The regular season is about evolution. This is not just true of MLS, or soccer in general, but is true of all sports.
You have to identify what you do well early in the year, and you have to weaponize it. You have to identify what you don't do well, and fix it. And you have to understand that nothing is ever completely fixed, or perectly weaponized, because there's now an entire industry dedicated to tracking every touch, every run and every tactical shift.
Here are a few thoughts from Week 18:
1. Cubo Torres & His Match-Winners
Erick "Cubo" Torres is amazing. He's now got five goals in five games, the last four being game-winners. That's a "Wondo in 2012"-like scoring jag, and just as with Wondo two seasons ago, Cubo has to be considered the leading MVP candidate at this point in the season.
But the real story for Chivas TBD is their defense. They've conceded only twice in their last five games, and when you're putting up numbers like that you're gonna collect some points.
It starts with their ability to step together, which they do as well as any team in the league – especially when pinned in their own end. It’s uncanny:
Keeping the line together is one part of it, though – and emblematic of the "big picture" idea of what they do well. Chivas are really, really coordinated in the defensive third, covering for each other in the run of play and generally defending for their lives.
They can still be exposed in transition, however. If you can complete third-line passes – passes that split defenders rather than play around them – they will have to backpedal, which they don't do well. This is always the fatal flaw of the 4-4-2, and as teams become more savvy and round into better form, they will start to punish Chivas.
Vancouver had their chances to do exactly that in what turned out to be a 3-1 Chivas win:
So as good as the results are for Chvias at the moment, too much of the defense comes from the defense. The midfield still has trouble tracking back, which is 1) why they play so deep, and 2) easily seen on the Nigel Reo-Coker miss late in the second half, HERE.
Of course, if the Goats keep scoring first they’ll be able to play as deep as they want. Cubo's "just" a poacher, but his goals affect everything about how the game plays out.
2. Changes Afoot in Philadelphia
The Union looked good against Colorado until going down to 10 men, but they obviously need some help in a couple of spots. Central defense is one of them, and even with their improved results over the last six weeks, I still think Philly needs someone sitting in front of the backline.
That doesn't have to be a destroyer, however. A regista could do the trick – and they may have someone for that role when Vincent Nogueira is once again fit and available.
Nogueira has shown serious vision in his passing, but doesn't cover a ton of ground so the temptation is to keep him further up the field, limiting his defensive responsibilites. But he's a smart defensive player who holds his position well, so rather than hide him, the better option might be to give him a bit more specificity.
Limit the amount of running he has to do, make good use of his big switches, and make good use of his reading of the game by sticking him in front of the defense and slightly behind Amobi Okugo and Maurice Edu.
Those two could then play together in front of Nogueira in what would become a 4-1-2-3, or even a 4-3-2-1, depending on how you want to use Cristian Maidana (suddenly living up to his DP status) and Sebastien Le Toux (on fire).
Whatever it's called, though, it has to give Philly more purchase in the central midfield. They simply don't have enough there at the moment.
Here are their Opta events in the center of the park against Colorado in Saturday's 3-3 draw:
Compare that to Sporting KC – who play a similar formation – in their 2-1 win over Montreal:
Obviously there are a bunch of factors at play – Philly were protecting a result while Sporting were chasing one, and the Union were without both Edu and Nogueira – but that is a stark, stark differential.
The Union, like Chivas, are more of a back-foot team at the moment, and while it's getting them results right now, at some point you need the ability to control the game in order to kill it off. The only pure counterattack team to make the playoffs last season were the Impact, and we saw what happened to them down the stretch and in the Knockout Round.
The Union also need Carlos Valdes, of course.
3. The Most Important Men In Seattle
Clint Dempsey gets (and deserves) a lot of dap, seeing as he's averaging a goal every 90 minutes at this point in the season. That's pretty damn good.
But he's probably not even one of the three most important players on the Sounders. This isn't to say he's unimportant – Andrés Iniesta was the fourth-most important player for Spain in 2010, for God's sake – but that the fundamental stuff the Sounders do revolves largely around other guys.
