Early season soccer, no matter the league, is almost always choppy and low-scoring. We saw some of that this past weekend as the 22nd edition of MLS kicked off with a few scoreless draws, a number of bad penalties, and not-a-whole-lot of sustained or sustainable build-up play (though I'm tipping my hat to NYCFC and Columbus for at least tilting in the direction of "possession over all" at least a little bit).
Early season soccer is also usually very, very slow and methodical, but that was clearly less so in 2017. Even a sock could see as much:
Is it just me, or has #MLS started at a much faster pace this season?— W. Knutt Megg Esq. (@MLSmuppet) March 6, 2017
This was probably inevitable as we're now well into the era of full-field pressure and the high press itself as a default tactical/strategic choice. Lots of teams just want to crank it up to 11, and the numbers bear that out – there were 815.2 passes per game in 2016's opening weekend, and 850.1 per game in 2017. That's an increase something short of game-breaking but well into the realm of "noticeable."
Compared to three years ago, it's almost 100 more passes per game. In other words the pace of MLS has picked up over 10 percent in the last 36 months.
This is not inherently a good thing (I know an anonymous person who we'll call "My Boss Greg Lalas" to protect his identity who prefers the long ball to lots of possession), but it is a tactical trend worth noting, and I suspect it's something that may even be worth disrupting. Tactics in soccer tend to be cyclical, and the one team that figures out how to zig when everybody else is zagging could have a built-in advantage for however long it takes the rest of the league to catch up.
Onto the Week 1 games:
Don't let this article distract you from the fact that Atlanta United lost 2-1 to the New York Red Bulls by conceding a pair of late goals and utterly failing to adjust to Jesse Marsch's subs or the tactical shift of the visitors (RBNY played what I'd call a 4-1-4-1 for the last 20 minutes). Atlanta were fast and fun and relentless and very promising, if predictably expansion-y in their debut.
"We talked about it at halftime just giving a little bit more, being a little bit clearer tactically, making a couple adjustments but being a little bit sharper physically, putting more into the game and now taking the crowd out play by play," is what Marsch said afterward, and none of that sounds wrong to me. "I thought for the most part, in the second half the effort was really good, obviously, a great comeback and a lot of spirit within the team."
The fast, fun and relentless part for Atlanta was putting New York in that position in the first place. Their flock of fleet-footed attackers who always threatened to get past RBNY's defense, and often managed the it outright. Atlanta had an identity from the first whistle: They're a high-pressure, mid-level pressing team who wanted to coax RBNY into turnovers up the gut and then hit into space behind the back line. This was a modern-looking team embracing the most modern of philosophies, that games are won and/or lost in transition, and for a group that'd never played together before they made real headway in convincing neutrals (including me) that they'd be, at the very least, "adequate" at applying this approach.
This is lovely, and is exactly how you want to punish a team that's playing too narrow:
The "expansion-y" aspect is what led to the loss, though, and it did so in predictable ways. One was lack of backline depth, as sub Anton Walkes was victimized on the game-winner. The other was the more ambiguous and harder-to-pin-down concept of "fit" – as in, there were at least a few players on that field asking to fill roles they're maybe not 100 percent meant to.
First and foremost on the list, by my reckoning, is Paraguayan DP Miguel Almiron. He had moments when he was electric, including a second-half breakaway that was just missing the final touch. But that lack of a final touch is why I remain dubious as to Almiron's ability to be a high-level playmaker in MLS. His best years in Argentina were on the wing, and his best moments for Paraguay have come on the wing, and his vision when he's played centrally just hasn't looked to be game-breaking.
Which will allow me to circle back to my original thought, that Atlanta are, as constructed, a "modern" team built upon forcing transitions. Teams like that tend to live by the axiom that the press is the best playmaker, and in that situation field coverage is arguably more important than raw creativity.
What Almiron lacks in the second category he more than makes up for in the first, and there remains a very decent chance that Tata Martino will be able to fully weaponize both his speed and workrate as the days, weeks and months go along. Transitions are already very clearly important to Atlanta, and in the near future they could well become decisive.
Not so, however, in Week 1. Atlanta's debut was promising but predictably painful, and the weeks to come will demand more work and constant reassessment.
Two Dope Boyz
It's probably fair to say that nobody in the league needs a hot start more than the San Jose Earthquakes. I'm not willing to call a 1-0 home win over the Impact "hot" necessarily, but it was very clearly a step in the right direction and an upgrade over the Quakes of 2016.
