The penultimate weekend of 2020's regular season is now in the books. It's been a trip.
In we go:
For the fourth time in club history, Philly entered a game just 90 minutes from a trophy. For the fourth time in club history, Philly came up short.
At least this time, they'll get another shot at getting the job done — and getting the subsequent hardware — next week. They do still control their own Supporters' Shield destiny following Sunday's 2-1 loss at Columbus, but the margin is now as slim as possible as anything less than a win leaves the door open for Toronto.
Truth is, the Union should have probably had a win in this one. They set up shop between the Columbus backline and central midfield, and were able to get into that gap and go to work pretty consistently. Any time you're doing that you're forcing the defense to react to you, which is pretty much step No. 1 in the "how to play modern soccer" manual. They just weren't clean enough on the ball or decisive enough in their movement off it to turn that boatload of "we've got it in a good position" moments into actual goals despite being something close to rampant in the second half.
The Crew deserve credit for scrambling well. As hesitant as their CB combo of Jonathan Mensah and Abubacar Keita are to step off the line and compress that space, they are both very good at defending on the back foot, while both Artur and Darlington Nagbe hustle back well. They are a (mostly) veteran team who understand the job, and are committed to doing it, and really make you earn it.
Against a team like that you have to be sharp and Philly just... weren't. This wasn't the same sort of ruthlessness they showed last week vs. Toronto.
Though that might be underselling the role that Eloy Room played:
Room was fantastic. He is a top three 'keeper in the league.
For Columbus this was their first time out with a nearly first-choice XI in two months. They have alternately been without Room, Nagbe, Lucas Zelarayan and Gyasi Zardes throughout the late summer and autumn, and when you're missing your four best (or four of your five best, depending on how you rate Mensah) players for significant chunks of time, you're going to see a dip in results. That has been the story for the Crew.
"It was the first time in 12 games, since the last time we played — ironically — Philadelphia, that we had a full-strength lineup. And I think it showed tonight. It wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely a playoff-type game," said Crew head coach Caleb Porter afterward, before expanding upon the way he views his team.
"I always say that it’s important that — collectively — that we’re stronger together. That’s always going to be our advantage. We have talented players, don’t get me wrong. When I say the team’s important and that’s our edge, that’s not taking away from the individuals. But, we feel like when we execute as a team, when we play the brand of football that we play — which frankly, over the last stretch of games, we haven’t been able to. We’ve had to do different things to try and get results, and change plans, and it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. But I think tonight, we wanted to get back to playing like the Columbus Crew and the way that we prefer to play. And we feel like if we do that as a team, that we’ll win games like we were at the beginning of the year, and like we’ve shown in the games where we’ve played our style."
The Crew aren't back to that level yet. There were some Clockwork Orange (or Clockwork Canary, I guess)-style showings from them before the injuries piled up, and this was really nothing like that. But with most of their first team back they now have enough individual talent to get a win — even against the Shield leaders — when things aren't exactly clicking.
Columbus will have at least one home game in the playoffs, and if they stay healthy, I think we can all agree that this team is, if not necessarily among the favorites, no more than a half-step down.
I still think the Union are among the playoff favorites, but I've buried the lede and hidden the elephant in the room here: If Andre Blake was healthy, they probably win this game 1-0. Joe Bendik has had some good performances, and entire good years in the past. But this wasn't one. He should have done better on both goals.
I'm going to give Bendik the benefit of the doubt and assume this was a one-off. But next weekend's the biggest game of his MLS career, and the biggest game in Union history. The pressure is on, and ratcheted up to damn near its highest setting.
A long and frustrating summer for FC Dallas, one in which they struggled to create chances and struggled more to finish them, seems for the time being to have been put in the rearview as Luchi Gonzalez's men have suddenly gotten hot. They scored twice on Wednesday in a 2-1 win over Inter Miami, and then came out and drubbed Houston 3-0 on Saturday to put the final nail in this year's Texas Derby coffin.
Five goals in two games. They had scored three in their previous seven, and while Franco Jara had spent a good chunk of that run missing good looks, it wasn't like he was getting two or three a game. Dallas had been — have had a habit of being, to be honest — slow and predictable in the build-up. There will be a good, line-breaking pass from the backline into the midfield, but there weren't often coordinated runs off that ball to give whichever midfielder was receiving the pass immediate options or chances to create danger.
