World Cup 2014

Armchair Analyst: Beware of snubbed strikers, behold youth movement & other Week 11 thoughts

Beware of a striker scorned. If there was one message from MatchDay 11, that was it.

Also, "Don't start 17-year-olds in defense," and "If you're not currently building a playmaker in your academy, you're in trouble.

Let's start with that first point, and dive right into the obvious:


The Unchosen Ones

I wrote a bit about Toronto FC on Saturday following their 2-0 win over the Red Bulls, and how they were able to get Jermain Defoe into the channels pretty effectively. Capitalizing on midfield turnovers is the name of the game right now in Toronto – really the only game they have – and few strikers in the world are as equipped as Defoe to do damage in that exact situation.

If they want to become elite, they will have to figure out a Plan B, a way to break teams down rather than just rely upon the mistakes of others. It's going to be a process, and while having Defoe around for the next six weeks is an unexpected advantage, it's also a bit of a band-aid. TFC will get away with flat performances more than once thanks to his finishing, and will probably stay afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

But I'm not sure they build toward something – and by "something" I mean "a good run of form in October and November, Houston Dynamo-style" unless they change their ways.

Ben Olsen and D.C. United have a similar advantage thanks to Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to omit Eddie Johnson from the USMNT. Johnson got his first goal of the season in United's 1-1 draw vs. a surprisingly lively Montreal, and it came just as you'd expect: a back-post header:

First of all, this is the goal call of the year so far – it doesn't get much better than "Hallelujah! It's in the net!"

Second of all, this is the type of build-up United need to make their bread and butter. Chris Rolfe pinches in, Cristian pushes up but in support, not on the overlap. That creates spacing issues, and when Fabian Espindola flares out on the overload, nobody on the Impact is available to even attempt to close him down.

D.C. should score a bunch more goals like this. EJ goes right down the middle and whoever the point of the diamond is (usually Davy Arnaud, but Luis Silva will get plenty of looks and don't sleep on Homegrown playmaker Collin Martin) crashes with another forward run, while Rolfe ghosts up to the top of the box. Espindola can then either whip in a cross, or pull it back to the 18.

That's a lot to cover, and even after a relatively sloppy day, you can see that United's rotations in attack have gotten quicker and quicker. They have an identity now.

I'm still not sure what Seattle's identity is, but I'm feeling more and more confident about my Obafemi Martins for MVP prediction from back in March. And after Defoe and Johnson got on the board, it was clear that Oba was about to do damage himself:

There are a lot of times in the MLS regular season when you have to just grind out a win. The best recipe for that is an airtight defense – something the Sounders still need a lot of work on – and one special player who can change the game.

Even without Clint Dempsey, Seattle can use half that formula. And they showed as much in Saturday's 1-0 win over the Earthquakes.


Down with conventional wisdom

The MLS academy initiative is starting to pay off in a big way. The Chicago Fire's Harry Shipp – who had an up-and-down game his his team's 2-1 win over Sporting KC, but still hit passes like this:

And this:

I could have GIF'd that second one, but wanted to keep the whole play together so you could see how Shipp's movement forced KC's defense to scramble. First he dropped deep to become the obvious outlet for Patrick Ianni after the Fire gained possession, then made a simple pass to Quincy Amarikwa, flared out by the touchline.

At that point Shipp, who is behind Paulo Nagamura, disappears from the frame. When we next see him, he is ahead of Nagamura and able to receive a simple pass then waltz into Zone 14. At which points he finds Mike Magee's feet in the box.

This is a really, really good play. Fire fans should be insanely happy about the fact that their academy produced (or "helped" produce, anyway) Harrison Shipp.

USMNT fans should feel the same way:

But the thing is, Shipp isn't the only one. Zach Pfeffer's creative, aggressive passing led to a penalty in Philly's 5-3 loss to New England. Dillon Serna picked up an assist in Colorado's 2-1 loss at Real Salt Lake. Raul Mendiola – who's actually not American, but has spent the last four years in LA's academy – made his debut in a 1-0 loss to Houston.

Martin hasn't gotten any time this year with D.C., but he's been good in USL PRO play and was very promising last year. Both Danny Garcia and Victor Ulloa have gotten some run as playmakers for FC Dallas over the last month. Marky Delgado got his first goal for Chivas TBD in their 1-1 draw vs. those Dallas kids on Saturday.

Diego Fagundez isn't American, isn't really a playmaker, and was pretty polished before he set foot in the Revs Academy, but who's going to argue that he hasn't improved over the last four years? Wil Trapp, meanwhile, keeps progressing as a d-mid in Columbus, doing the hardest job on the field relatively well even in a disappointing 3-3 draw at Portland.

