It is autumn, which means we're well into the stretch run and desperation is setting in across half the league. They won't have much time to sweat, though, as there are just 38 matches left in the 2016 regular season.


On to the games:




Come As You Are


Patrick Vieira has done better than what I expected. I think, in fact, he's done better than anybody really expected, and there have to be lessons taken from that.


None of the following, however, is the lesson that you should be taking away: Vieira is not successful because he was a big-name player, nor is he successful because he's a tactical genius (though he's very clearly a guy who tinkers with a purpose, which stands him in good stead now and going forward). He's not successful because he's an idealist who demands his team play a certain way, nor is he successful because he simply has better talent than anybody else. He's not more intense than the average MLS coach, nor is he necessarily more prepared.


Vieira has been successful this season because he has been, first and foremost, a teacher. He is a manager who believes in developing individual players within the context of a team and a system, and that is why he has taken NYCFC to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history following Friday's 4-1 win over the Chicago Fire.


Nearly every young (or at least "inexperienced") player on NYCFC has improved. Tommy McNamara is better, and R.J. Allen is better, and Khiry Shelton is loads better. Jack Harrison is a better player now than he was four months ago, as is Ronald Matarrita as is Steven Mendoza. I've never attended a single NYCFC training session so I can't say that this is all Vieira's doing, but I don't think it's a coincidence that so many guys age 25 and under are thriving under Vieira.



" I started them tonight because of the way they’ve been playing and training in the last few weeks," is what Vieira said about Mendoza and Shelton after the win over Chicago. "I was really satisfied with the way they performed because they didn’t just play well, they worked really hard for the team. This is the No. 1 priority. Of course, with the talent they have, they can express themselves."


It's boilerplate, but it's not meaningless because Mendoza and Shelton literally were out there expressing themselves all over Chicago's face. When words match deeds, we should pay attention.


When words and deeds are married to adroit in-game adjustments, you have the makings of a coach who will win at a high level.


"I was thinking that we were a little more disciplined having Tommy inside and Mendoza wider because the way they were pressing us," is what Vieira offered on an early, first-half position swap that shuffled McNamara off the wing and into central midfield in place of Mendoza. "I wanted to use Mendoza’s pace up front and Tommy was finding the right spots between the lines. That was the reason I changed them."


This doesn't make Vieira unique in MLS -- in fact, it makes him cut from the same cloth as guys like Greg Vanney, Jesse Marsch, Bruce Arena and Oscar Pareja. Vanney and Pareja have roots in the academy system, while Marsch and Arena have both spent time coaching in college. Vieira, meanwhile, was the coach of the Manchester City "Elite Development Squad" before crossing the pond to take up the reins in the Bronx. His first and only entree into coaching before taking over at NYCFC was with youth players, and in that job it's not results that matter. It's how much those players develop, and how quickly they can get into the first team.


My working theory is that when you come from that background, and when you're applying it in a league where you can make only limited moves, you learn to make lemonade out of lemons. If you can't do that, you fail.


What that means, in practical terms, is this: First, you have to be comfortable coaching young players. Second, you have to understand that development, rather than outright recruitment or broad-based tactical mastery, is the No. 1 job description for any coach in this league. Vieira and those other four I mentioned, as well as at least a half-dozen other head coaches in MLS, get that.


Now, this isn't to say that recruitment and tactical adroitness aren't important (they clearly are), rather that in this league, more than any other, you can only play the cards you're dealt. The salary cap is a harsh mistress and intra-league trades are rarely blockbusters, so what you see on March 1 is usually what you get on September 1 unless you can get the team to improve from within. In the sample size we have for Vieira thus far, it seems pretty certain he gets that.


In this league's history, then, the most consistently successful coaches have had a habit of turning three mis-matched low cards into an inside straight by getting individual players to reach more of their potential.


If you can't do the above, you're probably not cut out to coach in MLS. We saw Owen Coyle struggle, and Marco Schallibaum, and Hans Backe and Ruud Gullit and so many others from abroad. Whether they were good coaches or bad, it's clear that they didn't have the right skillsets to be winners in this league.


Clearly, Vieira does. He looks to me like the first truly "foreign" coach who's going to succeed in MLS, and he's going to do it because he's emphasized development first.




In Bloom


One of the few young-ish players who didn't develop well under Vieira was striker Patrick Mullins, who – as it turns out – was actually an outlier in two different ways:


  • He didn't develop well under Vieira
  • He was the centerpiece of an in-season blockbuster


Mullins has been central to the turnaround that has D.C. United above the red line as of the close of this weekend. Here's how the standings look in the East:


Mullins picked up two more goals this weekend, leading the way once again in a 4-1 win over Orlando City at RFK Stadium. He now has 7 goals in 809 minutes with United, a goals per 90 rate that's second in the league among all forwards, behind only Columbus's Ola Kamara.


Even without his goals, though, United have turned into something of an attacking juggernaut since his insertion into the starting lineup in late July. In his nine starts D.C. are 3-1-5 with 23 goals scored (2.55 goals per game) and a +8 goal differential. In their 21 other games this season they're 5-8-8 with 20 goals scored (.95 goals per game) and a -6 differential.


