No intro this week, just a note that we are just about peeking at the quarter pole. As of this weekend 76 of the MLS season's 391 games have been played, which puts us at about 19.5 percent. Obviously it's skewed a little bit by some teams having played more and others (mostly the Concacaf Champions League teams) having played less, so not everybody's quite in the same ballpark.
But just about everybody's in the same neighborhood. Everybody kinda knows who everybody else is at this point.
With that in mind, let's take a dive into what happened in Week 8, starting in Seattle:
The Sounders have been one of the "let's talk about them a bunch and pull them apart" teams of the early season because, over the past couple of years, they've been so good. And now, over the past couple of months, they've been so bad.
Except maybe that last part is coming to an end. Seattle picked up their first win of the season on Sunday, taking a 3-1 result from visiting Minnesota United FC. For the first 45 minutes of the game the Sounders looked like the best version of themselves, knocking the ball around, dominating central midfield, moving in sync and unselfishly. All of the above culminated in two goals, the first of which produced one of the prettiest and most purposeful build-ups you'll see all season:
Now, take all the positive from the above sequence with a grain of salt because it's against the Loons, after all. MNUFC are on track to concede 73 goals, which would break the league record for season-long defensive futility they set all the way back in 2017. While you could argue that they're a more entertaining attacking team than they were last year (and you could also argue that they're not), what can't in good faith be argued is that they've made any noticeable improvement upon their biggest weakness from their debut season.
With that caveat out of the way... that was good soccer! Seattle moved on and off the ball with a purpose, and Cristian Roldan's unselfish running from the attacking central midfield slot ended up opening space up top on the first goal, and in the box on the second. It's that kind of running they haven't been getting most of the season and – let's face it here – it's that kind of running that Clint Dempsey isn't really going to be doing once he gets back to 90 minutes fitness.
I asked my colleague Bobby Warshaw what he thought:
I would talk about the five center mids, why they did it, what it offers, and how it worked. It's what I said since the day Jordan Morris went out... make Nouhou Tolo and Kelvin Leerdam your wingers. Control the ball in the midfield, play two true defensive mids to protect the space in front of Roman Torres and Chad Marshall so your old center backs don't have to cover much ground, and give the outside backs the time and freedom to get forward as far as as much as they want.
Then throw in some charts/maps to show Roldan and Nicolas Lodeiro's movement and take a dig at you about how a lineup without a No. 10 at the 10 can work brilliantly and be gorgeous.
Ok fair enough, Bobby. I agree with a lot of the above, and will point out that the value of having a specialist No. 10 on the wing (Lodeiro) is that it frees up Roldan to 1) freelance a little bit on both sides of the ball, and 2) make really direct, line-breaking runs off the ball in attack. If you have Lodeiro putting up top-tier playmaker stats/moments while cutting inside and still defending the wing when they lose the ball, you can afford to play a runner instead of a creator as the nominal central attacking midfielder.
But then where do you play Dempsey? And when do you play Dempsey? Head coach Brian Schmetzer seems to understand this could be a season-defining question.
And you know what? It might not even be the biggest question this team's got to answer, because as good as the first 45 minutes were, that's how bad the Sounders were for the second 45. They conceded once when Torres fell asleep and gave Christian Ramirez a free back-post header, and damn near coughed up a second multiple times through the second half.
Part of this might be a veteran team deciding they really can just ease into another season, and part of it might be that the Loons have become very used to playing from behind and trying to dig out of deficits. They've been there before and looked like they knew what to do with it, and that caused the Sounders problems.
Either way, you could tell it made Schmetzer uncomfortable and if I was a Seattle fan it would make me uncomfortable, too. The team that dominated the first half disappeared in the second despite all their talent and knowhow.
I'm not convinced that they'll be able to find that first-half version of themselves at will. They couldn't in MLS Cup and they couldn't against Chivas in CCL.
Down In A Hole
One thing I think about all the time is the growth and stability of the lower levels of the US soccer pyramid (and credit to /u/irondeepbicycle on /r/MLS for getting me to think of it today). We’re focused here on the growth of MLS for obvious reasons, but what’s happened in USL over the past decade has been just as remarkable.
And that brings us to Nick Besler (you recognize that last name, and your hunch is correct — he is indeed Matt Besler’s brother). He was the fifth overall SuperDraft pick in 2015, and he was cut by the Timbers, and he never made his MLS debut, and if all of that had happened six or eight years ago he’d almost certainly be out of soccer by now.
However it didn’t happen six or eight years ago. It happened in the here and now, and because USL has grown so much, Besler had 85 pro appearances under his belt when he finally got a chance to step on the field and make his MLS debut this past weekend. His career path has not been, I imagine, what he expected. He was an All-American and a national champion at Notre Dame and he was not supposed to be the guy who took the road less traveled.
He did, though. And he’s gotten to this point not as a guy who's scrounged minutes with his local semi-pro men's league team, but as a veteran professional who knows the game and knows what it is to play for a paycheck. He's played against Didier Drogba and Joe Cole and other internationals former and future, myriad and sundry. He is a different player than the one who came through the college draft three-and-a-half years back.
Besler is 24 and has now played 90 minutes of shutout ball as RSLbeat their rivals, the Colorado Rapids, 3-0 at Rio Tinto on Saturday. For all RSL’s struggles this season (they are capable of looking REALLY bad), they are 3-1-0 at home, above the playoff line, and in Besler have what looks to be a useful part for a defense that has needed all the help it can possibly get.
"Nick had a good showing for himself. He was confident,” said head coach Mike Petke, who was less quotable than usual after this one. “He's calm on the ball and I never thought the moment would phase him. Looking back, I think he had one errant pass maybe there were more, but that really stood out to me. I was very happy for Nick, he deserved to get the start."
