The final push is here for this most bizarre of regular seasons. In we go:
Three weeks ago when Toronto and Philadelphia met up in Hartford, the Reds kind of cruised through the first half and then — seemingly on a whim — kicked it up into fourth gear and just hit a tempo and a level the Union couldn't reach. The final score was only 2-1, but it felt like the gap between the two teams was much, much wider than that. TFC had straight-up buried the Union in the second half.
On Saturday night in Chester, Philly got on the ball, got into fifth gear, got control of the tempo of the game, and got their revenge. They buried the ball up the right flank through the first 25 minutes, and then buried the Reds by pulling them apart, repeatedly winning 1-v-1 duels and crushing them in transition.
It was a bloodbath, a 5-0 win that wrested control of the Supporters' Shield race away from Toronto and showed that the Union, who have improved year after year after year under Jim Curtin, are for the first time a for-real threat to win anything they play for.
This was gorgeous, but what made it frightening was the intentionality behind it. Philly knew exactly how they wanted to exploit the team that had so thoroughly hammered them at the start of the month, and then did it:
It was more than just that goal, though. Philly constantly had center forward Kacper Przybylko flare out to the flanks in order to spread out the TFC backline, opening gaps which allowed the Union's runners to get into the box from deeper midfield. It created a bit of misdirection, enough to confuse the not-at-all-mobile Toronto center backs and d-mid Michael Bradley.
The Union have never won a trophy in MLS. They came close to a few U.S. Open Cups, and made it to the semifinals of this summer's MLS is Back tournament. They are now just 270 minutes away from their first.
“It’s a big win for us. We now have our destiny in our own hands with these final three games, two of which are at home,” said Union head coach Jim Curtin after the game. “It’s in our hands now; we have to step up. We have three really tough games … there’s nine points out there and we’re going to need all nine to win the Shield.”
Young center back Mark McKenzie, who had one of his few poor outings of the season the last time these two teams met, echoed his head coach.
“Ultimately, we've had the goal of making sure we bring silverware back to Philly, so now it's about finishing the season strong and lifting a trophy,” said McKenzie. “That’s the Supporters’ Shield, and then ultimately fighting for the MLS Cup.”
For the Reds, who were unbeaten in nine (7-0-2), this has to serve as something of a wake-up call. Yes, they were without five starters, but even without five starters you shouldn't get murked 5-0.
But the bigger, looming question is this: Were they actually without six starters? TFC were rolling in the past month-and-a-half with Bradley nursing an injury, and it's pretty obvious that his lack of mobility has made him a defensive liability. It's not that he doesn't win challenges; it's that he doesn't get to them in the first place.
Benching a veteran — especially a multiple-title-winning veteran with the captain's armband and a huge personality — is not easy, but the writing's on the wall here. Bradley couldn't keep up with the midfield of the team that's in direct competition with TFC for a trophy, and that's no small thing.
Everybody Wants Some
I'm going to combine analyses here, which is not something I've often done. The point is to, in large part, praise the brilliant NYCFC No. 10 Maxi Moralez, who has returned to the lineup over the past few games after a summer and early autumn spent mostly injured.
Moralez played kind of as a No. 10 and kind of as a co-false-9 with Jesus Medina for NYCFC, who were without their only two actual forwards in Heber and Taty Castellanos. And while they weren't exactly dominant from the kick in their 3-1 win over Montreal, they were clearly better throughout, with Maxi exercising a level of control and creativity that they simply lack without him.
He — along with Anton Tinnerholm — created the game's first goal, scored by Medina, in the middle of the second half. Then Maxi and Tinnerholm decided to work together and create the second. This is a match-winning play, what you'd expect from the league's best right back and a Best XI-caliber No. 10:
"There's a lot of running in these two roles," head coach Ronny Deila said afterward about the Moralez and Medina pairing. "They were changing a little bit who was taking the hard shift, but they were always working together."
Working together as they did opens up gaps that good teams can exploit. It's pretty clear that NYCFC, this season, aren't going to hit the heights (in terms of attacking, attractive soccer) that they've managed in the past, but it's just as clear that they are still a good team.
Montreal are now just 2-7-1 in their past 10 games, and the simple fact is that they're staring at a similar issue with regard to Victor Wanyama's ability to get into challenges and overall mobility that Toronto are with Bradley. On each of the first two goals Moralez was able to slip into the gap behind Wanyama and ahead of the backline, and on neither play did Wanyama even make an attempt at catching up to him. Based upon the advanced metrics re: his ground coverage and share of defensive actions, as well as the eye test, there is little reason to think he could have even if he'd dropped a brick on the pedal.
It is difficult to be a top team with such an immobile defensive midfielder. People will point to those great Juventus teams with Andrea Pirlo from the first half of last decade, but Pirlo was flanked by a pair of superhumans in Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba. And how'd Pirlo do in MLS when he didn't have that kind of coverage?
