Week 20's done, and it was a busy one between a packed midweek and then a full weekend slate. So let's jump in:
Remember the Cant
I was surprised at the reaction to the Galaxy's 3-2 win on Friday night, much of which centered around the notion that LAFC are flat-track bullies. They're not – they’re 7-1-3 now against teams who were above the playoff line at the time they played them, and this was their first loss of the year with their full squad. This is still the best team in the league.
But they did show some cracks. Diego Rossi wilted (he had so many moments to open up the game), as did Mark-Anthony Kaye, and as Bob Bradley pointed out afterward, the Galaxy out-competed his side all over the field.
Rossi first: He’s really good at what he does, which is run faster than anybody else, usually at the right time and to the right spot. He is something above reliable in the box (11 goals in 8.59 xG), and his decision-making has improved year-over-year. He remains, however, a 21-year-old with potential rather than a finished product, and what he’s lacking is the ability to kill guys off the dribble when teams do the “pick your poison” thing and leave him in isolation.
The truth is in the numbers with Rossi, who really is more of a "wide forward" than "winger." Of the 67 high-volume dribblers in the league this year (I went with anyone with 40+ dribbles attempted), Rossi has the third-worst dribble success rate at 36.84%. If you're the main option and everybody's keying on you – a la Alberth Elis – that's kind of understandable. If you're playing across the zone of density and in the free space provided by Carlos Vela's gravity, it's kind of not.
The Galaxy bet Rossi wouldn't beat them. He didn't.
The Kaye thing was the midfield version of pick your poison, as Guillermo Barros Schelotto decided that he’d sell out to stop Eduard Atuesta’s distribution rather than trying a normal zonal scheme through midfield. GBS had Favio Alvarez sit on Atuesta and dared Kaye to control the game. Kaye couldn’t, and spent his 65 minutes on the field either forcing everything or a step behind the play. When Lee Nguyen came on for the final 25 minutes, the rhythm, tempo and initiative in the game changed dramatically.
Understand this, though: The Galaxy’s intensity and Zlatan’s singular match-winning prowess was 95% of this result. LA were able to sell out completely with the “let’s destroy what LAFC do” gameplan – which didn’t entirely destroy what LAFC do, but came close enough to put the whole thing at the feet (and head) of Zlatan. And then Zlatan scored one goal nobody else scores, and two others that very, very few players score:
That is a luxury zero other teams have.
“I mean it is not every single week we play against LAFC. Today was a different game," Ibrahimovic said afterward. "Today was about a rival game, two teams from the same city, and obviously we need to get this attitude for every game. Last game before this one was very poor, probably the worst game we did, and today was probably the best game we did. That is what I said in the MLS, every game is like fifty-fifty, you don’t know what the outcome will be. There is no favorites, there is no team that you can predict before the game that they will win.
"There is a balance that is in the MLS, but today we won and we showed that when we want it, we can do it.”
Obviously the Zlatan part isn’t replicable for other teams, but the “compete like hell and push them around and show that you want it” part is. The Timbers (Diego Chara especially) did it two weeks ago in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal, and now we’ve seen the Galaxy apply the same basic principle. In order to win the soccer game against LAFC, you first have to win the rock fight.
Back to Rossi for a second – and we can add Adama Diomande here as well: Would you be comfortable going into the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs with one of those two guys as your second-best attacker? Last year Atlanta's second-best attacker was Miguel Almiron. Two years ago, Toronto's second-best attacker was either Jozy Altidore or Victor Vazquez.
Third-best, and I’m good with Rossi or Dio. Second-best, though, and I’d be a little nervous if I was an LAFC fan. I don’t trust either of those guys to win me a big game.
I’ve written a ton, and everyone else has written a ton, about Sporting Kansas City’s year-over-year defensive collapse – which becomes even more stunning when taken in the context of what this team has done this decade. That defensive collapse remains the biggest and most obvious reason for their team-wide failures in 2019.
