Happy Thanksgiving to all my wonderful friends in Canada. Away we go:
Natural's Not In It
Portland played their best game of the year, going to Sandy and just ripping RSL apart by 4-1. They seem to be finishing where they started – with a 4-2-3-1 that features Diego Valeri in a pure playmaking role, with Diego Chara behind him, and with a good idea of how to make the pieces around them work.
When asked about what went wrong after the game, RSL head coach Mike Petke kept it simple.
“Diego Valeri. Valeri found pockets that we couldn’t keep track of, counterattacking transition, and our inability to create energy and receive balls in right areas. That’s a credit to Portland for their shape and their bite.”
You should have the mental image of a man destroying a printer as you read those quotes. Petke was furious. It's understandable after that performance at home in a must-win game.
Back to Valeri: His ability to find those pockets and play quickly through them, either for himself or his teammates, is what’s made him one of the league’s very best players over the past half-dozen years. The pieces orbiting around him have changed a bit, and in this instance it was inverted left winger Sebastian Blancoplaying the star role with two goals and an assist on the night.
The other adjustment was the new No. 9, second-year forward Jeremy Ebobisse (Gio Savarese has at last broken his unhealthy Dairon Asprilla addiction), who scores a respectable number of goals but whose real strength is his ability to combine in and around the box with other attackers. Ebobisse is a fulcrum who provides an endless supply of tidy and useful wall-passes everywhere on the field.
That’s how you get lovely bits of play like this:
This highlight is mostly about Blanco bursting into the box and scoring a banger, but it's also about rearranging the field so that Blanco has the opportunity to get into the box at pace and score said banger. It didn't come from nothing.
It took a long time to get here, but “here” sure does feel familiar for this team, which has often functioned as a collection of misfit toys. Savarese has cycled through something in the neighborhood of “countless” formations this year, and in what was the biggest game of the season (to this point) he finally hit on the one he should trust.
Bear in mind that it wasn’t just about Valeri in the pure playmaker’s role underneath an unselfish center forward and flanked by a pair of real attackers. It was also about having Chara in that d-mid role behind him, and in front of a defense that’s been more leaky than not over the last couple of months.
Do we know that this is who the Timbers are now? We don't have an answer to that just yet. But it really, really is who they should be for the rest of the month, and potentially deep into November.
Atlanta United cruised past the Revs(*) by 2-1 in Georgia on Saturday afternoon. It was closer than I think most expected, and honestly closer than it should've been – the Five Stripes are not sharp right now.
And none of that matters. What matters is that Miguel Almiron limped off clutching his hamstring after half an hour, and that in the postgame Tata Martino said that his No. 10 will be out for the rest of the regular season.
Is four weeks enough to heal a pulled hammy? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If yes, then they have him back for the playoffs. If no, then... then man, did the pressure just ratchet up on Ezequiel Barco.
As noted in the video, Barco has a fondness for dribbling down blind alleys and has not been great about playing the ball at the right time, to the right foot, in stride. He doesn't lose the ball – he's tidy, especially for a teenager – but he doesn't do the little things that turn chances into CHANCES, which is why he's been so replaceable for this team.
Maybe he's struggled (on the field, anyway) because he's not really a winger. Maybe he's actually a No. 10 who's been playing out of position, and maybe now that Almiron's sidelined, Barco will start looking like the kid who trucked Flamengo in last year's Copa Sudamerica. Maybe this is the sink-or-swim moment he needs to start living up to his hype and his price tag.
Even if he does, that won't entirely make up for the absence of Almiron. They got three points this week, but the path to Atlanta's first piece of silverware, be it the Supporters' Shield or MLS Cup, just got significantly tougher.
A few more things to ponder...
9. Obviously part of what makes it tough for the Five Stripes is that the Red Bulls apparently have no intention of slowing down. They went to San Jose and blew right through the Quakes, posting an entirely comfortable 3-1 win in which there was never any doubt about who the better team was.
San Jose have now conceded 69 goals, one off the “worst defense ever” mark set by Minnesota United last year.
8. In two weeks, on the other side of the FIFA break, the Red Bulls will have to be at their best because they’re playing at a Philly team who 1) always give them problems, and 2) were just freaking dominant this past weekend, destroying Minnesota United 5-1.
