Week 15 is in the books. There is a month left of the MLS season. What a year.
Away we go...
Yes, we're officially at that stage where all eyes in the East are pointed toward Toronto FC. Maybe even all eyes in the league, given where they are in the standings (tied atop the Supporters' Shield race with the Crew), the play of Alejandro Pozuelo (staking a damn near irresistible claim on the title of best player in the league, and the now-obvious front-runner for MVP), their long-term form (only two losses and a +17 goal differential in their past 25 regular-season games dating back to last summer), and, well, who they're beating.
The Reds took nine points. As I said after last week's dominant second half against the Crew, Toronto have a gear that I do not believe the other teams in the East can hit. Some took umbrage with that analysis, but then Toronto went out on this weekend, spotted the Union a goal... then blew past them.
It finished 2-1 and the Union deserve credit for keeping it at that scoreline. But TFC, even without two starters due to injury (Michael Bradley and Auro), and even while losing two others during the course of the game (Justin Morrow and Jozy Altidore), were just better.
"In the last couple of games specifically, not so much in the New York game, we’re starting to control games," head coach Greg Vanney said afterward. "We controlled the game, we played the majority of it in the attacking half. We’ve had good possession, we’ve pinned the opposition back. The first half we didn't create as many chances as I'd like for the amount of the ball that we had. So, we tried to adjust a little bit of our movements for the second half, to try to open up some spaces. I thought we got a little bit better at doing that and creating chances."
They were. In the second half they were particularly ruthless about using the ball to compress the Philly midfield — the Union usually play a diamond midfield, which is already predisposed toward narrowness — and then breaking it apart with fullbacks getting wide early in the play. The Second Spectrum 2D animation on Ayo Akinola's equalizer gives a pretty great look:
As soon as Tony Gallacher (No. 6) plays square back into the middle for Chris Mavinga (No. 23), he backs all the way to the touchline. While that's happening, winger Nick DeLeon (No. 18) dives inside to clear out the entire flank. And that means the diagonal from Marky Delgado (No. 8) is on.
Bam, they have found space and are now advancing into the final third at a sprint. Even when the ball's on the foot of the back-up left back and he's crossing to the back-up center forward, Toronto's that good. Their attack is that deadly.
Come playoff time anything can happen. We've seen it for the entire existence of this league. But Toronto have made it clear over the past month — and honestly, over the past four years — that they are the favorites.
The one team in the East scrum TFC haven't had to face down yet, and won't unless they meet in the playoffs, is Orlando City. The Lions have had the same types of injury issues that the Reds have had, and have shown they have the same type of depth. They even have a 20-year-old center forward who, like Akinola, is in the box heading home goals:
Daryl Dike is a star in the making, and in Chris Mueller Orlando have the guy who's now maybe No. 2 in the MVP race behind Pozuelo, and in Nani they have a big-name DP who has largely delivered this year. They also have the ability to create goals like the one above without Mueller or Nani being intimately involved with the final pass or touch. Without infringing too much upon RSL's old copyright, the system is the actual star of this team, and the genius of what Oscar Pareja's done in his first year is to get both young talents like Dike and Mueller (and Benji Michel, who absolutely deserves a mention) as well as big-name veterans like Nani and Mauricio Pereyra to thrive within the system, and to embrace being a part of it.
That is the sign of a very good manager of a very good team. So is the fact that they were able to weather the storm through the second half when the Red Bulls started throwing the kitchen sink at them, and eventually turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-1 final.
I loved the way Pareja described what he saw afterward.
"The first 10 minutes, they played with a model or formation that was not used for the last three or four games. When they have success with the 4-4-2 or the 4-2-3-1 that they have with Kaku underneath the forward, we thought they were coming with the same lineup so when they changed to the five and had a different formation it took us a bit to adjust," he said. "We were patient, we let the game accommodate, we didn’t want to change anything. We kept the game plan, we were faithful to our style and our model and the way we do things and I think it’s lovely. The guys were having much, much better control of the game and that’s when we scored the goals and the game just happened due to that patience.”
