I'm not comfortable calling the upcoming, final third of the schedule "the stretch run." Most teams have either 12 or 13 games left, though a few have 11 and a few have 14. It's not quite "the stretch run" yet.
But at the same time, I'm even less comfortable treating the All-Star break like it was the midway point of the season. It's not – we're at about the 65 percent mark, and the standings at this late date are very much a reading from the big book of "You Are What Your Record Says You Are." Sometimes – as with Seattle and D.C. last year – you can flip that on its head in August, September and October. Most times, though, teams that are below the playoff line stay below the playoff line.
With that in mind, here's what I'm keeping my eye on in the weekend ahead and in the months to come:
TFC have started separating themselves from the chasing pack just a little bit over the past couple of weeks. Chicago and NYCFC, great as they are when fully fit, haven't dealt with injuries and absences as well as the Reds handled the same, and what was a neck-and-neck race at the start of last month is now a solid, five-point gap to start this month. TFC have become strong favorites to win their first Supporters' Shield, and I'll say straight up that I'll be shocked if they don't do exactly that.
That'd make them the first Canadian team to win the Shield, and the first Canadian team to do the Shield/Canadian Championship double (duh). That's always a good place to start when trying to decide upon canonization.
But TFC are flirting with more than just silverware. Right now, through 22 games, they're sporting a gaudy +19 goal differential. Here's the goal differential of the last four Shield winners:
- 2016: FC Dallas +10
- 2015: Red Bulls +19
- 2014: Seattle +15
- 2013: Red Bulls +17
So if the Reds win the Shield, win the Canadian Championship and go +20 or better, they will be making a strong argument.
Going +20 or better, however, may be undershooting it given how this Reds attack has played when they smell blood. If TFC go +11 or better over their final 12 games (they're +12 in their last 12, for what it's worth), they'll be just the third team in MLS history (1998 Galaxy: +41; 2014 Galaxy: +32) to finish a season with a goal differential of +30 or better. If they go +30 while winning the Shield/Championship double then we probably start talking about this team at the very beginning of any argument re: "Best team in MLS history." Do all of that while finishing the regular season at or above 68 points – which would make them the first team since the 2005 Quakes to go for 2 ppg across the regular season, and they're on 1.95 right now – and it becomes a very short argument.
And finally: If they do all that, and then go on to win MLS Cup, then it stops being an argument at all. The Reds will have made it moot.
I'll also be watching: D.C.'s central defense. They went through a little spell in which Kofi Opare was playing well and putting out fires, but that utterly disappeared in July as United shipped 17 goals in five games.
Here's Sacha Kljestan's 10th assist of the season:
He's now tied for the league lead at that number. Kljestan, who's in his third year as the playmaker for the Red Bulls and who made a little history last year by becoming just the second person in league history with 20 or more assists in a year (Carlos Valderrama: 26 in 2000) has been metronome-like in his creative consistency since joining RBNY at the start of the 2015 season.
That consistency has led to 44 assists, which puts him in some exclusive company. The only players in league history with more than that over a three-year span:
- Mauricio Cienfuegos: 45 (1997-1999)
- Valderrama: 46 (1997-1999)
- Marco Etcheverry: 47 (1997-1999)
- Valderrama: 48 (1996-1998)
- Etcheverry: 49 (1996-1998)
- Valderrama: 50 (1999-2001)
- Valderrama: 51 (2000-2002)
- Valderrama: 53 (1998-2000)
For any old-head MLSer like myself, it's almost impossible to explain how much Pibe, Diablo and Cien dominated not just the league, but the mind share about the league for the first five years. MLS was a home for Latin American geniuses to descend upon and pull strings while only rarely leaving the midfield circle. Joining their ranks – especially in a league that's more modern in terms of tactics, fitness and scouting, and one in which goalscoring has dropped significantly over the past two decades – is special.
A lot of players have had one good year, or two good years in a row. Kljestan has done it now for three straight seasons, and the only guys left ahead of him are legends.
We'll see what he's got in the tank on Sunday at NYCFC (6 pm ET; FS1 & FOX Deportes in the US | TSN2 in Canada).