7. Philly climbed up to fourth in the East thanks to their win and the 3-0 throttling Columbus took in Montreal. The Impact were the better team, especially in the final third, as once again Crew SC couldn’t finish:
This is not to say Montreal weren’t good – they very much were. And for them, maybe the biggest part of being “good” is for them to understand who they are. Evan Bush (who had a superb game in goal) talked about it with us on MatchDay Central.
That’s it for the Impact. They need to bottle it and bring it with them over the final two games of the season if they’re going to have any chance of making the playoffs.
6. For a few minutes during the second half of D.C.’s home game against Chicago on Sunday it looked like Montreal’s odds were about to shoot through the roof, as Raheem Edwards did his old team a solid, and United seemed intent upon sleep-walking through a trap game.
A good, aggressive sub by Ben Olsen woke them up, as Zoltan Stieber, a playmaking winger, came on for the more defense-minded Ulises Segura. Steiber didn’t factor into the scoring – Wayne Rooney took care of that – but he allowed D.C. to spend more time just battering the door down in the attacking third, and with that came goals.
D.C. won 2-1 to stay two points behind the Impact and with two games in hand.
5. They are starting to believe in Vancouver, I guess? Their 2-1 win over TFC in Toronto on Saturday night was certainly a good one, and the ‘Caps social media team was tweeting with a little extra spice afterward:
The math says that the above tweet is technically correct, which is the best kind of correct. However, here’s my colleague Bobby Warshaw’s take:
"Except those three games are SKC, LAFC, and Portland, and Vancouver have only beaten one playoff team since April. So it’s in your hands, Vancouver, but it’s hot as hell."
4. LAFC did what they needed to do coming off of last week’s disappointing loss at Chicago: They went to Colorado and drilled the Rapids, 3-0. The happiest part for the Angelinos will be that Adama Diomande got on the scoreboard for the first time in three months. Twice, in fact.
It’s hard to read too much into it, though, as Colorado are now 0-7-0 with 1 goal scored and 22 allowed in their last seven games.
As pointed out on /r/MLS, LAFC are now just four points behind the Rapids in the aggregate league table for the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
I think I agree with Peter Vermes that the Galaxy got a few fortunate whistles, and with Matt Besler that if SKC keep playing like this for the next month they’ll be one of the favorites come the playoffs. As it is, they still have both LAFC and FC Dallas on the schedule, so finding a perch atop the West by the end of the month is not at all out of the question.
The Galaxy’s playoff chances aren’t out of the question, either. Two wins in their final two games would almost certainly do it, and there’s at least a decent chance that four points might be enough.
2. OK, so let’s talk about FC Dallas real quick. They put together an entirely professional 2-0 win over Orlando City on Saturday night, and they did it in what’s become their definitive way: speed, tough defense and a set piece.
At the heart of this latest version of Los Toros Tejanos, who have a four-point lead atop the West, has been Maxi Urruti’s switch from a center forward to more of a withdrawn playmaker, something of a No. 10 that our friend Steve Davis says Oscar Pareja not incorrectly calls a “9.5.”
Urruti’s numbers are good since the move – 1g/7a in the last six games. His set piece delivery has been immaculate, low-key the best in the league.
But the underlying numbers aren’t great. His open play xA (expected assists) is below what you’d expect of most creative types, and he’s registered just four chances created from open play over the last four games.
Here is the current rubric for Dallas:
- Question1: Is there, right now, a better option at that spot than Urruti?
- Answer1: All due respect to Pablo Aranguiz, but probably not.
Easy to follow so far. But good questions always lead to more questions...
- Question2: Can you consistently beat playoff teams with Urruti as your playmaker?
- Answer2: TBD. But the underlying numbers are worrying. Dallas have scored exactly one open-play goal in the past month.
Pareja deserves a bunch of credit for duct-taping this attack together, though. It’s not pretty, but it’s effective. For the time being.
1. And finally, a reminder that the weekend doesn’t really end until Seattle host Houston on Monday night. All my discussion of the Western Conference playoff race lately has just assumed that the Sounders would keep playing pretty good soccer and winning the games they should win, which would be enough to keep them above the playoff line and push them into the postseason (maybe even into a top four seed so they have home-field advantage in the Knockout Round).
That rationale includes an assumed home win over the Dynamo. But be aware: The Dynamo with Juan David Cabezas are a much tougher out than the Dynamo we’ve seen for most of the year. And also be aware that Seattle are going to play this one short-handed:
Same goes for Houston, of course.
Anyway, if the Sounders figure out a way to lose this one, we can start talking – at least a little bit – about how they’ll maybe be the odd team out in the playoff race.