Orlando, in other words, are so secure in their approach and their principles that despite missing five starters (three on the backline, two in central midfield) against a RBNY team that had been playing good soccer, and did in fact unleash the press that's been a hammer driving nails the past week, they were just able to... wait it out. And then eventually exploit it. And then eventually force RBNY into a different shape. And then win.
I cannot believe how much fun Orlando City are to watch play, but they really, really are. They've 4-0-1 in their past five and are third in the East, just two points behind Columbus and Toronto.
Losing on the road to this Orlando team is no great blemish on RBNY's season. If they pick up six points from their next two — and to be honest, they should — they will be on 26 points and something close to a lock to make the playoffs.
A few more things to ponder...
10. There comes a time in every team's existence where they have to go on the road, batten down the hatches and just play for a point. That's exactly what Nashville SC did on Saturday in New England, trotting out a 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree formation with three d-mids, sitting in a deep block and just hanging on for dear life.
- Daniel Rios, who'd scored in two straight games, was unavailable due to injury. So were all the other strikers.
- Box-to-box midfielder Derrick Jones started at center forward.
- Six of the Nashville starters had fewer than 15 career starts.
This was not the type of side that should've been able to go on the road to a playoff team and get a point — and to be entirely fair, Joe Willis had to put in a Man of the Match performance to make the scoreless draw happen. But still, these are the kinds of results that can push you over the playoff line.
From New England's point of view this is the kind of result that prevents you from having home field advantage in the postseason, and is of a piece with what they've done so far in 2020. They've managed just 15 goals from 15 games.
9. I don't even really know what to say about the game in D.C., as Atlanta went up to D.C. United and posted a 4-0 whuppin' headlined by a pair of goals from Jon Gallagher — the first one was really, really nice — as well as a goal and two assists from Brooks Lennon, but what we all know was actually headlined by the Russell Canouse-isn't-on-the-team-sheet-but-just-got-subbed-in-and-now-what mess. Just a big old mess.
D.C.'s loss has them pinned to the bottom of the standings. They've won just once since play resumed in August and just twice all year. It is hard to picture any sort of path toward the playoffs for them, but with 10 teams making it in the East and the compressed schedule, all you have to do is put together a decent run where you win two out of three and you could find yourself above the playoff line.
Atlanta United have put together a decent run where they've won two out of three, and finished the weekend above the playoff line on 17 points. Ten days ago it looked like a lost season, but the kids who kept getting thrown to the wolves have started to show some fight and some fun moments.
8. Nashville, Atlanta and Montreal are all one point ahead of the 11th-place Fire, who got themselves a 2-2 draw in Harrison against the Impact on Saturday night. Neither goalkeeper covered themselves in glory, but that's how it goes sometimes.
Chicago weren't as fluid or threatening in this one as they'd been in the past five or so games, while for the Impact it's probably hard to walk away from this one with just a point. But at least the draw ended their four-game losing streak.
7. Week after week after week Houston are getting gashed in transition. Both of Sporting's goals in their 2-1 win at Houston on Saturday night came from the same spot: getting on the ball in the pocket deep in their own midfield, and then quickly and directly cutting out the entire Dynamo midfield.
Houston, after looking good in August coming out of the bubble, are now 0-4-1 in their last five. They've conceded 11 goals in that span, seven of which came in transition — most of those on damn near the exact same sequence of play that we saw twice in this one.
The win stops the bleeding for Sporting, who'd managed to win just once in their previous seven. Getting Alan Pulido back in the starting lineup (they will now lose him to international duty) certainly helped, as did getting a 30-minute cameo from Roger Espinoza. Gianluca Busio, meanwhile, put in perhaps his best performance as a pro, this time back up at his old attacking midfield spot instead of in the regista role he'd occupied for most of the summer.
6. The arrival of Gonzalo Higuain has not fixed the underlying issues plaguing an Inter Miami side that have, frankly, not really improved since adding him, Blaise Matuidi and Leandro Gonzales Pirez over the past month-and-a-half. That is not to say he didn't have his chances in Saturday night's 3-2 loss to NYCFC — he definitely did:
Inter are tied with D.C.. at the very bottom of the standings, and will now be without Rodolfo Pizarro, who's on his way to join El Tri for a pair of friendlies, for an extended period. I'm curious to see what that already-too-conservative midfield looks like without him.
