Happy Labor (or Labour, for those of you north of the 48th parallel) Day weekend, folks. I hope you're reading this while enjoying a cold beer and hot sunshine.
Let's jump into what happened in Week 26:
The Name of the Game
New York Red Bulls games have started to follow a painfully familiar pattern: They come out high and hard, put the opposition under some real pressure in the opening 15 minutes (last weekend at Yankee Stadium this resulted in a goal), but then either slowly run out of steam, or slowly – unconsciously – ease their foot off the pedal, or just plain and simple have a mental/physical error that leads directly to a goal.
Last week they beat the hell out of NYCFC for 20 minutes, then dropped their line and eventually conceded the equalizer just before halftime after a mental error from Michael Murillo. This week they controlled the game for 14 minutes, then just weren't able to do anything to slow Jonathan Lewis down in the open field, and like that they were down 1-0 at home in front of a fan base all too happy to voice their displeasure. And from that point onward, it just never looked like RBNY had the will or the approach or the raw talent to get back into a game that they were strongly favored to win. They eventually lost 2-0.
It's not that their heads went down entirely, but more that they just never really imposed themselves and took total control. Last year when games like this happened in the regular season, RBNY almost inevitably found another gear and another goal. This year, they don't quite have it, and Chris Armas knows it.
"Look, at this level, desire is a big piece of it. But it's not just urgency. You would like to see some things carried on with more urgency, but there's also execution, right? And yeah, I'll look hard," Armas said after the game. "I'll look hard at certain guys that we relied on and guys that we didn't call their number tonight and we have to figure it out quickly.
There's enough chances out there tonight. There's enough chances for us to score."
That all tracks (Armas gives good, honest press conferences). So does this:
"Defensively we have to have more – more guys that understand how to carry their weight and put out fires. But again, nothing surprised us tonight with the opponent. So when you know exactly what's coming and you didn't really deal with it or execute, it's 2-0 at home."
It feels like, no matter what happens the rest of this season, there will be major changes coming for RBNY in January. If I set the over/under for new starters at 4.5 heading into 2020, I think I'd take the over.
Full credit to Colorado's Robin Fraser for his debut as head coach with his new team. Armas might've known what was coming (Colorado did in fact sit deep, did in fact hold only 40% possession, and were of course lethal in the open field), but I was initially surprised by Fraser's decision to go to a 3-5-2 with Lewis as a 2nd forward – one who had complete license to roam – rather than the usual 4-2-3-1 with Lewis as a winger.
Regardless, Lewis was the best player on the field and played easily the best game of his young career. The first goal was the definition of a solo effort, as he left multiple RBNY defenders for dead in the open field, but this second goal was more impressive:
That is an assassin's finish. But it's also worth noting that this came out of the 4-2-3-1 – one in which Lewis was used back in his usual spot on the wing – after Fraser made a sub and changed the team's shape (and thus the game) at the break.
"In the first half, we took a lot of pressure. They were able to get out too easily on us. We changed the shape in the second half," he explained afterward. "We were able to confront them higher, win balls higher, and as a result we were able to quickly get behind them before they could even organize their pressure, and then as the game went on and we got more and more confident, we're able to get out of one side of the pressure and get to the free side where we had much more time."
Emphasis mine. If you're looking for an idea of how the Rapids will attack under their new head coach, that's where I'd suggest you start. The idea will be to hold the ball in one area, invite pressure, and then play across the zone of density and into 1v1 situations.
A bit more about Lewis: He has 8g/7a in 1510 MLS minutes in his young career. The list of guys who average a goal or assist every ~100 MLS minutes on that kind of a sample size is pretty small, and in 2019 is filled with names like "Zlatan" and "Valeri" and "Josef" and "Moralez." Fraser should have some fun figuring out how to keep this going from the youngster down the stretch and into 2020, while getting him to add more to his game in possession and especially defensively.
And the Rapids should absolutely aim for the playoffs next year. Since dismissing Anthony Hudson they're at 8-7-4 with a +2 goal differential, which if you stretch it over a 34-game season would have them in the fight for 7th in the West.
Good For the Soul
We keep asking "are they for real this time?" about Philadelphia, and generally speaking they've kept giving us reasons to say "I think so, but I wouldn't bet my life on it." I've pointed out all year long that the Union play some of the prettiest, most effective and most flexible soccer in the league, switching from possession to pressing to transition, from the 4-4-2 diamond to the 4-2-3-1 and to a flat 4-4-2 while shuffling pieces along the back line and the front line and even in goal, thanks to a few injuries.
