One of the discussions on Thursday's ExtraTime Radio was whether or not it's too soon to start getting real reads on teams in MLS. We're talking two games out of 34 (or just one in the cases of New England and Orlando), so it's important to have some context.
The point? At this time last year, Montreal looked like the best team in the league, San Jose were 2-0-0 (seem familiar?), Seattle and the Red Bulls both were an unholy mess, and people far and wide were freaking out because Houston eviscerated FC Dallas 5-0 in an early rivalry game that was clearly going to flip the narrative on 2016.
Things changed right away. As it turns out, 180 minutes isn't nothing, but it's generally not been enough to get a full read on what we'll be seeing for the duration of the year.
Underneath the Radar
Through two games nobody's allowed fewer real chances than Sporting KC, and they've yet to concede a single goal. I think we can toss out the above caveats about reading too much into early-season form when it comes to SKC and defense, since they've been – by the numbers – the best defensive team of the decade. Their high press/high line is still smothering, and they've almost entirely cut out the types of errors that cost them early in 2016.
Ike Opara is now 100 percent healthy and making open-field plays like this:
Ike Opara's 100% healthy and making open field plays like this. Worth noticing. pic.twitter.com/0ilh7ryJ9F— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) March 16, 2017
I'll go ahead and throw some salt on the wound: In their last five games across all competitions, the only goal SKC have conceded was Nelson Valdez's clearly-offside-winner in the Knockout Round of last year's playoffs. That KC team was essentially the same group with the same approach as this KC team, minus a few bells and whistles, and Opara's form has allowed head coach Peter Vermes to let his freak flag fly just a little bit, particularly on the right side of the field.
Graham Zusi has shifted to right back (you may have heard about that), and Saad Abdul-Salaam has shifted to the bench (that too), and last year's ad hoc left back Jimmy Medranda is now an inverted winger (maybe not that one) who is at least a little bit out of his element so far. Medranda and Zusi have had trouble creating any real synergy to this point, and the former's inability to consistently find the latter on the overlap sort of defeats the overall purpose of moving Zusi to right back in the first place. Sporting's attack has sputtered in no small part because of that disconnect.
You can see in the above clip not only Opara's excellent defensive play, but the sheer lack of numbers Sporting are able to send forward after winning the ball in what's actually a pretty good spot. Dallas keep their shape, and Medranda is staring directly at his opposite number while Dom Dwyer is asked yet again to create danger while going 1-v-2. Nobody is providing a vertical outlet.
It's not a great recipe for goals.
On Saturday when San Jose come to town (8:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE) it's probably time to take the shackles off a little bit and get more aggressive off the ball. The defense has been good, and that's the platform for making the offense dangerous.
I'll also be watching: Nick Lima. The Quakes rookie has had zero trouble getting forward on the overlap and connecting with whoever Dom Kinnear puts in front of him, but he looked vulnerable defensively last week. I expect SKC to go right at him.
Folks got savvy to the Sounders at least a little bit, it seems. Both Houston and Montreal have largely sat back in the first two weeks and refused to give Seattle space to send runners in on goal. Neither Nicolas Lodeiro nor Harry Shipp nor anyone else, really, has been able to slip other attackers through, and that – combined with the lack of a vertical threat from right back – has limited Seattle's effectiveness over the first 180 minutes.
It's been especially noteworthy with Lodeiro. Last year he completed 13 through balls and 34 crosses in his 13 games, a 1-to-2.6 ratio. This year it's 1-to-7. Teams are staying deep and compact and removing options, and as a result he hasn't been able to gash teams the way he did in 2016.
The devil is in the details of the sample size here, of course. Brian Schmetzer & Co. haven't changed their attacking approach and Lodeiro hasn't suddenly lost his vision. The Sounders also may have hit upon something late in Montreal when they sent Will Bruin on to just batter down the castle walls. It was effective, and there suddenly exists a deterrent for backlines that want to play deep. Do that, and you'll end up with Bruin, Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris all crowding the box for headers and knockdowns and general mayhem, which wouldn't be a pretty solution but would be a pretty effective one.
Of course that won't come into play on Sunday against the visiting Red Bulls (7 pm ET; FS1). RBNY aren't going to move away from their high press, which means there will be acreage for Seattle to exploit if they can get ahold of the game for brief, fleeting moments in midfield.
It should also be a very good game between two of the recent pace-setters in the league:
It just hasn't really come off for him thus far, as he's yet to create a single chance. That's got to change, because the second forward in the 4-2-2-2 has to be a guy who's as much of a playmaker with the ball as he is a danger to create penetration off of it.
One more thing to ponder:
Happy weekending, everybody.