Besler’s story is not the same as New York Red Bulls’ defender Aaron Long’s, but it’s similar. He might not — probably won’t, honestly — reach the same heights as Long, but that’s not really the point. The point is that we’re always looking for holistic signs of progress in our sport here, and it’s easy to spot the development of the Justen Glads and the signing of the Ezequiel Barcos and the sheer awesomeness of the Ignacio Piattis and Carlos Velas. Those are players the league didn’t really have a decade back, and they are driving the sport forward here.
But Besler’s story is important, too. Not every player who comes through college or through an academy is going to be ready immediately. As MLS improves, so does the ask coaches make of young players learning new roles in new teams in new environments both with and against better players. It's a lot, and for more players than not, it will take time.
Players like that used to get kicked to the curb. The few who climbed back up the ladder – Chris Wondolowski, Brian Ching and Alan Gordon to name three – are not the rule. We remember them precisely because they are exceptional.
Let's hope that USL's growth makes those stories less exceptional (and let’s dap up the RSL franchise for their investment in said infrastructure on both the men’s and women’s sides of the game). There are more players like Besler out there, and hopefully more will get a chance to grow into their careers in their mid-20s.
A few more things to ponder...
9. Johnny Russell should absolutely win Player of the Week after he demolished Vancouver on Friday night, leading Sporting KC to a 6-0 win. The Scottish winger – who legendary broadcaster Derek Rae wants to see back in the Scotland side – had a hat trick, drew a penalty and drew a pair of red cards from 'Caps players. It's tough to pack 52 minutes on the field with more than that.
Sporting's underlying defensive numbers are still concerning, and Yordy Reyna let them off the hook/Tim Melia once again bailed them out with a spectacular early save when it was still scoreless and 11v11. But all you can do is beat the team in front of you and that's exactly what SKC have mostly been about over the past month-and-a-half.
As for Vancouver, they've won once in their last six. Things aren't great.
8. Chicago got a stunning goal from Aleksandar Katai and a damn-near Man of the Match performance from Richard Sanchez in a fairly shocking 2-1 win over the Red Bulls. Sanchez keeping the score at 1-0 before the break was ginormous:
The Fire started three rookies in this one. Homegrown center back Grant Lillard got his second-straight start on the backline, third-round pick Elliot Collier got his fourth start in five in the attack, and first-round pick Mo Adams made his debut at defensive midfield.
They were all good, but I thought Adams was invaluable for 1) his willingness to do the dirty work of shielding the backline and winning second balls in midfield, and 2) his ability to meet RBNY's intensity. Many, many players have struggled with that over the last three seasons, and to see him walk out and do so in his pro debut had to be heartening for Fire fans.
7. Orlando City won their fourth on the trot, dispatching San Jose3-2. And with all due respect to Adams, Collier and Lillard, the most impressive rookie display this weekend came from Purple Lions attacker Chris Mueller, who had a goal and an assist and has now scored in three straight games.
Every year people say the SuperDraft is done as a talent acquisition method and every year quality players nonetheless come through the draft. Mueller has, for the time being, beaten out both MLS All-Star Justin Meram and star offseason signing Josue Colman for a job. He's outperformed every heralded imported attacker at or around his age, save perhaps for Diego Rossi. His celebrations are bad but his soccer is, so far, very good.
There's talent in the draft. Good coaches find it and develop it, and don't take the dogmatic view that "if they're not polished by 21, they're not worth it."
I remain worried about Orlando City's defense, by the way. And about everything with San Jose.
6. Atlanta United pretty thoroughly dominated the Galaxy, winning 2-0 in LA on Saturday night. Before the game I posited that the Galaxy, in their 4-4-2, would have no real idea of how to advance the ball through midfield and into the attack, and that Atlanta would feast (or at the very least, rest easy) because of that.
And so it went. Atlanta are very, very good.
5. Are FC Dallas good? I don't actually know and neither does Bobby!
What I do know is that they're unbeaten following their 2-0 win over visiting Philly, who have managed just three goals all season and just two in the five games that their new No. 10, Borek Dockal has played. Neither him nor David Accam have goosed the attack the way they were supposed to, CJ Sapong's got the yips in front of goal, and the (super-duper young) defense is not good enough to bail them out every single week.
4. LAFC went to Montreal, dug themselves a 3-1 hole, then roared back for a 5-3 win to cap a six-game, franchise-opening road trip. They now have more road points (12) than two Western Conference playoff teams did last year, and only one West playoff team had more wins over the course of the season.
TFC, in 2017, led the league with 27 road points. It's hard to overstate how impressive this trip was for the expansion club.
For Montreal, there has to be at least a little bit of "back to the drawing board." They wasted a Piatti hat trick and their defensive record is actually worse than Minnesota's.
Once again the Revs competed like hell and got a result because of it, and once again Crew SC punished the woodwork. I still think Columbus will be fine but they're now winless in four.
2. Toronto, meanwhile, have won just once in five but let's not pretend that Saturday's 5-1 loss at Houston was anything other than a pass/fail test for the Dynamo first teamers against the Reds' third-string.
Which is to say that I don't think the result is at all significant or indicative of almost anything we didn't already know. If you have to take something from this game, it's that Alberth Elis finally broke his mini-slump and got himself a goal. If that's a "the floodgates have opened" moment, look for Houston to go on a run.
The Timbers rope-a-doped NYCFC to death, allowing the Cityzens to have 75 percent possession and to complete 91 percent of their passes. But they built a wall about 25 yards from goal and never allowed the visitors to make a dent. Then when opportunities presented themselves in the other direction, they were ruthless.