows good threat awareness twice on this play, but he - and D.C. - needed to do better at early problem-solving. They needed to realize that if Bradley makes the back-post run, TFC have an attacker open at the top of the box.
There are always a million moving parts in this game. Players like Bradley and Defoe move them at a higher rate and with more precision than the vast, vast majority of the world.
Young players like Kitchen (and central defender Steve Birnbaum, who's done well filling in for Jeff Parke - but not so much on this play) now have to sink or swim against these guys week after week after week. They can't just play the pass - they've got to play the run, and figure out how to slow the moving parts or stop them entirely before the danger even happens. Figure out how to make the problem not a problem in the first place.
That's the crucible. That's how an entire league improves.
2. How to build the league: Part 2
One of my constant refrains on Twitter is that MLS is different because guys like Bradley - those with big offers from historically more glamorous overseas leagues - are now choosing to play here in their prime.
That list of guys also includes Pedro Morales of the Vancovuer Whitecaps - he's 29 and has been capped 11 times by Chile - who was instrumental in his team's 1-0 win over Seattle on Saturday. Like Bradley, his off-the-ball movement is superior and often decisive. He picked up an assist on the game's only goal, and his hard run at the Sounders defense took two defenders out of the play long enough for Sebastian Fernandez to measure his strike. You can see the goal HERE.
What makes Morales special, however, is his ability to turn a single moment into a chance. "Precision" is once again the word:
Erik Hurtado made a mess of that breakaway, but credit to him in the first place for being able to go from "I'm tracking back" to "I'm finding space" in an instant. Morales only needed a touch to put the ball on a platter for him, and create a scoring chance that any forward in the world would love to have.
This is why you pay Designated Players big money. The game, at a high level, has only the tiniest of openings, and guys like Morales are able to find small cracks that others don't see - or need more time to take advantage of - and open them up into giant chasms.
You get punished really, really fast against the Whitecaps now. That's Morales' crucible, and that's how an entire league improves.
3. How to build the league: Part 3
The third guy I'm going to focus on here is Portland's Diego Valeri, who has arguably been the best player in the league over the last two months and was magnificent once again this past weekend in a 2-2 draw at the LA Galaxy.
Valeri, who is 28 and has three caps for Argentina, has all those on- and off-the-ball skills I talked about with Bradley and Morales. He excels at understanding how to turn strings of possession into attacking opportunities, and is one of those players who can change the tempo of the game without having to control the ball.
He also executes at a higher level than almost anyone in the entire league when given the chance. This is perfect technique:
Players on Portland who want to get time in the midfield have to beat Valeri out. Players who line up against him? They have to beat him.
You have to figure out which run to track. You have to figure out which pass to play. You have to figure out which gap to close, and you have to figure out which problem to solve. You have to do it as fast as he does - and as fast as Bradley does, and as fast as Morales does, and as fast as Federico Higuain and Benny Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen and Javier Morales and Tim Cahill and Landon Donovan and Boniek Garcia and on and on and on and on.
MLS has been considered a physical league, an athlete's league, from Day 1. That's fine, since it is still both physical and athletic.
But these guys present problems you can't solve just by running fast and trying hard, and most of them are going to be here for a long, long time. Teams and players around the league - young and old - are going to have to figure out how to beat them.
That's the crucible of MLS in 2014 and beyond. That's how a league improves.
A few more things to chew on...
Henry had an audacious backheel cross in New York's 2-2 draw at Houston that was my runner-up for Pass of the Week. Watch it HERE. His early ball also gave Ambroise Oyongo the space to do this to poor Andrew Driver:
7. All that said, they still have the same problems tracking runners through midfield. There are three Houstonians between the lines within 35 seconds of kickoff, and it immediately led to a goal:
6. The Robbie Rogers fullback experiment continues in LA. He was mostly quiet until the last 10 minutes, at which point he became very influential with the Galaxy pushing for a winner that never came.
You can see how much he likes to cut inside and go direct at goal from his touch map. It's Fabian Johnson-esque:
Diaz had one lovely floated ball that Je-Vaughn Watson could have done better with, but it was Blas Perez's passing touch that stole the show. His chip on Tesho Akindele's opener was straight out of Bradley's playbook.
4. Pass of the Week belongs to Seattle's Marco Pappa. When you're being closed down through the middle - which happened to the Sounders repeatedly as Matias Laba absolutely bossed Zone 14 - you need to be able to switch the field. So this, from Pappa, shows not just technique, but also understanding of the game's tactical bent:
Pappa has been much better in terms of game tempo than I'd expected. Credit to him, but also to Sigi Schmid.
3. I'm not sure that the Revs, who dropped a 2-1 decision at RSL but played as well as they have in a month, need a bunch of new signings. But this is funny, and wins Jay Heaps our Face of the Week:
2. Feilhaber's playing the best soccer of his life, even if Sporting KC still have to figure some stuff out after an ultimately disappointing 1-1 draw against Chicago on Sunday. He had several outstanding plays, but this is the one that caught my eye:
He tracks the ball, touches it away from trouble and into advantage, and then one-times a pass directly into the run of his inverted winger. That's how the 4-3-3 is supposed to look with a true No. 10 running the show.
1. What more is there left to say about Cubo Torres? After this latest game-winning golazo - the only moment of beauty in an otherwise dire 1-0 win over Montreal - he's clearly near the top of the list of midseason MVP candidates, and should be a lock to go to Portland next month for the All-Star Game.