Week 19 is in the books, and it was a week more notable for what happened off the field than on it.
Let's dive in:
1. The Era We've All Been Waiting For
There have been a handful of distinct eras in MLS history. We tend to break it down to "MLS 1.0" and "MLS 2.0," and every week there's another benchmark (this column's new favorite buzzword) that has people declaring "MLS 3.0 is here!"
But that whole brush is too broad. If you were around in the Bad Old Days you'd know that MLS 1.0 consisted of a bunch of smaller eras. Here are a few:
- "Geez, these stadiums are full" (1996)
- "Geez, these stadiums are empty" (1997-2001)
- "Oh crap, we're contracting" (2001-2002)
- "Name a franchise after a Mexican team? I guess that could work" (2004-2005)
And there have been similar dividing lines in the days of MLS 2.0 – Toronto fans actually invented MLS support before Seattle fans invented MLS support, which happened just before Portland invented MLS support. Designated Players like Beckham, Blanco, Angel and Donovan paved the way for Designated Players like Henry, Keane, Valeri and Bradley. Tristan Bowen paved the way for DeAndre Yedlin, Diego Fagundez and Gyasi Zardes.
More to the point, Omar Gonzalez's contract extension last summer and Osvaldo Alonso's last winter paved the way for what we saw on Saturday when Sporting KC announced they'd inked Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to DP contracts. Taken all together, does that mean this is now MLS 3.0?
I'd submit that it does. Smart teams – and there's no denying that LA, Seattle and KC are three of the smartest in the league – are changing both the business model (organic, locally sourced soccer players are a wise investment) and the narrative (hey, our guys can play!).
Where's that leave the rest of MLS?
Right now, the answer is "trying to keep up." Parity is still 100 percent real, but we're starting to see a bit of talent stratification based upon developing talent from within.
That's the essence of MLS 3.0. Building players is better than buying them, and the teams with the patience and structure to do the former are about to separate themselves in a big way.
2. Sun Tzu's Art of Soccer
A month ago, FC Dallas were in the midst of an eight-game winless skid, one that was sounding alarm bells all throughout north Texas for the resemblence it bore to last year's midseason nosedive. I may have poured a bit of kerosene on that fire here once or twice, pointing out how FCD don't scramble well on defense and didn't have many answers in central midfield thanks to a rash of injuries.
They've followed up that stretch by going unbeaten in five, capping it off with a 2-0 drubbing of free-falling New England on Saturday. The most impressive part of this five-game run is how Dallas have changed their identity from a team that wants to build from inside-out – everything in March and April ran through Mauro Diaz as the No. 10 – to one that builds from outside-in.
This is a whopper of a GIF (sorry if it takes forever to load), but it's worth it. You can see how Dallas pulled the Revs fullbacks up the field, then isolated the central defense out wide:
The sequence ends with a shot from wide midfielder Andres Escobar that Bobby Shuttleworth had to push over the bar. And it's a pattern of play that was repeated ad infinitum throughout the game's entire 90 minutes as New England's lack of defensive width was punished, and punished, and punished.
For Dallas fans, it has to be encouraging to see this team exploit the opponent's weakness so ruthlessly after the way they were pushed around in the center of the park throughout late April and most of May. Through learning themselves, they've also learned their enemies.
But the job's not done, as FCD still have some questions to answer – including, "How do we get Diaz back into the lineup but stick with the 4-4-2 that's worked so well since the start of June?"
To me, that's the big one, because it means the "learn yourself" part has to happen again. Diaz is the best player on the team and arguably the best playmaker in the league (he was well in the MVP race before his injury), but he doesn't really have a spot in the scheme that Oscar Pareja has been using to get results.
Whatever Pareja decides, personnel- and tactics-wise, will provide the shape of the season to come in Big D.
3. The Obvious Solution
Midseason wins over a team missing half its starting lineup don't come much bigger than Portland's 2-1 defeat of Colorado on Friday night.