Anibal Godoy deserves the most praise – he's not quite my Player of the Week, but it's close. Defensively he was a noose around Montreal's midfield and it was his work that led to the game's only goal (which he finished with a perfect chip after a nice lay-off from Chris Wondolowski). Godoy and Fatai Alashe lack a bit of elegance in the middle of the pitch, but they've had a natural partnership since they set foot in central midfield two summers ago and it's smart of Dom Kinnear to keep them together.
Here's the thing: Breaking up that attack would have been a nice job, and of course having skill is a wonderful thing. What Thompson did there, though, was use his primary skill – quick feet, balance, comfort on the ball – to turn a routine track back into a recovery and chance to break in the other direction. It didn't happen in that moment as the Quakes were playing a bit conservatively by the hour mark, but there's a real difference between beating the attacker to the corner and booting the ball into touch vs. beating the attacker into the corner and then playing it calmly upfield.
Thompson has made his skill (never in doubt) fully functional (in doubt from Day 1, as it should be for any young player). You could see it in heady plays like that or in perfect crosses that, in a just world, would've resulted in goals.
As for Lima, he was handed just about the hardest job a rookie can get in his pro debut: Stop Ignacio Piatti.
He managed it. Here's Piatti's chalkboard from Saturday:
Green arrows are complete passes, and red are incomplete. Yellow arrows are "key passes" – passes that lead to a shot – but as you can see, Piatti didn't have any of those. The second- or third-best player in the league last year just maybe doesn't have his sea legs under him yet, but even so, Quakes fans were justifiably singing Lima's praises loudly and proudly.
That certainly does make this feel like a new era for San Jose, doesn't it? The 4-4-2 was still there, but this team put a pair of Homegrowns out there for 160 minutes, and they pretty thoroughly outplayed their opposite numbers in Piatti and Cameroon international Ambroise Oyongo.
It's not perfect, and things can go very wrong after Week 1. But the strength of this San Jose team is suddenly in its 21-through-27-year-old cohort, and inertia has been replaced with momentum. It's a good start.
A few more things to ponder...
9. I'd argue that nobody had a better result in Week 1 than the Chicago Fire, who went to Columbus and got pounded for a half, then regrouped, reorganized, and rebounded for a 1-1 draw on Saturday afternoon. A point on the road under any circumstance is wonderful, but when it comes from behind against a conference foe? That's golden.
As for Columbus, it was a replay of 2016's nightmare as shoddy finishing and a late concession made for two dropped points right out of the gate. Newcomer Mohammed Abu was particularly culpable thanks to his wayward passing.
Pretty sure Adrian Heath locked up "Face of the Week" after Valeri got hit in the cubes. pic.twitter.com/DkQLc5t1zA— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) March 4, 2017
7. If Kellyn Acosta is really as good as he's looked through Dallas's first three games he'll be starting for the USMNT soon enough. His goal was the highlight of FC Dallas's 2-1 win at the LA Galaxy.
I'll wait at least a week before I decide how much doom that portends for LA, but I'm already thoroughly convinced Dallas are going to have a monster season even without Mauro Diaz.
6. Cyle Larin's towering header was the difference in Orlando City's 1-0 win over visiting NYCFC on Sunday afternoon to open brand new Orlando City Stadium. Bad news out of central Florida, though, as it sounds like Kaká's injury (he came up lame early in the first half) is serious.
5. I keep doubting the Rapids and they keep making me look foolish. That's what happened in Saturday's 1-0 win over visiting New England, as Colorado simply found a way to get another one-goal result. It's uncanny, and it feels unsustainable, but who am I to argue with what works?
4. A scoreless draw was what we got from Vancouver late on Sunday night, as both the Union and 'Caps failed to find their way to paydirt. I'd still like to see Marco Bustos get a shot at the No. 10 job for the 'Caps, and I'd definitely like to see Kekuta Manneh back out on the wing:
3. A hearty "welcome back" to Clint Dempsey, who scored in his return to action but saw his Sounders fall 2-1 to a quick, organized and opportunistic Houston team.
2. D.C. will have a new penalty taker, I assume, after Saturday's scoreless draw against Sporting KC. Marcelo Sarvas is now 1-for-3 in his career, and it's time he hands those duties off to someone else.
In general, though, this game was played with something approaching a playoff pace. Both Sporting and D.C. were going in for the full 90.
Eras and tactics and styles and formations may change, but that kind of vision will never stop being beautiful.