Eight weeks in, and the top of the league has maybe started to come back to the pack a bit? Let's dive in:
Break up the Quakes! This time three weeks ago we were talking about a team that looked like they were going to set season-long records for checks notes literally everything bad. They couldn't defend, they couldn't attack, they didn't seem to have a grasp on who should play where, or how to move the ball from back-to-front, or anything else that a decent team should do.
Following Saturday night's utterly dominant 4-1 win over visiting Sporting KC, San Jose's now won two out of three with a very credible 2-1 loss at Houston sandwiched in between. I'm not going to say a switch has been flipped – the Quakes are still at a talent deficit against most opponents, and there's enough noise in the signal to be pretty far from making a definitive assessment about this team's likelihood of long-term improvement – but they're more than passing the eye test right now.
“The goals were important for the confidence of the players," is how head coach Matias Almeyda put it afterwards. "I think it was an intelligent game knowing we couldn’t give [Sporting] any advantage, so our players understood what we wanted. We had patience to control the ball and determine the moment and the place when we should pressure to recover the ball and from there start our counterattacks.
"I think the players did a good job understanding the game plan."
That game plan now revolves around keeping central midfielders Anibal Godoy and Jackson Yueill deep and central. Those guys are wandering less and sitting deeper – they almost never push into the attacking third if they're not chasing the game – than the central midfield did earlier in the season.
You can see some of it in the network passing graph:
This is made using Opta data. 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. Godoy (20) and Yueill (14) are still man-marking, but when they win the ball they aren't going anywhere unless they absolutely have to.
Winning the ball in that spot, above, is what led to the first two goals of the game against a Sporting team that looked slow and flat-footed at the back. Which brings us to the other part of the equation for San Jose's sudden, drastic improvement: Some personnel shifts have made a major difference. Yueill has 1g/1a and has played rugged defense in his three starts, while Danny Hoesen had a brace against KC, which gives him three goals in his three starts.
The third new starter is in the center of defense. Florian Jungwirth still defends with what I'll charitably call reckless abandon – he conceded two penalties in this one – but also with mobility, and commitment, and an ability to first win, then distribute the ball. He is a two-edged sword, but right now the Quakes are grabbing it by the hilt.
Sporting are grabbing a bunch of Ls. They looked old, slow and out of gas in this one, just as they did last weekend against the Red Bulls, and just as they did in the two previous midweek games against Monterrey in the Champions League.
The good news? Five of the next six are at home, and they don't have to make another west coast trip until mid-July. They need to use this stretch to get right again, and get back into the top four in the conference.
If they're not there by the end of May, sound the alarm.
Dark Wings, Dark Words
As I wrote last weekend: I gave Atlanta United plenty of mulligans for bad performances through the first two months of the season. Frank De Boer was changing formations and lineups game-to-game, the schedule was cramped and tough, they had a few injuries, and the cultural change was obviously going to be tough for a significant chunk of players.
The other side of the coin was that I refused to read too much into their 2-0 win at New England last weekend. Here's what I wrote:
"If they repeat this showing (or come anywhere close to it) next week against FC Dallas, then we'll talk."
They didn't repeat the showing, and they didn't come close to it in Saturday's 2-1 home loss to FCD. But we're going to talk anyway, and it's going to be about why Atlanta's results have been so, so much less than expected.
Mainly, they don't know what they're doing:
(volume up for analysis)
That's not how a team that understands how it wants to play looks. Teams that understand both their shape and their defensive triggers actually get pressure to the ball – and you absolutely freaking have to get pressure to the ball if you're going to defend 100 yards from your own goal. If you don't, then you open yourself up for the exact kind of jailbreak that led to Jesus Ferreira's third goal in four games.
This isn't just a defensive issue:
Atlanta are almost always static off the ball, which makes it easy for the defense to keep everything – the ball, the players, every single run – in front of them. They don't work in concert, and because of it their whole is much less than the sum of the parts at the moment.
"If you play like this for 30 games you're going to win 28. I think we made two steps forward today," is what De Boer said in the postgame press conference, then later continued:
"I would say it was by far the best performance. I think this is what we want. Dominate and create chances. I cannot address it again and again. I can not make it, they have to make it. And we will make goals for sure. If you keep playing like this you will win a lot of games."
