We've now seen every team in the MLS is Back Tournament play at least one game. Earlier this week I gave you one good and one bad takeaway for each team, and so now it feels like a good time to open up the floor to y'all and get some feedback, answer some questions and generally take the pulse.
So let's do it. We'll start with the very good question that reminded me it's been a while since we've done a mailbag...
I've long been a fan of Jeremy Ebobisse, who had to scrap for almost two years before he ever got a sniff of playing time, and then was moved to the wing last year, and then saw his club bring in two relatively high-priced and experienced center forwards this offseason, presumably to play ahead of him.
But Jaroslaw Niezgoda wasn't fit to start the year and Felipe Mora's not available now. And to Portland's credit, it seems like they had an open competition to win the starting No. 9 job heading into this tournament, and when they took the field the other night, it was Ebobisse in the XI. And when they took the lead, it was Ebobisse with the goal.
This is an ugly goal, but ugly goals are beautiful. The best strikers in the world at every level — men's or women's soccer, doesn't matter — make their living off of one-touch finishes in the box. Finding the spot and beating the defender to it, or creating just enough separation, or as in this case, being strong enough to shield off the defender and putting it into the net with whatever body part is necessary.
A legitimate criticism of Ebobisse's game was that he wasn't in those spots often enough in the youth ranks or when playing for T2 in the USL. A goal like that is a useful data point in saying he's worked hard on that aspect of his game.
For what it's worth, I asked some folks (some former professionals, some analytics nerds and coach/analysts in a group DM) about Ebobisse's run at the start of the play, the one that he almost gets a head to before Perry Kitchen is able to clear. And it was unanimous that it was, at the very least, a good run (I agree with that).
For it to be a great run, I think he needed to disguise it a little more. As soon as he knew where Sebastian Blanco's cross was going he booked it for that spot, which showed good recognition but narrowed the margin for error on Blanco's cross and put Ebobisse in a position where he actually had to stop his momentum then lean backward in an attempt to get a head to the ball. If, instead of blowing past Kitchen he'd slowed down and kept Kitchen on his hip, then gotten to the spot at the same time, it's basically a jump-ball — a situation where Ebobisse could've gotten a shoulder into Kitchen and knocked him off balance. In that situation, my money's on Ebobisse to win the physical battle and give himself a better chance of scoring, while increasing Blanco's margin for errror.
To be clear that would've been a world-elite read, run and application of the dark arts. No striker in the US pool currently would've made that run and used their physicality in the way I'm talking about.
But Josef Martinez would've. And I think that's a pretty useful way to contextualize the heights we want young(ish) MLS strikers to hit.
I'm pretty sure Guillermo Barros Schelotto can coach. You don't win as much as he did in Argentina — and yes, his Boca Juniors teams won a lot, as did his Lanus teams — without knowing a few things about how to get to the finish line. There was criticism all along about the way his Boca teams played, but on the final day of the season his team was always there competing for and sometimes winning a trophy.
So it's not a great look to say "can he coach." He clearly can, and I don't think his seat is at all warm.
But I don't think anybody at the Galaxy should be happy about how this team has played for a long time. It was understandable to just feed Zlatan last year and be as cross-happy as you needed to be in order to keep him from raging, but Zlatan's gone and the Galaxy need to diversify their attack more than just a little bit.
There was at least a little bit of good news in that regard against Portland, as the Galaxy created some chances in transition and the goal they scored was basically the Platonic ideal of a Chicharito goal. There is a chance to bottle that and take it with them game after game after game.
I think "be better at everything" is a great place to start for the Rapids, who were truly abysmal and lucky not to lose by more. Mistakes at the back, getting out-worked in midfield, getting out-played up top... there were zero good takeaways.
The biggest one to me was that they never came close to matching RSL's energy or purpose out of the gates:
This is not a perfect metric, but it doesn't mean nothing. In fact I'd say it means quite a bit. Colorado are not talented enough to let anybody come in and just knock the ball around like that, win every 50/50 and knock the ball around.
LAFC or Atlanta or TFC or the Sounders can occasionally sleepwallk through a game, but not many others can. And the Rapids decidedly can not.
Yeah it's a genuine concern. Expected goals don't become truly predictive until about 8 or 10 games into the season and the Union have played the toughest schedule in the league thus far (at FC Dallas and at LAFC back in the winter, and vs. NYCFC and Inter Miami in this tournament), so take what you've seen and what the numbers say with a grain of salt, but Philly are dead last in expected goals per game in the entire league right now.
Which is to say that the issue that was so obvious last year (they were super-reliant upon Ilsinho to come in for the final 30 minutes and light dudes on fire), combined with a known issue heading into the season (replacing Haris Medunjanin's masterful distribution) have combined to put Philly into a situation where they don't... look... great... getting into the attack. This has been compounded by the sporadic availability of Sergio Santos, the only real "speed" option in attack, and the fact that Brenden Aaronson isn't quite done cooking yet as a playmaker.
