There was some sense around the office that this was officially an "OK, what do we actually know?" type of week. As in, we'd reached a point in the season where we could sit down and say definitively "this particular team is good" or "this particular team is bad" or anything in between, rather than "this particular team's played good" or "this particular team's played bad."
It may seem like a fine distinction, but it's actually not. We do know that Toronto FC are good, though they've played bad at time this year. We probably know that NYCFC are good, and that Atlanta United – despite a bad game to start the year, and generally less incisive play than what we saw through most of 2017 – are good. I feel the Red Bulls are also in that group, as are Crew SC (despite a bad result this weekend).
But how close are we to really knowing about the rest of the league? I am down on both Orlando City and Portland after what happened on Sunday, but I can also pretty easily talk myself into both teams figuring themselves out pretty quick. I am impressed by the clarity with which New England play, but…
To contextualize: Both last year's Orlando City and Dallas teams had better records after five games than New England does this year. Now, maybe Brad Friedel keeps finding the right levers and that press keeps working its magic, but that's still a maybe and I'm not sure that a big win over a short-handed and 10-man Montreal team sheds much light on what's to come.
So it's been a weird start to the year, is what I'm saying. Part of that is because the scheduling has been so uneven, with some teams having played as many as six games and others as few as three. There are two teams (Portland and LAFC) who've yet to play at home, and others (Chicago, Orlando, Philly, Houston) who've played just once on the road.
Thus it's my official stance that this wasn't an "OK, what do we actually know?" week. It was an "OK, we probably still know nothing, but we're starting to suspect a lot week."
All of the above notes about weird scheduling to start the year? Yeah, we're heading into mid-April and FC Dallas have not left Frisco. And they've won only once. Things are not precisely bad, but they're not good. With that in mind, let's start our journey deep in the heart of Texas…
You are a Rainbow Infused Space Unicorn
I love me some good hold-up play. I respect the hell out of center forwards that are willing to check back to the ball, drag defenders with them and take a beating in the process. Often it's the best way to open up space for the rest of the attack, and great hold-up play like that can turn into great attacking moments with just a dash of the right kind of creativity.
That dash of creativity has been lacking for FC Dallas despite having what looks to be about a 90-percent fit-and-healthy Mauro Diaz back on the pitch. Diaz remains among the league's most creative passers of the ball, and is unquestionably the league's foremost through-ball artist. When he's on the ball with time and space in central midfield, cracks in a defense often turn into chasms with a single touch.
But that hasn't been happening. And I'd submit it's because Maxi Urruti and Diaz just don't mesh. Here's a video of every Urruti touch from Saturday's disappointing 1-1 draw against Colorado:
Here's a video of all of Maxi Urruti's touches from Saturday. Urruti's a good player, but look at how often he's coming back into the midfield & gumming up the works, and how few of his touches actually come inside the area. pic.twitter.com/5n3SRCjhhj— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) April 9, 2018
Urruti's a good player, but look at how often he's coming back into the midfield and gumming up the works. Then look at how few of his touches come inside the box. Look at how infrequently he stretches the defense. Look at how infrequently he attacks space. He is always coming to the ball.
Contrast that with little-used DP Cristian Colman, who came on for the final 17 minutes and got the equalizer (it's right near the end of the video):
Contrast that to this video of Cristian Colman's touches. Colman's been disappointing in front of net, but he's under no illusions as to what his job is and what his strengths are as a player. pic.twitter.com/UijTMWaDgD— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) April 9, 2018
Yes, it came from a long-ball via Diaz (and yes, Tim Howard absolutely should've claimed it). Colman has shortcomings – he has been what I'll charitably call a "poor" finisher in his 1,029 MLS minutes, bagging just three goals in that time. But he's also reliably found great chances, reliably stretched opposing defenses, and reliably understood that while checking to the ball for hold-up play is part of his game, it is not all of his game. He's much happier attacking space off the ball than he is doing anything else.
In short, I think he's a much better fit with Diaz and the rest of the FCD attack than Urruti has been. And I think it's weird as hell that, entering Saturday's game, Diaz and Colman had shared the field for a grand total of only 79 minutes, ever. You'd think that two players whose skillsets seem so complementary would've been given more run together, especially when considering how generally poor Dallas's attack has been.
It's probably time for Colman to start a game or two. As bad as his finishing has been, Urruti's has actually been worse – he has three goals in his last 1,700 MLS minutes. Part of that is just that he's a streaky, slump-prone finisher, but a bigger part of it is that he just doesn't fit as well as he should.
So it's also probably not a coincidence that Urruti's played his best in MLS either A) off the bench for Portland, or B) during the first half of last season before Diaz got healthy and Dallas went away from the 4-4-2 and back to the 4-2-3-1.
As the last 20 minutes against the Rapids showed, Urruti still has a role to play when Dallas flip to that formation. He is always willing and eager to combine with a forward partner and his defensive workrate is still off the charts, which makes him ideal in any two-forward set-up. When FCD are trailing, you can sub him on for a central midfielder, push Diaz deeper and throw caution to the wind. When they're leading, sub him on in place of Diaz and unleash a vicious sit-and-counter approach.
Just don't play him from the start week after week. It's not working, and hasn't been for a while.
You are a Poetic and Noble Land-Mermaid
Chicago finally got their first win of the season on Saturday, capitalizing on a Zack Steffen error to find the game's only goal in a 1-0 win over visiting Columbus. It came on Chicago's only actual shot on target, and all-in-all it was a scuffling, semi-desperate, very fortunate win for the hosts. Gyasi Zardes hit the woodwork twice; Cristian Martinez and Pedro Santos both spurned great chances, and on a different night this could pretty easily have been 3-1 for Crew SC.