And for all their very good-ness that at times bordered on greatness, I'm not sure they had a signature win. Sure, they drilled D.C. United a couple of times and generally took care of the teams behind them in the standings, but there was never a moment where it felt like here they come.
In the second half of Saturday's 3-1 home win over Atlanta United, you probably got that feeling. The Union were both rampant and methodical, repeatedly playing over, around and through the Atlanta defense. Haris Medunjanin, once again playing in a double pivot (this time next to Jamiro Monteiro with Alejandro Bedoya suspended), was the key to everything in that second 45 as Philly turned around a 1-0 deficit:
Green arrows are completed passes, red are incomplete, yellow is a key pass (a pass that leads to a shot) and blue is an assist. If there was an opportunity to get Philly's attackers into space anywhere on the field, Medunjanin took it. If there was an opportunity to get pressure to Medunjanin and stop him from conducting the entire game, Atlanta couldn't find it.
Frank de Boer told media afterward that he started Jeff Larentowicz at right center back in Atlanta's usual 3-4-2-1 with the idea that Larentowicz could step into the midfield and press if Philly played a diamond. But Philly stayed in that 4-2-3-1 and Atlanta stayed in that 3-4-2-1, and that forced Larentowicz to keep busy chasing winger Brenden Aaronson instead.
"Larentowicz is obviously smart and experienced and knows to be very physical with him," is what Union head coach Jim Curtin said in the postgame. "[Aaronson] did a good job of drawing Jeff into some difficult spots and we found some space in behind, especially in the second half as it went on."
That, in turn, meant nobody was there to bother Medunjanin, and he took advantage.
"I think after the 60th minute when we scored it was 1-1. After that* we saw that they could not run anymore and we could find the free guy in the midfield. Almost every ball through the midfield was a chance for us," the veteran regista said. "We could attack all the time and we showed that.
"I think we showed MLS that we are not an afraid team."
(*) Also after the 60th minute – and I have no elegant way of working this in – Ilsinho came on. He didn't get on the scoreboard but it almost doesn't matter, because other than Carlos Vela no winger in the league has more gravity right now. Atlanta sold out to stop him, which opened space elsewhere, and when Philly have space they do murder.
Ilsinho's played 893 minutes this year, or just shy of 10 games. The Union are +26 when he's on the field, including all three goals on Saturday. He is the greatest off-the-bench weapon in MLS history. He lights teams on fire and laughs as they burn:
They probably did. And while I still have questions – what is this blurb like if Kacper Przybylko doesn't score that goal, and can he finish half-chances like that into October? That's still the big one for this team – it sure looks like Philly have more answers than they used to. This was a signature win.
As for Atlanta, given their heavy legs (they've played a ton) and so-so form recently (they labored in each of their past two games, including Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup final against Minnesota) they were bound to fall on their collective face at some point. I still think they are right there with NYCFC in the "who's the second-best team in MLS?" debate, and would probably pick them ahead of the Union if these two teams meet in the postseason.
But I admit some real curiosity as to how they'll look two weeks from now after a bunch of rest. Were their second-half struggles in each of the previous three games just a result of heavy legs, or are teams figuring them out a little bit?
A few more things to ponder...
10. NYCFC's claim on being the second-best team in the league is fairly solid at this point. Their 1.85 ppg is, historically speaking, near Supporters' Shield-caliber; they've proved their depth at almost every spot; they have the league's second-best goal differential (+17), and they are, outside of LAFC, probably the hardest team to bunker against.
The argument against them being the second-best team is that they've lost four of the past five games they've played against playoff-caliber opponents. That didn't matter for Saturday's 3-1 stroll at Vancouver, but each of the Cityzens' final seven games from here on out is against a team above the playoff line.
So they'll get to make their case for good.
As for Vancouver, here's their 2019 obituary.
9. BennyBall lives! D.C. United had absolutely nothing in recent weeks, but they went up to Montreal on Saturday evening and uglied their way to a 3-0 win over the officially death-spiraling Impact. United got their first goal off a set-piece scrum, and their second off a goal kick and their third off another set-piece scrum.
