Fundamental. An adjective meaning "forming a necessary base or core; of central importance." A noun meaning "a central or primary rule or principle on which something is based." From the latin root fundare, which means "to found."
It's important, at least every now and then, to think about the meaning of the words we're using (even in an election year), and how they're being applied. It's important to understand what we're emphasizing and what we're ignoring. It's important to understand the gap between the conveyance of information and the absorption thereof.
The best coaches regardless of sport -- the Steve Kerrs and Joel Quennevilles of the world -- seem to have a natural ability to manage all of the above that comes as easy to them as drawing breath. I'm sure that's not actually the case. I'm sure that they've honed their craft and methodology, understanding the little facets of the job that lesser practitioners and mere observers won't understand.
I'm also certain that part of the job for them, and for every other coach in the world, is to continue to make certain their team is focused on the fundamentals. Make sure that base, that foundation layer upon which all success is built, does not slip.
In our sport there is nothing more fundamental than the near-post run from the center forward. It's not that this run pays off every time:
It's that making the near-post run forces the defense to stay honest. Soccer is a game of tiny gaps, minuscule openings that slam shut way more often than they stay open. The best teams in the world can pry those gaps open a little bit wider, shifting the percentages in their favor ever so slightly again and again and again. Do that enough and you become Bayern Munich.
Fail to do so, and you let the defenders dictate the terms. You allow them to cheat off the near post and start shutting those gaps down quicker and more ruthlessly. They tilt the percentages back against you, because the fundamentals have gone missing.
Certain things about MLS are changing. The importance of that run never will.
On to the games:
This first quarter of the season has been a trial for the defending Supporters' Shield champions, the New York Red Bulls. They've hemorrhaged goals not just through shoddy central defense, but through poor midfield tracking. Their re-press has been haphazard and disconnected. The finishing has been mostly bad, and chance generation had fallen off. They looked, on paper, like last year's team. On grass, they'd been a poor imitation.
Most of the answer on the offensive side seemed to come last week in a 3-2 win over Orlando City SC. The rest of the answer quite possibly came on Friday night in a 4-0 win over FC Dallas that was so dominant ESPN's Taylor Twellman said it was the best he's seen the Red Bulls play under Jesse Marsch. Remember: this is the team that won the Shield last year! They were really, really good, and put together a number of dominant, wire-to-wire wins.
Not like this one, though. New York stomped FCD, and there is no stat aside from the scoreline to do it justice (and the scoreline only barely does that -- this could have been 6- or 7-0 easily).
The biggest different between these Red Bulls and the ones of three weeks back is the rate of play, the "tempo" of the game. I'm using air quotes there because there's no one accepted way to define "tempo" -- it's some mishmash of passes per minute, passes per possession, possessions per game, defensive actions and so on. It's one of those "You know it when you see it" things.
It looks like this:
All night, Dallas were two touches from having to make a spectacular play in order to prevent a goal. Jesse Gonzalez managed it in that above clip; four other times, he did not.
This type of pressure is baked into New York's ethos, and the understanding is that if you put the opposition under that much sustained physical pressure, it begins to wear them down mentally as well. Force them to be present and precise and perfect, and most teams will eventually break down.
That's what happened on Friday. Throw away the specific tactics or individual brilliance; this was a victory of philosophy for RBNY, a "this is why we play the way we play" game for the time capsule.
I'm not 100 percent convinced it means they're back -- Dallas, when they lose, have a habit of losing big. But New York, like everyone else, is around the quarter pole now, and after two months of frustration, there's reason for their fans to hope.
Gather Yourselves Together
In the middle of last week we published a longform look at Caleb Porter, and specifically how he's reinvented himself and his team, adjusting his philosophy to be more pragmatic, ruthless and directed toward the most efficient way of achieving a result.
On Sunday, against Toronto FC, his Timbers went out and executed the new blueprint -- the one that led them to last year's MLS Cup -- to a T. They are a counterattacking team now, one that prefers to sit deep and absorb pressure, then explode into space when turnovers present the opportunity. Gone is the desire to press or dictate tempo (they are the anti-Red Bulls in many ways), as they've become adept at rope-a-doping their way to a win.
One way of understanding that is by tracking the measurable defensive involvement of their central midfield trio.
Those are tackles, recoveries, clearances and blocks from Diego Valeri, Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe -- all the defensive actions measured by Opta. Of the 28 the three of those guys combined for, all but two came in their own half, and the vast majority came in the center channel.
Portland stay tight and compact. Congesting the central midfield, and thus limiting the quality of shots the opponent takes, is the No. 1 thing on their pre-game to-do list. Bring your fullbacks up to generate more possession in wide areas and the Timbers midfielders still don't bite; in fact, you're playing right into their hands, since pushing fullbacks forward means leaving space in behind for a livewire winger like Lucas Melano or Darren Mattocks to go off to the races.
Nobody thought this is what Porter's Timbers would become. But after last year's Cup and Sunday's 2-1 win over a very good Reds team, why should they try to be anything else?
Time Out of Joint
The ugliest game of the weekend was Vancouver's 3-2 loss at NYCFC on Saturday. And the ugliness went from back to front:
Some of the blame for Vancouver's struggles definitely belong with the venue, as Yankee Stadium's tight dimensions lead to choppy play. Some of it goes to the midfield, which is not as cohesive or available in possession as it was last year.
But Tim Parker still managed to connect just 26.7 percent of his passes! The backline as a whole was just about 50 percent, and as a team they generated almost nothing in the way of sustained build-ups.
Just like RBNY's positive pressure took a mental toll on Dallas, this negative pressure is taking its toll on Vancouver. If you keep booting it long you're not going to be able to move the entire unit up the field, and if that happens then you're going to be defending all day. The best you can hope for is to bend, but not break.
This week, they broke. And with nearly 1/3 of their season done, the 'Caps still have a ton of questions but precious few answers.
A few more things to ponder...
8. One team with the same persistent, nagging question all year is Sporting KC. They dropped two more home points, drawing 1-1 on Sunday night against the Galaxy. They alsodrew 1-1 at the 'Caps in midweek action.
Sporting still have no one offering goal-dangerous penetration from the flanks. Krisztian Nemeth is missed.
7. That win over Vancouver put a tourniquet on NYCFC's gaping wound, but they're still in danger of bleeding out because of how many home points they've dropped -- including Wednesday's 1-1 draw against Montreal. The Pigeons have already punted 11 home points, and play 11 of their 17 home games by July 3.
You can do the math. It's not pretty.
6. Also dropping four home points this week were the Revs, who somehow only got a 1-1 draw on Wednesday against Portland, then napped away another shoulda-been-a-win game in Saturday's 2-2 draw against Orlando City (which featured Agudelo's goal from the top).
Chicago are tough defensively, but still bereft of creativity through the midfield. Alvarez, despite the pass above, is more of a 1-v-1 player.
The answer might be Collin Fernandez, the Homegrown No. 10 who got his first MLS minutes of the year (he plays the clever pass to set Alvarez free in that clip).
3. I wrote a bit about Crew SC's early-season misery after their latest loss, this one by 1-0 at Seattle on Saturday. Sounders Homegrown Jordan Morris has now scored in three straight games, including two game-winners.
While I think Allen was the best player on the field, you could make a good argument that old man Javier Morales was the most influential.
The Union are a much better team than last year's group -- anybody with eyes can tell you that. But they're still finding ways to give away points that they need to keep on the board. How they evolve from "good team with potential" to "contender who slams the door when given a chance" will be one of the more fascinating stories to follow this season.