When you've struggled as much as the Fire have thus far, any win is a good one. Sometimes it takes an ugly win to line up three or four pretty wins, and regardless, no coach is going to turn their nose up at three points.
But Veljko Paunovic has a problem to solve here. The problem is this: The defense is wildly disorganized and has exhibited little ability to build from the back without Bastian Schweinsteiger playing as a sweeper. However, when Schweinsteiger plays as a sweeper the midfield lacks any sort of creativity, while the backline becomes measurably more likely to get overpowered in the air.
Every choice in this game of ours has trade-offs. They just happen to be bigger and more measurable for the Fire right now than they are for most teams at any particular point.
Over the last two weeks Paunovic has tried to find an answer by shuffling Schweinsteiger between both roles. Schweinsteiger – because he is Schweinstieger – has responded:
Last week it was the first 30 minutes at central midfield, then the final hour at sweeper. This week it was the first 30 minutes at sweeper, then 40 at central midfield, and then the final 20 back at sweeper as Chicago toggled between a 3-5-2 and a 4-3-3.
It's been interesting, but it feels like a band-aid. The Fire aren't controlling things at all – instead they're just barely keeping danger in check.
A few more things to ponder...
6. Our Face of the Week goes to Revs right backAndrew Farrell, who got his first MLS goal in his 164th MLS appearance:
New England weren't great before going up a man, but they were committed. And then once they got to 11-v-10, they blew Montreal's doors off in a 4-0 cakewalk.
5. A positive data-point for RSL, who battled against Vancouver and deserved their 2-1 win. I crushed Mike Petke in this column last week, so let's give him some credit here for his preparation.
"We worked on it all week," is what Petke said about prepping for Vancouver's long-ball and cross-heavy attack. "How many times did they punt the ball sixty yards in the first half alone to [Kei] Kamara to play off of him? We worked on it all week – having good shape, reacting to the pressure on the ball, knowing they're sending it long, and getting behind and around for winning second balls. They're a very dangerous team like that. Plus a couple in the back, especially in the second half, got the ball wide a number of times and whipped them across.
"They're effective in what they do. For one thing, the effort in the defensive structure was there tonight. I'm proud of the guys for that."
Let's also give Petke credit for being candid about not liking the way the team played in possession.
4. Another team that probably crosses the ball too much? Philadelphia. They attempted 31 crosses in their disappointing 1-1 draw against visiting San Jose on Saturday night.
I understand why they love crossing the ball – they're very good at it, and got their goal off a cross. But the number of crosses is still too damn high. They need to keep the ball on the floor a little bit in the final third and try more than just occasionally to send their wingers through into space. And Borek Dockal – who continues to be disappointing – has to occasionally burst through the lines and into the space that C.J. Sapong creates when he checks back.
3. Our Pass of the Week goes to Julian Gressel, who was born to play wingback:
Would I rely upon the draft to build the bulk of my squad? Absolutely not. But any smart manager should be able to identify talent and work it into the rotation for specific situations. Gressel's done that since Day 1 for the Five Stripes, and while Robinson has taken longer to earn minutes, he made a promising debut.
2. A 2018 SuperDraft pick, Orlando City's Chris Mueller, got his first goal – and what turned out to be a giant one – in the Purple Lions' epic and perhaps season-saving 3-2 comeback win over visiting Portland on Sunday.
- Portland were right to be mad at the penalty call on the second OCSC goal
- Jason Kreis made two great subs (including Mueller) that changed the game
- A good chunk of this still falls upon Portland manager Gio Savarese
The Timbers weren't exactly playing joga bonito out there for the first 65 minutes, but they were generally creating more chances and controlling the tempo of the game. Then Savarese made two ultra-defensive subs which backed the team into a 4-6-0, and Orlando City responded by beginning to shell Jake Gleeson's net. They crawled back back from 2-0 down into a 3-2 win in part because they played better, and because Kreis's subs were good. But it was also because Portland's subs weren't.
It's still very early in the season and the Timbers have yet to play a home game, so nobody should be panicking. But the beginning of a trend is apparent, and it's one they have to nip in the bud.
1. And finally, it's beginning to look like Sporting KC have put their early-season defensive yips behind them. Sunday night's 2-0 win at LA brings them up to 260 shutout minutes, and while they still don't appear to be the lockdown defensive group they were from 2011 through 2017, at least they're keeping zeroes on the board.
That said: Over the years, SKC's defensive success has largely stemmed from their ability to A) limit shots from good spots, and B) limit shots entirely. That is not what they did against the Galaxy:
LA took 22 shots, and forced Tim Melia into a career-high 10 saves. There are still canaries in the coal mine for Sporting despite their perch atop the West. The good news is that none of said canaries have died from carbon monoxide just yet.
Also: Johnny Russell is really good.
As for the Galaxy, they are a team that's currently defined by their inability to play quickly from back-to-front, and remind me of nothing so much as last year's Sounders. Nearly all 22 of those shots from LA came against a set defense, which is a good way to put up good chalkboard stats (and to hit the woodwork, which they banged three times) but not such a great way to score goals. Even when you have Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The question I'm left with is whether this is something that will go away with reps. LA have a ton of talent, and showed it at times against Sporting. But even the most talented teams need to play with a level of conviction and decisiveness that the Galaxy just seemed to lack for the vast majority of this one.