The first midweek slate of the year! For a look back at what happened on Wednesday night, you can read my colleague Steve Zakuani’s thoughts.

Into the weekend action (I’m going to include Thursday night in the weekend sorry Fire fans) we go:

Replacements

Over the past couple of years we had Bruce Arena turn New England around overnight, and then Oscar Pareja do the same for Orlando City. And now it sure looks like we can add Greg Vanney in Carson to that list.

I don’t think this Galaxy team is going to party like it’s 2014 but with each passing week we move past “yeah but it’s just a hot start” territory toward the neighborhood of “yeah, they’re kinda back, aren’t they?” As I wrote last week, the three legs of the stool this early success has been built upon are Chicharito’s re-energized greatness, limiting catastrophic backline errors and just emptying the tanks every single game. The Galaxy are going to win the effort battle, and that’s not something Gs fans have seen a lot of in the past half decade. If you have decent talent and you have that, you’ve got a shot.

But it seems pretty clear the Galaxy have more than that. They made some good signings — Jonathan Bond, Jorge Villafana and Derrick Williams being in the XI has a lot to do with limiting those catastrophic errors — and they’re finally getting meaningful contributions from their academy, which gives them the depth and flexibility to adjust both game-to-game and mid-game, which we’ve seen throughout this young season.

Such was the story on the second goal of Saturday’s by-the-numbers 2-0 win over visiting Austin FC. Here’s Second Spectrum’s 2D tactical look, which gives you an idea of how tough a position the Galaxy put Austin youngsters Seb Berhalter (No. 6), Daniel Pereira (No. 15) and Aedan Stanley (No. 4) in:

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That’s a classic Chicharito goal, and the final ball was a gorgeous early cross from Julian Araujo. It also came out of a 5-3-2 after LA had started the game in a 4-2-3-1. We’ve seen Vanney toggle between those two as well as a 4-4-2 throughout this season, and he’s not just doing this to change the personnel; he’s doing this to change the game.

“For about five to 10 minutes I felt like they were on us and we did not have a great solution. We could not hold the ball and the pressure kept mounting which is at the moment that we switched it to a back five,” Vanney said afterward. “[We] wanted to close up the gaps where they were running out. And once we did that, I felt like we were extremely comfortable from then until the end.”

Galaxy fans should be buzzing about that. They should also be buzzing about the play of Araujo, Efra Alvarez (scintillating in this one), Cameron Dunbar (last week’s hero) and Adam Saldana. Not only is Vanney getting them minutes, he’s also got them improving week-after-week.

This team has been sitting on a goldmine of talent in Southern California — there is no better place in North America to have an academy. They have simply been too stubborn to dig. But now Vanney’s there, and he brought his shovel.

Here’s the sequence above IRL:

You can see Saldana fight his instinct to play backward, instead playing a progressive pass to Araujo that allows Araujo and Sacha Kljestan to cut Berhalter and Stanley out of the play. There is no way Saldana would’ve hit that ball in April. This would not have been a Galaxy goal in April, but because Vanney’s got individual players improving within a larger team structure that is both coherent and flexible, the team as a whole is going to improve.

And that’s the goal, right?

“I thought there was some really good attacking moments through the game — better than I have seen us in stretches this year,” Vanney said. “We probably left three or four goals on the table between the penalty kick and a couple balls, that if we squared them across a bit cleaner and connect, we probably have a couple tap-ins. In general I thought the performance was for sure a step forward and as long as we're doing that, we're moving in the right direction.”

Right. Add it together and that’s how you get a 4-1-0 start even as this team is still in the exploratory stages of really discovering who they are. The Galaxy don’t have a defined style yet but they have cohesion, effort and an MVP-level star, and if this is making you think back to Vanney’s 2015 TFC side, well… yes. And we know what that team turned into.

As for Austin, every expansion team gets drilled from time to time. They’re in the middle of a very long road trip so taking points from this game was always going to be a stretch, doubly so without Alex Ring. I don’t think that Josh Wolff is about to panic

But the concerns I had for this team at the start of the year — center forward and central defense — have not been allayed. In fact I’d say they’re growing by the game.

Cut and Run

I could tell you about the shorthanded Timbers’ 2-0 win at San Jose, or I could just embed this tweet from Eryk Williamson, who was the best player I saw on the field in Major League Soccer this week and should win Player of the Week:

I’m just gonna drop this whole quote from Portland head coach Gio Savarese in:

“Eryk had a phenomenal match today. We asked him to play a different role than usual, we asked him to play more of a six in front of the back four, being behind two other midfielders, he was very well protected by [Andy] Polo and Yimmi [Chara] the way they cover spaces,” Savarese said.