The ditch they're in got deeper following Saturday night’s 2-0 home loss to FC Dallas. To borrow a line from a buddy of mine “No one thought Sporting would A) be this bad, and B) have it be mostly due to their defense.”
He then pointed out that Sporting are third in MLS in expected goals scored.
But that takes me back to the preseason side-eye everyone shot at Peter Vermes’s squad. It wasn’t because of the way he’d built the defense, but because of who he’d chosen to rely upon at center forward: journeymen Krisztian Nemeth and Erik Hurtado, and no one else. The two of them came into 2019 with a combined 20 years of professional soccer experience, and exactly one double-digit goals season between them. “Will they get enough from their No. 9s?” was la pregunta difícil back in February.
Hurtado has missed most of the year with an injury. Nemeth, meanwhile, has seven goals on the season – not bad per se. But he’s scored in just four of 18 regular-season appearances including just twice in 14 since the end of March, and has played himself out of the starting lineup. That has left DP central midfielder/winger/left back Yohan Croizet as the nominal starting No. 9, except he’s definitely not a No. 9:
You can’t just stand there and wait for the winger to do all the work. You have to do some of the work for the winger yourself – get goalside.
I don’t blame Croizet for this, as he’s not a forward, but I do think it’s an appropriate moment to wind it back to the preseason and remember that we were all worried about this team’s center forward play specifically for moments like this game. This was a six-pointer, at home, in a playoff race, and Sporting played well in the first half. Vermes even pointed it out at halftime, saying that his team “should be up 3-0.”
No one can be surprised they weren't, though. Beyond the underwhelming career-long boxscore stats of their center forward corps, the canaries in the coal mine were Daniel Salloi (14 non-penalty goals on 9.6 non-pen xG) and Diego Rubio (10 non-penalty goals on 4.12 non-pen xG), who propped up last season’s attack.
It turns out those canaries have expired and last season's overperformance was unsustainable. Rubio was traded to Colorado this offseason, and Salloi… Salloi has yet to score in 834 minutes this year. The stuff that worked to cover up the lack of a go-to No. 9 in 2018 has disappeared in 2019, and while Hurtado’s return from injury should help some (I still believe!!!!), it feels like the damage is done. SKC need to do some serious striker shopping in this window or the next.
Dallas should probably do the same, though both Dominique Badji and Jesus Ferreira got on the board in this one. It was frankly shocking to see Dallas win this game, just the second time all season they’ve won without Paxton Pomykal. Instead of the usual 4-3-3 with a rotating central midfield they went to much more of a 4-2-1-3 with Ferreira as a kind of a No. 10 (at times reminiscent of his old man, it has to be said), and the three-man front line swapping spots pretty liberally in the run of play.
This might be what they look like in a post-Pomykal world, one which they’ll probably be living in by this time next year.
A few more things to ponder…
10. Atlanta had the week they needed to have, thumping the hell out of 10-man Houston by 5-0 on Wednesday, then eventually breaking all the windows on the bunkered-in D.C. United bus in a 2-0 win on Sunday. I still don't think they're playing particularly well, and it's hard to divine what they're building toward, but they have so much talent that they more often than not can brute force a solution.
D.C.'s approach, without Wayne Rooney, was almost certainly the right one, but this game really showed the good and the bad of Paul Arriola. Great engine, great brain, good speed... lacking end product.
9. I’m just going to borrow the greatPaul Kennedy’s lede from his wrap of San Jose’s come-from-behind 3-1 win at Vancouver on Saturday night: “One day, you'd imagine, San Jose Earthquakes players will drop from exhaustion after all the marking they do to harass their opponents.”
There is an aesthetic difference between Quakes games and almost any other team in the league in 2019. Their whole identity is wrapped up in always harrying, always pressing, always being as tuned-in and stuck-in as possible. This shouldn’t overshadow the fact that when they’re in attack they play some of the prettiest soccer in the league – they are balling – but there are multiple times every single week in which they leave me shaking my head and smiling at their defensive effort. It is wonderful, and it makes them more fun to watch.