I get what he's saying – Atlanta won the expected goals battle by 2.78 to 1.47, and goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez had a monster second half for the visitors.
It was just the second half, though. The Five Stripes didn't create a single chance before they were 1-0 down, and didn't create any big chances until it was already 2-0. At that point they threw the kitchen sink out there, and while it kind of worked (they definitely weren't static, and definitely could have found the equalizer if Gonzalez had been a touch less sharp), it also didn't on the day and won't over the course of a season.
My point: Desperately trying to claw back into a game you've already lost, reliant upon raw talent and numbers to reverse weekly deficits is not a viable long-term strategy. This is what NYCFC found out down the stretch in 2018.
The good news for Atlanta is that they still do have more talent than anybody else in the East, and it's not like the rest of the conference is threatening to run away from them. They have every chance to reverse this, and I think they will (which is exactly what I was writing about Toronto FC 12 months ago).
I used that above video to emphasize what Atlanta were doing poorly, but please also conceptualize it as what FC Dallas did well. Luchi Gonzalez made a risky and clever adjustment, moving to a 5-3-2 and just defending deep from the first minute. That effectively 1) gummed up central midfield, 2) gave Ferreira and Michael Barrios acres of room to run into, and 3) provided an extra platform, via that third center back, for handling that first line of Five Stripes pressure.
But it was 18-year-old Dallas d-mid Edwin Cerrillo who stole the show. He was superb.
A few more things to ponder...
10. RSL went to Cincinnati and left no doubt with a fairly comprehensive 3-0 win over FC Cincy on Friday night. The schedule got easier for the Claret-and-Cobalt after that brutal four-game stretch, so they’re picking up results now... but part of that is just that they've played better over the past 180 minutes. Justen Glad's return to health has stabilized the backline a bit, while Sam Johnson has looked like a true, starting caliber center forward the past two weeks.
Will it continue next weekend against the Galaxy?
FC Cincinnati are predictably coming back down to earth after a good run in mid-March. If they make any sort of mistake at the back they get annihilated, so they kinda need to stop making mistakes at the back. They also need to be... better... going forward:
Face of the Week for Alvas Powell right here, by the way.
9. For the second straight week Minnesota United took a first-half lead and took a second-half lead, and for the second straight week they held neither. This time, though, they didn't even collect a point as they lost 4-3 at Toronto FC.
That Loons defense... 70 goals shipped in 2017, 71 in 2018, and they're now on pace for 72 in 2019 with just over 20 percent of the season in the books. Control for home/away and it’s slightly less than that, but it’s probably fair to say that their improvement has been marginal, which is not commensurate with the amount of backline/central midfield/goalkeeper investment they made this offseason. The fans and front office expected better, and in my opinion they were right to.
Their next four are scary: home vs. the Galaxy, D.C. and Seattle, then at Chicago. Things could get bad fast.
Despite the win things got bad fast for Toronto when Jozy Altidore limped off with a hamstring issue. Then they got weird as he took aim at team president Bill Manning for the dismissal of former trainer Giuseppe Gueli, who – I am not kidding here – is a self-identified "phenomenologist."
8. Things were not weird for the Galaxy, who put together a workmanlike 2-1 win over visiting Houston on Friday night to hand the Dynamo their first loss of the season.
The Galaxy are solid, but remain static and kind of janky off the ball, which Jona Dos Santos talked about:
“I think you’ve seen our team thus far, it’s not easy to win six out of seven games," the Mexican international, who's been playing great soccer, said afterward. "I think the team is very compacted, we just need that little bit of patience. We need to have more ball possession, run less – or more like know how and when to make the runs – and not just run without necessity.
"I think the team is great defensively and offensively, we just need to fix some minor details. It has cost us some effort to get into the first 10 minutes of the second half of games and in the end they score on us and makes us suffer. Little by little we will fix those details.”
