Before I sat down to write this, I asked my colleague Charlie Boehm what he thought of Saturday's games.
"Scrappy, hectic at times."
I suppose that stands to reason after a two-week break designed to allow breathing room for the ongoing Copa America. That gap was at least partially filled by US Open Cup & Canadian Championship games, but summer tourneys are still a rhythm-breaker when it comes to the regular season. So before we get to the pretty part of the season (August and everything after), we've got to ride out the scrap.
Here's what Week 16 brought us:
Train In Vain
Over the last 18 months I've probably written less about the Houston Dynamo than any other team in the league, and it's for one main reason: I was never really able to figure out what they were trying to do under Owen Coyle. I understood their lineup was intended to be a 4-2-3-1 of some sort, which gives you the basic clues (these two guys hold; this one creates; this guy hopefully scores some goals), and I understood a few of the individual roles that players were supposed to be playing.
But I never saw any real indication of group understanding of where to press, where to possess, and how to create chances. "Scrappy, hectic at times" could have been applied to Houston at any point from the start of 2015 onward.
The real victims were the central defenders, who were asked to put out fires constantly and had to spend most of their time trying to interpret the space between themselves and the central midfield. No matter who Coyle played in those spots, there were constant issues.
The four games (all competitions) so far under Wade Barrett, who is now the interim coach after some time as the acting head coach, have been a 180-degree reversal. Houston got a scoreless home draw on Saturday against D.C. United -- a game that was scrappy and ugly and hectic at times -- but one that was still very organized.
There's a lot happening here, and some of it is soccer. The movements are linked, as when Will Bruin checks back, Andrew Wenger, Boniek Garcia and right back Jalil Anibaba all knew to push forward as one. When the ball turned over, Collen Warner stayed connected to center backs David Horst and Raul Rodriguez, and was able to prevent a D.C. run-out. Once Warner was on the ball, DaMarcus Beasley and Cristian Maidana made themselves available, with Boniek then taking the space vacated by Maidana for what could have turned into a profitable run but for a bad touch.
This was all good, purposeful and linked movement, and you can see the first brush-strokes of Barrett's here: He wants to have a true d-mid (Warner) protect the backline; he wants to press-turnover-transition; he wants the fullbacks to overlap aggressively, but responsibly.
I get this, and you can see the players do, too. It will take a while for this foundation to turn into the type of beautiful pressing machine that's won Supporters' Shields in New York and Cups of two types in Kansas City, but at least the foundation is finally there.
RBNY's 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders on Sunday night followed a relatively predictable script in MLS: Home team comes out hot and takes a deserved lead, then takes their foot off the gas; visitors press for an equalizer and come close, but can't find the finishing touch; home team gets an opportunistic second goal.
And that is where the Red Bulls flipped the script. Instead of packing it in and absorbing pressure, RBNY decided they'd rather decide the game with the ball than without. And so they did this:
Twenty-seven passes in 70 seconds, ending with a shot. It doesn't really matter that the shot didn't turn into a goal, because what matters at this point in the game is attrition. They forced Seattle into their own end, forced them to chase and forced them to scramble time and time again in this sequence, then repeated lesser versions of it throughout the final 20 minutes.
By the 77th minute FS1 color analyst Cobi Jones was pointing out (correctly) how Seattle weren't even able to put any pressure on the ball at midfield, and sequences like the one above is why. Chasing the game like that wears teams down and then wears them out, and I will always think that's the best way to protect a lead. So do the Red Bulls, who are now approaching seven hours since they conceded a goal in league play.
Unsurprisingly they're 7-1-1 in their last nine across all competitions, while climbing back to .500 and into second place in the East. After a miserable start to 2016, the Red Bulls are once again who we thought they were.
A few more things to ponder...
You know what is off to a good start? Jack Harrison's professional career. He picked up his first career assist on a lovely backheel, and looks every bit worthy of being the No. 1 pick out of an unusually strong draft.
3. Fanendo Adi continues to be the most underappreciated center forward in the league. He swallowed Justen Glad whole on the first goal of Portland's 2-2 draw at RSL, and does so much more dirty work than people realize.
2. In the video embedded at the top of the page I talked about how Sporting KC have the same pieces of what was an effective midfield last year, but how they're still allowing more gaps. Also needs to be pointed out that, after the first half hour of Sporting's 2-0 win, FC Dallas winger Fabian Castillo wasn't as quick to hit said gaps as he had been earlier.
At this stage in his MLS career Castillo should be a perpetual Best XI candidate. He hasn't been at that level this season -- he hasn't even been the best winger on his team.
1. And finally, Face of the Week goes to everybody who attended the Orlando City vs. San Jose Earthquakes match. San Jose got a late equalizer for the 2-2 draw, but the game itself was inconsequential. What mattered was the moving and united display from the community: