Out of the Gold Cup break and truly, fully, full-speed into the second half of the MLS season we go. And a big thanks to my guy Tom Bogert for filling in for me the past two weeks. Even when it comes to my own column I am team #PlayYourKids. Be the change you want to see in the world.
With that in mind, here ya go:
2019 has been a groundbreaking year for developing domestic talent. Jordan's whole twitter thread on it is great, and you can read more about the sea change in who's getting meaningful minutes over at AmericanSoccerNow. It's enlightening.
Now let's dive into week 19:
Toronto FC have been in some sort of malaise for most of the past 15 months, dating back to that fateful, heartbreaking and potential dynasty-ending trip to Guadalajara in April of 2018. It was a hard loss.
The mental toll of that Concacaf Champions League loss clearly stayed with them throughout last year, as did the physical toll – the Reds were as undone by injuries as much as anything else. And the key players age, and the great Sebastian Giovinco left (though maybe he's coming back?), and too many of the young guys stagnated, and by the start of Week 19 the team with the most expensive roster in MLS was once again looking up at the playoff line and doing so while on a rivalry trip to Montreal.
This was (still is, really) a make-or-break week for the Reds. And they broke the Impact on Saturday evening, earning a 2-0 win despite some "nice to meet you again" chemistry issues in working Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley back into the XI, and doing so in a 4-2-3-1 (not a formation TFC have often played recently under Greg Vanney).
The big issue was that Montreal's deep-block 4-3-3 was designed to gum up Zone 14 and push playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo deep and toward the sideline, refusing to let him and Jozy combine. For the first 35 minutes, it worked really well:
Eventually, though, both right winger Nick DeLeon and box-to-box midfielder Marky Delgado started filling in those gaps, coming in to either play underneath Altidore or even extend through the lines as Altidore checked back into midfield to hold the ball up.
It's understandable that those rotations and that sort of coordinated movement didn't come immediately or naturally given the situation. It has to be encouraging, from a TFC point of view, that the guys on the field were mostly able to sort it all out before the first half was done.
And then, of course, when they were able to get on the ball in between the lines – via a transition moment created out of their defense, which is not something TFC have done a lot of since 2017 – Pozuelo drove the knife in. He is a match-winner. Later on, Altidore was a match-ender. If they stay healthy and connected, they are potentially as good as any one-two punch* currently in the league.
The Impact just don't have that, and their margin for error continues to shrink as they squander both their good start and their home games in hand. Three of their next four are on the road now, and there's a chance they come out on the other side of this stretch below the playoff line and wondering where it all went wrong.
(*) Of course, the Pozuelo/Altidore one-two punch, as well as whatever new spice the brand new winger(s) adds to the attack is probably not as determinative, in the long run, as how quickly and well Omar Gonzalez and Chris Mavinga can meld in the center of defense. Through 90 minutes... so far, so good.
The surge that nobody saw coming? The Colorado Rapids are now 5-1-3 in their last nine following Saturday night's very credible, very entertaining and sometimes bizarre 2-2 draw at Portland (who are also surging). The Rapids – stop me if you've heard this before – did their damage on the counter and on set pieces. Steve Clark had to stand on his head to keep the Timbers in it in the first half:
It got even more fun in the second.
So this run that Colorado are on? It's still not going to be enough – they're nine points below the playoff line and would have to hop four teams (including the Timbers) to get there. Regardless, I originally wrote it off as the simple new coach bounce (or maybe the "getting rid of the old coach bounce" instead), but now it's looking kind of sustainable? They've beaten both LA teams and Minnesota (playoff teams), and gotten very good draws at Philly and Portland. They've won the xG battle in seven of the 11 games Conor Casey has coached, and only one of the results (the 1-1 draw at Philly) was super lucky. The rest were well within the realm of what should be expected of a good team.
“Colorado is a team that plays a little bit different than the teams we’ve played in the past few matches," is how Timbers head coach Gio Savarese put it afterward. "They’re a little bit more direct. They’re a team that’s a little more physical. There were good moments for us. There were good moments for them."
It sounds straight-forward and simple, but "straight-forward and simple and blazing freaking fast in the open field" is a pretty good identity that's looking more and more repeatable. Especially because it doesn't look like it's just the same guys over and over again – there are different answers from different spots. The strength of this team recently had been Kellyn Acosta and Jack Price in central midfield, but neither guy was available this weekend. So it was Danny Wilson and Cole Bassett, with striker Diego Rubio dropping into the hole to harry and harass as well.
