"It's easy to destroy. It's hard to create." -- Roy Wegerle (reportedly told to Alexi Lalas during USMNT training)
There is a moment that every team in the game chases, the moment of perfection that comes from 11 men (or women) working as one to unlock a defense, to play not just the perfect ball but the perfect series of balls, married with a perfect series of runs and touches. Players, coaches and fans alike all life for those moments.
When it happens it's breathtaking, but in our game those perfect moments are rare. Soccer is much more about trying and failing and trying again -- and then failing again -- than it is about anything else. The default setting is frustration.
And thus, the pursuit of those moments is actually a fool's errand. What the winning teams focus upon isn't perfect, but grinding through the season, playing the percentages and taking advantages where they come. That could mean holding onto the ball for as long as possible for one team, or forcing turnovers in specific spots for another. It could mean killing all comers on set pieces, or it could mean absorbing pressure and playing on the counter.
Every team is different. And no matter the league, I'm willing to put my money on this axiom: The best teams know who they are. They play with clarity and purpose, and bring that to bear week after week, even when the touches aren't perfect or the runs aren't quite timed correctly.
It's hard to create that, even after months of trying. But at this point in the season, there has to be more than just frustration.
Onto the games:
Waiting In Vain
For nearly a decade "know who you are, and then play to that strength" was the calling card of Real Salt Lake. They were compact and intricate and smart, and able to carve chances out of all of the above. They consciously conceded the flanks as the trade-off for protecting both the box itself and the deep, central midfield.
You could on occasion blow them apart with raw athleticism, as FC Dallas did way back in the 2010 playoffs or the Galaxy in 2014, when Landon Donovan battered poor Tony Beltran. Against certain teams, conceding the flanks became a bad gamble.
And so RSL have adjusted. Over the last 18 months they've entirely scrapped the diamond midfield and the 4-4-2, going instead with a 4-3-3 geared toward chance generation via the wings. That means Joao Plata and Juan Manuel Martinez are in the spotlight every time the Claret-and-Cobalt are on the pitch.
This isn't a bad thing, since Plata and Martinez are two of the better wingers in the league. But I'm still not convinced that the midfield of Kyle Beckerman, Luke Mulholland and Javier Morales really understands how they're all supposed to fit together on either side of the ball, a level of confusion that's passed along to the defense behind them.
So while RSL have spent the vast majority of 2016 comfortably above the red line, they really haven't found any answers for sequences like this one. It's long, but stick with it:
FS1's broadcast team of John Strong and Brad Friedel did a nice job of calling this sequence out as it happened. Friedel's point -- Burrito was right to be pissed (go to the :36-second mark) was correct. RSL are five-and-a-half months into the season, and the trigger they had at that exact moment was one that any team in the league should recognize.
"I think we need to re-watch this game as a group," head coach Jeff Cassar said afterward. "You can come up with the best game plans and be tactically sound, but if you turn the ball over as cheaply as we did in the first half, nothing is going to work. We got better in the second half and it was a much better half for us. We need to see where we made mistakes as a team collectively, but also see individually where we can get better. If we can each get better individually, we'll get better collectively as well."
Seattle ended up winning 2-1 on Sunday, though it probably should have been about 4- or 5-0, because they continually were able to build from back-to-front against their disjointed guests. When Cassar et al watch the tape, that's what they should look for.
RSL are still going to make the playoffs, and with the amount of quality young talent on the roster their future is bright. But there has to be, at this point, at least some worry over their lack of holistic defensive progress (and by the way, they have exactly one shut-out in the last four months). When they defend from the front, the midfield and back get stretched. When they defend on the back foot, Morales is neutralized. When they try to defend by possessing the ball, Plata and Martinez are denied space to run in behind.
It's not clear who or what this team is. Seattle exploited that on Sunday, and there will be more to come in what is simple a brutally difficult final 2.5 months of the season for RSL.
Alejandro Bedoya didn't wow anybody in his Union debut on Saturday. There were no game-breaking plays, highlight-reel dribbles or breathtaking runs. That's just not what the US international does.
That's also not what the Philadelphia Union needed. Philly had dropped from the top of the Eastern Conference into fifth place over the two months prior to kick-off in Foxborough. It's not that they'd suddenly forgotten how to play soccer. Rather, it was that they'd been missing a piece -- a No. 8 who can get on the ball in high-leverage spots and shuttle it forward into the kill zone.
