In any sport, good teams reveal themselves slowly, and then all at once. Is it the bunker that smothers the game to death, followed by a quick counterattack? A three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust drive punctuated by a go route in American football? Is it an inside-out scheme in basketball, with the balance tipped by a Princeton Offense backdoor cut?
These types of disguised approaches are what make sports interesting, and more than just a foregone conclusion. It's why goalscoring duties shift from the forward to the wing, or how playmaking becomes a function of the center forward rather than the midfield. Everything is disguised by design -- it's all spy vs. spy stuff, which is why coaches don't particularly like nosy reporters (or analysts!) and why players, coaches, executives, etc., make an art of banality when answering specific, and specifically directed, questions.
Even with the obfuscation, though, the reveal eventually comes, both in the course of any given game and over the course of a season. Teams will show you who they are if you look hard enough.
As we approach the start of April, we will approach that big reveal across this league of ours. Nobody's completely shown their cards as of yet, but we're getting some ideas.
Onto the games...
The Problem Solvers
Let's start with Sporting KC, who are the league's only perfect team following Sunday's 1-0 win over a defensively sound and pragmatic visiting group from Toronto FC. The Reds had a smart and effective game plan, and it looked a hell of a lot like this:
Even after Roger Espinoza forces a good, high turnover out of Benoit Cheyrou, it's still three or four Sporting attackers going up against seven men in red, sitting deep and arrayed neatly from touchline to touchline. That is hard to break down unless somebody makes a major mistake -- which is, of course, what happened later for the game's only goal (the hosts got a little help from a friendly no-call as well).
Things are good for Sporting right now. They've protected their home turf, they've ground out three straight one-goal wins, and they've done it all without last year's team MVP, Benny Feilhaber. He's expected to be back soon, and nobody will be happier about that than forward Dom Dwyer.
The Englishman has continued to take a beating in the trenches for the greater good of his team, and he'll do so until he drops. That's just the kind of player he is.
But even with that work rate and willingness to get on the ball in tough spots, Dwyer is simply not getting enough of the ball. Last year he took 5.2 percent of Sporting's touches; through three games this season, that number is down to 3.8 percent. Getting your best goalscorer less of the ball is not a great thing.
Delving a little deeper, and you'll come to this conclusion: The Sporting midfield, sans Feilhaber, plays deep but lacks the ability to connect dangerous passes that put attackers into the final third. Through three games they've yet to complete a single through ball; Feilhaber alone completed 28 last season, most of them to Dwyer.
It's a simple thing to point out -- "team plays uglier soccer without its most creative player" is not ground-breaking analysis. But if you're wondering why Dwyer's been stranded so often, there's your answer.
Retreat To Move Forward
Dwyer's former teammate C.J. Sapong led the Philadelphia to their second straight win, a 3-0 demolition of the struggling New England Revolution that should have been 5- or 6-0 if not for the heroics of Bobby Shuttleworth. Sapong had two goals and drew a (dubious) penalty, and also put multiple chances on a platter for his fellow Philly attackers.
Sunday's win represented his first venture into box-score stats on the season, so you can be forgiven for not realizing how good Sapong has been thus far in 2016. To put a fine point on it, though: He's been really good. He was involved in both goals Philly created last week in Columbus, and his ability to drop back, receive the ball in tough spots, then complete useful passes is a welcome relief valve for a midfield that has often struggled to string meaningful sequences together.
Sapong is a safety valve, and he's almost impossible to knock off the ball.
That's not gonna win Pass of the Week (good shout, though), but it gives you an idea of what Sapong is capable of when he turns a defender to get loose.
When he doesn't get loose, there is this:
To me, it looks like Philly are built around this more than anything else in their repertoire, and I think that's pretty smart. Sapong's tidiness on the ball and passing eye allows the Union wingers to play higher and go more direct to goal -- Chris Pontius is getting a lot of looks these days, as are the likes of Ilsinho, Sebastien Le Toux, and Leo Fernandes.
