Week 14 is now in the books. Ten or fewer games left for everybody. This is the stretch run.
And away we go...
One Piece at a Time
The Red Bulls seem to be finding both themselves and the back of the net, much to the chagrin of Inter Miami and the Montreal Impact, each of whom were on the wrong side of massive losses this past week. On Wednesday they went down to Fort Lauderdale and just outlasted Inter, wearing them down and then running past them on the counter.
Sunday's 4-1 win over Montreal, in which the Red Bulls came from a goal down, was more intriguing. In part that's because the Impact are in the playoff hunt in a way that Miami, at this point, just aren't, so this was a six-pointer. But arguably the bigger part is the shape of the and how RBNY actually went about dismantling Montreal as they were charging back into the game.
Their first goal, in particular, shows something of a return to "The Red Bull Way" in terms of how they want to generate chances:
This is an example of "offensive marking," though I've also heard it called "passive defense." The idea is that you use possession not to directly create a chance -- though if you manage it, bully for you -- but rather to rearrange where the opponent is on the field and, in conjunction with that, to set up your own press.
If you watch this clip from the start you'll see the Red Bulls repeatedly hitting third-line passes (passes that split defenders) right into the middle of Montreal's shape. The goal is to compress the Impact and keep them strong side, so that if they do win a 50/50 and try to play out, they're going to have to do it through a maze of defenders and with precious little room to spare.
At the same time, this clears out the weak side for a 1-v-1 if and when the pressing team wins the ball back. It worked out exactly like it was drawn up.
One point here that I can not stress enough: That first cross in from Jared Stroud, which comes with 13:20 on the clock in that clip, and then the third-line pass from Florian Valot eight seconds later... the Red Bulls do not care if those are completed. The point is to put pressure on the defense and create a series of 50/50s, and trusting in the players on the field -- as well as your offensive marking -- to turn those 50/50's into immediate transition opportunities.
The press is the best playmaker.
For Montreal, there was nothing good to take from this one. The Impact have lost four straight, and have been outscored 14-4 over that stretch.
I've Been Everywhere
What a weapon Richie Laryea is. Toronto FC rescued him from pending obscurity in January of 2019 after he'd been let go after three uneventful and little-used years in Orlando. He is now, for my money, the single best attacking fullback in all of MLS, a defense-piercing weapon who should be game-planned for and needs to be game-planned against.
Such was the story on Sunday night in their 3-1 win in Hartford against Columbus (Full disclosure: I grew up in Connecticut and was a rabid Whalers fan, so as soon as I heard Toronto using "Brass Bonanza" as their goal song, I was absolutely going to write about this). Greg Vanney had left back Justin Morrow stay deep -- essentially going to a back three -- and keep everything in front of him, including Crew right back Harrison Afful. It's a calculated risk since Afful's a wonderful attacking fullback himself, but one worth taking because it released Laryea to push way up on the right.
And so Laryea went supernova. He got forward in a fairly traditional fashion to provide the secondary assist on Jozy Altidore's equalizer. He got forward on the third goal and just... Messi'd all the way into the 6-yard box before slotting home himself. On the second goal, he had the primary assist:
That's my favorite of the three because it shows how committed TFC were to the bit. As they were recycling possession, it's actually Jonathan Osorio (playing as a d-mid these days) who drops deep and to the right of the center backs after Omar Gonzalez reverses play away from pressure. The Reds were so convinced Laryea had the measure of the entire Crew left side, it was worth it to play games with their entire shape -- keeping Morrow deep; having Osorio flare out; flipping Pablo Piatti from LW to RW -- in order to exploit the match-up.
How many fullbacks are actually worth doing that for? It's not a lot. And it says something that the second half of this game, with everything funneled to Laryea, was the first time all year it felt like Toronto shifted out of third gear into fourth and started getting some traction.
The Crew are still very good, by the way, and definitely outplayed Toronto in the first half. I don't think this is a loss that exposes some sort of incorrectable tactical flaw that spells their doom.
"Sometimes in football, you have a bad half. Sometimes you're playing a really good team that, like I said, raises their level and we just don't cope with it. Sometimes you do, you get tired, mentally and physically," Crew head coach Caleb Porter said afterward, and I don't disagree.
But as good as they've been, I question whether they have that extra gear the likes of Toronto and the Sounders can find.
A few more things to consider...
10. It took the Revs a while, but they eventually broke down D.C. United in D.C., getting two late, deserved goals for a 2-0 win en route to outshooting the hosts 17-8.
Next time you watch the Revs, take a moment to appreciate how smooth and comfortable Andrew Farrell is in distribution. He's fun to watch. As for D.C., as much promise as there seemed to be in this roster at the start of the year -- there are good players on the team who have played good-to-great soccer in MLS before -- none of it seems to remain.
