Entering Wednesday night's slate of games, there were 25 players in MLS history with 40+ goals and 40+ assists. Coming out of Wednesday's games, that number was 27.
Lee Nguyen picked up his 40th career assist in the first half of New England's 2-2 draw at New York City on a corner kick to Kei Kamara, while Federico Higuain got his off a secondary assist on the capper in Columbus's 3-0 win over visiting Seattle. Players don't play for numbers and, to paraphrase Einstein: Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that's counted counts.
But "goals and assists" speak as loud as the human spirit, and 40/40 is pretty good company, especially for two guys who didn't come to the league until their late 20s. Give 'em some dap.
Let's look at the games:
Nguyen was one of the better players on the field as the Revs stole that point at an unusually disjointed NYCFC team, who now seem to be rediscovering the home troubles that plagued them last season. This despite the fact that David Villa gave a clinic on how to punish back-foot defense to open the scoring (volume up for analysis):
Armchair Analyst: David Villa taught class as the Revs failed the first pop quiz in "Defending 101" #NYCvNEpic.twitter.com/uSXSc8bNA1— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) June 1, 2017
Villa's heroics aside, though, the game was largely defined by New England's ability to make things "choppy," for lack of a better word. They did this by switching out of their usual 4-4-2 diamond or even a 4-2-3-1 into a true 4-3-3, with both Nguyen and Diego Fagundez as true, advanced wingers. The effect of this was to pin both NYCFC fullbacks deep for big chunks of the game.
They didn't keep Ben Sweat out of things entirely – you can see in the video above that it's Sweat's pass leading to Villa's heroics, and Ethan White had a few nice overlaps. But by and large they had to play deeper than usual, and that negatively impacted NYCFC's ability to generate useful possession through the middle. They found chances, as opposed to creating chances.
To be clear: Both Alex Ring (suspension) and Yangel Herrera (international duty with the Venezuelan U-20s) were missed. Those two guys cover more ground and disrupt more play than almost any central midfield duo in the league, and while Mikey Lopez and Tommy McNamara were game, they're just not those kinds of players. Lopez is wanting as a passer, while McNamara really is more of an attacker and struggles to keep up with robust two-way play. NYCFC have excuses if they want to use them.
They probably don't want to, though. They've now won just once in their last five and need to get their heads right ahead of Philly's weekend visit. Excuses won't help, there.
The big question surrounded the Houston Dynamo entering the season was "who's going to create from midfield?" The answer has been "Alex," and on Wednesday night it was emphatically so.
Alex has been masterful at playing as a central midfielder, but finding space to create outside of the "typical" spots in which a No. 10 works. For example (volume up for analysis):
Armchair Analyst: Houston's Alex did some damage as a False 10 today (h/t @phcleveland3 & @EiFsoccer) pic.twitter.com/mtRAWepWte— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) June 1, 2017
Alex had a goal and an assist, but his influence was so much greater than just the box score numbers. RSL were simply unable to track him in their 5-1 loss at BBVA Compass Stadium, and as they were constantly adjusting their defensive shape Alex was constantly releasing that clutch of speedy attackers into space.
The thing that's separated Alex, though, is that he's an asset defensively as well as in attack. Usually you have to make at least some allowances for a No. 10's defensive work to one extent or another, but Wilmer Cabrera never has to make that concession with the Brazilian.
Now, it needs understanding that none of the above works – Alex could not be a No. 10 of any sort – without ultra-creative and dangerous wingers, which Houston has in spades. Just as he's freed guys like Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto to get into space, the way that they've pushed opposing lines back and dragged opposing d-mids deeper has opened up the field for Alex. It's a symbiotic relationship.
So this is very much a case of a guy fitting into a system perfectly, and the system itself adapting very well to the talent on hand. Houston are much better than I thought they'd be because they've been able to answer that big question at the start of the season, but the really impressive part is that the answer wasn't just plug-and-play. Somebody somewhere in that brain trust figured some stuff out, and they're the league's best home team in large part because of it.
On the Sunny Side of the Street
The Sounders played a B team because of injuries, international call-ups, and the fact that this was an inter-conference midweek game. Columbus obliged and treated them like a B team in their much-needed 3-0 win.
I can't decide if the game's third goal was an example of a forward perfectly riding an offside line, or of a young defender (Tony Alfaro) failing to 1) communicate, and 2) step up and spring the trap when opportunity presented itself. You be the judge:
That was Higuain's 40th assist, by the way. And as you can see, he continues to be the epitome of that drifting No. 10, flipping from touchline to touchline, dropping deep or popping up at the top of the box as needed.
I'm not sure how much to take from this game on either team's behalf.
Why Don't You Do Right
Is the diamond experiment in Orlando City over with for now? Jason Kreis had his team come out in a 4-2-2-2 (or a box 4-4-2 or a 4-4-2 with inverted wingers – whatever you want to call it, they're all pretty similar) in his team's 2-0 win over D.C. United. Here's what the network passing map looked like:
That's made using Opta data. Each circle represents the location of the corresponding player's aggregate touch, while the thickness of the lines represents the volume of passes exchanged. You can see they played through Matias Perez Garcia (No. 32) more than Luis Gil (No. 17), though that balance changed when Giles Barnes came on for Gil at the hour mark.
Barnes changed the game with his speed and direct attacking play, things that Gil just doesn't bring.
But as with the Columbus/Seattle result, I'm just not sure how much to take away from this game for either team. D.C. continue to be depleted to the point of impotence, while Orlando City got their goals off a free kick and a howler from Bill Hamid, and at the same time benefitted from Julian Buescher producing one of the misses of the season and Joe Bendik producing one of the saves of the season. This scoreline was not unjust, but it was flattering.
Still, it's not the interpretation that matters most: It's the result. The Purple Lions got the three points they badly needed after a six-game winless slide, and if there's a lesson to be learned on top of it that's just a nice bonus.