No more winless teams! That was the big story from Week 6, so let’s dive in:
FC Cincinnati got some of the basic stuff right on Saturday afternoon, doing a good job of playing with energy and being dangerous on set pieces in the second half. We are going to call this, for the lack of a better term, “effortful execution.” It’s a simple truism in team sports — especially invasion sports — that a mediocre or even poor game plan can be successful if it’s executed with real effort and commitment.
That is what Cincy brought to the table in the second half of their 2-1 win “at” CF Montréal, their first win of the season and second in 16 games going back to the end of last summer. They worked hard. They didn't quit. When there was a set piece, they were the far superior team, and they were rewarded for it.
It wasn’t pretty and you could argue that, based upon the balance of play, it wasn’t even necessarily deserved. Montréal were consistently more dangerous and consistently generated dangerous chances. They strung together a lot of the type of soccer that usually results in multiple goals. They just didn’t finish them, as so:
But that’s the game. If you miss chances like that, you leave yourself open for a humbling if your opponent refuses to quit. For the second straight week that’s who Cincy were, and this time they didn’t just make a noble but doomed effort; they kept pushing and got the win, which happened to be the first come-from-behind win in the team’s MLS history.
“Very good response in scoring that equalizer,” Cincy head coach Jaap Stam said after the game. “Afterwards, [we were] pushing forward to get the second one as well, which is very good.
“You could see that they want to work every game, very hard to get the result. They’re very dedicated to what they need to do. They try to do their best.”
I would quibble with the “every game” part — I think we’ve seen a different level of commitment over the past two weeks — but by and large the above quotes hold water. There was a good response; they did keep pushing for the equalizer; they did work very hard to get the result. And then when they had a chance to put Montréal to the sword on set pieces, they did so.
This is the most basic kind of progress, but my god did Cincy need it.
The other thing they needed and have gotten, at least a little bit, these past two weeks: production from their big-money players. Lucho Acosta was brought in to be a playmaker and a leader, and when he’s been on the field this year he’s been both. Allan Cruz and Yuya Kubo have been working hard in central midfield, as have Geoff Cameron and Gustavo Vallecilla in central defense. None of the above have been perfect (Cameron and Vallecilla just watching Djordje Mihailovic scoot past them en route to the game’s first goal was … interesting) but the shoulders aren’t slumping after they go down a goal these days. That is a big and welcome change.
Another big and welcome change this past weekend was the play of Jurgen Locadia, who scored his first MLS goal since his debut last summer and was, in a lot of ways, the real catalyst for Cincy’s second-half surge. He came on as a second forward alongside Brenner in Stam’s new 5-3-2 and scored the equalizer. Arguably just as important is that he gave Cincy a target to launch toward as they decided, for the final 30 minutes, to just skip central midfield almost entirely.
Look at the Cincy events map once Locadia came on:
Dink it around the back a little bit, then blast it up to that left channel where Loca was roaming. He battled for every long ball — effortful execution. Again: Not particularly pretty, but damn effective.
“If my role has been to start from the bench, it's just OK. I'm OK with it. I think the coach makes the first 11. Then, I have to respect that and the other players on the bench have to respect it,” Locadia said in the postmatch. “If he makes other choices, we all have to be ready. I think that's the attitude of all the players, bench or not bench player. So, I respect the situation. I respect the choices of the coach.”
That’s a commendable level of buy-in, and it bodes well for future growth in this team.
Montréal, meanwhile, shouldn’t hang their heads too much. It took the miss of the decade from Romell Quioto (I’ve watched that clip a thousand times and still can’t figure it out) and a few other blown chances to leave the door open. Locadia even said “we got lucky in the first half” and he’s not wrong.
CF Montréal were better this week in terms of creating repeatable, high-quality chances; they were just worse at finishing them, as has mostly been the case since that unsustainably hot start. Six goals and four points from those first two games; three goals and four points in the subsequent five.
The obvious things they need to work on are still there, but to my eye (and to the advanced stats) it looks like Wilfried Nancy is, in fact, working on them.
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And with that, the Chicago Fire became the final winless team in MLS. They didn't stay that way for long, earning a 1-0 home win over Inter Miami thanks to a 69th-minute gift from Miami 'keeper John McCarthy a few hours after Cincy had beaten Montréal.
There were not a ton of attacking highlights in this game for the Fire. They do not yet look like they did for a good chunk of each of the past two years when they were regularly creating high-value chances, and somehow not regularly finishing them. The more important part for the Fire, though, is that there were basically zero attacking highlights from Miami. That is the key.
If you've been reading this column at all (or, you know, watching Fire games) over the past few years, you know that this team's main problem is that they can't stop making catastrophic errors along the backline and in goal. If they simply stopped doing that they would be, if not "pretty good," at least on the road to "pretty good." It is not a super-high bar, but it is nonetheless a level the Fire have hit for just two seasons out of the past 12.
