Here's the drama:
Orlando City, New England and D.C. all picked up valuable points this week. All are playing their best soccer of the season – Orlando City's short-rest, long-travel loss at LA on Sunday night notwithstanding. All aspire to be playing in November, but only one will get there.
Add It Up
Landon Donovan got on the field for about 10 minutes at the end of the LA Galaxy's 4-2 win over Orlando City on Sunday night, and really didn't do much. He had one bad turnover in midfield that nearly became a Brek Shea goal, and then he had one miscommunication on the wing with Ashley Cole that actually did turn into a Brek Shea goal.
He was, by his own admission, "the slowest player on the field." This is not a surprise, and the absolutely torrid first 80 minutes from the Galaxy afforded Bruce Arena both a three-goal lead and the luxury of getting Donovan back on the field in a low-leverage situation, which was ideal.
There was one moment, however, in which Donovan handled the exact type of situation that's been killing LA defensively:
Check your shoulder twice. Get into the box before your runner. Cut down the cross. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This is good wing defense, something that's gone missing too often for the Galaxy this year as their defense has gone from "bend, don't break" to "batten the hatches" to "oh my god poor Brian Rowe." Even in this week, which was a great week for LA, since they took a road point Wednesday at RSL before dismantling Orlando City and finished proceedings just four points back of FC Dallas in the West, they managed to concede five goals.
With or without Donovan (who I wouldn't expect to see in a starting XI until October) the defense is going to be leaky for a number of reasons. One is that, by their nature, both Jelle Van Damme and Daniel Steres are emergency defenders in that they like to sit deep and invite teams forward. That's caused a disconnect between the lines – you can complete dangerous passes against this Galaxy team, which is a rarity – compounded by a central midfield pairing that's been in a state of constant flux (still ongoing). Add onto that the pesky issue with defensive width.
With or without Donovan, the offense is still an open question as far as I'm concerned, but obviously his addition should help solve at least some of the problems. The biggest is that both Gio Dos Santos and Robbie Keane both probably have to be in the lineup, and both probably have to start at forward, but that Dos Santos is a non-threat when he's not playing with a true No. 9. To that end, I tweeted the following just before halftime:
The number differential for Keane isn't as stark but he, like Dos Santos, plays better off of a center forward and he, like Dos Santos, isn't really going to defend if he's played on the wing. You can do the math there, but here's the short version: It has to be a 4-4-2, and it has to be these two guys up top.
And here's the rub: One of the reasons target forwards are so useful is that they can give you an easy outlet to turn possession into penetration – think of Didier Drogba's legendary hold-up play. You can play direct to feet, or even in the air, and count on him (and players like him) to win the physical battle with the defender by virtue of winning the technical battle, at which point you have a new pad from which to launch specific tactical gambits.
Receiving the ball in spots like that is a strength for neither Keane nor Dos Santos. However, a midfield that moves well themselves, and moves the ball quickly, and has incisive passers who understand the flow of the game and how to find their attackers between the lines... a midfield like that doesn't necessarily need to have a pure target forward to pick out. Get a midfield like that humming and there's so much movement with and without the ball that the defense is left chasing shadows, and any forward who's clever (both Keane and Dos Santos are) can find gaps to hit.
You can win an MLS Cup or a Supporters' Shield with a team that operates as so. As a matter of fact the Galaxy did exactly that in 2011 when they won both titles.
Donovan was a forward then, but he'll probably have to be a midfielder now. It's been theoretical for the last few days, but it's very, very real now. The Galaxy have a blueprint they can use, and trophies that they very well could – once again – claim as their own.
Children Of the Revolution
Two games ago Jay Heaps changed the New England Revolution's formation pretty drastically. It felt to me, at the time, like a last gambit for a team that had fallen below the red line in the East and were entering Tuesday's US Open Cup final at Dallas as prohibitive underdogs.
Well, they're still prohibitive underdogs. But they beat Colorado 2-0 last weekend and followed that up by just stomping the hell out of NYCFC by 3-1 on Saturday – a scoreline that flattered the visitors. This was one of those games where it could have been 5- or 6-1, and Patrick Vieira was pretty blunt about it afterward:
"I think they played much better than us tonight and they fully deserved to win the game."
