Week 22 came and went. Let's look at the weekend that was:
Atlanta United played, I think, their best game of the season this past weekend. Granted, it was against an LA Galaxy team that was without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and that is maybe not particularly great in the first place, but still, the Five Stripes' 3-0 win was impressive. It was clinical. It was emphatic, It was never in doubt, and thanks to a pair of Galaxy own goals, it was also pretty funny.
There is some irony in the fact that this win came with Atlanta playing out of something that looked like the much-maligned – including here, by me – 3-4-3/3-6-1/3-4-2-1 that Frank de Boer had his team start the season with. Here's their network passing graph, courtesy of Opta:
Each circle represents the location of the corresponding player's aggregate touch, while the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes exchanged.
It was nice! It was also different from the early-season performances out of this shape for one big reason: Atlanta actually drove play forward when they got the chance. They weren't so mechanical and slow in picking their passes and finding their spots.
“Against Galaxy, there is a lot of possibility in transition and we did and we have to play those balls forward as quick as possible because we have like Pity (Martinez) and Josef (Martinez), especially Pity between the lines of course and (Ezequiel Barco) a little bit higher up so we could find those guys," is how De Boer put it, and I mean... yeah. The Galaxy sure do allow that (they've lost three of their past four because teams are murdering them in transition), but the "Why haven't Atlanta been doing this all year?" question still stands. So does the "will they actually come out in their next few games and try to do the same things again?"
They absolutely should. Barco's speed and close control in transition can be devastating, and his biggest negative (he doesn't complete progressive passes if there's any sort of compactness to the game) gets minimized in that scenario. Pity's transformation is even more extreme, as he's often devastating in transition but basically does not exist in any other phase of play.
De Boer seems to have accepted that for at least a week, and also seems to have more confidence in his backline's ability to to do the work of getting his team out on the run than he did back in the spring.
"What was also very positive for me was Miles (Robinson) played today, especially with the ball also, he had some good provoking, dribbling in, and then passing to the free men in between lines and he did it fantastic," De Boer said. I
t's hard to imagine that kind of praise for the young center back in March and April, but in August he absolutely earned it.
The Galaxy have, as I mentioned, lost three of four. And four of six. And five of eight. And nine of 14. And they've dropped to fifth in the West, and have scored just 30 goals on the season, and are the only team in the playoff hunt out West with a negative goal differential.
Cristian Pavon better be really good, really fast. As Pity's ever-so-slow integration has shown, there's no reason to think that'll be a given.
Who Are You
Coming off of a pair of ugly draws, and with the biggest game in the club's MLS history waiting for them midweek, and with Darwin Quintero suspended, and with the rest of the playoff race looming... there were reasons to think that Minnesota United were about to crumble. They'd charged through the early summer as they always seem to do, but then they hit the mid-summer doldrums, as they always seem to do.
And then they beat the Timbers 1-0, and ended the weekend in second place in the Western Conference. It took 90 grueling minutes, a good use of Video Review and a penalty, but this was a "we're making the playoffs" win. This was a team that has defined themselves as tough and smart and damn hard to break down defensively after being soft and mentally sloppy and giving up almost 150 goals the previous two seasons.
This was the book on Brian Fernandez in Liga MX – if you could keep him in front of you, you're gonna be OK. The lack of a true No. 9 in the lineup for Portland meant that MNUFC could just sit deep, avoid having to defend in transition and keep their shape. That way when Fernandez got into the final third, he had no obvious options, and with no center forward he couldn't just lay the ball off and try to run in behind.
"We tried to limit their transition. We knew that was going to be the key to the game and in the first half they just waited to get on it and get forward quicker than we were able to get setup and organized in the back," is how Ike Opara – who was immense – put it. "I think in the second half at least, keeping our numbers and keeping our shape (improved)."