But the seeds of pretty good exist if you really look for them! The Fire are organized and get numbers around the ball in transition, and have done so all year both as per the eye test and as per the numbers. This isn't sexy, but you need to do it:
Raphael Wicky wants his team to disorganize the opponents with the ball. That means you're occasionally going to lose possession in tough spots, as happens here. But they just repeatedly got numbers around the ball to stop any quick transition moments and to allow the deeper midfield and backline to get into their shape.
There were a dozen more clips of this exact same thing on display just in this game, including some very nice tracking back from young Brian Gutierrez.
Of course, as good as they are in transition, they are among the worst teams in the league defending against simple possession, and that's largely because they do still produce that one moment per game that is usually their undoing. This time it wasn't:
Kind of an insane risk from Francisco Calvo, and one that could've turned out badly. But it didn't end up being that dangerous because Chicago once again got numbers back, and it would've taken something truly special to conjure a goal out of this sequence.
"I think overall, the whole team was very compact, worked very hard, worked synchronized together," Wicky said after the game. "That's what we're trying to do every single game. And on top of that, we really didn't do any easy mistakes today."
That's ... pretty much it. As with Cincy this is just basic stuff, but the road to respectability starts with getting the basic stuff right. Exactly zero MLS teams are good enough to routinely give up easy goals and still be pretty good, and the Fire now have several years of data saying that they're not going to be the ones to buck that trend.
They now also have a data point that says they can go 90 minutes without stepping on a rake. It is actually something to build upon.
Nothing to build upon here for Miami, and yet more bad injury news with Robbie Robinson limping off with a hamstring injury for the second time this year. Rodolfo Pizarro, meanwhile, missed the game with a reported minor knock and, well, we'll see what that ends up meaning. But I suspect the version of Inter Miami we see this summer will look very different than the version we've seen this spring.
A few more things to ponder…
11. It was an absolute horror tackle from Derrick Williams that ruined what had been a very entertaining Timbers vs. Galaxy game up in Portland on Saturday afternoon. Best wishes to Andy Polo for a quick recovery.
Anyway, the first half was fun, and then the red, and then Portland did what you’d want to see from a home team playing up a man: They just dominated. The 3-0 final was probably a little bit flattering to LA, to be honest.
Unlike a number of the other CCL teams, the Timbers have shown they have the depth to play through the workload and injuries (they had a lot every before Polo was scythed down) and get results.
10. The above shouldn’t be perceived as a shot against Toronto FC, just a fact-based observation. The Reds have injuries (though not as many as Portland) and have had a significant workload, and have just not handled it well. Orlando City went up early on a Tesho Akindele goal, and that was it. 1-0 to the purple cats.
The attack, at this point, is largely down to hoping Yeferson Soteldo can do something 1v1, and that’s how you end up hitting a lot of low-percentage crosses. Second Spectrum’s data paints a fairly ugly picture:
Crossing a ton and generating almost nothing out of it is a good way to get counterattacked to death. Maybe Alejandro Pozuelo steps in and solves everything. That would be good, but also kind of telling.
Orlando City are what they are: a structurally solid team with good pieces in a lot of spots, even without Nani and with Chris Mueller continuing to struggle. They don’t beat themselves and at the moment have just enough depth and turn-defense-into-offense nous to just keep collecting points.
They’re not great right now, but they are really tough to break down and are thus one of the three remaining unbeaten teams.
9. The Crew haven’t really shown the depth to play through the workload and injuries, but then Lucas Zelarayan got a couple of set pieces. And that’s how you come away with a 2-1 win at an NYCFC side (in Harrison) that was superior in almost every phase of the game.
Columbus have five goals in six games. Two of them were own goals; the other three are direct free kicks from Zelarayan.
He’s the first player to have three direct free kick goals in a season since Laurent Ciman in 2018, and just the 12th since 2003, which is as far back as we have data as for as per MLS record book guru Rick Lawes. The single-season record is six, set by Sebastian Giovinco in 2017, and yeah, this was a Giovinco-esque performance from Zelarayan.
It’s also not sustainable. Things aren’t clicking for the Crew right now, though obviously the three points can buy them another week to get healthy off the field and try to get right on it.
I don’t think there’s any meaningful takeaway for NYCFC other than “try not to give up dangerous free kicks when the other guy’s got a howitzer.” The underlying numbers love them (they’ve won the xG battle in every game this year) as does the eye test, and this is happening with Maxi Moralez dinged up, Anton Tinnerholm out, Alex Callens out and only one center forward on the roster.
Maxi got back onto the field this weekend and if Tinnerholm and Callens miss another week so be it — neither’s out long-term. Heber still is, but guess what? There’s like $15 million of incoming attacking talent.
I don’t know if this is the year for NYCFC, but it’s certainly not the year they take a big step backwards.
8. Of the CCL teams the Union have handled basically everything the best. That includes workload and squad rotation in the league as well as (obviously) advancing in the tournament. And following Sunday night's high-intensity 1-0 win at D.C. United, they've now won three of their past four and are up to third in the East on both points and points per game.
Philly are still a very crash-bang team, though they do a wonderful job of blending that with some real quality in the attacking third. This run, pass and finish...
That's just gorgeous. The rest of the game was not.
D.C. are trying to be the Union but they just don't have that in the final third.