“But all around Eryk had a great game, defending, covering spaces, winning balls, allowing us to be able to come out in some moments away from their pressure and create opportunities going forward, and getting in good spots to deliver good balls like the one that we scored on with the second goal. So today Eryk showed a lot of maturity, because when you change the role of a player and you give them a different assignment, and you have to play a little more defensive and he delivered the way that he did today, you see that it’s a lot that he has matured during this last year, year and a half, and today it was a great performance by Eryk.”

If it sounds like he did a little bit of everything, well, that’s correct. But what he mostly did was be a match-winner for his team, which had been struggling and were without most of its other stars, on the road against a side that had been playing very good soccer. And yes, the fact that he dominated an individual match-up against the captain of the ill-fated US Olympic qualifying team, Jackson Yueill, probably shouldn’t go unnoticed!

Every year there is a player in this league who levels up, going from an above average starter who is often very good to a house afire who’s going to maybe make the All-Star game or even Best XI. Williamson is staking a claim on that, and oh OK here’s a little comp for your enjoyment:

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Him doing that as a No. 6 — as Savarese said, Williamson was a single pivot in a 4-3-3 with Chara and Polo in front of him — opens up a ton of possibilities with regard to formation and personnel for this Timbers team. And it certainly gives them more “OK, we need to rest Diego Chara” padding than they have ever had. Literally ever.

For the hosts, Wondo had what would’ve been a game-tying PK saved (shouts to Portland 'keeper Logan Ketterer, who made his MLS debut) midway through the second half, which is the second time this year he’s missed a gift-wrapped equalizer. I suspect he had a sleepless night.

The thing that would be keeping me up if I was Matias Almeyda, though: the lack of goalscoring output from the wingers. Cristian Espinoza has one goal this year while Carlos Fierro and Shea Salinas have none. Both of Cade Cowell’s goals have come when he was up top. There are no other obvious “goal-scoring winger” solutions on the team, and if you remember back to the 2019 stretch-run face-plant, you’ll recall that the main culprit wasn’t dead legs from man marking, or Wondo missing a couple of sitters. It was that the wingers just stopped putting the ball in the net for two straight months.

San Jose were shut out twice at home this week. It’s too early to freak out, but it’s not too early to be concerned about an old problem popping up anew.

A Few More Things to Ponder…

11. TFC went to Yankee Stadium and tried to play soccer for 65 minutes or so. It was weird, because Chris Armas played fullback Auro as a box-to-box midfielder and Jozy Altidore as a No. 10, and it really didn’t work. NYCFC, still playing in that 3-1-4-2, were far, far superior. Everything about the game was one-sided, but the xG race chart was especially telling:

NYCFC xG 60 mins v TFC

That’s a paddlin’.

Except it wasn’t, because for all their dominance in possession and chance creation, NYCFC potted just one goal from it. And that left the door open for a final 25 minutes of boom-ball from the Reds, which is usually the more fruitful way to go about things in the Bronx.

And so it was, as a long-ball and a bit of physical dominance from a pair of back-up center forwards led to Jacob Shaffelburg’s late-ish equalizer for the 1-1 final.

Both Alex Callens and Maxime Chanot were injury subs for the hosts. No word on how bad either are as of yet, but both guys are essential if NYCFC’s going to stay in the picture at the top of the East.

10. Speaking of boom-ball: Nashville brought a classic English 4-4-2 to Rio Tinto and just kind of crushed the life out of what ended up being a scoreless draw. The only good chance RSL generated all night was a header from center back Erik Holt deep into second-half stoppage time, which probably tells you everything you want to know about the rewatchability of this match.

This is fine from Nashville — collect road points any damn way you can. For RSL, I think it’s a pretty compelling data point that the ball moves better and the overall attack is much more dynamic when Albert Rusnak’s not in the engine room.

9. Houston head coach Tab Ramos trotted out an ultra-defensive 5-3-2 stuffed with back-ups at Colorado on Saturday night, and the Rapids did what you’re supposed to do to an ultra-defensive lineup filled with back-ups: They smashed it. Colorado won 3-1, controlling the whole affair and dominating a good chunk of it.

The Rapids have looked good the past three weeks, bouncing back nicely from that bad Week 2 loss to Austin. Getting Sam Vines back has helped a ton, and I really enjoyed this goal:

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We've seen a lot more of underlapping fullbacks in 2021.

Even with the loss Houston had a good week given their midweek win over Sporting.

