MLS has hit the All-Star break. Let's do a brief reset so that everybody knows where we are:
• The top four teams in the Eastern Conference are within four points of each other, and 0.09 PPG.
• It's the fifth-place team, Toronto FC (6 points from the top, 1.35 PPG), who might be sitting prettiest with a home-heavy schedule the rest of the way, newfound depth, and key pieces returning to health.
• Dallas, Colorado and LA are starting to run away with the West. Colorado are on a 15-game unbeaten run, but have won just twice in the last two months. They still lead the league in PPG.
• Dallas lead the league in PPG since April and are tops in the Supporters' Shield race on raw point total.
• LA are literally the only team in the league with a winning streak, and they're now at 4 on the trot thanks to Saturday's 2-1 win at Portland. As great as those results have been, however, I still think there are a few things to worry about for the Galaxy. For his part, Bruce Arena thinks I'm a moron (and he's probably right).
• David Villa still leads the MVP race, though it's closer than it was a few weeks ago because Ignacio Piatti, Diego Valeri, Sacha Kljestan, Mauro Diaz, Sebastian Giovinco and Robbie Keane are all awesome
• Jordan Morris still leads the Rookie of the Year race, though Keegan Rosenberry and Jack Harrison are making it interesting.
• Coach of the Year is Pablo Mastroeni at an easy canter -- all due respect to Patrick Vieira, Jim Curtin, Oscar Pareja and Arena.
Onto the games:
Runnin' Down A Dream
The New York Red Bulls have invested much time and effort, man-hours and dollars into their academy over the years. We see that now with their dominant USL team, NYRB II, and their youth academy that places kids into USL or MLS, or Manchester United, or top colleges around the country.
This is not an entirely new development. This franchise was on the cutting edge 15 years ago, back when they were known as the MetroStars, with the creation of "MetroStars Black," which was something between a reserve team/academy team/semi-pro team used, it was hoped, as a training ground for local talent. MetroStars Black never really got off the ground, as it was a decade ahead of its time, but the idea had a long time to germinate at that particular franchise even as coaches, players, owners and branding all changed.
In the months and years since then as MLS has found first stability and then a measure of prosperity, and as the Red Bulls have done the same, the ideas behind MetroStars Black have come into bloom. First came the academy initiative, and then came the USL partnership, the two dovetailing to create a ladder up the levels and into professional soccer.
This is an especially happy story in and around New York, which remains one of the continent's great talent hotbeds. In Sunday's 4-1 win for the Red Bulls over NYCFC, Tommy McNamara (Rockland County) was the star for the visitors, while R.J. Allen (Old Bridge) did his damnedst to hold down his side of the field at fullback. Both have been All-Star caliber players this season.
For the hosts, Homegrowns Connor Lade (North Jersey) started at left back, Alex Muyl (Lower East Side) at left wing, and Mike Grella (Long Island) at right wing. These are the Nos. 1 & 2 teams in the East, and each is infested with the type of local talent the MetroStars decided, 15 years ago, they needed to get their hands on.
It was Muyl -- who is, as far as I know, the only person born and raised in the 212 to have played in MLS -- who put the most authoritative stamp on the game, even if McNamara scored one of the goals of the season. Muyl might be the fittest player in the league, and Jesse Marsch has weaponized him at the vanguard of RBNY's high pressure.
Here are Muyl's measurable defensive events from Opta:
Notice A) how many, total, and B) how many are in the attacking half.
For reference, here are the measurable defensive events of the other three wingers (Grella, McNamara and Harrison) combined:
One of these guys is not like the others.
Muyl destroyed NYCFC's ability to build up that side of the field, and along with Lade they took Harrison out of the game almost entirely. It's not just because he has leather lungs, though -- it's because he's a tool crafted by the RBNY academy and USL teams to fulfill a specific and crucial purpose at the MLS level. This is not "found talent," this is "planned for" and "nurtured" talent, a situation in which the strengths of the player himself were identified early in his development and brought into the fold with a defined plan in place.
And he fits in naturally next to guys like Grella, Kljestan, and Bradley Wright-Phillips, while having no problem going against the likes of Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo. Point of fact: Muyl dominated them, and Vieira called his veterans out for not doing enough to support poor Andoni Iraola as RBNY overloaded that central channel time and again:
I don't think Muyl's ever going to be a star. His range of passing isn't great enough, and he's not quite clinical enough to be a high-level finisher.
But the point of the academies isn't to turn out stars, because it's simply impossible to plan for that. The point of the academies is to churn out high-level, well-trained pros at younger ages, and make sure that the adjustment to professional soccer is a smooth one. It's to take the McNamaras of the world and give them a platform at 19 instead of 25; it's to take the Muyls of the world and help them craft their game to their skillset, rather than discovering their skillset only after playing the game at a high level.
It's a vast departure from how soccer has been done in the US and Canada prior to this decade. It's also the necessary, and I would say "only" way forward for both the league and the two federations. The more teams that produce Muyl- or Lade- or Morris- or Zardes-level talent, the closer the league gets to where it wants to be in the grand scheme of things.
This is the long-time dream of us who've followed US soccer for three decades or more. The progress made in that regard was right there for everyone to see on Sunday.