9. Nashville SC got out in transition time and again in what ultimately became a 1-1 draw vs. Houston:
8. A draw was probably the right result for Minnesota United and RSL on Sunday night in St. Paul, though somebody should've scored. Kei Kamara had a good look just past the hour mark, while Douglas Martinez showed once again why he's yet to win the starting job despite yeoman's work both in pressing and in making himself available as an outlet.
The Loons now have three shutouts all year, all against RSL. Make of that what you will.
7. When you're facing a team that's playing with wingbacks, you've got to force them to make choices. You do that by moving the ball quickly and bringing your fullbacks upfield early in order to create 2-v-1s on the touchline. NYCFC put on a clinic in the above during Saturday's 4-0 win over Cincinnati:
This was pretty easily the best NYCFC have looked all year, and I'm including their 3-1 KO round win over Toronto at the MLS is Back Tournament in that calculus. That was, on the whole, a better win given the opposition, but it was also a win born of just counterattacking a pretty slow and disjointed backline.
Saturday's win was more purposeful and methodical, and they hung four on a team that had conceded all of five goals over their previous six games dating back a month.
I'm not sure how much of that will translate -- there aren't a lot of teams that play like Cincy does -- but it was a legitimately good and ruthless performance from the Pigeons.
Mihailovic hasn't put up big numbers (and he should've had himself a goal in this one), but he's been excellent this year as a playmaking winger who occasionally ducks inside to create chances like this.
Atlanta are still struggling.
5. Orlando City went to Dallas and pitched themselves a shutout, their first since the season opener. As with the season opener, it finished scoreless. That is absolutely fine for the Lions.
Truth be told it's fine for FC Dallas as well. They are, through 13 games, comfortably above the playoff line and doing well to get themselves on the same page given all the roster shuffling they've had to do throughout 2020, as well as the compressed schedule they've played since mid-August.
4. The Timbers got an early set piece goal and then just rode it out for the final 85 minutes, getting one big save from Steve Clark along the way in a 1-0 win at Vancouver (which was actually at Providence Park).
3. I have crushed Xavier Arreaga previously in this column for his looseness and irrational confidence on the ball in his own third, and he has spent some time on the bench for the above as well. But he is also capable of making plays like this:
It doesn't look like much but it really is. He just trucks Sebastian Lletget, picks his head up and hits the simple pass through the pressure to Gustav Svensson. Twenty seconds later, it's in the back of the net.
It went into the back of the net a lot -- the Sounders beat the Galaxy 3-1 on the evening, repeatedly getting out on the break and punishing the LA high line. Guillermo Barros Schelotto has rotated his squad less than anyone over the past month, and they just look too gassed to get pressure to the ball. Second Spectrum numbers confirm that, as the Galaxy are 25th in the league in on-ball pressures per game. Only Vancouver rank lower by that metric.
You can't play a high line if you're not getting pressure to the ball. Even against a poor, slow team that's a really bad idea. Against the Sounders, with Jordan Morris playing like he is? It's suicide.
LA came out of the bubble and into Phase 1 with four straight wins. Since then they've gone winless in four, with one goals and three straight multi-goal losses. Chicharito has one goal in 510 minutes.
2. San Jose salvaged a little bit of pride after consecutive five-goal defeats by going down to LA and getting their first post-bubble win, courtesy of a bench spark provided first by Shea Salinas, and then set ablaze by young Cade Cowell, whose hard work made for the game-winner in the 2-1 final.
I think this is a "scream a lot and break everything in the locker room" kind of loss for LAFC, who finished the weekend still only barely above the playoff line. Andy Najar, with fresh legs, stood around and watched Jackson Yueill score the game-winning goal in added time; Latif Blessing got caught upfield on Salinas's equalizer; Dejan Jakovic got spun like a top on both Quakes' goals; Diego Palacios just did not defend; Brian Rodriguez keeps doing stuff like this:
That is one of two absolutely clear-cut chances he managed to botch with either a clumsy first touch or a scuffed shot. This was the 2-0 moment, and we know what happens to the Quakes these days when they go down 2-0. Instead Rodriguez left the door open, and his teammates cordially invited San Jose to stroll through.
And so they did. San Jose are somehow only four points below the playoff line. This league, man.
1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to Philly d-mid Jose "El Brujo" Martinez. He was the only possible choice:
Philly smashed Miami 3-0, with El Brujo once again putting in Diego Chara-style midfield work and young Homegrowns Anthony Fontana (4g in 205 minutes this year) and Brenden Aaronson, as well as the old war horse Ilsinho getting on the board. The Union are tied for second in the Supporters' Shield standings.
Miami are tied for dead last in the league, and after months of stringing together one-goal losses and everyone (including me!) suspecting and suggesting those would turn into points with the midseason arrival of veterans like Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Blaise Matuidi and Gonzalo Higuain... nope. They were outscored 7-1 this week, and that's Higuain getting mean-mugged after missing a PK in his debut.
There are nine games left. The clock is ticking.