8. And now we get to the “late winner” portion of the evening. First in Minnesota, were the Loons took a shoot-on-sight approach to what became a 1-0 win over visiting FC Dallas, courtesy of a late set piece goal.

Minnesota took 27 total shots. Bebelo Reynoso had seven of them himself, and provided the key pass — the pass that leads to a shot — on 10 others. There were real “James Harden with the Rockets” vibes in terms of just how much everything ran through the Loons star.

Dallas have won just once in five games and are damn near propping up the Western Conference table. Luchi Gonzalez went back to the 3-4-2-1 (or maybe more of a 3-4-1-2) for this game, and once again it didn’t work.

They were unfortunate to give up the late goal, but were fortunate to be in position to maybe get a point in the first place.

7. And the other very, very late winner happened down in Atlanta, where Marcelino Moreno shed tears of joy and relief after heading home for a 1-0 win over CF Montréal four minutes into second-half stoppage time.

This is obviously the Face of the Week:

Atlanta badly need Moreno to be an effective attacking piece. Right now he is so hit-and-miss and a No. 10 can’t afford to be that. Especially with Josef — who looked better from a physical standpoint, but still not close to his previously dominant self — still struggling.

Montréal are in a comfy spot in the standings and have a very soft schedule coming up, but they still don’t create high-quality chances and have scored in just one of their past four games.

6. Peter Vermes knows his Sun Tzu! One of the tenets of the Art of War is to choose the battlefield, aligning your own side’s strengths against the opponent’s weaknesses, and in so doing not giving the opponent a chance to bring his own strengths to bear.

And so Vermes started his usual first-choice d-mid, Ilie Sanchez, in central defense on Sunday afternoon against the visiting ‘Caps. I thought it was suicide since the ‘Caps are good on set pieces and Sporting, with Ilie at center back, are very much not.

But by putting Ilie at center back alongside Andreu Fontas (another slick distributor) and Gianluca Busio at d-mid, Vermes essentially chose the battlefield: Vancouver’s half. Can’t get burned on dangerous restarts if you never let the opponents cross the midfield stripe and earn a dangerous restart in the first place, right?

Sporting had close to 70 percent possession and completed over 90 percent of their passes in the first half. Vancouver basically didn’t put a foot on the ball until they were already down 2-0. Yes, Ilie did have one awful giveaway early in the second half that could've made it dicey, but the mistake wasn't punished.

Sporting won this game because Vermes chose the battlefield and set the terms of the engagement by going all-in on possession. It finished 3-0, a much-needed bounce-back win for Sporting after a bad midweek loss at Houston.

The ‘Caps have scored just five times in six games thus far this season. None of them have come from open play. It’s an issue.

5. Every week there's at least one MLS game that goes completely off the rails basically from the kick, and this weekend that distinction went — appropriately IMO — to the TQL Stadium opener in Cincinnati, in which Inter Miami beat FC Cincy 3-2 in a ... I'm not sure what to call it. It wasn't a back-and-forth affair, and it wasn't exactly a shootout. It definitely wasn't a tactical battle, either.

How about a slugfest? Sure, let's go with that. The game was a slugfest in which Cincy somehow went into the break down only 2-0 down after a million first-half haymakers from Miami, then punched their way back into it with long-balls and set pieces. And just seconds after Cincy made it 2-2, Gonzalo Higuain landed a right hook for the late K.O.

Ok I really stretched that metaphor too far. Here's some bullet-points:

  • Gonzalo Higuain looks the part of a high-end DP this year even if he doesn't yet look 100 percent fit.
  • Miami are significantly better with Federico Higuain pulling the strings as a No. 10, and Phil Neville seems to want to lean into that. Rodolfo Pizarro's gone 90 just once this year, and came off the bench in this one.
  • It was a necessary bounce-back win for Miami after getting drilled midweek by Montréal.
  • Neither of these teams can stop the ball in central midfield.
  • Cincy played really, really hard in this one, which is a good and necessary first step if they're going to climb off the bottom of the standings.

This didn't exactly feel like a matchup between two future playoff teams, but the stadium's gorgeous and the game was fun.

4. I'm going to give the Crew a mulligan. Yes, they have struggled to create chances all season, and yes that was the case once again on Sunday night in what eventually became a 1-0 loss at New England. They continue to hover at or near the bottom of the table in every relevant statistical category in the attack, and while their defense has been good it hasn't been good enough paper over that level of feebleness.

I mean, the Crew have been shut out in four of their first five. They have scored just three goals — all vs. D.C. United, and two of them were own goals. It's a nightmare start.