Simple and uncomplicated, and not wrong. The thing is, though, that NYCFC never even came close to solving a New England team that's shifted around responsibilities and roles and are now attacking like a brand-new bunch – five goals in two games as opposed to the listless bunch that scored just once in five outings during the month of August.
The 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 that New England has shuttled between over the last four years has been scrapped in favor of a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. More than just the number, though, it's the roles that have now switched.
The biggest change: Former winger Kelyn Rowe is now playing at the point of the diamond, and is getting on the ball A) much more often, and B) with much more of the field in front of him. That's pushed Lee Nguyen up higher and removed a huge portion of his responsibilities in the build-up – he's basically a second forward now, the same position that Keane or Dos Santos play, or that Sebastian Giovinco plays.
As a result Nguyen's usage rate is down but his chance creation is up. He and Rowe are combining with Juan Agudelo (who played the best game I've ever seen him play) and Diego Fagundez to create danger on just about every final third entry.
Yellow arrows are key passes (passes that lead to a shot), and blue are assists:
If you get your creative types into and around the box like that, you're going to give any defense a ton of problems.
All this has been happening up top because the Revs have cut down drastically on the amount of long balls they hit. Partially this is Rowe dropping deep to get on the ball in midfield and drive it forward via either the dribble or the pass, and a bigger part is that Gershon Koffie has done his best Kyle Beckerman impression over the last 180 minutes. As good as Agudelo and Rowe and Nguyen and Fagundez all were, Koffie might have been the man of the match.
That presents opposing defenses with a Sophie's Choice: Come up high and try to shut down service from the midfield entirely, but risk giving Nguyen and Agudelo gaps, or flatten out so much that you allow the Revs comfortable entry into the final third and a return to their death-by-1000-paper-cuts attack of yore.
Colorado took Door No. 2 last week, and paid for it. NYCFC took Door No. 1 this week and suffered their most comprehensive non-RBNY loss of the year.
So there you have it – that's what the Revs offer heading into Tuesday's affair at Dallas (10 pm ET; ESPN2 | UDN). I'm not brave enough to pick them to win outright, but two weeks ago I was completely confident in a Dallas victory. As of now, I wouldn't be shocked at all if New England were hoisting the trophy instead.
Country Death Song
And then there's FC Dallas. They're a respectable 3-2-2 since Fabian Castillo left, and still lead in the Shield race. They do so despite a 1-0 home loss – their first of the season, and the first home loss any of the top four teams in the West have suffered this year – to Colorado on Saturday night.
The Rapids are the most non-descript winning team I've seen in MLS in quite some time. They're middling or worse in chance creation, big chance creation, possession and total touches. That means they don't play at a particularly fast tempo, nor are they particularly incisive to compensate:
As the Revs showed last week, you can beat the Rapids. As the Rapids showed this week, they're not going to beat themselves.
And thus Dallas paid the price for resting key starters in order to save them for the Open Cup final. This was the right move from head coach Oscar Pareja, but it hurt because the Colorado gameplan was, once again, utterly pragmatic:
With that kind of line, you have to have one midfielder capable of playing runners through. So Pareja countered by bringing Mauro Diaz on (said "key starter" who was rested) for the second half... at which point Colorado dropped into a shell.
"I wasn't surprised. At this point in the season, I don't think there are surprises," said Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni after the game when asked about Pareja's decision to rest Diaz and Michael Barrios. "Dallas has the Open Cup Finals they're playing on Tuesday, and to be honest, when you're playing at home you have that 12th Man effect so you can afford to not play those guys who have been going because you feel that you're at home and you're going to get that momentum at home anyways. It wasn't a shock, and they came in the game anyway and they affected the game good, but I just think for us, regardless of who we play, it's about our determination, our grit, our belief, and that's all we can control. We can't control who they put out there."
There might not be much else to say about the Rapids besides that. It doesn't make for sexy copy, but they're third in the West with two games in hand, and it's past Labor Day. They're clearly for real even if it's not always clear as to how or why.
A few more things to ponder...
8. I promised to write about RSL soon, but I'm pushing it back a week. Partially because there are just a few too many other things happening, and partially because I doubt that RSL fans want to read about a week in which they took just one out of a possible six points. That 3-3 home draw (with a thrilling, Benny Hill finish) was probably more disappointing than Saturday's 1-0 loss at Portland.
