Ok, back into our regular column rhythm. Week 12 was weird because of the Monday game involving Montreal and LA (which obviously I’m not covering here, but as a Minority Report-style precog, I’m telling you that there will be goals), but weird is often good.
Into the Void
New England have made their living off of their high pressure this year. They don’t get a lot of pub for it because it’s not quite as high or hard as what the Red Bulls or NYCFC or Atlanta or old school SKC do/did, but it’s been their bread and butter. They’ve inflicted it, to good effect, on the Cityzens and Toronto and a half-dozen other teams this year, and they’ve been winning games because of it.
Gregg Berhalter and Crew SC knew this. In part that’s because they’re not dummies – they can watch film. And in part it’s because they’ve already played the Revs this season and got a first-hand look at how and where New England like to press, and how and where they like to generate chances.
So as Brad Friedel said, Columbus did their homework:
As we said in the video, this was how Columbus dealt with the Revs high press. It’s not how all teams should deal with all types of high pressing, but in this case… I mean, Zack Steffen’s become a very good distributor. If you’re not going to send a guy at him to hurry him, he’s going to be able to ping balls at Gyasi Zardes’s head all game long. And then if you can’t win the 50/50s that creates, you’re not going to be able to inflict your press upon Columbus. You’re going to be on the back foot, and mostly reliant upon your own creative abilities to generate chances.
The Revs just aren’t that type of team yet, especially without Diego Fagundez (who was suspended for this one) and a cadre of regulars (who were inexplicably rested given the long-term importance of this game).
“We know their strengths, we know that they create a lot of goal scoring opportunities off pressing teams in their half. So our gameplan was to avoid that and play in their half, and I think for the most part we did a good job of executing that,” is how Berhalter put it after the game. “We didn’t give them any opportunities off of pressing, and then they had to create by themselves.”
Columbus ended up winning the game on a set piece. The Revs, to their credit, really did limit one of the league’s best and most flowing attacks. It wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing game by any stretch, but it was a smart and good tactical battle from two teams that really do think the game.
Just Like You Imagined
Totally worth the yellow card.
There was lots of good stuff to take from this for the Timbers. Three points, first and foremost. An ability to shut down an opposing attack without just putting all 11 men behind the ball, which is what they did in their win over NYCFC last month, for two. And for three, the strong performance of center back Julio Cascante, who came in after Liam Ridgewell went down with what looked like a muscle injury early on.
Ridgewell’s been key to the five-game winning streak the Timbers are on, but he’s 33 years old and injury prone. Portland needed a younger, reliable option, and while the MLS-specific sample size with Cascante is small, he’s a Costa Rican international for a reason. His ability to play at a starter’s level would give this team some wiggle room in central defense, something they’ve historically lacked.
It should also give them some range in central defense, and that's where the real change could (should?) come. The defining feature of this game was just how much ground Diego Chara was able to cover from his defensive midfield slot. Usually we think of that as a defensive facet of the game, but Chara at his best – and not coincidentally, the Timbers at their best – gets forward to make "extra man" runs that peel defenders away from the attack, and/or create running lanes for the likes of Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco.
With Chara needed to sit deep and purely protect the backline for much of this season, that's a feature that had been missing for Portland. It wasn't on Saturday in part because Cascante is mobile back there, which allows Chara to be more aggressive in terms of pushing forward.
"Their four defenders and then the way those three [defensive midifelders] are dropped in, they’re very compact," is how LAFC coach Bob Bradley described playing against the 4-3-2-1 formation that has Chara at the heart of it. "So your ability to get through their [defense] is challenged and if you’re not good at it then that’s where they’re able to turn some of your misplays to counters because Blanco and Valeri are some of the first options as the ball comes loose and then [Fanendo] Adi is still higher on the field occupying defenders, so that’s the way they’ve gone about things that in this last stretch has worked so well for them.”
It really has, and that's been the foundation of this five-match winning streak for Portland. On Saturday we got an idea of how they might be able to start adding a few stories on top of it.
A few more things to ponder...
8. TFC took a necessary step forward in terms of electro-shocking their regular season campaign back to life thanks to a 2-1 win over a similarly dinged-up Orlando City on Friday night. The match-winner from Ryan Telfer was a banger. It was also a moment to reflect upon the amount of local talent – in every market most likely, but especially in a megalopolis like Toronto – that goes unidentified.
Telfer is obviously an exceptional case. But I doubt very much that he’d be a purely unique case.
There are more undiscovered talents out there. The good and smart teams will find and develop them.
7. Philly won their second straight, dancing all over RSLby 4-1 in Chester. The Union were able to get on the ball in the middle of the pitch and start playing downhill, which is pretty much exactly what they should want give the speed of their wide players and the ability of their central midfield to play defense-splitting balls.
Borek Dockal had 1g/2a in his second-straight strong game. That’ll need to continue since the next two months of the Union schedule are truly brutal.
6. David Villa ruled on David Villa day in New York, leading NYCFC to a never-in-doubt-for-a-single-second 4-0 win over the visiting (and struggling) Rapids. The Cityzens created chances off the high press and set pieces and flowing, back-to-front movements, and it was all pretty and good.
The most interesting aspect of the encounter was that Patrick Vieira decided to meet the Colorado 3-5-2 with one of his own. Doing so – giving Villa a partner up top – meant that NYCFC could pin the Rapids backline deep and give Villa space to operate in between the lines. They couldn’t follow him without risking their overall shape, as well as risking giving Jo Inge Berget too much room to operate in.
