Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Armchair Analyst: Nobody knows anything & more from Week 8 in MLS

Week 8's edition of MLS gave us something most had been waiting for since waaaay back in in early March: Both of last year's MLS Cup participants finally started to look like the teams they were expected to be in 2017. Seattle played maybe the best half in the history of their franchise in the first 45 of their 3-0 win at the LA Galaxy, while Toronto FC put their foot on Chicago's throat from the whistle and had only one blip of a let-up in their 3-1 win over the visiting Fire.

Because of the peculiarities of early-season MLS, nobody should be surprised that these two proven teams started slow, nor that after eight weeks, one is just above the red line and one is just below it.

Slightly more surprising? The two expansion teams, Atlanta United and Minnesota United, are in similar spots. Atlanta ended a four-game road trip with a well-earned 3-1 win at RSL, posting a 1-1-2 record on the swing. They have 11 points through seven games – just two at home – and are in fourth place in the East.

Minnesota, on Sunday, pitched their first MLS shutout, hanging a 1-0 result on the visiting Rapids. They're eighth in the West, just one point out of a playoff spot. They're also 2-2-2 in their last six games (two at home, four on the road) following their comedically bad start and some much-needed personnel and tactical adjustments.

There's a realization one has to come to about this league:

Armchair Analyst: Nobody knows anything & more from Week 8 in MLS -

There we go.

Let's take a quick look around...

I Remember

That Atlanta United win was the first time RSL have gotten dinged during the new and promising Mike Petke era. They've generally played better and more crisp over the last two weeks than they have in the last two years, all despite being without a cadre of injured defenders and with a half-speed Joao Plata and with a team that is still, I think, sort of mismatched when it comes to playing the type of game that RSL want to play.

Atlanta's 3-1 win was not even remotely undeserved. They took advantage of the increasingly error-proneNick Rimando for the first two goals, and then took advantage of a stretched and desperate RSL team pushing into the attack for the third. It's gone that way a lot for this side since the start of 2015, and the numbers paint a picture for just how much the Claret-and-Cobalt have changed.

This is the team RSL have become:

Possession Lost
Passes Per Possession Lost
Long Balls

Those numbers – the last two columns – are just staggering, and pretty starkly illustrate the stylistic shift that's happened in Sandy over the last four years, as a generational shift has been happening with it.

RSL, back in 2014, were the most patient team in the league on the ball, building methodically with short passing out of the back and a midfield diamond build around Kyle Beckerman's ability to dictate the pace of the game, and where it was played, from deep. This both played to Beckerman's strengths and a leader, distributor and defender while hiding his weaknesses as a raw athlete.

In short: Kyle Beckerman is not going to run anybody down in the open field. I still think that asking him to do so over the last few years was… well, it was pretty weird.

Petke, to his credit, has had Beckerman drop a little bit deeper and play as more of a true No. 6 again, shielding the backline and pulling strings rather than running all over the field trying to break up play. That's a big part of the reason RSL have looked somewhat reborn under the new coach.

But this is still a team that hits too many long balls and loses possession way too easily, and if you're going to do that you need central midfielders who can both chew up ground, and keep up with the league's fleetest attackers. This is still a team that plays a ton of long balls out of the back, and if you do that you're going to find it very hard to advance methodically as a unit through midfield. This is still a team that lacks the precision to dominate games by using the ball, and lacks (or at least isn't using) the midfield athleticism to consistently win games without it.

This is not the RSL that they once were, even though some of the faces are still the same. I don't know that Petke should scrap the high-energy, long-ball, 4-3-3 identity that they have, and I don't know that they should try to go back to the diamond 4-4-2 of their glory days. It's not a binary choice, anyway.

I do know, however, that they've got to pick a lane. They've got to do a better job of marrying their identity and tactical approach to their current personnel, both young and old.

Finished Symphony

And then it happened: Brian Schmetzer moved Jordan Morris to the wing, put Will Bruin in at center forward, and the Seattle Sounders became a juggernaut again. They more or less ran the LA Galaxy out of the StubHub Center in Sunday's 3-0 win – tied for the biggest home loss in Galaxy history – and completed a staggering 83 percent of their passes in the attacking third. LA couldn't touch them.

Bruin somehow managed not to score or assist (he should've squared for Harry Shipp to tap home late in the second half), but he didn't need to in order to add value for this team just by pulling defenders away from Morris, Clint Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro. This is basically what Nelson Valdez did last year:

And that leads to wins. Nobody is going to mistake Bruin for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and he's not going to score 200 goals, but he fills his role well, while allowing his three star teammates to get into bigger spaces with more time to do what they do best.