“I thought we were very disciplined. Some great performances in the midfield," is what Casey said. "Danny Wilson has done great and Diego was asked to do a little bit different of a job tonight and doing an amazing job in there with Cole. Then our subs came in and gave us a big lift, so I’m very pleased with everybody.”
Timbers fans will want me to point out that Portland's squad was rotated, and that there was a red card so they had to play down a man for the final half hour. Fair enough – but Colorado's squad was rotated, too. And that red card was earned because Julio Cascante was (justifiably) so desperate to keep the visitors out of the open field, running off of Kei Kamara.
I am utterly fascinated by the Rapids right now. I have no idea if they can keep this up – they have to be so, so good in their own defensive third for 90 minutes every single week to make it work – but I can't wait to find out.
A few more things to ponder...
10. The California Clasico on Friday night was one-way traffic as the Quakes went to Carson and hung a totally deserved 3-1 on the Galaxy. They outshot the hosts 32-5! They forced David Bingham into 13 saves (and really seemed to enjoy the ones he couldn't quite get to)! They played with just a nonstop, hellbent-for-leather commitment to destroying LA's will to compete, and it worked.
San Jose have the third-best PPG in the league since the start of April, and look like they're still improving.
LA are mostly going in the other direction. They still cross the ball a ton, and are still generally good at it. But they don't do anything else, really, and teams have figured it out as the Galaxy have gone just 4-7-0 since the start of May.
9. Best week in Orlando City's MLS history? Between the midweek U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal win over NYCFC and then the late, dramatic and utterly necessary 1-0 win over visiting Columbus on Saturday, I'd say so. Getting it done without Nani – getting the types of match-winning contributions from the types of players who've never really factored for the Purple Lions in the past – made this one feel special.
Nothing feels special for Columbus right now. They're in the midst of a 1-13-1 stretching, joining last year's Orlando City side and the 2001 Tampa Bay Mutiny as the only teams in MLS history to lose 13 out of 15 games. Pedro Santos gave us the Face of the Week in the 75th minute:
8. The other team in Ohio is, right now, the better team in Ohio. Cincy won their second straight, going to Chicago and sneaking out a counterattacking 2-1 win in Bridgeview. They spent the whole game putting numbers behind the ball and relying upon Spencer Richey to be excellent (he was), and then just waited for the Fire to shoot themselves in the foot (they did).
Chicago finished the week 10th in the Eastern Conference, with one win in their past 10 games overall (one in their last nine in MLS play). I'm about to type something you've read about 15 times before this season: They dominated by the xG count and by the eye test and by simple numbers of shots, shots on target, etc. They absolutely should've won this game.
Somehow they figured out how not to.
7. Why and how are LAFC so good? We know all about Carlos Vela and most of the rest of the starting XI at this point, but on Friday – 48 hours after a gut-wrenching loss in the USOC quarterfinals – they brought what was mostly their second string to Houston and won 3-1. Here is Maynor Figueroa hitting our Pass of the Week, and here is Mohamed El-Munir making an even better defensive play:
When you have that kind of depth, and when your depth players put in that kind of effort, and you get that kind of result and a tough place to play... LAFC are something close to a mortal lock to win the Supporters' Shield, and it's better than a coin flip that they break the single-season points record RBNY set way back in 2018.
Houston, meanwhile, are in trouble. They're one of the league's worst road teams and their whole claim on a playoff spot was based upon their ability to just constantly churn out three points at home. Now they've got only six home games left, are below the line, and have two teams below them suddenly coming up very hard.
Even if the Dynamo win out at home it might not be enough. They have to figure out how to get away points and do some damage in the slate of six-pointers they've got coming up.
6. Did I write Sporting KC's obituary too soon with Thursday's midseason grades? They followed up last weekend's convincing win over Chicago with an even more convincing 3-0 win at Vancouver. Those were both must-wins, and they kept Sporting's season alive – though I'm not sure how much to read into it given Chicago's struggles and the fact that Sporting always just grab the 'Caps and take 'em out behind the woodshed.
I'm still not sure what to say about the 'Caps, who were promising about two months ago but have been in the toilet ever since. I'm just gonna steal a slack message from Bobby Warshaw: "The transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2 has gone completely wrong, and canceled out Phase 1."
Back to the drawing board for them.
Anyway, this coming weekend against FC Dallas is a huge game for Sporting, and one of the most important six-pointers we've had all season.