They were out-shot 24-7, and had 35% of the ball. There was nothing beautiful about it, but they saw their odds of making the playoffs jump from 61% to 91%, as per FiveThirtyEight, by the end of the night.
There has been no new-coach bounce for Montreal.
8. There has been in New England. The Revs haven't lost to anyone except LAFC since Brad Friedel was dismissed, but at the same time they have now won just one of their last five following Saturday's very fortunate 1-1 home draw against Toronto.
The Revs should make the playoffs but they are leaving themselves open for disappointment. Four of their final six are on the road, and five of the six are against playoff-caliber teams. The one that isn't against a playoff-caliber team is a six-pointer at Orlando City (who are only mostly dead).
TFC have left themselves open as well. Obviously Quentin Westberg held his hand up and took the blame for the late equalizer – it was a true howler – but the circumstances that led to that moment are on Greg Vanney. New England had nothing going forward until Vanney made a pair of ultra-conservative subs with 15 minutes to go, taking off his wingers, bringing on another center back and going to a 5-4-1. Look at how that tipped possession in New England's favor:
Each bar on that graph is a 5-minute game segment. Those final three bars are telling.
That wasn't just possession for possession's sake, either – it was meaningful possession in the final third that led to legitimate looks. New England had five shots from inside the box in the first 75 minutes, and four from inside the box in the final 15. Why let a team that'd created nothing to get comfortable like that? Why invite them that far forward?
Next Saturday at FC Cincinnati is a must-win for Toronto. It didn't have to be.
7. FC Dallas had their own must-win against Cincinnati this weekend and handled it with aplomb, crushing the visitors by 3-1 (Luchi Gonzalez should maybe be upset it wasn't more). I'm going to recommend this from Jason Poon on how Zdenek Ondrasek's presence as a No. 9 has simplified things for the rest of his teammates but just doing a better job of occupying the opponent's center backs.
Dallas finish the weekend above the playoff line yet again, but everybody else in the West hunt has at least one game in hand and for FCD, three of their final five are on the road.
Cincinnati have now set the record for worst single-season goal differential at -39 and still growing (the previous record of -37 was jointly held by 2013 D.C. United and Chivas USA), and their goals allowed have climbed to 67. The current mark of 74 was set by last year's Orlando City squad.
6. The Lions threw it back to 2018 with their performance in San Jose on Saturday night, getting drilled right out of the gate. It was 3-0 by the 33rd minute and that's how it would stay. OCSC's path to the playoffs is narrow and super unlikely, but if they win out, that would probably do the job.
San Jose don't need to win out, but they did need to win this one because the West is ridiculously tight and they're going into the blender for the next three games: at RSL, at NYCFC, at Atlanta. The Quakes took zero points from their recent three-game road swing, mind you.
I feel like I can count on one hand how many of Chris Wondolowski's 157 career goals have been scored on breakaways, by the way:
Folks are going to find this hard to believe but in terms of goals+assists per 90, Wondo (13g/2a in 1630 minutes) is having the second-best season of his career, behind only his legendary 2012 season. As folks mentioned on social media, I see no reason he can't keep doing this until he's 40, Claudio Pizarro-style.
For what it's worth: If you let San Jose's wingers get onto the ball in the half-spaces like that sequence above, you're dead.
5. Chicago played the hits in Saturday's 1-1 draw at Columbus, creating a ton of big chances and finishing too few of them to get the result they needed. They looked good for long stretches, and they were frustrating in big moments, and I'm not sure what else to say about this team besides that. They should probably be in the playoffs, and if they'd won this game I'd have maybe talked myself into them finding a way to sneak in.
But now they need to win out to have a chance, and how can you pick a team that's won two straight just twice this season to win four in a row during the stretch run? The answer is "you can't."
Columbus are just out there playing spoiler now, having gotten results against Chicago (twice), RBNY, Toronto and San Jose over the past six weeks. All of those teams are in danger, to one degree or another, of missing the postseason. If any of them do, the Crew should feel free to put up a hand and say "we did that!"
(I really do have a special place in my heart for teams like Colorado and Columbus, both of whom have been virtually eliminated from the playoff race for months but both of whom are out there trying desperately to pay that pain forward).
Pedro Santos gets a special shout here after another banger. The Portuguese winger has looked more comfortable as a No. 10 over the past few months, and after massively underperforming his expected goals in his first two seasons (1 goal on 86 shots worth about 6 xG), he's now massively overperforming it with 10 goals on 66 shots worth about 6 xG.