Alexandru Mitrita has always been a dribble-a-lot-and-make-stuff-happen winger, but not lately. It's almost like he's finally decided to rein in his considerable on-the-ball skill and unleash it only in high-leverage situations, and is suddenly a less selfish and more incisive player. He's also become a more effective player because of it.
5. Minnesota United did exactly what playoff teams are supposed to do against strugglers like FC Cincinnati: They stomped 'em. The Loons went up 1-0 early, and then made it 2-0 on a Kevin Molino breakaway midway through the second half. That 2-0 was the final score.
Jurgen Locadia has just one goal for Cincy, scored way back in March on his debut. And while you may say "yes, but Cincy doesn't create good chances," I will respond with this:
Locadia is just 26, and two years ago was both a $20 million striker and on the fringes of the Dutch national team pool. One year ago he was a useful rotation player for a good Bundesliga team, with 4g/1a in 526 minutes for Hoffenheim. By all rights, he should be a foundational talent for an MLS team — especially an MLS team as desperate for any sort of optimism as Cincinnati are.
But he hasn't been. He has one goal in 1,000 minutes. Cincinnati have two goals in 10 games since play resumed in August. Any sort of momentum they were supposed to have coming out of Orlando is just all gone, and it's not hard to imagine that this offseason will see yet another tear-down and rebuild.
4. San Jose got themselves a 2-1 win over LA late on Saturday night, their second win on the trot and one that propelled them to within touching distance of the playoff line. I will put this delicately: The significantly less eye-catching play of J.T. Marcinkowski in goal has been an improvement over the more, um, remarkable play of veteran Daniel Vega, the man he replaced. And I do think that's had a knock-on effect moving upfield just in terms of approaching the game with a level of calmness — or at least a more measured type of the frenetic energy Matias Almeyda's system demands.
I am not sure what Guillermo Barros Schelotto's system demands, though I am loathe to put all or even most of the Galaxy's four-game losing streak at the feet of Chicharito. He has not been good — he has clearly been part of the problem. But this is clearly not a one-man malaise, nor has Chicharito ever been the kind of one-man show who could just grab a team and elevate it single-handedly.
He functions within a system; he can not be the system. If that's what Schelotto et al were expecting, then they're in the midst of a rude and prolonged awakening.
3. The Crew got themselves a very good point at Dallas on Saturday, coming from a goal down twice to claim a 2-2 draw on the road against a good team. They battled through injuries to get there, losing both Lucas Zelarayan and Eloy Room. Columbus are tied atop the Shield standings with Toronto, and really do belong there.
Dallas are a good-but-not-great team. If they are going to be great, Franco Jara has to bury chances like this:
Dallas are good and Jara has been good, but that's two home points left on the board. It's also our Face of the Week.
2. Are LAFC getting right? They came out of the bubble and collected one win with four losses in their first five games. In their next five games — a stretch that ended with Sunday night's pretty comfortable 3-1 win at RSL — they went 3-2-0. It also marked the first time all year they picked up any road points.
Getting Eduard Atuesta back helps so much, and not just because of genius-level passing like he displayed on the first LAFC goal. It's also his ability to win back possession, and always be in a spot to act as a safety valve, as well as his ability to put a foot on the ball and dictate where the game is played, and at what tempo. If it seems like teams are scrambling more against LAFC than they were ago, it's because they are. Atuesta's a big part off that.
RSL have now won just once in their past five, and are winless on the year when Justen Glad, who was suspended for this one, is not starting in central defense. They are 4-2-2 with 10 goals conceded when he plays at center back, and 0-3-4 with 14 goals conceded when he plays at right back or not at all. This continues the same trend — RSL are significantly better with Glad in central defense than without him there — that we've seen in his on/off splits since 2016.
They need to put him back there on Wednesday and just leave him there for the rest of the season, or they won't make the playoffs.
Amazing vision. Eyes in the back of his head.