Week 11 of the 2020 MLS regular season has ended, and there's plenty we learned from each team. Let's get right into it.
Atlanta clearly aren't what they once were, but they should be better than this. Conceding four goals to a team that had never scored more than once in their MLS history tells you most of the story. The frustrating thing for interim head coach Stephen Glass and the fanbase will be that the goals were avoidable; it’s not like Nashville carved them open. Two goals from crosses and two from long balls over the top simply means guys aren't tracking runners, and that's the bread and butter of defending.
Chicago Fire FC
Despite only registering one win in their last five games, I’m not panicking over Chicago just yet. The pieces to make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs are there, so what’s needed is consistency. At their peak, midfielders Alvaro Medran and Gaston Gimenez can form one of the best duos in the league. Another reason I’m not panicking: Chicago became the first team to score more than one goal against Columbus, who are the league’s best defensive team in 2020.
Things are suddenly looking up for the Rapids. Four games without defeat, they now have a positive goal differential and they're a couple wins away from firmly entering the Western Conference playoff mix. Robin Fraser has been unwavering in his support of Diego Rubio despite his lack of goals, and the striker repaid the manager’s faith in style with his brace against RSL. If Rubio can rediscover his 2019 form, I expect the Rapids to continue this good run.
Columbus Crew SC
It took 11 games for the Crew to concede more than one goal in a match. They’ve conceded four goals all season — that is absurd! Top to bottom, they're the strongest team in the league. Despite only getting a point last weekend, Caleb Porter is surely pleased with the fight his team showed to claw back at Chicago. Championship teams never know when they're beaten. The most impressive thing about the comeback? They did it without their two best attacking players in Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan. Columbus, it appears, aren't overly dependent on one individual.
Long before the Red Bulls took the lead at Audi Field on Saturday, D.C. should've scored two goals. The result was disappointing, but the performance should offer hope that this team can pick up some wins. As a fan, I’d be worried if my team wasn't creating chances. That’s not D.C.’s problem – they have enough to create good chances (despite the zero-shot game against NYCFC), but their playoff hopes will depend on how quickly they can convert those chances. It’ll also depend on how quickly Julian Gressel and Ola Kamara can get back to their best form. They're both proven in MLS, but were below par against the Red Bulls.
Cincy simply don’t score enough goals to mount any kind of playoff challenge. Just one goal in the last six games exposes the extent of their attacking problems, and it puts too much pressure on the back line to carry hopes of even getting a point. The lone bright spot from another disappointing defeat was how they finished the game. Jaap Stam ditched the more defensive 3-5-2 for a 3-4-3 midway through the second half, and that led to the Brandon Vasquez goal. It may be a formation change or it may be a personnel change, but some kind of spark is needed ASAP or the 2020 season will be beyond saving.
Franco Jara needed that goal. He scored against Sporting KC two weeks ago, but this goal was different because it was the game-winner in the Texas Derby. Big players must produce in big moments. With the departure of Zdenek Ondrasek, there’ll be even more pressure on Jara to become a consistent goalscorer for FC Dallas. Also, I must mention the ridiculous Andres Ricaurte strike – what a way to announce yourself to MLS! The Colombian midfielder did more than just score, and there were signs of the playmaking ability he can add to Luchi Gonzalez's team.
I’m very high on what Houston can become. This team is downright scary at their very best, and I believe they can challenge for first place in the West. When they fall below that, you get results like they did against FC Dallas. One of the challenges for Tab Ramos will be finding ways to get results even when they aren't playing well. That is the ultimate mark of a truly great team, but they will need to improve defensively. With only two clean sheets all season, the defensive issues may be what prevents them from reaching the heights they should.
Inter Miami CF
In the second half against Orlando, I saw that Inter Miami can be competitive in this league. In the first half, however, I saw why they haven’t been. It was a sluggish, uninspired first 45 minutes that lacked the intensity a team at the bottom of the table needs to show. There were too many gaps in midfield for Orlando to play through and not enough of an attacking threat. Gonzalo Higuain can’t get here fast enough.
It’s a good time to be a Galaxy fan. Six games unbeaten, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez is back and Guillermo Barros Schelotto is getting the absolute best out of most of his players. They will be disappointed not to have beaten San Jose, but this is a game LA may have lost in 2019 when they weren't as organized defensively. Cristian Pavon, although not at his breathtaking best against San Jose, continues to put together an MVP-worthy season. The challenge will be adapting his game to Chicharito without deferring too much and playing second fiddle. LA need Pavon to be their best player even if he isn’t their biggest name.
I'm not worried about LAFC at all. They're scoring at a high rate without the best player in the league, and it’s not hard to imagine what will happen once he returns. The right side of their defense has been where teams have found attacking joy, and that issue needs to be fixed through reinforcements or tactical adjustments. On the flipside, Diego Rossi has stepped up remarkably in the absence of Carlos Vela and has, at times, single-handedly ignited the offense.
Minnesota United FC
Despite the loss on Sunday night, the Loons will be alright. They just need center back Ike Opara to come back as soon as possible. The Sporting KC goal was a long ball over the top that should've been defended much better. Opara put out those fires so often in 2019 and once he’s back, Minnesota's defense will be the perfect complement to an attack, Sunday night aside, that's starting to find its groove.