You can't plan for stars, but you can go out every now and then and buy one. That's what Toronto FC did with Giovinco, and after spending late spring and early summer mostly dormant, the Italian international laid waste to D.C. United in Saturday's 4-1 win. He scored two goals from set pieces -- his first goals of any sort since May 14 -- and another from open plan, and helped set up the fourth with his movement within the Reds' team structure:
Worth noting that the other three TFC players involved in that build-up were all Homegrowns. Midfielder Jay Chapman supplied the entry pass, Jordan Hamilton had the dummy, and former Chivas RIP Homegrown Marky Delgado finished things off.
This feels, in a lot of ways, like the team that Torontonians have been waiting for since 2007. Because of the development of Hamilton, Chapman and Delgado, as well as the acquisition of Tosaint Ricketts and ever-present, ever-calming influence of Benoit Cheyrou, TFC are set up to do more than just ride out the absence of crucial parts like Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Will Johnson and Jonathan Osorio. They're able to thrive without those guys, able to keep Giovinco in his preferred spot (second striker, as opposed to a False 9 or winger role), and able to keep the team shape sound and sensible.
Toronto should have been a 4-4-2 of one shade or another since Giovinco arrived ahead of last season, but head coach Greg Vanney has had to play around with different formations and looks because of a lack of depth. Now that the kids have developed, the draft has paid dividends and the overseas signings have become more targeted, there's only one guy on the roster who's irreplaceable: Giovinco himself.
This is how you build a soccer team. Toronto may not win another trophy this season (remember, they've already claimed the Canadian Championship), but they have a foundation in place that looks like it's building more and more valuable pieces, and have the will to go out and get a player like Giovinco to tie the whole thing together.
"I kept hearing it all week, 'he hasn’t scored, and he hasn’t scored!'" D.C. head coach Ben Olsen said afterward. "That’s the last thing you want to hear as a coach, but again you have to do a good job on him. Everybody on the field, you know it’s everyone, if you clog one area he’ll go to the fair end of another one. He thinks smarter and quicker than everyone, a lot of defenders. I mean I’m happy he’s in the league, I know for a lot of people its fun to watch, but it’s not fun to play against."
Especially because of the talent that's now around him. Any one player, no matter how good, can be neutralized. A team that gives their star a platform, however...
So the important thing is that with careful long-term planning and patience, Toronto have given themselves the chance to do this not just this year, but literally every year going forward, including when Giovinco eventually retires. Some years will doubtless be better than others, but as long as the cupboard keeps getting filled with foundational talent, there won't be a 2013-style bottoming out again.
A few more things to ponder...
8. Je-Vaughn Watson just keeps saving New England's season across all competitions. He scored the lone goal and potted the decisive PK in Wednesday's US Open Cup shootout win over Philadelphia, and then on Saturday he capitalized on Sean Johnson's error to give the Revs a closer-than-it-should-have-been 1-0 win over Chicago.
It has to be noted that it's now three straight game in which New England haven't conceded a goal off a cross. That's a significant improvement.
7. Face of the Week goes to this ball kid, who saw Piatti, Didier Drogba & Co. destroy the Union in a 5-1 Impact win at Stade Saputo:
Curtin was blunt afterward. "We were beat by stars tonight," he said. "Piatti and Drogba were unstoppable."
With those two guys healthy and former DP Hernan Bernardello back to lock things down at d-mid, Impact fans are right to have high hopes for the rest of this season.
6. Any reinforcements for Crew SC are probably too little, too late after Saturday's dispiriting 2-2 draw vs. Orlando City. Columbus are winless on the road and have only six home games left, while sitting seven points below the red line in ninth place in the East. It's been quite a tumble for last year's MLS Cup runners-up.
5. Houston continues to be a lock-down defensive unit under Wade Barrett, and on Saturday produced their fourth shutout in eight games since he took over. This time, however, the Dynamo played in a 4-4-2 with Cubo Torres and Will Bruin up top -- but to no avail, as their scoreless draw against Vancouver kept Houston pinned to the bottom of the Western Conference.
4. Just one point ahead of Houston are the Sounders,following Sunday's 3-0 whitewashing at Sporting KC. It was not good:
I expect big news, one way or the other, out of Seattle this week.
3. Nat Borchers suffered a nasty looking non-contact injury in that Portland loss to LA on Saturday. If he's out for any extended period (and to repeat: It looked Kobe-doing-his-Achilles level bad), that throws a mighty wrench in things for the champs. Borchers has shown his age physically this season, but he's still one of the great backline organizers in the league.
The silver lining for Timbers fans is that Amobi Okugo got into the game and played very, very well for 45 minutes, and moved better than he has since 2014. It's not a like-for-like replacement, but picking Okugo up this spring looks like savvy shopping for a team that's struggled to create useful depth from within.
2. The difference between FC Dallas and everyone else: A good "7-games in 25 days, the schedule was crowded and we traveled a lot!" part of the schedule outside of Frisco is probably something like 3 wins, 3 losses, 2 draws. Dallas, meanwhile, capped an eight-games-in-29-days gauntlet with a trip to Colorado on Saturday, and picked up a point via a 1-1 draw.
Their record across all competitions over that stretch? 6-1-1. Dallas are the best team in the league.
1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to Javier Morales from RSL's (disappointing) 1-1 home draw against San Jose:
RSL have got to figure out how to get him in and around the final third more often. They're so dedicated to playing in transition this year that they've moved away from the strengths of their most creative player, and it's starting to take a toll as they're now winless in six.