Second is Chad Marshall, who is maaaaaaybe the Defender of the Year at the halfway point. This about sums up how he handled Portland's Fanendo Adi, who has out-physicaled just about every other defender he's come up against this season:
Chad Marshall put Adi in his pocket at the 20' mark. Occasionally has looked down & asked, "How's it going in there?"— Matthew Tomaszewicz (@shinguardian) July 14, 2014
Marshall got my nod for Man of the Match in Seattle's comprehensive 2-0 win.
And the third most-important Sounder is Obafemi Martins, who – every single week – shows that smart movement, soft feet and incredible lower-body strength more than make up for a lack of size if you want to play target forward. His ability to find spaces, hold off defenders and then connect passes in the final third is the best in the league from that spot, and it makes the entire team better.
And here are the 39 minutes after Martins came on:
Martins isn't going to win MVP, since even if he goes on a scoring tear he and Dempsey will split the vote. But of the two – and again, this is no disrespect to Deuce – Oba is the one Seattle can't afford to be without for any serious length of time.
He makes everyone around him better. And that's how you climb into a commanding Supporters' Shield lead at the midway point of the season.
A few more things to ponder...
10. Homegrowns are becoming more influential by the week. Marky Delgado got the game-winning assist for Chivas; Gyasi Zardes got the game-winning goal for LA; Dillon Serna got an Arjen Robben-style cutback goal for Colorado; and Jonathan Osorio (not technically a Homegrown Player, but an Academy product nonetheless) opened the floodgates for Toronto FC's comeback in a 4-2 win.
9. Best performance by a Homegrown, though? Probably New York Red Bulls defender Matt Miazga, who was awful in the first half of his team's 4-1 win over Columbus, including a horrid mistake on the Crew's only goal. That earned him the ire of one Mr. Thierry Henry, in which the French legend claims our Face of the Week:
I suspect most 18-year-olds would have wilted. Miazga bounced back to play a very, very strong second half.
Learning to put mistakes behind you immdiately (and then learning to learn from them) is a skill like any other. Figuring it out at this early stage with "encouragement" from the likes of Titi bodes extraordinarily well for Miazga's development.
Expect him to be at the heart of the US U-20 central defense next summer.
8. Henry does the Face of the Week/Pass of the Week double. He destroyed the Crew, full on Drago vs. Apollo Creed mode. It looked like Wil Trapp got under his skin early, so he taught the youngster a lesson. There were no survivors:
Bear in mind: Henry had three assists (and a goal) in this game. That very well could – should – have been No. 4. This was as good a single-game performance as anyone has had in MLS this season.
7. D.C. United keep getting points, even if it’s not pretty.
Luis Silva was a guy who everybody thought was a playmaker when he came into the league, but he actually plays more like a second forward – a modern “drifter” of an attacker, who finds space between the lines rather than primarily going directly at defenders. Thomas Muller is the embodiment of that position, and Silva does a lot of those “fill in the gaps” things. Including getting to the near post in their 2-1 win at San Jose:
This isn't a "Big Strong Casey Is a Bull In a China Shop" goal. This is a "Conor Casey Still Sees the Game Faster than the Defense" goal.
Every young forward in MLS (and those who aspire to be) needs to watch this play again and again and again: One-time switch into space, then beat your man to the near post. That will never, ever go out of style in our game.
5. Dom Dwyer is the player US fans wanted Charlie Davies to be. He relentlessed (that's now a word) Sporting to that win in Montreal, much like Davies relentlessed the US to a 3-0 win over Egypt in the 2009 Confederations Cup.
4. Quincy Amarikwa also belongs in that discussion after he fought off one of the most physical fullbacks in the league – Andrew Farrell – for the goal in Chicago's 1-0 win over the Revs. Amarikwa is also one of the very best social media follows in the whole league:
3. Houston had 10 of their first-choice 11 and still managed to give up four goals while coughing up a 2-0 lead to TFC. This season has gone from “worrying” to “flatlining,” even if the attack has been revived a bit with the returns of Brad Davis, Rico Clark and Boniek Garcia.
2. How many times have we seen that Galaxy vs. RSL game (a 1-0 win for LA) since 2009? The continuity of those teams is remarkable, even if it makes for very, very boring matchups when they face each other.
1. Finally, we're officially past the half-way mark of the season, so I'll be giving out midseason awards this week. It's Christmas in July!