Given that approach from the Loons and Fernandez's superior productivity out wide when playing for Necaxa in Mexico, I do wonder if Gio Savarese was holding something back in this one. Fernandez can play as an off-the-shoulder center forward, but it's not his best spot; his best spot was always on the wing, operating outside the zone of density and off the work of a true No. 9. In last year's Clausura, operating mostly as a center forward, he had 4g in 1000 minutes. In this past Apertura, operating as a "winger" who's really more of a wide forward (think how Diego Rossi plays for LAFC), he had 12 goals in 1260 minutes.
He's scored in just one of his last seven appearances now, all of which have come at center forward. Maybe it's just a slump, or maybe teams have started to adjust after his white-hot start. Going by Opara's words and Minnesota's second-half shape, I'd guess it's the latter.
I think they'd be borderline unstoppable with Jeremy Ebobisse as the No. 9 and Fernandez on the wing, hitting gaps that Ebobisse's movement and hold-up play creates, but it's been the other way around (and while Ebobisse tries, and has had some nice moments off the wing, he's definitely not a wide player).
I'm really curious to see what the Timbers do on Wednesday night, because on Sunday they didn't create much at all.
A few more things to ponder...
10. Rossi and LAFC went to New Englandand stuffed the Revs' 11-game unbeaten streak in the trash. I still think the Revs are good – they did not roll over and die, nor get undisciplined and thus embarrassed despite conceding an early goal – but there is a gulf between LAFC and everybody else. You need to play your A game and hope the Black-and-Gold play their C- game in order to win.
That didn't happen. LAFC brought their B- game to Foxborough and came out with a 2-0 win.
9. This was supposed to be it for Toronto FC – the series of games during which it all came together for them. Instead they've been as up-and-down as ever, and the Jozy Altidore/Alejandro Pozuelo partnership isn't clicking like it did earlier in the year, and after a pretty good first half they played a pretty miserable second half en route to a 2-0 loss at RBNY.
I criticized Chris Armas for last week's subs, but he deserves credit this week. Dropping a winger in order to bring on another central midfielder (Cristian Casseres) and pushing Kaku to a playmaking right winger role was pretty much the perfect adjustment, and they fully deserved the three points.
8. Orlando City – who'd never actually scored a goal against FC Dallas before – deserved their full three points following Saturday's 2-0 win as well. Both Ruan and Sacha Kljestan had strong Pass of the Week arguments, but I'm gonna go with the old man here:
Any time you register a one-touch back-heel nutmeg assist, you win Pass of the Week. That's just how it is.
Dallas are in some obvious trouble. In theory, they have one of the easier remaining schedules of anyone in the Western Conference playoff hunt, but in reality that doesn't matter much if you can't put the ball in the net.
7. On the other side of that coin live RSL, who outplayed NYCFC throughout and then finally beat them into submission during the final 25 minutes of their 3-1 win on Saturday night. They've now scored 11 goals in their past five home games, and are doing so via a variety of avenues. Mostly, though, it's that when Jefferson Savarino plays like this week after week, RSL are tough to stop (it'll be interesting to see if anybody in Europe ponies up the ~$5 million it would take to purchase the Venezuelan international outright before the window closes midweek).
RSL are in OK shape, on 34 points and still with six home games left. But those games are vs. Seattle, LAFC, Colorado (don't laugh – the Rapids have been one of the league's best teams since mid-May), San Jose, the Galaxy and the Dynamo. They are gonna have to work,
NYCFC get a Maxi Moralez-less mulligan. He's essential.
That said, they started off the season with one loss in 18 across all competitions. Since then they've lost four of six.
FC Cincy, who are 3-16-1 in their last 20 games, named a new head coach on Sunday.
5. The Quakes, for the first time in a long time, let one slip away:
A 1-1 home draw against an inspired-and-playing-much-better-than-they-had-been Crew side is hardly the end of the world, and Eloy Room had himself a day in net for the visitors. But if the Quakes don't manage to get home field (or even miss the playoffs entirely, which is extremely unlikely but not impossible), they'll look back at this one with a bit of rage.