OK, now here's why I'm cramming the 2-1 Atlanta United loss to D.C. into this segment. Watch that Maxi goal again. Notice how when he gets into the gap he drives forward, takes an extra touch and draws the Montreal backline together, a step closer toward him and away from Tinnerholm, then plays the one-two.
It was a well-struck shot, and the deflection made it tricky. But that's a goal once out of every 35 attempts, or maybe closer to 40 depending on what model you use. It's a hopeful play, but not a match-winning one.
You need your No. 10 to be a match-winner. Moreno will get every chance to be one, and just because he made the wrong choice here doesn't mean he will consistently make the wrong choice henceforth. More reps are obviously needed.
Atlanta also need their center backs to be match-winners, and they were not. Miles Robinson had a shocker, losing track of Russell Canouse on D.C.'s first goal and having a brown out that let Gelmin Rivas get loose for the decider.
Both Uniteds are, uh, united under the playoff line — Atlanta in 12th on 19 points, D.C. 13th on 18 — with three games left to play.
A few more things to ponder...
10. The team both Uniteds are chasing are the now 10th-place Inter Miami, who survived the absence of Gonzalo Higuain and an early Daryl Dike goal to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 Copa del Sol win over Orlando. Inter did an excellent job of controlling the game via possession and preventing the Orlando midfield from ever getting any sort of purchase in Zone 14, and eventually just wore them down by throwing bodies into the box.
This ended a 12-match unbeaten run by Orlando, one that started immediately after their previous loss to Miami. They have done well to cobble together results all year long, but without Mauricio Pereyra and Joao Moutinho they are less likely to have possession in the first place, and an order of magnitude less likely to turn it into high-quality chances.
9. Our Face of the Week goes to the Crew's 18-year-old Homegrown rookie d-mid Aidan Morris, who came on for the final half-hour in place of Darlington Nagbe (just getting fit again) and helped Columbus hold onto a 1-1 draw at Houston:
The Crew, like just about everyone else, are nursing a surfeit of injuries and are struggling with that, and have now won just once in six. They were lucky to get a point in this one.
Houston played their best game in a while but have just one win in 11 and are three points short of the playoff line with three games left to play. They badly needed this win. As it stands now, six points from their remaining schedule probably won't be enough.
8. It was an anti-climactic and, at this point, almost entirely predictable Cascadia clash between Seattle and Portland that started off the weekend. It followed the usual script: Portland scored early, sat deep, and Seattle responded by crossing the ball a bajillion times. The only difference was that this time, they got a late equalizer as Will Bruin got loose on a corner kick for the 1-1 final.
When these two teams met on September 6:
- Portland scored first (Eryk Williamson, 9th minute)
- Portland conceded possession (65.3-34.7 in Seattle's favor)
- Seattle crossed the ball 33 times
- Portland won 2-1
When these two teams met on September 23:
- Portland scored first (Yimmi Chara, 13th minute)
- Portland conceded possession (66.7-33.3 in Seattle's favor)
- Seattle crossed the ball 40 times
- Portland won 1-0
When these two teams met last Thursday:
- Portland scored first (Andres Flores, 10th minute)
- Portland conceded possession (59-41 in Seattle's favor)
- Seattle crossed the ball 45 times
- 1-1 draw
Seattle are still one of the favorites, but their lack of subtlety when trying to batter down a bunker is a real Achilles' heel. You will mostly lose if your only idea after going down a goal is "get it into the mixer."
7. Because of that draw in Seattle, the door was open for Sporting KC to go top of the West on points, and they obliged themselves with a ruthless, 4-0 dismantling of a Colorado team that looked very much like one that hadn't played in a month. The Rapids didn't generate their first shot until the 75th minute, and were outshot 23-5 on the night.
Sporting are 4-1-1 in their past six. Things aren't ever all for one reason, but Sporting's run has coincided with Peter Vermes going with a younger, more mobile backline. Injuries to Graham Zusi (out for the year) and Matt Besler (back on the gameday 18, but hasn't played in a month) forced his hand, but these are the kinds of decisions you have to make even with legendary players. It is the same principle as with Bradley and Wanyama.
6. Is Walker Zimmerman already a legendary player for Nashville? He grabbed his third goal of the season, once again off a set piece, in his team's 1-1 draw vs. New England. Nashville have lost just twice in the past two months and have conceded more than a single goal just once in their past eight. They are eighth in the Eastern Conference, four points above the playoff line and with a game in hand on most of the teams chasing them.
If they do not make the playoffs now, it is because they folded. Who'd have thought Nashville would be in this position with two weeks left?