5. FC Dallas, of course, shouldn't be in this position because they are one of the league's best between the 18s. Not a lot of MLS teams create moments like this:
That's ridiculous. But being pretty isn't enough anymore, and Saturday's 1-0 loss at Minnesota United leave the Loons sitting pretty and Los Toros Tejanos down in eighth place in the West on PPG. Our friends at 538 say they've got a 51% chance at making the playoffs, but that feels generous right now.
Mason Toye has become an Ilsinho-level attacking sub for Minnesota in the blink of an eye. The 20-year-old seems to have Wondo-esque poacher's instincts in the box, and has seven goals in his last seven games across all competitions.
4. Seattle got a bunch of their starting pieces back over the past two weeks and are starting to look a lot like the 60-point team we thought they'd be. They've now won three of four, and on Sunday afternoon they just crushed Atlanta – the 2-1 scoreline flattered the visitors greatly. The Sounders are doing it now the way they were doing it back in March and April, methodically building through central midfield while they eventually overload that left-hand side, then let Raul Ruidiaz go to work in the box.
It's a good idea. If nobody can stop your Plan A, you should just keep on going with your Plan A. Other than one slip-up on a corner (fellas, you should probably mark Josef Martinez pretty tight in the 18), this was maybe Seattle's best game of the season.
Obviously it's the opposite of all that for Atlanta, who are now 3-5-1 since that five-game winning streak back in early May. The biggest concern right now has to be the defense, which has fallen apart since the Gold Cup break – they've conceded 14 goals in 5 games. They conceded just 11 in their first 15 of the season.
3. RSL put the first of their home games in hand to good use as they throttled Philly 4-0 on Saturday night. Here's Bobby breaking down the first of Jefferson Savarino's two on the evening:
RSL can do murder when they're able to find those wingers in space. They needed a performance like this.
Philly are scuffling a little bit at just 3-3-4 with a -4 goal differential in their last 10. They're lucky that nobody in the East has found their form – at all – to put pressure on. These next three games are huge, though.
2. It looked like NYCFC were going to be the ones to put pressure on Philly, but they had a miserable week: A 120-minute, 1-0 home loss to Portland last weekend, a PK shootout loss at Orlando City in the USOC quarters on Wednesday, and then a controversial 2-1 Hudson River Derby loss at RBNY on Sunday night. The Cityzens had lost just once all season heading into this week.
Are they going to be fine? I think so – they honestly could've been up 3-0 at halftime, and will get James Sands, Alexandru Mitrita and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi back in the coming weeks. Those guys bump NYCFC up a level or two, and maybe eventually to the top of the East.
But at the same time it's hard not to notice how limp they go when teams cut off the supply of long diagonals to the wingbacks. In the first half that pass was always on, and in the second RBNY took it away. And so NYCFC struggled.
The Red Bulls still look vulnerable for long stretches of almost every game, and the underlying numbers don't like them much, but... 8-3-2 since the end of April. So maybe I was wrong when I said nobody in the East is making a run, because clearly the reigning Shield holders have got some ideas.
1. D.C. is the team that should be making the push up the Eastern Conference table, and to be fair to them they've found ways to drop points almost every single week but are still sitting there in second place, even after Friday night's 2-2 home draw to New England. Here's one colleague's take:
"If you were going to be predictable that’s not necessarily a bad thing you just need to play at a higher pace."
"Something about the beating that the Revs gave them in the first half sparked something inside of them. The biggest difference between the second half on Friday and the previous 14 games: D.C. dominated the mental transitions when the ball went out of bounds. On throw ins and goal kicks, D.C. got the ball right away and/or sprinted to where they needed to go. They had not been doing that. It’s a little thing, but if you can transition mentally quicker than the opponent, you always a step ahead. It set the tone for everything else they did."
OK, obviously that one is Bobby's. Literally only Bobby Warshaw would notice that, but... he's right. It's a little thing that seemed to spark some life into United for the final 35 or 40 minutes – and I hadn't seen much of that since early April, to tell the truth.
I really enjoyed Bruce Arena going in-depth on Teal Bunbury's current form, by the way:
The Revs, despite dropping the late points, are in it for real in the Eastern Conference playoff race, just two points under the line after having gone 4-0-4 in the eight games since Brad Friedel was dismissed. Gustavo Bou will probably be in the lineup next week, and with everybody playing good ball, and with three of the next four in Foxborough... man. If you've been sleeping on the Revs, it's time to wake up. They're coming.