So this is a fact I've been dying to address for
two decades. A big part of my dream for what soccer is in America (and Canada – I dream of Canada too, I swear it) is "let's be a league that not only buys the best players, but also builds the best players right here at home."
It's not just because I love the idea of having been on the ground floor for the beginning of MLS and then potentially get to watch it grow into something globally recognized for its quality. It's not just because I love to see good soccer, or that I'm naturally drawn to "potential," as are so many of you.
It's all that, but it's also that I literally do not see a path toward becoming the best league in the Americas if we do not first become the best developmental league in the Americas. That means buying the likes of Milton Valenzuela and Jesus Medina, both of whom had sterling debuts in big Week 1 wins. It also has to mean building our own great players via our academies and the USL/PDL partnerships that MLS teams have worked so hard to make viable and valuable over the past half-decade.
Progress has been slow. For most of the 2010s, MLS has hovered at the 2 to 3 percent mark for minutes given to domestic U-22s, well below the likes of the EPL (4.2 percent), La Liga (5.6 percent) and the Bundesliga (7.1 percent).
But here is the good news: In Week 1, domestic players aged 21 and under played 4.11 percent of available minutes. That includes a couple of Canadians (Alphonso Davies and David Choiniere) as well as Sounders Homegrown player Handwalla Bwana, who's been here a decade, has a green card and is on his way to US citizenship. You may not count him, but for all intents and purposes he's a local.
Now, the absence of minutes for a few notable, high-upside youngsters justifiably frustrated folks in Atlanta and Dallas, and even if Paxton Pomykal and Andrew Carleton had played, the number would not be high enough yet for my liking. I'd eventually like to see MLS end up somewhere between La Liga and the Bundesliga in terms of minutes earned by the U-22s.
But progress that lasts tends to be progress that's incremental. Week 1 – which saw the percent of minutes going to young domestic players double over last season – was a good first step.
Road to Nowhere
We spent a good chunk of time on Saturday dissecting exactly how Atlanta were just asking to be dissected by Houston in the Dynamo's 4-0 win. They had a d-mid but they played him at center back; their nominal Defender of the Year (that's the Andrew Wiebe curse) played awful and then got hurt; and their midfield, which I and everybody else has been harping about all preseason, was a “c’mon just drive right through” zone.
It was bad and they were unprepared and they’ve got to move Jeff Larentowicz back to the 6 and Tata Martino has to develop Miles Robinson and even if those two things happen it may not be enough because I still don’t see how Darlington Nagbe fits.
Here, we talked about it a bunch:
But none of this matters if Houston aren’t utterly and ruthlessly prepared. They knew Atlanta were going to try to possess through the middle so they drew a nice mid-line of confrontation – this wasn’t bunker ball from the Dynamo – and forced turnovers in spots where they could get out on the break. And when they did break, they broke together, which you can see in the assist numbers: Each of their first three goals had both primary and secondary assists.
This wasn’t just “kick it out to Alberth Elis and let him run,” and anyone who characterizes it as that should be mocked, ridiculed and generally shunned from polite society.
So how did they dominate so thoroughly? By shutting off any/all outlets for the Atlanta backline:
(Green arrows are completed passes, Red incomplete)
As my old podcastmate went on to point out, incomplete passes from the central defense are invitations to get out into transition. Houston took those invitations time and again during the first half-hour, looking remarkably like the 2017 version of Atlanta against, I don’t know, the Revs or Galaxy or something. It was eerie.
Houston aren’t, I don’t think, deep enough to be great — though they showed off some depth yesterday when Darwin Ceren came in early for the injured Juan David Cabezas at d-mid. Nonetheless they’re going to be very good because they’re smart and well-drilled, and in Elis they have at least one game-changing attacker (Mauro Manotas is knocking on the door to make it two).
As for Atlanta, I’m not about to mash the panic button. I think they’ll end up being fine because they have so much talent, but the biggest part of the next month has to be Martino making the right personnel adjustments, and Nagbe in particular being more assertive about getting into spots and being available to receive outlets.
Seen and Not Seen
If Houston’s dominance was the first story of the regular season, Orlando City’s rebuild has to claim its spot as one of, if not the biggest story of the offseason. They went out and got players young and old(ish), pulled from college and USL and NASL and the Bundesliga and North Africa and MLS and memories of MLS Cup champions past.