I added those qualifiers above not to diminish what the Timbers did, but to illustrate just how desperate things were getting in Rose City. They were looking at one-win-in-seven stretch 70 minutes into this one, and at no point in the first hour did they look like the better team.
Then Caleb Porter made a couple of lineup changes, and the last 30 minutes were one-way traffic.
Below is the average position map (courtesy of Opta) from the game:
The salient point: Maxi Urruti (No. 37) and Gaston Fernandez (No. 10) operated as a pair up top over the last half hour, with Steve Zakuani (No. 7) and Fanendo Adi (No. 9) coming off. The Timbers moved from their typical 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2, and looked very, very good.
Part of that is personnel – Urruti and Fernandez are Portland's two leading scorers, and both are in form at the moment.
But part of it is tactical, as switching to a two-forward set created attacking third connections and gaps (THIS is one of the best team goals of the year) that just didn't exist when Adi was playing as a lone target isolated away from his wingers. Neither Zakuani nor Darlington Nagbe have been consistently threatening, and as teams have figured that out, the Timbers have been easier and easier to bottle up.
Hard to see that being the case if they stay with two up top.
A few more things to ponder...
9. And ... it's back to panic on the streets of Harrison following a 3-1 loss at Philadelphia and a 1-1 home draw vs. San Jose. The Red Bulls can't get their midfield shape right on either side of the ball, and it's looking more and more like Tim Cahill is only really useful for this team as a striker.
But Mike Petke can't play him up top, because Bradley Wright-Phillips is en route to set the single-season league scoring record, and Thierry Henry is still Thierry Henry.
8. Speaking of New York's midfield shape ... here's Conor Casey delivering our Pass of the Week (sorry, Mauro!) on Fred's first MLS goal in four years:
This is bad on every level from the Red Bulls.
7. The Union pounded New York to death midweek, but were fortunate to get a 1-1 draw on Saturday at the Fire after an iffy late penalty. Cristian Maidana, who came off with a hamstring strain vs. the Red Bulls, was badly missed in Chicago.
He then followed that up with LeBron's powder toss:
5. The Galaxy keep swapping between the flat 4-4-2 and a diamond midfield. There's a reason for it, which I wrote a bit about HERE.
4. Columbus got just their second win in their last 17 MLS games, a streak going back to the end of March, thanks to a 2-1 win over Montreal on Saturday (following an awful 2-1 loss to Sporting midweek).
Way back then, I highlighted how much danger they were creating from the right side on the overlap. Since then, those goals have dried up because the precision has not been there:
The Crew can't count on golazos from Bernardo Añor every week. They know what they want to do, and how they want to attack. They just have to figure out how to execute.
3. Forget the goal by Perry Kitchen in D.C. United's 3-1 win over Chivas TBD on Sunday. It's the "everything else" about his game that's been so impressive this year, and he continues to add new wrinkles.
The latest is how he's now dropping deep between the central defenders in possession, starting sequences much like Rafa Marquez with Mexico (we're going to let that be a compliment – Rafa is a brilliant passer) or Wil Trapp with Columbus.
By the way: Kitchen, 22, is less than a year older than Trapp. It's probably time for USMNT fans to notice him.
2. Nick Rimando's subtweet game is strong:
1. And finally, there's a new central midfield partnership in Toronto as it looks like Collen Warner has won the starting job next to Michael Bradley. It's a double-pivot – both guys are playing box-to-box – which has led to a predictable problem: They're having trouble protecting Zone 14.
This is a map of Houston's key passes (passes that lead to a shot) and assists in the 2-2 draw on Saturday:
Toronto's week wasn't exactly a failure – they also drew 1-1 vs. Vancovuer midweek, have lost just once in their last 10 and are sitting comfortably in third place in the East. But they have a lot of chemistry/cohesion work to do, which is always a scary proposition just as most of the rest of the league is rounding solidly into midseason form.