Over a long enough timeline, these things tend to meet in the middle.
4. The other team with the Fire in the "they massively underperformed their xG differential and should be a playoff team" pot are Sporting Kansas City, who are fourth in the league by that metric at +11.3 behind LAFC (+37.61), Atlanta (+11.74) and Chicago (+11.73). The difference is that Sporting are making an honest-to-goodness push, having won three straight and four of their past six following Saturday's 1-0 home win over Houston.
Part of this push is personnel, as Graham Smith in central defense, Felipe Gutierrez at d-mid and Erik Hurtado at center forward have all added a much-needed dose of athleticism at those spots. Part of it, though, is that they've changed their shape at least a little bit, with Peter Vermes moving away from a pure 4-3-3 to something that occasionally looks like a 4-5-1 for maybe the first time in his career as a head coach. And the other part of it is, as Bobby Warshaw pointed out this week, they're just being more direct and pragmatic.
Conventional wisdom has been that Sporting are looking at a multi-year rebuild given the number of less-than-awesome contracts they have on the books, but I know more than one smart person around the league who thinks they are one piece – a big-time No. 9, obviously – away from being a 60-point team in 2020.
Speaking of top-tier No. 9s, Mauro Manotas didn't play in his one and Dynamo broadcaster Glenn Davis says it's because an offer has come in for the Colombian's services from an as-yet unnamed European side.
Face of the Week here:
That guy looked truly heartbroken.
3. Portland broke their two-game losing streak with a ginormous 1-0 home win over RSL. They weren't great, but their defense was locked in, their spirit was good and they have Diego Valeri. Diego Valeri is really, really really good, and his ability to win a game in a moment papers over a lot of cracks.
In the last couple of months the cracks have shown when Portland have had to attack a set, static defense – which I'm still not sure they have any idea how to do. I thought, once Valeri cracked his 16th-minute thunderbolt, that it would end up being smooth sailing for the Timbers as RSL pushed upfield in search of an equalizer and Portland inevitably got out on the break time and again.
But those opportunities never came. RSL did a really nice job of pushing numbers up in search of a goal but still keeping their shape and winning the open field battles. They look well-drilled.
Of course, the Timbers won the battles that mattered the most. Jorge Villafaña had what felt like his best game in years, pocketing Jefferson Savarino and repeatedly breaking up RSL's attacking combinations before they could find the final ball.
2. There are two truths I'm going to take out of Seattle's 4-3 win over visiting LA on Sunday night:
- The Galaxy are in actual trouble. They've gone just 6-11-2 with a -11 goal differential since the beginning of May. Everyone (including me) keeps looking for reasons that other teams in the Western Conference playoff race will drop below the line, but based on form, nobody in the hunt has been worse, or worse for longer, than LA. They finished the weekend in 7th place, just two points above the Timbers – who have a game in hand, and six of their seven left at home.
- Seattle still have not figured out how to get pressure to the ball anywhere on the field. Putting Cristian Roldan on the wing and getting another true central midfielder out there helps only somewhat, because while Roldan is excellent at defending from the front, the guys behind him still haven't quite figured out how to cut down lanes or win second balls.
I don't know what the solution is for the Galaxy, who don't seem to be able to play hard enough for anything more than 20-minute clips. I'm equally stumped about Seattle, who rode spectacular performances from Roldan and Jordan Morris but who consistently look so, so fragile.
The game itself was a hell of a lot of fun for a neutral, but it made me feel worse about both teams' chances going forward.
1. MASON TOYE!!!!!
Sunday night's 2-0 win at LAFC, in which Toye had both goals, was a 20-year-old with less than 1,000 career minutes going on the road against arguably the best team in MLS history five days after a heartbreaking loss in a Cup final and saying "we're making the damn playoffs!" This is the kind of performance you'd expect out of a DP, or at least TAM-level veterans like Roldan and Morris. You don't expect it out of a player who entered the year as an afterthought with zero career goals.
Toye's now got 6g/3a in 493 regular-season minutes, and 8g/3a – including two game-winners in the U.S. Open Cup – in about 740 minutes across all official competitions in 2019. That is absurd, and given the lack of production from the other forwards on the roster, he has been a season-saver.
Jan Gregus gets our Pass of the Week for the above.