If Dwyer's job is to hold the ball up and push the opposing line deeper, Sapong's is often to check back into midfield and bring the defense with him, thus creating space for the wingers or central midfielders to run into.
"I’m trying to get a little better at going to the ball and not getting too lost and struggling with the bigger center backs in this league but that’s a kind of game I like to play," Sapong said afterward. "It keeps me in the game and it keeps my warrior mentality."
Two ways of solving the same problem, and two teams that are revealing what they're about while collecting points in the process.
Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning
I'm not sure there is anything coherent to say about the New York Red Bulls' 4-3 win over the Houston Dynamo on Saturday. Sometimes this game of ours is so bizarre and so full of joy and grief and confusion that it belies any sort of reasonable, structured analysis.
With all due respect to the Red Bulls -- who are now in crisis mode in central defense, given the way they've A) hemorrhaged goals thus far, and B) popped hamstrings like they're the USMNT -- I think the story here is Houston's attack. Through three games they've scored 10 goals, and they've played half that time without the guy who's supposed to be their No. 10, Cristian Maidana. With him they got three at home against New England; without him, they got three on the road in New York. ¯\(ツ)/¯
The vast, vast majority of their attack comes down their own left side, which makes sense since DaMarcus Beasley is still the league's best left back and remains an advanced reader and thinker of the game. He's integral in almost everything the Dynamo do because of the threat he provides going forward, and because of his ability to figure out useful passes in the run of play -- the pass before the pass before the pass.
It leads to chalkboards like this one:
Yellow lines are "key passes" -- passes that lead to a shot -- and blue lines are assists. You can look at that and figure out which way the Dynamo tip.
The problem for the men in Orange is that they haven't just been tipping defensively; in two of three games, they've been toppled entirely. There are myriad problems, starting with easy turnovers in possession and extending to a soft spot between the central midfield and central defense, poor close-downs of crosses and generally passive play from the backline. At some point David Horst and Raul Rodriguez have to figure out how to stay better connected to Rico Clark and Alex, or they'll be watching more goals like Felipe's scorcher fly past them.
That's the job from here on out for Owen Coyle & Co. They've already proven they know how to entertain; now they must learn how to win.
A few more things to ponder...
7. The most outstanding teenager in MLS thus far in this young season has been Orlando City SC central defender Tommy Redding. In Friday's 1-0 win at NYCFC he earned his third straight start and helped OCSC to their first shutout of the season despite spending most of the game under siege.
It's too soon to say whether or not he's on a Matt Miazga-esque improvement arc, but the early returns are very promising.
6. Another teenager who's about to get some burn is Real Salt Lake's Justen Glad, who came on late in RSL's 2-2 draw at Portland on Saturday night after Jamison Olave earned his league-record-breaking 10th career red card.
RSL once again gave up late goals, but it's fair to chalk this instance up to being down to nine men.
5. Our Pass of the Week came fromColorado's 1-1 draw at D.C. United on Sunday:
That's Dillon Powers backheeling the Rapids into a 3-on-2 break that somehow didn't end up in a chance on goal.
3. One thing I didn't expect to see this season was a full-on, old-fashioned 4-4-2 with two target forwards from the Vancouver Whitecaps. That's exactly what they brought to Seattle, and they emerged with a 2-1 win that was, ahem, a bit controversial (tune in for Instant Replay tomorrow, folks).
2. Gyasi Zardes got his first two goals of the season, and the Galaxy took advantage of 10-man San Jose by a 3-1 score on Saturday night. The Quakes badly missed Clarence Goodson, who was a late scratch in this one.
As for the Galaxy... let's hope this performance makes it clear that Zardes needs to be a full-time striker rather than a wide midfielder. LA are better off when he's around the 18 and threatening goal.
1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to this security guard who saw FC Dallas bounce back from last week's humiliation to dust off the Impact by a comfortable 2-0 margin:
I'm not sure why Impact head coach Mauro Biello tossed the 4-3-3 for a 4-2-3-1 in this one, but it was a misstep. He hasn't made many of those in his time as boss, so Montreal fans should feel comfortable chalking this one up to the learning process.