The most impressive win of the Thierry Henry era was inspired by Victor Wanyama. He was a force in midfield, and Montreal's play on both sides of the ball had his fingerprints all over it. Montreal need the ex-Tottenham player to provide a link between attack and defense through his ball-winning ability and passing, both of which can bring Montreal to a new level.
Nashville have been solid defensively all season, but there were issues at the other end of the pitch. Now that the floodgates opened in style by smashing four past Atlanta United, there’s reason to be excited about what Nashville can do in 2020. They're led by Walker Zimmerman anchoring the back, so now if they can score goals consistently, especially if Jhonder Cadiz hits the ground running, they'll definitely be in the playoff conversation.
New England Revolution
What New England lacked against the Union was creativity and improvisation. The attack can look predictable without Carles Gil, and that’s why it’s so important for Lee Nguyen to turn back the clock and carry some of that load. He won’t be the 2014 Lee Nguyen and he won’t be Carles Gil, but he should have enough in the tank to unlock opponents with his passing and dribbling.
New York City FC
Anton Tinnerholm stole the headlines with a sublime volley that was the game-winning goal, but his entire performance was top-notch against FC Cincinnati. He was all over the pitch, making interceptions and tackles at one end and then joining the attack and putting balls into the box at the other. During NYCFC's mixed season, the Swede's been a bright spot and is now in conversation for best right backs in MLS.
New York Red Bulls
This wasn’t RBNY's best performance, but they just had to win by any means necessary. They have their goalkeeper and defenders to thank for the three points, as Ryan Meara kept D.C. at bay with several big-time saves in the first half. Aaron Long and Tim Parker also looked more like the formidable pair they're supposed to be. With only nine goals scored this season, I sense that the Red Bulls will have to lean on their defensive core to turn their form around.
Orlando City SC
What a fun team to watch! The quartet of Nani, Daryl Dike, Chris Mueller and Mauricio Pererya caused Miami all kinds of problems, and the only letdown was they didn’t keep their foot on the gas in the second half. Some stars have been accused of coming to MLS for a vacation and early retirement — not Nani. He’s here to play and appears to have fully bought into Oscar Pareja’s system, which includes not starting every game. When your star player accepts his role in that way, the whole team feeds off that.
Brenden Aaronson usually grabs the headlines, but it was another youngster who stole the show against New England. On a day when the Union looked destined to drop points in a game that they dominated, Anthony Fontana rescued the match with two goals off the bench. All championship teams need several players who can be match-winners on any given day, and the Union showed that it doesn’t have to be the Kacper Przybylko and Aaronson show every week.
The bright spot from a disappointing result was Portland's opening goal. For a team that identifies with sitting back and playing on the counter, Eryk Williamson's finish was a reminder that they can hurt you with crisp, dynamic passing as well. From the one-touch give-and-gos to the overlapping running by Diego Valeri, everything about the goal was top-class. Williamson finishes it, but Valeri was the catalyst. This game was further proof that Valeri is still among the very best players that MLS has to offer.
Real Salt Lake
I didn't see a 5-0 loss in the Rocky Mountain Cup coming. It’s not that RSL have been great this season, it’s that their home form is usually so dependable. But against the Rapids nothing went right. I don’t want to let the attack off the hook, seeing as they managed only one shot on goal all night, but the collective defending was atrocious. The fourth and fifth goals conceded showed a lack of effort, will and desire as Colorado players ran freely into the box with very little opposition. With defending like that, this is the result they deserved.
San Jose Earthquakes
Considering what happened midweek, getting a 0-0 draw against LA was a great result. They really had to show that they could keep a clean sheet and restore some pride. The Galaxy didn’t create too much and at least part of that can be attributed to a willingness to track back and get behind the ball that they didn’t show in the humiliating loss at Seattle. The ideal scenario would've been to rebound with a win, but the clean sheet should be enough of a building block going forward.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: San Jose were atrocious. That was the worst defending I’ve seen in a long time. But give the Sounders credit, because you still have to be there to punish the opposition. There were great performances all over the pitch, and it was great to see Joevin Jones be effective in a more advanced role. However, the star of the show was Jordan Morris. After a couple of quiet games, he roared back to life with a goal and three assists by doing what he does best: driving at the backline and forcing defenders to backtrack.
Sporting Kansas City
Johnny Russell, on his day, can be unplayable. He has quickness, power, strength and skill in abundance, and also an eye for goal. I don’t think he's been as consistent as he’d like, but there are signs now that he's getting back to his very best level. If Sporting want to maintain first place in the West, they'll need Johnny Russell to do Johnny Russell things a few more times. The attention he receives also opens up space for his teammates.
Few MLS teams create the type of chances Toronto does. Their issue has been not capitalizing on that sheer dominance, and it was almost the case once again against Montreal before Jozy Altidore came to the rescue. I upset a few people last week, but I'm going to repeat myself: When healthy, Jozy is still the best American forward. Not only is his hold-up play second to none, he still has the ability to run in behind and outrun defenders like his game-winning goal against Montreal.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
When you concede four at home and your club-record signing is sent off, it’s hard to find a silver lining. I won’t even pretend to offer one. The Whitecaps are in trouble, plain and simple. They didn’t respond well once Montreal took the lead, and their work rate didn't resemble a desperate team that needs to fight for every point. Instead it was the Impact who looked sharper and hungrier.