So they kind of held their shape, but that actually gave Villa free rein which is, of course, a very bad choice, and there have been a lot of those from the Rapids recently:
We’ve seen Vieira go with three at the back not infrequently in the past, including against both RBNY and Atlanta this year. It’s a useful look he’s come up with, and one I’d expect him to keep using – for as long as he’s in the Bronx, anyway.
5. Vancouver had a pretty, pretty weird week. On Wednesday they punted what should've been a gimme, taking just a point out of a 2-2 home draw against a San Jose team who are not good (more on them in a minute). It was a dispiriting performance in that the 'Caps defense – which really had been their saving grace the past couple of years – were undressed, twice, with relative ease.
At the same time it was an encouraging performance because of what Felipe and Yordy Reyna were able to conjure through central midfield. The 'Caps have almost exclusively operated without any sort of Plan B (Plan A is "long balls and crosses!") over the last couple of years, so seeing those guys combine to create at least one very nice goal was... I mean, this is what Vancouver's needed forever. Spark of hope, you know?
And then they went out to Dallas, got thoroughly outplayed, and stormed back in the final 10 minutes to steal a 2-2 draw via an own goal and a 100th minute Kei Kamara penalty, which led to our Face of the Week:
It was a legitimately great point, and that felt like the 'Caps of 2017, at least a little bit.
But long-term? Long-term there are worries because the defense is already so much worse than last year, and will probably go further down the spiral now that Kendall Waston is off to Russia. The 'Caps, with a full squad and a pretty easy schedule, have won just one of their last eight.
Dallas, for what it's worth, should be furious with themselves. If they miss out on a home playoff game by a point or two, this is the result that did it.
“Obviously, there were some bad decisions from the coach in setting the lineup and the technical things," Stahre said after the match. "We conceded three goals in the first half, and it was an absolute disaster. My bad.”
He was right to apologize, but this one wasn't all on him. The backline was once again lost, and Andrew Tarbell continues to struggle in goal. Jackson Yueill had been mostly very good this year but was slow in his decision-making process far too often on Saturday night, and the disconnect between him and Anibal Godoy was pronounced enough to be fatal.
So D.C. blitzed San Jose right up the gut, pressing the Quakes into numerous mistakes. Paul Arriola as an energetic, all-action No. 8 was able to compress the field and actually put United on the front foot. They don’t usually spend a lot of time there.
3. Sporting KC went on the road and got a point thanks to their 1-1 result at Minnesota United. Peter Vermes made a very good sub, bringing on Seth Sinovic for Jimmy Medranda, after Miguel Ibarra had repeatedly gotten down the right flank for the first 35 minutes:
SKC's once juggernaut-esque attack has gone a little bit silent lately with just four goals in their last four games, but they're still comfortably atop the West on 24 points. The Loons, after a promising 2-1-0 start, have gone 2-6-1 and are winless in three.
I think there are seven teams fighting for two playoff spots in the West, and the ones that do the best job of protecting homefield are the ones that will make the postseason. So while this was a respectable performance from MNUFC, it doesn't really help them all that much.
2. The one of those seven teams in the Western Conference scrum I'm most confident about are the Dynamo, though they had me worried a bit in Sunday's eventual 3-2 win at the Fire. They opened the scoring when Tomas Martinez threaded what is our Pass of the Week to Romell Quioto:
But then, as they almost always do, they coughed the lead up. Chicago took two shots, put them both on goal, and scored two goals. It was looking quite like Houston would find a way to permanently lose another lead.
And then they didn't. Alberth Elis rose to the occasion with a second-half brace, and now Houston have gone 3-1-1 in their last five and have broken their duck on the road.
I still don't trust Houston's defense at all. But they're at 1.5 ppg through 10 games – five home, five away – and I think that's pretty representative of who they are. And in the West that's good enough.
In the East it's not. Chicago had some momentum a month ago after a win at RBNY and a draw at TFC, but they've won just once in four since then and already have four home losses on the year. It is very early in the year and stranger things have happened, but it's hard to see too many paths forward for the Fire. FiveThirtyEight puts their playoff chances at 20 percent and, if anything, that feels a little bit high.
1. And finally, the very best game of the weekend was, as expected, Atlanta vs. RBNY. For my money these are – with apologies to NYCFC and TFC – the two best teams in the league.
The Red Bulls deserved their 3-1 win. A few notes:
- Kaku now has nine assists in 742 minutes, which works out to better than an assist per 90. This is an insane, record-book-rewriting rate.
- Once upon a time I thought Ryan Meara would be a USMNT-caliber goalkeeper. Then he hurt his hip and Luis Robles showed up and I thought "well, that's that." But Meara, in his first regular-season appearance since 2015, was spectacular. If he doesn't stand on his head in the first 30 minutes it's 3-0 Atlanta at the half.
- Both Video Review calls were right, as was the red card.
- The penalty was soft, but Atlanta were the beneficiaries of a soft penalty just last week. So I'm sure their fans in the comments below will handle the disappointment with equanimity and good humor.
- Bradley Wright-Phillips lapped Miguel Almiron in this year's MVP race thanks to his brace and earning the penalty.
And it feels like none of that matters after the frightening Kemar Lawrence injury. He was stretchered off and taken to the hospital. Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch offered this update following the match. We are still awaiting more details on Lawrence's condition.