Being slow and predictable in the build-up is not a recipe for a high-powered attack, and so it went for Dallas.
I'm not sure that their problems are solved after the past 180 minutes, but this was really promising against the Dynamo:
There was a lot of this from Dallas this past weekend, which is a necessity for a team playing in a 4-3-3 that demands goals from its wingers.
"We talked about trying to impose early and not be reactive," is how Gonzalez put it in the postgame presser. His No. 10, Andres Ricaurte, was more specific:
"Our wingers have fast traits, so they can easily get behind the defenders all the time," Ricaurte said through a translator. "In those situations, we try and take advantage of them as much as we can."
Fafa Picault, who scored his first brace in two years and just his second and third goals of the season, was excellent in timing those runs. There needs to be more of that from him — as well as a few more dimed through-balls and the like from Ricaurte. If Dallas get that, they can go from "have to beat you 1-0" to "can maybe beat you 3-2 if it's that type of game" in the playoffs.
But all of it comes from the fact that they're moving, both on and off the ball, together as a unit. They look coordinated and dangerous, and that's a big change from a month ago.
Houston were eliminated. They never recovered from the loss of Alberth Elis, the defense never improved and Mauro Manotas had a nightmare season. I still like a lot about how Houston try to play — they really do use the ball, and Manotas's nightmare season came from missing chances, not from failing to find them in the first place — but they don't have the horses.
A few more things to ponder...
9. Atlanta United kept their somehow still very real playoff hopes alive with a pretty comprehensive and straight-forward 2-0 win over FC Cincinnati on Sunday night. They got one early, and then finished it off by getting the second before the half courtesy of a Marcelino Moreno penalty. In the words of my colleague Jonathan Sigal, Moreno's performance was "just a good game from a good player," and quite honestly that's what Atlanta need a ton of. There haven't been a lot of times this year where you've been able to walk away from 90 minutes of Five Stripes soccer and say "a bunch of those guys put in really good, solid performances."
In terms of actual consistent solidity, know who might be at or near the top of the list? Attacker Jon Gallagher. He is clever and purposeful off the ball, and skilled enough on it to do stuff like draw game-clinching penalties.
As for Cincy, let's hope they have a three-year plan.
8. The team Atlanta are chasing are a team that plays in a way that suggests they are desperate to be caught: the Chicago Fire. For months they have put together good performances and for months they have nonetheless figured out ways to drop points they shouldn't.
Saturday's 1-1 draw at Nashville was a good point, though. Nashville are one of the best defensive teams in the league, and are very tough to break down when they sit deep. When they make a mistake you have to hit the gap quick and punish them for it, no matter who's on the ball. As so:
The reason I've had something of a soft spot for the Fire this year is that everyone in their XI can pass the ball, and Raphael Wicky's trying really hard to have that define the team. He is choosing to live with the mistakes, and while I've crushed them for it a bit here and there, it's produced a lot of good, entertaining soccer, and he has his team in control of their own playoff destiny ahead of Decision Day. I think most Fire fans would've taken that bargain at the start of the year.
For Nashville, Daniel Rios has finally started to find the range. The Mexican center forward, who tore up the USL, now has four goals in just over 600 regular-season minutes this year and seems the obvious first choice at this point. He is just a big, classic No. 9 who checks the requisite boxes with regard to physicality and makes a lot of the right runs.
7. Also making a lot of the right runs:Ayo Akinola! The 20-year-old picked up his ninth goal of the season in Toronto's come-from-behind 2-1 win over Inter on Sunday night, sending poor Alvas Powell to the weight room. Richie Laryea then drew a PK that Alejandro Pozuelo converted, and suddenly the Reds are right back up there with the Union. If Philly slip next week, Toronto can claim the Shield.
TFC, after a pretty ponderous first half, switched to a 4-4-2 in the second half and gave Akinola a running mate. It worked, as Patrick Mullins drifted around to sow a little bit of confusion and Akinola basically just operated in the central channel. Toronto have a level of formational flexibility that I'm not sure any other team in MLS can match.