Luis Diaz, the 20-year-old Costa Rican young DP Columbus signed last month, has looked very good. And he was a difference-maker in this one.
4. Chicagogot up 1-0 on the stroke of halftime in Houston and managed to stay there til the final whistle, just their second win in three months. The game's only goal was a set piece right off the training ground.
Houston haven't completely lost touch with the playoff race – they're only three points below the line – but they sure don't look like a team that's planning to make a run. And man, the regression of Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis this year has been tough to watch.
Their era together was supposed to culminate in some sort Year 3 run at a high playoff seed and maybe a title. That's not going to happen.
3. Know what else isn't going to happen?Philly fading out of the race at the top of the Eastern Conference. They demolished D.C. United by 5-1 in D.C. on Sunday night behind a heroic performance from Alejandro Bedoya and just getting back to winning their battles all over the pitch. Bedoya's opening goal caught all the headlines, but:
- Marco Fabian played easily his best two-way game for the Union
- Andrew Wooten looked useful on both sides of the ball, if still lacking in sharpness
- Ilsinho looked 100% fit in his third game back from injury, and now has 4g/7a in a touch over 700 minutes this year (lol)
- Jamiro Monteiro played his first game after missing a month via injury and picked up an assist
This felt like an "OK, we've survived the hard part" performance, and now that they're mostly healthy and ready to go... I think the team that we saw from mid-March to mid-May is the real Philadelphia Union. I'll be surprised if they don't reinforce that point of view over the next month before a very, very difficult home stretch that'll go a long way toward determining whether they're just a good team, or legit contenders.
D.C. are neither of those things right now. Since May 15 they're 2-4-7 with a -5 goal differential, bad body language and a sudden fetish for a 5-4-1 that somehow still leaves them outnumbered in central midfield.
2. I do wonder if this is what Sporting would've looked like all season had Erik Hurtado been fit. He's not only good at using the space made by his more creative attacking comrades, but he's relentless and excellent at creating space for them by making run after run after run off the ball. And while his finishing was notoriously, uh, not great at the start of his career, over the past three years he's put up 9g/6a in 1665 minutes across all competitions. That's not going to win the Golden Boot, but Sporting haven't needed a Golden Boot-caliber center forward this year; they just needed someone who'd work hard and move the opposing defense around a bunch. Hurtado did that (and got the game-winning goal) in his first start of the season, a 3-2 Sporting win at Seattle on Sunday night.
Hurtado's got the rest of this season most likely to make his case that he should be the starter next year – and maybe to help make a run at the final playoff spot. I don't think it'll happen (Sporting are five points out with 11 games to go), but this is MLS, so let's not get crazy and rule it out entirely.
As for Seattle, any time they get close to making me really believe in them, they go and do something like this. Granted they were without five starters (or maybe just four, depending upon what's happening at right back), but the Sounders got carved up every which way.
This was not the performance of a contender.
1. And finally, the game of the week gave us our Face of the Week:
The Rapids crushed Montreal by 6-3 in Commerce City as Kei got himself a hat-trick. He's now scored double-digit goals in five straight seasons and seven times in his career, and is up to 5th on the all-time regular-season chart with 123. Jaime Moreno (133) and Jeff Cunningham (134) are 4th and 3rd all-time in MLS goals, and while Kei won't catch either of them this year, he's got every chance to pass them next year.
More important, though, is that this Rapids turn-around is really starting to look sustainable. They're 6-3-3 in their last 12 with four wins and two draws against playoff teams, and their only three losses were against three of the hottest teams in the league (the Revs, NYCFC and San Jose). And they've gotten contributions from everybody.
The Impact have lost five of six and are staring at an insanely busy August. I'm regretting the fact that I Baerantee'd they would make the playoffs, because right now they do not look like that kind of team.