Let's run straight through this weekend's entire slate. No frills. Into the deep blue sea we go:
Vibes and Stuff
Saturday night's 2-1 win over Sporting KC is more than just a case of the Houston Dynamo, who've now taken 10 points in the past 16 days and have scored 10 goals in their past three games, having Sporting's number. This is a case of having a cadre of high-quality attackers coming together and building chemistry game after game after game.
The absolutely wild part is that none of above is purely Manotas-and/or-Elis dependent. Over the past three years if those guys weren't hitting, then nothing was hitting. In 2020 they've quietly and effectively built some depth, and Tab Ramos has started to use it. If Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis are available from the start, great! If not, that's ok too! Niko Hansen, Christian Ramirez, Ariel Lassiter... these guys provide real answers to questions past iterations of the Dynamo were afraid to ask.
“One of the things that’s important is that you can become a winning team the moment you have competition for positions," Ramos said afterward. "Everybody knows they can come in and make a difference and find themselves playing more and more. I think that’s where we are right now – we have competitive guys up front."
That depth allowed Houston to just wear down Sporting over the course of the full game, finding gaps and, eventually ripping control (and the result) away in the second half. They were the better team once again.
Perhaps the biggest key to it all right now is that Ramos has found the right midfield balance to his 4-3-3, one in which Memo Rodriguez and Darwin Ceren are advanced, two-way 8s who both take chances pushing forward off the ball in attack, but first and foremost chew up ground defensively. That in turn allows Darwin Quintero — nominally a left winger — to drift where he wants to in order to find the game, and man is he finding it. Quintero's been on one of those patented month-long runs where he looks like he might be the best player in the entire league, with 4g/6a in the past seven games.
Houston's job now is to figure out how to stretch that from one month to two, and then three, because while there are ways to replace 80% of what Elis and Manotas bring, there's no one on the roster who can replicate Quintero.
As for Sporting, they did score one of the prettiest goals of 2020, from anyone:
Their defensive issues, however, remain. And they're proving fatal, week after week despite Peter Vermes liberally shuffling the lineup and even going to five at the back for the final 15 minutes.
Push It Along
Vancouver actually climbed out of the Western Conference basement, leaping above both the Rapids and Quakes into 10th thanks to their wild and wide open 3-2 win over Toronto FC on Saturday, though it should be noted that both Colorado and San Jose have a game in hand on the 'Caps.
Lucas Cavallini was ruthless on his one good chance, and Vancouver were constantly dangerous on set pieces. They did very clearly have a plan, which was to clog the middle in a low-block 4-3-1-2 and force Toronto wide whenever possible. Young Michael Baldisimo, with a goal and an assist, appears to be something of a revelation running the show in the middle of it all. It does become more apparent by the week that, in Thomas Hasal, they have a potentially very special goalkeeper.
And of course any win — but especially one over a rival — is something to be excited about. The 'Caps were right to celebrate like mad men after this one, given how long they'd gone without winning and how long they'd gone without scoring. "I think it was more relief to get the three points," head coach Marc Dos Santos said afterward when asked to describe what he and the team were feeling in the moment. It was an understandable sentiment..
The elephant in the room is that there wasn't a ton from this one that suggests it's repeatable. Vancouver took just seven shots. They put three on goal, and they scored on all three. It's worth celebrating a result from a performance like that because you don't get results from performances like that all too often.
Toronto, meanwhile, took 22 shots and put nine on target, most of them coming from very clearly targeting the gap between Vancouver's center backs and central midfield:
The fact that they didn't finish more than two of them, or that they conceded three on a night they should've shipped just one? From my perch, Greg Vanney's take is the correct one:
"I don't think our performances are bad, but results are based off execution."
The Reds are still second in the East, and I don't think anyone should be panicking after taking zero points this past week. But there needs to be a bit more accountability amongst the players or this blip can and become a downward trend.
A few more things to ponder...
10. Not much for either Colorado or San Jose to be happy about after Saturday's 1-1 draw in California, one in which it felt like both teams left two points on the table, though the play of a pair of Homegrowns — 19-year-old CM Cole Bassett for Colorado and 16-year-old winger Cade Cowell for San Jose — is something of a silver lining.
They occupy the bottom two spots in the West.
The Lions were the much, much better team throughout, though the Five Stripes deserve a lot of credit for their ability to scramble defensively and put out some fires that their disorganized front line and midfield started. Daryl Dike kept cracking things open like this:
I love game-opening hold-up play. Dike would've had three assists if not for the emergency defense of Atlanta fullbacks Franco Escobar and George Bello, who held the fort long enough for the bench mob to come in and provide a late equalizer.
8. The first game of the post-Chris Armas era went even worse than the last few games of the Chris Armas era as Philly came to Harrison and just drubbed the Red Bulls by 3-0. Brenden Aaronson scored a screamer to open it, but what ended up kind of defining the game was the chemistry up top between Kacper Przybylko and Andrew Wooten, who'd come on midway through the first half to replace the injured Sergio Santos.