The Canadian teams have gotten into the act as well, with Russell Teibert and Jonathan Osorio carrying the flag.

Add in guys like Dillon Powers, Luis Gil, Sebastian Velasquez, Benji Joya, Kyle Bekker, Steve Neumann, Kelyn Rowe, Carlos Alvarez and a few others, and suddenly it becomes obvious: both the league and the USMNT are about to change. The players who are produced and – more importantly – valued, have gotten smaller, more technical, better able to open up a defense with precision instead of just pace.

Benny Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen are a generation older than this group, and have been two of the best players in the league in 2014. MLS missed out on them in their early years – the league didn't have the resources or the vision to get them into the fold as quickly as possible.

They do now. The next Feilhaber or Nguyen won't have to wait to make a splash, and MLS is better off for it.


Don't forget about the forwards

If all the tiny(ish), creative players I mentioned above are challenging the conventional wisdom of what an American player is (or can be), there are a couple of players out there who are still embracing it. Both Patrick Mullins – who I wrote about last week – of the Revs and Mark Sherrod of the Dynamo are variations on the traditional center forward. Mullins has been as influential off the ball as almost anyone in the league this year, and while +/- is a noisy statistic and I'm jabbing the god of small sample size in the eye with a stick here, this doesn't just happen:

Sherrod's sample size is even smaller – two goals and one assist in two starts – but he's both relentless and extremely happy to do the dirty work of a center forward. He reminds me of a young, pre-theatrics Steven Lenhart in that he just stays high and bangs away at the opposing central defense, hanging around the 18 until they make a mistake:

The interesting thing here is that Sherrod is already 23, and everybody passed on him at least once in this year's SuperDraft. Counting Mullins – who anybody could have traded up to get – and last year's steal, RSL's Devon Sandoval, and it's clear that the pendulum has swung in terms of what MLS scouts, GMs and coaches are looking for.

Is it a good thing? Many would say yes, since it's the playmakers who you really remember. But there will always be a place for good, effective forward play, even if it's in the shadows.


A few more points to make...

11. The Portland Timbers, who had Sherrod with their U-23s over the past few years, were one of the teams to pass on him. This week they brought in Nigerian targetman Fanendo Adi, who is of a similar build and will have a similar role. Adi was a late sub in his MLS debut, and his first touch was an assist – getting onto a set piece to set up Gaston Fernandez's equalizer.

10. While the Timbers were right to be proud of that point, it's gotten ugly for the Crew:

9. Sporting KC's Igor Juliao wins my Pass of the Week award for this bit of magic:

8. San Jose's Jon Busch wins my Face of the Week award, which I really hope becomes a thing:

7. While San Jose has done good work adding depth in defense, their lack of difference-makers in attack was especially telling this past weekend:

The good news is that Tommy Thompson, their first-ever Homegrown signing, traveled with the team this past weekend. He's yet another smallish, technical creator, and if he's anything like most of those mentioned above, he could add a dimension to the San Jose attack that is quite missing.

6. The best part of Mendiola's debut was the weight of his passes. Too often even great passers – Feilhaber is particularly guilty of this – underhit their "regular" passes, ones that aren't designed to open up a defense. That can kill the tempo.

Mendiola, on the other hand, was pinging them into feet, then moving for an instant return. Nothing about the kid's game looks slow.

5. Justin Mapp continues to be an absolute monster. He destroyed Edmonton FC midweek in the Canadian Championship, then picked up yet another assist for Montreal at the weekend. I would absolutely, positively bring him to Brazil.

4. We're probably going to talk a bit about Mullins' understanding with Teal Bunbury in this spot next week. They're reading each other's runs like they were born playing together, and it'll be interesting to see if anyone can figure them out.

3. The Union had a weird week, beating KC 2-1 on Wednesday then getting absolutely housed at the weekend. This about sums it up:

He did. And it was ugly.

2. Things just keep getting worse for Dallas. This, from our own Alicia Rodriguez:

"OK, Dallas did get their goal off an equalizer after Michel came off injured, but what I wonder is what will be Pareja's 'Plan C' if Michel is out any length of time. Since shifting to set pieces made sense after Mauro Diaz and his playmaking abilities left the lineup, how exactly will Dallas work to manufacture goals?"

My answer is "I don't know." The hope will be that Garcia can step into the lineup and start doing the things that Shipp has done for Chicago, or this season's already done for FCD.

1. With the win over Colorado, RSL have moved to 6-0-5 in the Jeff Cassar era. That's officially the best of the modern, post-shootout era in MLS.