Darlington Nagbe had his monthly "damn he's good!" game in that one, for what it's worth. And the win lifts the Timbers to a fairly comfortable four-point cushion above the seventh-place Whitecaps with just five games left.
7. Those Whitecaps had their best game of the season in a 3-1 win at Columbus following biblical thunderstorms in Ohio on Saturday.
I'm going to choose to read into this fact: Pedro Morales did not play for the 'Caps, and it certainly feels like his career in Vancouver is coming to a close. He hasn't scored or assisted in just about two months, and it's entirely possible that age and and a propensity for injury – he's 31, but doesn't move like it – have caught up with him.
6. I usually pick something spectacular for Pass of the Week, but today I'm going with something a little more subtle from Philadelphia's ultimately disappointing 1-1 draw vs. Montreal:
Check those numbers again: The Union have six men pushed into the attacking third, and none of them is busting back once the cross is cleared. If Alejandro Bedoya doesn't read that whole thing early and beat Montreal to the ball, this is a breakaway in the other direction. But he doesn't stop there – he actually checks to see if he can play direct into the attack instead of a simple clearance, and then does so. He eschewed the safe play and made the good play.
This is how good teams keep pressure on, keep wearing you down over the course of a game. Unfortunately for Union fans, they immediately squandered this sequence with a useless back-post cross, then gave away a sloppy goal minutes later for the draw.
It happens, especially to teams with a young defense. Nonetheless I see in Philly a team whose pieces fit together and a team that's getting better at winning the little moments before they become big emergencies, and I like the long-term odds of any group fitting that description. It might not happen for them this year (I don't think it will), but you can see the functionality of what Jim Curtin, Earnie Stewart et al are building.
5. Each of the three people I speak with about MLS with the most regularity say that the New York Red Bulls are the best team in the league. They don't worry much over the fact that RBNY keep blowing leads, as happened in Sunday's 2-2 draw against D.C. United at Red Bull Arena. (Full disclosure: None of those three people is Jesse Marsch, who's also at least outwardly sanguine about those blown leads).
Still... 18 points lost from leading positions is a metric ton. I haven't gone through the archives but I can't imagine there are many playoff teams that have bettered (worsted?) that mark, and while I do have an analytical bent I also believe in old aphorisms like "losing (leads) is a habit." At some point it has to infect the team's mindset since they keep dropping points even as they're playing very good soccer.
One thing I've determined to keep an eye on:
RBNY actually do have a shot clock at their training ground, and that mentality has led to two very good seasons, back-to-back – something this franchise hasn't regularly done. They drive the ball forward ruthlessly and relentlessly, and mostly win because of it.
I do wonder, though, if it's time for them to learn to step on the ball a little bit and knock it around. "Defense through possession" is about the only club missing from RBNY's bag, and if they already had it, they'd be taking home their second straight Supporters' Shield.
4. Sporting KC dropped two home points in Friday's 3-3 draw vs. Houston, a painful result that all but guarantees SKC will have a midweek Knockout Round game on the road to open the playoffs. We remember what happened with that last time, yeah?
3. San Jose and Seattle can both technically catch Sporting or Portland, but chances are looking more and more remote following Saturday's 1-1 draw at Avaya Stadium. I think it's fair for Sounders fans to ask why Oalex Anderson couldn't get onto the field late when the team needed some sort of attacking spark, and I think it's fair for Quakes fans to ask the same re: Tommy Thompson.
2. Jozy Altidore: Another goal, another assist in TFC's 2-1 win at Chicago, and he's now averaging 1.2 goals per 90 since returning to the field in July. To put that into perspective: Do that over the entire year and you've got 40 goals.
1. And finally... as I mentioned, OCSC are playing their best soccer of the season, and if you watched Sunday's loss at LA you're probably wondering what the hell I'm talking about. Thing is, I'm giving them a mulligan for that game since it was A) short rest, B) long travel, and C) a cross-conference game that didn't mean nearly as much to them as an Eastern Conference game would have.
Instead I'll choose to focus on Wednesday's 4-1 thrashing of Montreal in Montreal and their general improved defensive play (again: the LA game was a blip, not a pattern).
Even in the win, though, the Purple Lions could not avoid a little bit of comedy. This, it turns out, is what Jason Kreis's face looks like when his team is whistled for an intentional back-pass:
And that's our Face of the Week.