Aaronson is good, mind you, and has the tools to be more than that. But he only even attempted 17 passes in that win over Miami, and your offense won't hum if the guy you're running your offense through doesn't get on the ball more often than that. Part of this is down to Philly's own struggles in building out from the back, and part of it does indeed fall upon Aaronson himself.
The other issue: their press has been fine, but it hasn't leveled up from last year. If anything the Union are less dangerous when defending on the front foot than in 2019, though there are obvious mitigating circumstances with that (Florida heat, missing Fafa Picualt, preseason-esque defensive rotations) to consider.
The short take is that the Union are fun and good and deserve their wins, but they are not as good as their current record indicates.
Textbook. When a winger (or any other attacker) gets to the endline like that, one player has to make the near-post run and the other attacker has to delay, then get to the top of six for a pull-back. Bwana not only recognizes the situation, but he shapes his run so that he keeps his body between himself and Fire defender Miguel Navarro.
This is something that Frank Lampard has talked about with regard to Christian Pulisic's surge of great form over the past six weeks.
"The ability to arrive in the box is a big thing, and it’s something Christian has," Lampard said. "It is one of the things that show a difference between being a very good player on the flank and a top-class player.
“There is a difference between being a very good attacking player off the side or the players at the real top level of the game who arrive and score in the six yard box and hit big numbers yearly.
Obviously it's a different team, different league, different player. But it's the very same concept, and it applies here as well. Bwana is not going to be an Ignacio Piatti-type winger who scores a dozen bangers and solo efforts a year, nor is he going to be a $70 million world star like Pulisic. Understand, though, that he doesn't have to be. If he's just smart about using the space players like Morris, Raul Ruidiaz and Nico Lodeiro create, he'll be a legitimate weapon. I'm excited to watch and see if this is sustainable.
As for the defense... yeesh. That was bad. But I'm not about to start betting against Seattle.
LAFC. I think I'm more worried about that backline than I am about the lack of Vela, especially now that Brian Rodriguez has broken his duck. This team is going to stay uber-dangerous, and if Bradley Wright-Phillips is actually healthy then my god... good luck containing all that frontline movement!
I can't say that about Atlanta, though I did think they looked better against the Red Bulls after bringing in a target forward. They still certainly have enough talent to be good, but Josef was a get-out-of-jail-free card. I'll need to be convinced that they're a consistent, winning team without him.
The two spots I see RBNY fans talking about most often are a box-to-box ball-winning, do-everything central midfielder and a top-tier No. 9, and by my reckoning those two spots make a lot of sense. That said, I still hold out some hope that either Tom Barlow or Brian White makes the No. 9 job their own, and it's not like Sean Davis should be chucked in the trash or anything. He's proved he can be a high-level player for a Supporters' Shield-winning team, and anybody coming into the group will have to wrest that spot from either him or Cristian Casseres.
Another option: second forward. Right now Daniel Royer's playing that spot, and while Royer's good, he really is more of a winger or wide midfielder, and he doesn't have anything close to the speed necessary to spearhead the press and threaten in behind.
Yes. Just enjoy the wild ride this year wherever it happens to take you. Hope that the young players improve, that Jurgen Locadia looks like a $20 million striker, and that at least one center back looks the part of a foundational piece. Your team's on a years-long rebuild that's repeatedly had to be rebooted, so any sort of forward progress in 2020 should be treated as a nice surprise.
I'm going to push back on the premise and say that I don't actually think the Quakes have been playing well. They've been playing hard and they have a clear identity — man-mark almost everything defensively, and in attack put two guys on each touchline and make the game as big as possible, then shoot on sight — but they've been comically sloppy, really undisciplined in their shot selection and something three levels beyond gaffe-prone in central defense. And in general they don't have enough talent on the team to go out there, put forth a B+ performance and get a win. It has to be A-level stuff all the time, or they'll get nothing. The end of last year is proof enough of that.
Of course, this intensity combined with sloppiness makes them a neutral's delight. I said last year and I'll say again this year that they're my second-favorite team to watch behind only LAFC, and so far that's held true in this tournament. The first 30 minutes against Seattle were insane (let's not talk about the last 60), and then somehow they upped that four levels and kept the pedal down (for good and for bad) for the entire duration in that win against Vancouver.
But keep it in perspective. If you need a miracle to get a win over Vancouver, it means you've gotta do some work.
All apologies for recency bias, but: Yeah, I think it was. Their 5-0 win over the Quakes in the playoffs a couple years back was memorable, as was the Eric Hassli game (I'm thinking of the one where he scored THAT goal, not the one where he got a red card for taking off his shirt to reveal another shirt). There have been a few others scattered in there as well, mostly in Cascadia Cup (and if you expand beyond MLS, the 2016 Canadian Championship final second leg).
But 10 years from now MLS Old Heads will reminisce about the wild-ass pandemic game back in 2020, and everybody will know which one they're talking about. Because this was nuts. It is beyond words.