“I think it was more of their ability to possess the ball and move it. They had a very good attacking players with Dempsey and Lodeiro and Morris just pins you back because he’s so fast," is how LA's Curt Onalfo described it after the game. "Bruin came into the team and did a good job. They just outnumbered us, so we were basically defending the entire time."

Three points in the bank and a shutout on the road means the defense deserves some dap, too. It was especially so on Sunday since Seattle were without three veterans who were expected to be starters this year: Chad Marshall, Roman Torres and Brad Evans. They started converted d-mid Gustav Svensson at center back next to second-year man Tony Alfaro, and another converted d-mid – Jordy Delem – at right back.

All three guys did well, but it's the central midfield that's the true strength of this team. ESPN's Taylor Twellman did well to explain it on the broadcast:

There's not much more that needs be said. When you have two guys in that spot who play together, and make each other better, they're very likely to make the rest of the team better on both sides of the ball. Even as the Sounders have failed to find space in the attack or the final touch in front of goal this year, Ozzie Alonso and Cristian Roldan have nonetheless been in the right place at the right time to keep a foot on the game. The contrast with LA's wayward central midfield was impossible to miss.

This isn't Seattle's final form, as there is still a DP slot to use (I'm guessing center forward) and probably one more center back to add. They'll aim for exponential improvement in this summer transfer window just as they did in last year's.

But this is very much a finished product in terms of who they are, how they want to play, and what their identity is. Now that the early rust is off, I suspect more wins will follow.

A few more things to ponder:

9. I wrote some about Philadelphia's miserable start to the season following their 3-3 home draw against Montreal on Saturday. The Union remain the last winless team, and blowing a 3-0 home lead is not sitting well with the home fans.

As for the Impact, they seem to have discovered a true weapon off the bench in target forward Anthony Jackson-Hamel. He's got three goals in 37 minutes this year, which I'm guessing is an unsustainable rate. What's not unsustainable is his movement off the ball – he's rugged and committed, and as long as he's doing that he should see the field for a team that can otherwise get outmuscled in the 18.

8. San Jose went on the road for two games this past week, coming home with one point and no goals. First was their scoreless draw at New England last Wednesday, and then was their 2-0 loss at Houston on Saturday.

Dom Kinnear was succinct after the loss in Houston. "We need to make the most of opportunities going forward," he said. "We made some bad decisions in and around the penalty area that cost us.”

The Quakes are now winless in six, and have scored four goals in that span.

7. In addition to that scoreless draw against the Quakes, the Revs also posted a thoroughly entertaining if wholly unsatisfying (for them) 2-2 home draw against visiting D.C. United.

This week was absolutely a wasted opportunity for New England. For D.C., on the other hand, it's a job well done, and rookie midfielder Ian Harkesgarnered some well-earned praise.

6. God I love Sebastian Giovinco, who was Face of the Week-level steamed after being a late sub in that 3-1 TFC win over Chicago:

He was working on a hat-trick so I kind of get it.

5. FC Dallas became the last unbeaten standing following their 1-0 home win over visiting Sporting KC on Saturday. Their central defense of Walker Zimmerman and Matt Hedges combined with their central midfield of Carlos Gruezo and Kellyn Acosta is so mobile that Sporting could find almost no meaningful room to do work in the attacking third.

Attack-wise it's still not pretty for Dallas, but I don't think anyone should've expected "pretty" from this group with Mauro Diaz hurt. That said, Javier Morales did have his moments in his second outing as a starter.

4. Darlington Nagbe scored a GOLAZO andLiam Ridgewell returned for Portland in their 2-1 win over visiting Vancouver. With or without Ridgewell, though, I do think it's fair for Timbers fans to be somewhat concerned about that backline.

3. I was going to write something this week about how good Artur and Alex Crognale have been for Crew SC. Then they both got hurt in the first half at New York, and the Red Bulls sauntered to a comfortable 2-0 home win.

Columbus can't afford to be without either of their youngsters for an extended period.

2. Christian Ramirez came into MLS with Minnesota United billed first and foremost – and depending who you talk to, "only" – as a goalscorer. Through just under two months he's proved to be much more than that, and his late, rugged hold-up play was crucial as the Loons killed off their 1-0 win over the visiting Rapids.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to Orlando City for this sequence from their 2-1 win at NYCFC:

OCSC have been very direct and opportunistic so far in 2017, and even though they're playing a diamond they don't really resemble Jason Kreis's old RSL teams about 95 percent of the time.

Then there are times like this, when they string together eight straight passes without every leaving the attacking third and score a goal with seeming ease. This was a hint of what's to come from central Florida, and a massive road win that solidified their hold atop the East.