They've also played nine games in 38 days and have dealt with significant injuries everywhere except goalkeeper. They are not good right now, but this is the same group that was very good when it mattered last year, and I trust that once they have a chance to breathe, they'll figure out how to be very good again.

The Revs weren't going to get a mulligan from me. Yes they had a midweek game (a very credible draw at Philly) and a couple of knocks to deal with, but nothing close to the level of workload or injury list that the Crew have. Thankfully for New England, Adam Buksa got off the bench and scored the goal that meant they didn't need one.

The Revs were the better team by a decent margin and deserved the win. They are also along atop the East on both points and points per game.

If they're going to stay there, Adam Buksa has to keep finding the back of the net.

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3. Orlando City haven't quite found themselves yet — they're still struggling to create chances and, generally speaking, need either a bit of brilliance or a bit of good luck to put the ball in the back of the net. I think it was some of both on Sunday night in their 1-0 win at D.C. United as a wonderful run from Mauricio Pereyra out of midfield was found by an equally wonderful ball over the top from Kyle Smith, and some neat (fortunate?) interplay between Pereyra and Tesho Akindele spelled "goal."

The Lions have scored just six goals on the year, but they're unbeaten through five. Why? They've conceded just twice. This is what Oscar Pareja's teams often do.

I'm not sure what Hernan Losada's teams do just yet, but D.C. are better than they were three weeks ago. Part of that is just getting healthy (Paul Arriola looks up for it) and part of it is the development of young Moses Nyeman, who had himself 1.5 pretty nice games this week. His good first half in the loss to Orlando wasn't enough, but he was arguably the best player on the field in Thursday's 1-0 win over visiting Chicago.

As recently as last weekend I dinged him for having no impact on the game defensively. And then this:

D.C. have ways to win now. They're not always going to come through — again, see Sunday night's game and result — but they do appear to be going somewhere. Been a while since that was the case.

Last year it felt at times like Chicago were going somewhere, but any momentum they cobbled together in the middle of last season was frittered away down the stretch, and there has just been nothing from this club through the first month that suggests they're about to figure things out.

They finish Week 5 as one of just two winless teams. Cincy are the other — not company you want to be keeping.

2. It is the same old story: Seattle are ruthless and LAFC aren't. It is also the same old result: three points for the Rave Green, this time by 2-0 on Sunday night courtesy of a set piece and a lightning counterattack. For what feels like the umpteenth time this year, that Seattle counterattack ended with one wingback (Alex Roldan) crossing for the other (Brad Smith) to finish.

Seattle were largely outplayed in the first half. Didn't matter. Seattle were without legendary 'keeper Stefan Frei, who will be out a few weeks after picking up a knee sprain midweek at San Jose. Didn't matter. Seattle were once again without Nico Lodeiro, who's barely played thus far in 2021. Once again it. Did. Not. Matter.

This is far and away the best team in MLS right now. They are 5-0-1 with only two goals conceded and a +11 goal differential. Only two other teams are better than +2, and both of those (NYCFC, +6 and Orlando City, +4) racked up most of their differential by smashing Cincy. The Sounders didn't have that luxury — they've played one of the most difficult schedules in MLS thus far, and they are a buzzsaw.

LAFC are not. They got Carlos Vela back, and that is obviously necessary for them to start scaling the ladder. It might even be sufficient, since when he's on, Vela is the best player in the league.

But there's an incisiveness missing in the attack, and it feels like it goes beyond Vela. There's also a growing propensity for unnecessary and catastrophic mistakes in the defensive third. Last week it was Jesus Murrillo with a turnover to turn a draw into a loss vs. the Galaxy; this week it was Mark-Anthony Kaye getting suckered into the needless foul that led to the opener.

LAFC were supposed to be beyond this by now. They're not. Seattle are.

Just look at the Western Conference standings — LAFC's at the bottom, and Seattle's at the top. At this point I'm not sure a ton more needs to be said beyond that.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to Jamiro Monteiro in Philly’s 1-0 win over visiting RBNY:

This isn’t the most brilliant pass in the world and Carlos Coronel should’ve done much better, but Second Spectrum's tactical cam gives you a good look at how quickly the Union flood the box as soon as that 50/50 is won. Philly just know exactly who they are, which allows them to sharpen already lethal transition instincts and play without hesitation.

RBNY are trying to do the same thing, but aren’t quite at Philly’s level just yet. The good news is that new DP forward Patryk Klimala very much passed the eye test in his debut even if he didn’t get on the board.

The potentially very bad news is that Aaron Long had to be helped off the field after sustaining a late injury. No official word yet but I think RBNY fans are justifiably preparing for bad news.

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