7. One of the big questions I had about the Revs seems to be resolving itself, as they came out in a 4-2-3-1 in Saturday’s 3-1 win over RBNY, which is the fourth time in their past five games that Bruce Arena’s preferred the 4-2-3-1 to the 4-4-2 they’d started the season in.
The 4-2-3-1 gives New England extra numbers and thus extra control through central midfield, and does one other very simple thing: It gives Carles Gil more touches. His two lowest single-game totals for touches came with the Revs in a 4-4-2. His three lowest single-game totals for touches as a portion of the team’s total touches came with the Revs in a 4-4-2.
“Get your best player the ball” is a good guiding principle.
RBNY are in trouble at center back with Aaron Long out for the year. Sean Nealis is going to have to level up in a hurry and Gerhard Struber is going to have to conjure a reliable partner for him out of that roster. There is little to suggest Amro Tarek is that guy, and Andres Reyes... well, we'll pick this up after the Nations League break when we next see him.
6. FC Dallas will spend at least this week at the bottom of the West, but there was a silver lining in their 2-2 home draw against a resilient RSL side: They actually looked really good and consistently dangerous. A bit part of that, I think, was Luchi Gonzalez’s decision to move to more of a 4-1-4-1 with Tanner Tessmann as a regista and Bryan Acosta in more of a box-to-box role.
Check out the network passing graph:
Tessmann’s (No. 15) comfort on the ball and long-range passing got Dallas upfield and into good spots quicker, while Acosta’s (No. 8) a more destructive two-way presence, which troubled RSL metronome Pablo Ruiz and created a ton of high regains. On the day los Toros generated a season-high 29 total shots, a season-high 10 of which were on target. They should’ve come away with more than just two goals, but the open play finishing from their front line continues to be poor. No silver lining there, even if Franco Jara did finally get on the board via a PK.
You could see the confusion in the Colorado defense — trying out a 5-3-2 in this one — over who’s supposed to step to Baird, and when, when he cut inside. At that point it was just a matter of finding the tiniest window to lead Rossi into that one-time finish. What a ball.
Carlos Vela was back into the XI for LAFC. He got himself an assist on the second Rossi goal, one that also came from Colorado’s backline being a little bit out of sorts in their new formation.
The Rapids’ three-game winning streak came to an end.
I know we can’t see his face here. I am giving Andy Rios our Face of the Week anyway:
That was not the fencing response. That was his soul leaving his body after another shocking, game-changing miss.
Missed chances like that — Wondo had one in Week 1 at Houston, and then a missed PK vs. the Timbers, and Rios has had a couple of bad ones as have virtually all the wingers — have been the story of San Jose’s season. This would’ve made it 2-1. Instead they fell apart and 60 seconds later were down 2-1 as Sporting, who’ve won three of four, stepped on the gas.
KC did the No. 1 thing you have to do in order to beat this Quakes team: they won their duels. The entire starting midfield of Gianluca Busio, Roger Espinoza and Gadi Kinda were over 60 percent, and when you put up those kinds of numbers against man-marking you’re going to generate transition moments.
And so Alan Pulido feasted.
3. Atlanta United went to Seattle and got themselves a point thanks to a very credible 1-1 draw. They did not, by any means, play great. But they stayed solid and tough to break down, and did a better job than anybody else this year of strangling a Sounders attack that had mostly been running people over. They deserved their point.
And while Seattle didn't precisely "deserve" to concede a late equalizer via a Josef Martinez PK ... I mean, they kinda did? The Sounders have always been content to let the game state dictate how they approach things, and so anyone who's ever watched this team knew they would go into full opportunism mode once they got an early 1-0 lead. Just stay compact, defend as a unit and hit on the counter. It's not a bad strategy.
Except at some point in this one they became so, so passive. There's a difference between "playing for the counter" and "playing to keep the 1-0," and it evolved into that second thing over the final half hour or so. Atlanta didn't precisely put them under constant pressure — Atlanta's attack is too slow, predictable and bereft of individual creativity for that — but it never felt like Seattle were going to find a second. They just stopped being a threat entirely.
I do think Atlanta deserve a lot of credit for that. But at the same time this feels like the first chink in the Seattle armor that we've found this year.
2. Nashville SC put over 22,000 fans into Nissan Stadium and gave them a 1-0 win over Austin FC to cheer about. It was their fourth straight shutout. They haven't conceded a goal since the first half of that 2-2 draw against Montréal way back in Week 2.
Their defense is obviously very good. Their attack is obviously not great, but they're still unbeaten.
Austin have come crashing back down to earth. This three-game losing streak is a rude reminder of just how slim the margins can be in this league.
There aren’t a ton of d-mids in MLS who have the strength to muscle Lucas Cavallini (who, to be fair, seemed to be going down trying to draw the foul regardless) off the ball and then release a winger like that. Obviously a bunch of other stuff needed to go right for the Dynamo — or wrong for the Whitecaps, depending upon your perspective — for that to turn into a goal, but the whole point is to give your team as many opportunities for exactly that sort of thing in the first place.
The Dynamo have gotten better at doing that so far this year. The ‘Caps mostly have not.