And it just overwhelms teams:
The ‘Caps are obviously on the struggle bus. Their midfielders and wingers don’t track or get pressure to the ball – they just retreat. So it’s a shooting gallery, and Maxime Crepeau is the only silver lining in this dismal season.
8. “Dismal” is probably the right word for Chicago’s season as well, as they went to Chester on Saturday and lost 2-0 to the Union. This was a trap game for Philadelphia, who’d been scuffling along for a bit and had slowly lost some of their identity (they’ve been easier to play against) over the past two months.
They weren’t great on Saturday, but they weren’t easy to play against, and they’ve absolutely earned another week atop the East on both points and PPG.
7. Remi Garde had words for his Montreal team, who were yet again disjointed and lacking in conviction in their 2-1 loss at Columbus – just the Crew’s second win since April 6. Here’s our Face of the Week from the Frenchman:
Yeah, he’s not happy with Omar Browne right there. Not happy at all.
FiveThirtyEight has the Impact at about 69% likely to make the playoffs – they still have a little bit of a cushion, and a bunch of home games left, and hopefully Ignacio Piatti coming back soon – but that feels high for a team playing so poorly. They’ve lost four straight and could very well be under the playoff line at this time next week.
For Columbus this was a needed respite from a half-season of pure misery.
6. No misery for Minnesota United, who went to RSL and got a super-valuable point courtesy of a 1-1 draw. The fact that they managed it without either Ozzie Alonso or Angelo Rodriguez is a testament to how much more depth this version of the Loons has than in years past, and how much better they are at using it.
You've probably heard a lot about Mason Toye. He got the assist in this one.
You've probably heard less about Hassani Dotson, and this is me officially making a case for him as the Rookie of the Year front-runner. When Minnesota's starting RB Romain Metanire went off to the African Cup of Nations, led his team to their first-ever appearance in the quarterfinals and was tournament Best XI, Adrian Heath put Dotson in at right back and the team did not miss a beat. When Metanire returned and Alonso went down, and the Loons faced a road six-pointer... again Dotson had his number called, and again neither he nor the team missed a beat.
One of the keys against RSL is not letting their attackers beat you off the dribble and then cut central, forcing the entire defense to scramble. Here is the map of attempted dribbles by RSL’s attackers on Saturday night:
Green is successful, red is unsuccessful. RSL went 1-for-10. Considering how easily MNUFC’s central midfield was bypassed with the ball last year, and how big a part Alonso had been of fixing that problem this season, it was reasonable to worry the Loons would be exposed.
You would expect a DP, full international like Jan Gregus to step up in that moment (he did). It is found money when a rookie, second-round draft pick does the same. But here Dotson is, week after week, delivering the kind of steady, two-way performances that have so often in the past eluded this team.
Minnesota have answers. And they have a cushion in the Western Conference playoff race. They have earned it.
5. Like so many other teams recently,NYCFC were having all kinds of trouble balancing their desire to use the ball with their urgent need to keep Colorado from running into acres of space, and at 1-0 down things looked ugly. Even after inducing a (deserved) red card out of Sebastian Anderson, they struggled to put the game away playing 11-v-10.
But a win’s a win, especially after last week. Add in the fact that Alexandru Mitrita and James Sands got healthy and back into the lineup, and that Heber got his second goal in two games, and it should be nothing but smiles in the Bronx after their 2-1 result in Commerce City.
Even with the loss Rapids fans should feel positive, as their youth-oriented rebuild continues to show so much promise. Here’s 17-year-old Cole Bassett to 22-year-old Jonathan Lewis to the 16-year-old Anderson for the game’s first goal:
There’s a ton to work with going forward.
4. Luis Robles made four saves. The woodwork made three more. Brian White got a pure, run-off-the-back-shoulder, center forward's goal. Following Sunday night's tense, hold-on-for-dear life 1-0 win at Orlando City, the Red Bulls are 9-4-2 in their last 15 regular season games.