I'll also be watching: That clip above shows one of the aspects of the new-look RBNY attack, in which the wingbacks on both sides push forward to provide width and penetration, which gives Kljestan more targets to pick out. It's not all between the lines for New York any more, as Alex Muyl and Tyler Adams are getting around and through the lines as well.
Heads Will Roll
Portland play what is nominally a 4-2-3-1, and while at times this season that has worked out well, I suspect most Timbers fans would say they've been underwhelmed by the attack's ability to build week-in, week-out danger given all the talent on hand.
One of the issues – and this one dates back a little ways – is how to use Darlington Nagbe. He started the year at left wing, but as is typical of Nagbe he didn't really offer enough off-the-ball penetration to be consistently effective at that spot, while Sebastian Blanco, the other winger, struggled to put his stamp on the game at right wing.
With Nagbe gone on Gold Cup duty that gave Blanco a chance to get some run at his preferred left wing spot, and it's started to pay off with a higher level of comfort and productivity. He's got 4 goals and 2 assists in his last eight games, and while the Timbers haven't been great during that span, they've been consistently more dangerous going forward. Blanco is simply much more comfortable playing inverted, and having him do so takes some goalscoring pressure off of Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi.
That brings us back to the Nagbe question once again. He is, of course, notoriously right-footed, and thus when he plays on the right he tends to drop deep and stay wide and has generally had little influence on the shape or tempo of the game.
The above wasn't the case in Portland's most recent outing, however. The 2-2 draw at Houston was a very good result despite conceding yet another late goal, and – structurally speaking – the way the midfield played bodes well for Portland:
That's a network passing graph 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. You can see that Portland had a lot of the ball – 54 percent – and would correctly surmise that Nagbe (No. 6) cutting into central midfield off the wing had a lot to do with that. He stayed tight to Valeri and the rest of the central midfield, which allowed for different platforms to advance the ball to Blanco (No. 10), Adi (No. 9) or the overlapping wingbacks.
And then when Nagbe did drift toward the touchline, it was with a purpose:
I, like many others, have been waiting for this Timbers group to turn into the type of attacking juggernaut their on-paper talent sort of promises. Last week's performance felt like a concrete step in that direction, and keeping it going on Sunday (2 pm ET; ESPN & ESPN Deportes in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada) against the Galaxy is a must.
I'll also be watching: The connection between LA's central midfield – whoever they happen to be in this one – and their central defense – whoever they happen to be. It has to be good, or Valeri will set up shop and go to work with a blowtorch and a pair of pliers.
A win would leave the Galaxy just five points behind the Timbers and with two games in hand. A loss and it means it's probably time to start throwing some dirt on this season.
Since Dom Dwyer was traded a week-and-a-half ago, much of the focus has been on A) how Dwyer fits with Orlando City, and B) how much GAM and TAM Sporting were able to get for him. Less of the spotlight has been on Diego Rubio, the 24-year-old Chilean who has slid into Dwyer's spot on the XI for the Western Conference leaders.
Rubio lacks Dwyer's strength, but he's probably got better feet and does a very nice job as a target forward when checking back for balls played to feet (he's less good when contesting for aerials). This is an amazingly clean passing map for any No. 9:
Green arrows are complete passes, red arrows are incomplete, and yellow are key passes (passes that lead to a shot). It is rare to see a center forward get that many attacking third touches but produce only two incomplete passes.
It was a good start to Rubio's presumptive career as a starter at Children's Mercy Park, and the 3-2 win over Chicago produced arguably KC's prettiest soccer of the season. Rubio was at the center of that, and he'll almost certainly get a chance to reprise that role on Sunday (8 pm ET; FS1 & Fox Deportes in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada) against yet another quality team in Atlanta United.
I'll also be watching: Atlanta's sliding formation. Tata Martino's kind of quietly had them slipping from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 to a 3-6-1 over the last couple of months, which means they're often exerting defensive pressure from unusual (or at least unpredictable) angles.
One more thing to ponder:
Happy weekending, everybody.