Obviously it's more than just one guy doing all of this – it doesn't matter how good your center forward is if there's no support or creativity from the wings, right? That's where veterans Lloyd Sam, Lamar Neagle and especially Patrick Nyarko come in. All three were rampant on in Saturday's win, repeatedly getting into the final third to create game-breaking moments:


Blue arrows are assists, green are completed passes and yellow are key passes (passes that lead to a shot). I removed unsuccessful passes from the map just to remove clutter, but believe me when I say that there weren't a ton of them.


Pushing the wingers that far forward also creates room and chances at interplay for overlapping fullbacks, and oh by the way Taylor Kemp had three assists the other night. Not an accident.


More to the point: Suddenly we're seeing D.C. with more players in the attacking half, in the attacking third, and in the 18 itself. That is inherently dangerous, but Ben Olsen's thrown a certain amount of caution to the wind and is having his team press the hell out of the ball for long stretches. If you've already got five guys in the final third, you might as well, right?


So in two months D.C. have gone from a team that generated offense rarely-to-never to a team that generates attacks from old-fashioned hold-up play, and wingers buzzing around the box, and overlapping fullbacks, and Lucho Acosta doing fun No. 10 things, and high pressure. Olsen's pulled an inside straight by getting the right guys into the right spots and getting them to play better, and even the cynical, hard-bitten Washington Establishment Media has noticed:

It's taken some luck and a few good trades and some smart tactical realizations to get to this spot, but as with NYCFC any luck is a product of the way the players have been asked to develop both individually and as a team. Mullins is better now than he was in July, and Steve Birnbaum is better than he was in 2014 or '15, as is Kemp, as is Rob Vincent. Acosta and Julian Buescher both are eons more effective than they were in March, April and May.


That's the common thread if you want to find success in this league, no matter if the coach is young or old, foreign or domestic. If you look for it, you'll see it.




A few more things to ponder...


7. The forgotten rookie this season, amidst the productivity and hype of Harrison and Jordan Morris and Keegan Rosenberry and even Alex Muyl, has been Philadelphia's Fabian Herbers. The German attacker out of Creighton picked up his seventh assist of the season on Alejandro Bedoya's exquisite chip against TFC in a 1-1 draw, and that number is the most any rookie's managed since Mikey Stephens had eight in 2010.


I've said it before and I'll say it again: This is the best rookie class in league history. Morris, Harrison and Rosenberry are legitimate stars, and a whole host of guys who entered the league either as draft picks or Homegrown signings are about a half-step down from that at worst.


6. The youngest of those rookies is Vancouver's Alphonso Davies, the 15-year-old winger who made his first professional start in the 'Caps' 3-3 draw against Colorado on Saturday.  


It's far too early to give a comprehensive scouting report on Davies, but I'll say this: You have to appreciate the way he's willing to go at defenders on the dribble, and is always looking to push the game forward. I hope that's a part of his make-up that doesn't change, because "relentless" is a quality trait to build around.


5. Pass of the Week goes to Marsch. The old man's still got it:



New York are in the midst of the weirdest 13-game unbeaten run in league history following Saturday's 1-0 win over Montreal. The Red Bulls did not play anywhere near as well as they had in the previous week's 3-3 draw at TFC, or the 2-2 draw vs. D.C. the week before that. Yet they walked away with all three points and if they take care of business over the final three games of the regular season will have a top two seed in the East.


It's not as great as this regular season could have been, but who's going to bet against a team that hasn't lost since early July?


4. I'm not here to rain on FC Dallas's parade – they won a trophy last week, after all. But following Saturday's scoreless draw at RSL (not a bad result for Dallas by any stretch) they've gone just 3-2-4 since Fabian Castillo departed. He's been difficult to replace.


So they keep leaving the door ajar for the rest of the league to come and steal the Supporters' Shield. Given the rest of the results around the league – including and especially LA's 4-2 loss to Seattle – the Shield is still Dallas' to take. But the margin is thinner than it could, or maybe even should be.


3. Houston outclassed Portland by 3-1 on Saturday night in Texas, and let's tip our respective caps to Dynamo d-mid Collen Warner. Not only has he been tidy as hell on the ball, but he was the primary reason Diego Valeri had a miserable evening:

Houston are now 3-1-2 in their last six, and Warner has in my opinion solidified himself as a keystone piece of that 4-3-3 midfield in a starting role going forward. The 28-year-old will never get many headlines, but his ability to keep things organized and keep the backline protected has allowed the Dynamo to be a much different, and much more effective attacking team.


Consider this a vote for Wade Barrett keeping the head coaching job there fulltime, as well.


2. No Kelyn Rowe meant no forward thrust from midfield in New England's 2-0 loss at Columbus on Sunday. The Revs probably have to take seven points from their final three games to make the postseason, while Columbus will need 11 from their final five.


Either is a tall order.


1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes:

More, please.

Wonderful.


Sporting pretty quietly got the biggest result of the weekend in terms of playoff probabilities when they won at San Jose by 2-1 on Saturday night. It's not guaranteed that they'll get in, but they made certain that it'll take something special from both Portland and Seattle if there's not to be a postseason in KC this year.