The 30-year-old Wooten has yet to score in MLS, but he seems to be finding his role as an unselfish, pop-up-between-the-lines second forward bent on facilitation. Given how little time Aaronson actually spends between the lines — he actually stretches the field with hard, direct runs quite a bit — and the fact that Przybylko is a pure center forward, the fit has been snug (though please note that all the usual sample size caveats apply).
RBNY played a straight-forward 4-2-3-1 and were simply outmanned by a superior team.
7. The recipe for beating Chicago Fire FC: Defend in a low block and just wait for them to make mistakes, then kill them in transition. That was basically New England's gameplan in Sunday night's 2-1 win at Soldier Field, potting the first after a misplayed Francisco Calvo pass (and some ball-watching) and then getting the second when Teal Bunbury accidentally Ronaldinho'd Bobby Shuttleworth.
Chicago did actually get on the ball and have some good ideas, and did generate some good looks in the second half before running out of steam at around the 70-minute mark. They do appear to be, however, a team bereft of difference-makers.
6. One of my favorite things in this game of ours is watching a center forward just completely outfox a center back in the box. And so here is Gyasi Zardes putting Maikel Van der Werff — who's not some newbie; he's spent the past decade playing in the Eredivisie — into the torture chamber:
This is Wondo. This is Carlos Ruiz. This is Taylor Twellman. This is Zardes, who scored the second and third goals in Columbus's ho-hum 3-0 win over FC Cincy, being so much smarter and better than he's ever given credit for, and doing the type of things that get you double-digit goals year after year after year. So far in 2020 he's now got 8 goals in about 850 minutes across all competitions.
The Crew were never threatened in this one despite rotating the squad a good bit. They're now 7-1-2 with 16 goals scored and just two conceded, five points clear at the top of the East.
5. Freddy Juarez decided to get clever with RSL's formation and approach on Sunday night in Minnesota, rotating his squad and putting his team out there in a 4-4-2 diamond with center back Justen Glad at right back. The diamond is naturally a narrow formation, one that usually relies upon the fullbacks to hold their own against overloads and not get too narrow, nor push up too high. It is a big ask to throw a center back there.
It was the wrong ask on the night. Glad was narrow on the first Loons goal, and got no help from any of his midfielders tracking Chase Gasper's overlap. On the second, Glad got caught pushing up and Bebelo Reynoso threaded Robin Lod through. On the third, a lack of communication between Glad and Erik Holt allowed Minnesota to crack RSL open with a simple one-two.
To Juarez's credit, he did seem to see at least a few of the problems inherent in the system:
The final was 4-0. This was textbook exploitation of an obvious weakness from a Minnesota side that really, really needed a performance like this one.
Reynoso, in his debut, was very good. Not overwhelmingly so, but he's obviously comfortable in the toughest spots on the pitch and obviously capable of cutting a defense apart with a touch.
The xG on that shot was 1.82% as per Opta, which to be honest was a lot higher than I expected.
D.C. were hold without a single shot attempt. That's just the second time in MLS history any team's posted a goose egg.
3. Chalk up Inter Miami's scoreless draw against Nashville as a "both these teams need a DP center forward" data point, though I'll stand by my take that Miami's greater need is a true midfield playmaker. Even so, you'd have to imagine Gonzalo Higuain would've finished at least one of the chances the team generated on the night (unless it was a Cup final).
As for Nashville, they played with obvious commitment and energy, and do a pretty nice job of staying compact. But they need a center forward.
2. Following Sunday night's 3-0 loss in Carson, LAFC are now 0-2-0 with a -5 goal differential against the Galaxy since going on record that "El Trafico" should be renamed "the LA Derby" in order to be more authentic. Pretty sure that angered the Soccer Gods. Call me old fashioned, but I believe correlation = causation.
The Galaxy did what everyone's done this year against LAFC: attack the right side of their backline, and enjoy the fruits of the occasional goalkeeping calamity. If LAFC win no trophies of any sort this year, it'll be fair to point a finger at their offseason roster surgery, which left them with a gaping wound.
One note that I may dig in on more in the coming weeks: LAFC can't effectively press as high without Eduard Atuesta, nor can they throw their fullbacks as far forward. Ball recovery and retention issues are very real in that midfield without the Colombian maestro.
The Galaxy weren't great on the night, holding on for dear life in the first half as they were out-shot 14-1. But they're solid enough in defense now, and they have a midfield absolutely packed with gamers (including young Julian Araujo, who is a natural Concacaf'er) while in attack both Cristian Pavon and Sebastian Lletget are playing the best soccer of their respective lives. For now, that is more than enough.
Williamson has been a two-way revelation this year, able to burst into attack and either threaten goal or provide the final pass (he had the game-winning assist in this one), but still provide defensive value. He has earned a lot of responsibility, and handled it with aplomb.
More responsibility is on the way given the bad news from this game: Sebastian Blanco — arguably the best player in MLS this season — was carried off after a gruesome-looking knee injury. Williamson's got a smooth, "don't worry, I've got this" confidence to his game, and he has made plays this year. With Blanco gone, he will be asked to make more.