That's what Bedoya does. And that's what he did in a commanding 4-0 win over the Revs, one in which he only took one shot, didn't have any assists or key passes, and never completed a single pass to C.J. Sapong, Philly's target forward.
Anyone looking at those metrics will be underwhelmed. Instead, Bedoya was sublime at getting the ball to playmaker Tranquillo Barnetta on the move, into space, and pointed toward the final third:
Those are the passes Bedoya completed to Barnetta. If you're getting your No. 10 on the ball multiple times per game in Zone 14, you're doing something very, very right. Vincent Nogueira was tremendous at this, and in Bedoya's 72 minutes, he was as well -- and he did so without vacating central midfield to the types of dangerous build-ups that have shredded the Union backline since June.
“I think you saw with the addition of Alejandro a guy that can slow the game down when it needs to slow down, and can speed it up when it needs to speed up,” Union head coach Jim Curtin offered afterward. “It gave us a little bit of a calming presence in possession. I think the guys fed off of that.”
It was a promising start for the league's newest DP. And the future, immediate and long-term, remains very, very bright in Chester.
A few more things to ponder...
7. I've come to really, really regret my preseason pick of the Vancouver Whitecaps to win MLS Cup. Their 2-1 loss to San Jose at BC Place on Friday night was, more or less, a cry for help. Pedro Morales is no longer able to create the type of magic that made him a Best XI caliber player in 2014 and '15; Kendall Waston has been one of the more error-prone center backs in the league this season; and even old reliable David Ousted has had his share of howlers in net. All of the above is compounded by the continued lack of production from the team's collection of forwards.
What makes this strange is that the developmental curve of so many of these players had pointed steadily upward over the last two seasons. Injuries obviously haven't helped things, but it's worrying that so many 'Caps are playing below their talent.
If they miss the playoffs, expect at fairly significant roster overhaul this winter.
6. There were lots of positive things to pick out from RBNY's 3-1 win over Montreal on Saturday:
- Sacha Kljestan's league-leading 14th assist keeps him with an outside shot at 20 on the season
- Bradley Wright-Phillips became the club's all-time leading scorer with a brace
- Sean Davis had a goal and two assists while filling in for Dax "Wally Pipp" McCarty
The question, however, persists: Can this team win away from home? How that question is answered over the next two months will determine who finishes atop the East.
I also wrote about the Impact's performance in that game, and specifically their attempt at a diamond midfield. I don't think we'll see a reprise of that experiment.
5. New York's next chance to answer the above question in the affirmative will come at D.C. United this coming weekend. United were convincing in a 2-0 win over the Portland Timbers, and target-man Patrick Mullins produced the Pass of the Week in the victory:
Mullins should've had at least one goal of his own. Nonetheless, he's been productive in his brief time as D.C.'s starter up top, and has made the attack around him more dynamic.
4. NYCFC are the ones currently atop the mountain in the East, even if they still sport many of the same defensive warts they had early in the season. Their 3-3 draw at Columbus -- in which they came back from 2-1 down to take a 3-2 lead, then squandered it at the death with an inexplicable defensive gaffe -- was everything good, bad and gloriously entertaining about this team crammed into one performance.
3. The final team in the mix atop the East is Toronto FC. The Reds are first in PPG and second in total points, but they definitely left two on the table in Sunday night's hellstorm-delayed 1-1 draw against 10-man Houston.
The Toronto fanbase is taking the result with their typical steely-eyed equanimity:
The draw stopped TFC's winning streak at four games. No one in MLS has won five straight (or better) this season.
2. The cannibalization of the Western leaders has begun! FC Dallas left the door cracked enough for Sporting KC to take a 2-2 draw out of Frisco on Saturday, and then a few hours later Colorado got themselves a point at Carson with a 1-1 draw against the Galaxy.
These three teams will fight down to the wire for homefield advantage in the playoffs, and probably for the Supporters' Shield as well.
1. And finally, I decided to go outside of our league for Face of the Week:
I don't know if I've ever seen anything more remarkable than Usain Bolt at full sprint. Honestly, I don't know if anybody has.