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League action reclaims the spotlight after a weekend of international play and the midweek Open Cup date. As we approach the halfway mark of the season (we're just three weeks away), I'll go out there on this ledge: There are five teams I am certain are very good. They are, in order:
Everyone else is in the chasing pack. A few have higher upsides than a few others simply because of winning pedigree or the ability to add crucial pieces when the window opens in three weeks, but right now if you gave me this group vs. the Field I'd take this group in a heartbeat.
Onto the games ahead:
Scrapple from the Apple
One of those teams from the chasing pack possessed of a high upside happens to be last year's MLS Cup champs, the Seattle Sounders. On Saturday they take a trip to the Bronx to face NYCFC (1 pm ET; ESPN, ESPN Deportes in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada).
Seattle have struggled with lots of stuff this year, but no issue has been more problematic than building out from the back. They are slow to transition from defense into attack, which has cost them points, and plays directly into NYCFC's strengths (volume up for analysis):
Chad Marshall's precision in distribution – it's been three games since he missed a pass, which has to be a league record – is obviously an asset when facing a high pressing team, but Marshall's gaudy stats are as much a product of the teams he's been facing as they are his own facility for passing the ball.
To put it another way: His completion streak has all come at home against teams that don't travel well (RSL, Portland, Houston) in a trio of 1-0 Seattle wins. The last time Seattle went on the road to face a high pressing team, Marshall was still good but the Sounders' lethargy as a whole was exploited, and they lost 3-0 at KC.
If that happens at Yankee Stadium it'll be another unhappy road trip for the Rave Green.
I'll also be watching: I hope I made it clear in the video above just how good I think Yangel Herrera is.
Now's the Time
Houston are traveling on Saturday night to face LA (11 pm ET; UniMas | Facebook.com), and they should have this date circled as "first real opportunity for a road win this year."
That type of thing is rare, to put it mildly:
The Dynamo have been unbeatable at home and unwatchable on the road. The Galaxy have been good recently, but the two guys at the heart of that goodness – Gio Dos Santos in attack and the newly reined-in Jelle Van Damme in the center of defense – won't be around for this one. Dos Santos is in Russia for the Confederations Cup with Mexico, while Van Damme is suspended.
Houston should be able to exploit that on both sides of the ball. If they're going to stay near the top of the West and inch toward that top five I mentioned in the lede, this is the type of game they have to win.
I'll also be watching: Gang, I've been on the Jose Villarreal bandwagon since 2011. This is what he did on Wednesday:
If he doesn't start in Gio's spot, I will riot.
Out of Nowhere
Our Ben Baer took a crack at breaking down how and why the Red Bulls' attack is struggling. Finishing is assuredly part of it – sometimes strikers are hot, and sometimes they aren't. Wingers struggle to complete their looks, etc. etc.
With this particular team, I still believe that the issue (which Ben touched on) is that Sacha Kljestan is getting the ball deeper, and in less dangerous spots. And that, in turn, speaks directly to the absence of Dax McCarty. They still miss him, but on Wednesday the shackles finally came off Tyler Adams and he delivered in RBNY's 1-0 win over NYCFC in the Open Cup.
Entering Wednesday's game, Adams hadn't yet been deployed as a true defensive midfielder this year, instead playing more in parallel with or advanced from Felipe on the "2" line of the 4-2-3-1. McCarty and Felipe also shared this job in their two years together in Harrison, though it was usually McCarty deeper with Felipe more advanced.
Here's the network passing graph from that game:
This is made using Opta data. Each circle represents the location of the corresponding player's aggregate touch, and the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes exchanged. Adams is No. 4, and this paints an accurate picture of what his responsibility was against RBNY's Hudson River rivals.
Chris Armas was the Red Bulls' acting head coach on the night. Armas had 66 USMNT caps, and made the Best XI five times in a six-year period (the one he missed was because of a busted ACL, which also cost him a World Cup appearance in 2002), and was an All-Star six times in a seven-year period. He is, at worst, the fifth-best defensive midfielder in MLS history, and the second-best in USMNT history.
"I played that position on the field," Armas said of Adams after the game. "I think I know what goes into it, how demanding it is. I think he's way better than I was."
When RBNY traded McCarty, they wagered this season and a good chunk of their future that Adams would be able to fill the on-field void. He's back from the U-20s now, he's healthy, and he obviously has the full confidence of the staff. His ability to drive the game forward and get it onto Kljestan's foot in better spots, starting Sunday at Philadelphia (5 pm ET; ESPN & ESPN Deportes in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada), will determine how quickly that gamble pays off.
If he's not ready to do that in league play, they will continue to struggle.
I'll also be watching: Adams didn't actually play as a defensive midfielder for the US U-20s – that was Derrick Jones's job. Jones, who got his first goal for the Union on Wednesday, is likely to start in Philly's central midfield.
Jones is still much more of a destroyer than anything else, but he's showed some savvy in both spreading the ball to overlapping fullbacks and for covering for said overlapping fullbacks defensively. His development is as crucial to Philly's future success as Adams's is to RBNY's.
One more thing to ponder...
Happy weekending everybody.