They are underwater on the year in the xG battle and there are times – like midweek at Toronto, or the second half in Orlando – where they just don't pass the eye test. I also don't think you'd find too many folks arguing against the notion that they're middle of the table, at best, on raw talent.
But they find a way. It is the culture of the club, and it is impressive. (That said I'd sure be interested to see what RBNY would look like if RB HQ went out and got them a $10 million winger).
That culture, beyond anything else, is what James O'Connor et al are trying to build in Orlando. They've made undeniably positive steps this year, but it is going to be a process and there will be bumps in the road. That's definitely what Sunday night was, as the Lions remained in ninth place, four points back of the playoff line.
A more immediate worry: The health of Nani, who came off injured in the 71st minute. The Portuguese attacker has played 90 minutes just once in Orlando's last eight games and just twice in the past two-and-a-half months. He has a history of muscle injuries, and Orlando City's own history with the same – they always seem to be hard-hit in midsummer – the hill just got pretty steep.
3. And here it is:
Following their pretty comprehensive 2-0 win at FC Cincinnati the New England Revolution officially finish Week 20 above the playoff line, and with a 50% chance of making the playoffs as per FiveThirtyEight. It's a coin flip! Never, ever did I think they'd get to this point, but it's undeniable that this team has been reborn in the past two months.
It's unexpected. Just as unexpected is the degree of tactical and positional flexibility Bruce Arena has shown, flipping from one formation and approach to another pretty seamlessly. This week's special was a 4-2-3-1 with Carles Gil as an inverted playmaker on the right wing and Diego Fagundez as a box-to-box tempo-setter. And it worked! It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty good, and "pretty good" at Cincinnati gets you three points.
2. Seattle vs. Portland was awesome in almost the exact same way that El Trafico was awesome, and in the almost the exact same way that the Hudson River Derby was awesome. Genuine, long-standing and local contempt makes for great theatre for the full 90 minutes (and then for a few minutes afterward as well).
I don't blame Seattle for going out there and trying to play their own game – lots of possession, a relatively high line – at home against the Timbers, even though doing that exact thing plays into Portland's hands (which is a big part of why the Timbers eventually got a 2-1 win). I will blame Seattle if they show up without any new wrinkles to throw at their rivals when these teams meet again a month from now during Heineken Rivalry Week
I'll also maintain that they need another elite attacking piece.
As for the Timbers, we know what they are in this current iteration: Absolutely electric on the break, but still very much a work in progress when playing against teams that sit in a low block.
Well, from now until October it's probably gonna be low blocks for as far as the eye can see.
1. Remember two years ago when Toronto FC won the domestic treble? They did so with outstanding, season-long performances from the likes of Altidore, Vazquez, Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco, of course. But they also did it with their depth – at one point that spring they were rotating their squad almost every week due to schedule congestion.
That was a long time ago, and TFC is no longer that team. Greg Vanney rested a bunch of regulars on Saturday night, and had to be watching in horror as his team were just about played off the park in the first half against a Houston team that’d been in what looked like a death-spiral. The second half was much better from the Reds, but the damage had already been done en route to a 3-1 Dynamo win.
I’m giving Memo Rodriguez the Pass of the Week for this assist. Watch how he freezes the Reds defense by looking them off:
From the first angle, you can see Rodriguez look away. The second gives you an idea of just how hard Laurent Ciman bites on the look-away. The third angle shows you it’s not just Ciman – it’s just about the entire Reds midfield and defense, while Tommy McNamara is pointing exactly to where the run’s going to be.
I love a disguised pass, and I love when an attacker beats the entire defense with his (or her, since Rose Lavelle is awesome at this) eyes.
The Dynamo needed this win. Badly. The Reds, meanwhile, need to figure out how to get more out of their depth, or they'll be spending another year watching the postseason from home.