The Revs are two spots above Nashville in sixth, and are probably kicking themselves a little bit after a one-point week. But there is reason to be bullish on New England, who 1) got Carles Gil back for his first action in three months, and 2) who have started to get some production from big DP forward Adam Buksa, who scored his second in three games and fifth on the year.
In general the Revs have been better than their record indicates. They just have not had guys who could get them points in the game's biggest moments. If two of their DPs are back and playing up to their billing, that changes and New England become one of the most dangerous darkhorse teams in the league.
5. Chicago are a fun and smart team who nonetheless are a danger to themselves and others. They mostly controlled their encounter with the Red Bulls on Saturday, using big Robert Beric (officially the most underrated No. 9 in the league) as a target man to play over and often through any type of pressure, which generally defanged both the RBNY press and their attack.
The Fire entered second-half stoppage time with a 16-3 advantage in shots and a 2-1 lead. They finished the game with a 17-9 advantage in shots and one point from a 2-2 draw. Three of those six shots for the Red Bulls technically came from this delightful little scrum:
Chicago are 11th in the East, tied with Miami on points but ahead on PPG. They should be higher than that. They keep finding new and inventive ways to give up results.
As for the Red Bulls, who are unbeaten in four and comfortably in seventh place in the East, this is the second straight week in which Brian White has provided a stoppage-time equalizer. White now has 13G/2A in 2,200 MLS minutes, including 9G in 1,345 minutes last year spent mostly as a starter. He should probably be in the XI from the whistle.
4. A bit of controversy in Minnesota United's stoppage-time result (check Instant Replay for the full breakdown), this one a 1-0 win at FC Cincinnati thanks to an Aaron Schoenfeld goal. The Loons are unbeaten in five, and currently sit fifth in the West (fourth on PPG). Ozzie Alonso is back, which means things are better than they were earlier this month.
There has been no bump for Cincy since that Hell is Real win over Columbus two weeks ago, as it's been followed up with no points and one goal from two games. This time it was veteran Siem De Jong missing a pair of gilt-edged chances. The Dutch attacker has no goals or assists in 650 minutes.
3. Woodwork 4, RSL and FC Dallas, zero. Both teams battered the post and crossbar a bit on Saturday night in Sandy, with neither finding paydirt in a scoreless draw.
I don't know if this was intended as a pass or a shot, but I'm giving Pablo Ruiz our Pass of the Week anyway:
RSL have just consistently lacked the cutting edge needed in the box. They sit ninth, two points below the line with a game in hand.
As for Dallas, they are three points above the line in sixth, but it's not comfortable given they've won once in seven and have scored just three goals in that span, going back a month now. To borrow a line from a friend: "Basically they aren’t finding the gaps to show and instead tending to try to get behind their markers."
Watch Dallas work and you'll see no quick combos and a lack of access to the attacking third. Andres Ricuarte has not helped much, and the wingers have largely under-delivered this year.
2. Did you realize that Saturday's nightcap, in which San Jose paid a visit to Portland to play "at" Vancouver, was a battle of playoff teams? I bet you did not!
But it was, and it featured a pair of very good halftime adjustments from Marc Dos Santos en route to a come-from-behind 2-1 'Caps win. First and foremost, Dos Santos dropped the press that San Jose had sliced through en route to the game's first goals and a 1-0 halftime lead. With Vancouver sitting deeper and in a less risky low-ish block, the Quakes were always going against a set defense with numbers back rather than a scrambling defense trying to patch holes on the fly.
Second, Dos Santos untethered winger Cristian Dajome. Dajome had played exclusively on the left in the first half, but in the second he was primarily on the right but given license to drift inside and run what was essentially a two-man game with center forward Lucas Cavallini. That led to the game-winner:
Vancouver have won three of four and are tied on 24 points with the Quakes, who've won just once in their past four now. Vancouver have the tiebreaker currently thanks to total wins (they've got eight, while San Jose have six).
The biggest game this coming week is on Wednesday when the Quakes host RSL. The winner of that game almost certainly goes to the playoffs, while the loser almost certainly does not.
The potential of Vela and Diego Rossi on the wings with Bradley Wright-Phillips as a "pick his spots but don't focus on him too much or the $20 million wingers will annihilate you" No. 9 is pretty much off the charts. Early returns are promising:
The bigger story might be in the center of LAFC's defense, though. Jesus David Murillo has quietly been a major upgrade over the past two weeks, and if they start getting it right back there, then a lot of folks are going to be in trouble.
"Trouble" undersells the Galaxy's situation. There are obviously behind-the-scenes issues with Chicharito, who did not dress this weekend, and... just look at the standings: dead last in the West with just 18 points from 18 games, a -14 goal differential and just three points from the last 24 on offer.
If they go 3-1-1 down the stretch they have a decent shot at making the playoffs. If they win four-of-five, they'll probably get in. But that's the extent of their wiggle room. Desperation time is here.