Miami, who have now lost three of four, certainly can not. Gonzalo Higuain has done well in terms of linking play, but here's something to consider given how much talk there's been about Chicharito's ineffectiveness this year:
- Chicharito: 1g in 692 minutes
- Higuain: 1g in 713 minutes
There is more to the game than just putting the ball in the net, even for a center forward. But the primary job of the center forward is to put the ball into the net, and Higuain hasn't done it. He was supposed to be the guy turning all those one-goal losses from the summer into one-goal wins in the fall, and it hasn't happened.
Their final game is Cincy at home, which they should win. But they have to hope the Fire lose both their games this week, and that Atlanta lose their finale at Columbus.
6. Sunday saw the weirdest Revs performance of the year, as one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league, with one of the best defenses, suddenly reached lift-off and fell apart at the same time. In the end it became a 4-3 win over a feisty but ultimately overmatched D.C. United team, which frittered away a 2-0 lead.
The hope for New England, coming out of this one, will be twofold: that this was an aberration of a defensive performance, and that Tajon Buchanan is finally ready to turn all of those good moments into great moments. The kid has a ton of talent; he is smart and fast, has good feet and gets into great spots. He has only infrequently turned all of that into goals and/or assists, but in this one he had a pair of helpers. He was, in fact, the best player as New England roared back from the deficit.
If D.C. had kept that early lead they'd have finished the night in ninth place, and have been a strong bet to make the playoffs. But they didn't. The silver lining is that Edison Flores finally put his name into the boxscore, picking up a pair of assists. He was excellent in Liga MX in 2019 and should be excellent in MLS in 2021, but 2020 has just been a miserable, wasted year for him.
5. NYCFC, with a healthyMaxi Moralez, Keaton Parks and Alex Ring in central midfield, are a bad match-up for basically anyone. And so it went on Sunday night when they reversed a 2-1 deficit for a commanding, leave-no-doubt-about-it 5-2 win over the Red Bulls.
There is nothing particularly fancy about what NYCFC did. It was a basic, straightforward 4-2-3-1, and my honest belief about this game of ours is that when you have superior talent and guys who fit roles as snugly as the Cityzens do, trotting out a straightforward 4-2-3-1 is the right decision like 90 percent of the time. Don't galaxy-brain it.
He has no idea Gary Mackay-Steven is behind him. Central midfield is a tough position to play at any age, and lots of young players lack the 360 degree vision and awareness required to play it at a high level. Yearwood is not an outlier in that regard, but you'd want more out of a DP in a rivalry game in the midst of a playoff race.
I know there is understandable controversy about this given the five games Colorado missed and won't have a chance to make up, but I don't think there's much question Colorado are better than the other teams that are in the hunt for that final playoff spot out West. Their record, their goal differential, their points per game (obviously) and wins like this one a proof.
For Seattle: It was really, really weird that Brian Schmetzer didn't sub any of Nico Lodeiro (officially starting to drag a bit), Jordan Morris or Raul Ruidiaz. He'd managed his squad rotation well up until early October, but has run his team into the ground since then and it's showing a bit.
3. The Timbers kept it in third gear for the vast majority of their 1-0 win over Vancouver in Portland on Sunday night. Yimmi Chara lashed home from 12 yards, finishing off a lovely team goal on the hour mark, for the game's only tally.
It was, however, a bad night for Portland, as DP striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda was stretchered off in second-half stoppage time. It looked like a clash of knees, but Niezgoda's reaction suggests it was more than just a bruise. Portland are already down one DP — Sebastian Blanco's out for the season, remember. The silver lining is that with Jeremy Ebobisse due back soon, they do still have center forward depth.
Also: They have not drawn a game this regular season! Since the shootout was eliminated after the 1999 season, there have been exactly zero MLS teams to go through their whole slate without at least one draw.
What a weird year.
2. RSL are limping to the finish. They took yet another L on Sunday night in Carson, dropping a 2-1 result to the Galaxy and are now 1-5-1 in their past seven games.
It's not great.
The Galaxy, in the first game of the post-Guillermo Barros Schelotto era, looked pretty good! They were energetic in the first half and just did the basic, simple things right. They are technically still alive, while RSL were officially eliminated.
1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to Orlando's little maestro, Mauricio Pereyra:
The man's not even left-footed. That was the only goal in Orlando's 1-0 win over Montreal.