The Dynamo shouldn’t be happy, since they lost (duh). But they did a better job of corralling Zlatan (that's not an A.J. DeLaGarza joke) than anybody else this year, and their improvements in possession and defense look sustainable to me.
The short version: Philly un-parked Montreal's bus.
6. I talked about Atlanta maybe sounding the alarm above… I actually think RBNY are in a worse situation because they don’t have the raw talent to just brute force their way out of it. Atlanta can put their best XI out there (or close to it) and be the better team, on paper, almost every game. RBNY can’t – they have to outplay you in other ways, mostly related to commitment and absolute buy-in.
They’re not doing that anymore, and they certainly didn’t do that on Saturday at New England in a 1-0 loss. They didn’t look anything like a team that had an idea of what they wanted to do, or how to do it.
The Revs didn’t do much themselves, but they defended ruggedly in the 18 and got a lucky goal. Sometimes that’s enough.
5. Nothing lucky about this goal or Portland’s 3-1 win at Columbus, their first of the season:
Portland were able to pretty consistently create danger by playing to and through Sebastian Blanco on the wing, and then letting him find the gaps between the lines of the Crew backline and midfield.
Those gaps aren’t supposed to be there. Columbus were disorganized in a way that they’re usually not, and don't have the attacking pieces necessary to bail themselves out of a bad defensive performance.
4. Up the Lions! Orlando City did their usual thing, creating some late drama and finding a late goal in a 1-0 win over the visiting ‘Caps. They’re now fifth place in the East and while I don’t think they’re great, I’m not spying the obvious, fatal flaws that were apparent in each of the last two teams (those flaws were apparent even when they were winning, by the way). There is a level of solidity here for James O'Connor & Co. to build on.
For what it's worth, the 'Caps nearly had themselves a week. They suffocated LAFC in a 1-0 win on Wednesday, their first of the season, before nearly holding on for a point in this one.
3. As good as Cerrillo was for FC Dallas, the best performance by a teenager this weekend probably belongs to NYCFC's James Sands, who kept Wayne Rooney in his back pocket all game long while playing in the middle of a five-man backline for the Pigeons in a pretty comfortable 2-0 win, their first of the season. New guy Heber had a goal and an assist in his first start, and NYCFC looked really, really good for the first time in a really, really long time.
D.C. really, really didn't. Both Chris Durkin and Junior Moreno struggled in central midfield, and I thought Ben Olsen made a mistake by not subbing on another forward early in the second half – that would've been the way to free Rooney up, and to open gaps in the NYCFC midfield.
2. LAFC had a trap game midweek against the 'Caps, and it trapped them. They took it out all over Seattle's face on Sunday night, putting together a 4-1 win that was honestly one of the most impressive regular-season performances in league history.
It didn't matter to the tune of three goals, though – at least I don't think it did. Hopefully we get to find out, in the return leg up at CenturyLink next week, what the Sounders would look like against this LAFC juggernaut when at full strength.
For what it's worth: With just over 25 percent of their season done, LAFC are on track to set the league record for points, points per game, goals and goal differential. The underlying stats match the boxscore stats, as does the eye test.
1. The Fire destroyed the Rapids. It’s hard to know what to make of the 4-1 final since Colorado are on track to concede 98(!!!) goals this season. The previous record for defensive futility was produced by Orlando City last year, when they coughed up 74. "Only" 74, I guess.
The numbers tell the story for the Rapids, as does this quote from Benny Feilhaber:
“Soccer is a sport with 11 guys on the field and the best teams have 11 guys defend,” Feilhaber said after the game. “Having said that, there’s always the responsibility of the back four, back five, back six to have that extra edge in defending and right now we don’t have that.
"With the goals we’ve scored we should be getting more points. And right now we’re not because we’re just leaking goals back there. That falls on the whole team, but there’s guys that need to take more responsibility in that aspect and right now we’re not that good enough back there.”
Colorado are now the only winless team in MLS, and looked destined to set some unenviable records. I’m still giving Pass of the Week to new dad Dax McCarty:
That volley, that early, with his off foot? Filth.
Chicago are unbeaten in four and officially have a ton of attacking talent. We'll see if they can use this performance as a launching pad.