And then they went out in Week 1 and played without about half those guys. Sacha Kljestan was suspended and Pierre da Silva was suspended, Dom Dwyer and Josue Colman wer hurt and Uri Rosell has been in the country for about 45 minutes and Lamine Sane just wasn't quite ready to go. So Jason Kreis – who, for the second straight year kept preseason prep under wraps – had to go with a fairly makeshift XI, and just to increase the degree of difficulty had to do it a man down for the last 50 minutes.
The early returns for Orlando, who played in a diamond (praise be) with rookie Cam Lindley doing very Wil Trapp-y things at d-mid, were good. They eschewed the pointless long-balls that plagued them last year, they had a clear level of defensive buy-in from everyone who took the field (a big change), and they got a resilient and ultimately point-saving performance from Justin Meram:
Part of this falls on D.C. United, who never really took advantage of their, uh, advantage. At halftime they talked about getting on the ball and spreading the Purple Lions out, but never evinced any sort of plan to do so after the break and were reduced to a bunker for the final 20ish minutes. This is not how an 11-man team punishes a 10-man team with possession:
So neither team will leave this game entirely happy, nor will they leave entirely unhappy. Orlando did, after all, cough up two points to a conference foe at home — but did so while fighting back in dramatic fashion after playing most of the game a man down. D.C. did, after all, concede a soft, late equalizer — but still took a road point.
For now, for both, it’s enough.
A few more things to ponder...
8. 18-year-old Anthony Fontana got the game-winning goal for Philly in their 2-0 win over the visiting Revs, who had both their center backs sent off and were only spared from an embarrassing scoreline by some shoddy Union finishing.
Fontana was clever about getting into attacking spots, and C.J. Sapong was simply relentless about creating those attacking spots for everybody around him. Sapong had a goal, an assist and drew the game-changing straight red on Antonio Mlinar Delamea. He'll never be the most clinical of finishers, but it's exciting to imagine what he'll be able to do in attack this year now with more quality around him.
7. There was obvious quality on display in Toronto, with the shock being it was the visitors who put on the clinic. Federico Higuain continues to be the smartest player in the league. When he moves, it's not just to get open, but rather to shift the entire defense:
Columbus are going to be good. The 2-0 win they took from BMO Field was not a fluke.
6. Nor was the 3-2 win San Jose took from visiting Minnesota United. The Quakes were vicious in attack through 80 minutes and fully deserved their 3-0 lead, then repeatedly fell asleep and lost track of Kevin Molino over the last 10 as they nearly surrendered it.
The Loons played a lot better once Collen Warner came on the field.
5. Stop me if you've heard this one before:Sporting KC won the expected goals battle but lost the game. It was actually fairly close on xG (1.49-1.42 as per Opta), but NYCFC finished their chances while SKC fluffed theirs in a 2-0 win for the visitors.
Sporting crossed the ball 24 times, which is a very high number that they exceeded only once last year. That's a bad strategy for a team with no particularly gifted headers of the ball in attack, and speaks to the lack of ideas they had moving forward.
NYCFC, meanwhile, looked very good.
4. Speaking of gifted headers of the ball... Kei Kamara, goal No. 99 followed by our Face of the Week via his celebration with Davies:
In general crossing is a low-percentage play, and I thought Davies (who was wonderful, and will almost certainly be on the Team of the Week) was too happy to settle for crossing the ball instead of driving into the box on the dribble and trying to combine. This is a habit of the 'Caps, to be honest.
But there's a difference between bending in an early ball when your target forward has found a pocket of space away from the CBs and driving in a cross against a packed-in defense. As Davies matures he'll better understand those margins, and become even more of a weapon.
Which is freaking scary because, at 17, he was the best player on the field by a mile in Vancouver's 2-1 win over the Impact.
3. FC Dallas played much better in their 1-1 draw vs. RSL than they had in their midweek CCL disappointment against Tauro FC. That said, they still got ripped up in transition a few times, and still had trouble finishing.
Through 270 minutes there are no signs Los Toros Tejanos have figured out what killed them in 2017.
2. The Galaxy, on the other hand, have found at least a partial cure for their suffering of the past year, picking up a 2-1 win over visiting Portland on Sunday night. It was not pretty from either team, and LA were absolutely holding on for dear life at the end. They also lost Romain Alessandrini to what appears to be a hamstring strain.
As for the Timbers, I'm going to wait to reserve final judgement, but my guess is the 4-2-3-1 is not long for this world. Based upon what we saw Sunday and during preseason, Gio Savarese is going to have to go in a different direction.