Forward-thinking: Disguised runs unlocking defenses | Analyst's Den

“This has been an incredible stretch for us," is what Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney said after Wenesday night's come-from-behind 2-1 win over Crew SC in Columbus. It was the Reds' third game in eight days and fourth in 13, and they'll play their fifth in 16 this Saturday vs. Minnesota United at BMO Field (3 pm ET; CTV in Canada | MLS LIVE in the US).

TFC's win in Ohio was their fifth straight in a span of 20 days, and the second in a row without Sebastian Giovinco, who is nursing a heel injury. All five have come without Drew Moor, who I thought was their most indispensable player last year.

For context: There were exactly zero five-game winning streaks in all of 2016, and there were only three in 2015. None were done over such a small stretch of the calendar, and none with the team's best player and best defender nursing injuries. Both guys are expected to be back no later than next Friday's game at RBNY.

Which is my way of saying that this Reds team has the personnel and the depth to be special in a "we're still talking about them decades later like 1997 D.C. United or 2001 Miami Fusion or 2014 LA Galaxy"-level special. Keep watching.

Let's open the TwitBag:

Same for FC Dallas! In case you haven't noticed, they're undefeated thus far in 2017 and on top of the table in points per game (2.25 through eight matches). They've conceded just five goals, and they've avoided the post-CCL doldrums that capture so many teams – and could've captured this one given the way they kiiiiinda outplayed eventual champions Pachuca and lost that series not because of talent, but because of a lack of concentration.

If any team deserved to go into the tank for a month, it's Dallas. Nobody would've blamed them, especially since the MLS playoff qualification format is so kind to teams that struggle out of the gate. 

But they haven't gone into the doldrums. They're not exactly playing better than they did against Pachuca, but they're still cohesive on both sides of the ball. To me, that says the No. 1 reason for their success is the guy on the sideline prepping them every single week: Oscar Pareja. He's gotten buy-in from, it seems, everybody on the roster, and his squad has achieved a state of perpetual gestalt regardless of who's missing.

There are other reasons, too:

  • They have the best center back pairing in MLS
  • They have a top three central midfield pairing on the defensive side of the ball
  • They have one of the best defensive forwards in MLS
  • They can mix-and-match personnel and formation (though not quite as readily as TFC)

That last bit speaks to what I think both of these teams do so well: There's a "No stone left unturned" ethos that has filled out the rosters with contributors via the Academy, the SuperDraft, free agents, MLS scrapheap signings, low-profile imports, and – of course – star DPs. Carlos Gruezo may not have as high a profile as Michael Bradley, but he gets them wins.

It's a non-dogmatic approach to recognizing, developing and integrating talent, and it's going to get both of these teams (and Seattle and RBNY, who are both struggling now but will be fine in the long run because they approach roster-building the same way) more silverware while the rest of the league catches up.

Yeah, it would help if Dallas's highest-profile offseason signing started getting the job done in front of net. Colman has shown a knack for getting out on the break but also a knack for putting his efforts into Row 12. Will Bruin is the same way – he's wonderful at finding the space for breakaways, not so great at finishing them off. Bruin has proved to be multi-faceted enough as a center forward to add value anyway, while the jury's still out on Colman.

If Colman comes up short and is the next David Texeira, and Los Toros Tejanos keep winning anyway, it'll speak to the depth and quality of talent elsewhere on the team. That will likely include Diaz, who will – I'm guessing here – make his return sometime in mid-summer. If he does, expect Dallas to spend most of their time in a 4-2-3-1 with him as his usual No. 10 and either Colman or Maxi Urruti (based on form, Urruti is a no-brainer at this point) as the lone forward.

But don't expect Diaz to be the magical little unicorn we all love right away. Achilles' ruptures are notoriously difficult to overcome, and most athletes take longer than a year to get back to their old selves.

Atlanta United have had a difficult schedule since star striker Josef Martinez was injured late in their third game of the season, and their finishing was bound to regress, and yadda yadda yadda. It's been a grind, and they've won just one of their last six. They clearly miss him.

It's not just the attack, though: Martinez is a superb two-way forward who embodies the "defense begins at the front" attitude that Tata Martino has instilled. Without him as the tip of the spear, teams have found it easier to build consistent danger against Atlanta, pulling apart both the midfield and backline. They've conceded 11 goals in the last five games and while part of that is regression to the mean, part of that is just not getting the same level of defensive disruption up top.

Yes, and it's super easy! Just play a flattish 4-4-2 with Gyasi Zardes and Gio Dos Santos up top, Romain Alessandrini advanced on one wing and Ema Boateng on the other. Have Joao Pedro and Baggio Husidic play mostly side-by-side, with Husidic allowed slightly more license to push forward and Pedro shackled to the spot in front of the defense to allow greater protection for the leaky backline.

Do not have the fullbacks overlap. They can push up and provide support, but they're not there to generate offense, just to help recycle the ball.

This is simple and uncomplicated and it puts all the onus for generating the attack on the front four, while leave the back six entirely structured and risk-free in the most important defensive parts of the field. If you think "Oh man this can't work for a bad defensive team like LA" just look at what Minnesota have done using this approach!

Uncomplicate the game and LA will start playing pretty good soccer. It won't be pretty soccer and it might require some courageous decisions about benching certain overly adventurous veterans, but the name of the game is to get points.

Sounders fans should relax. The big issue isn't the lack of a splash signing; rather, it's the injuries and inconsistent play of their backline leaders. The need Roman Torres to get out of his funk and both Chad Marshall and Brad Evans to get healthy. When the summer window opens I'm sure they'll sign another DP who can be a force magnifier (though probably not to the magical extent Nicolas Lodeiro was last year).

To put it another way: I saw Seattle, Toronto, Dallas and RBNY as the four best teams entering the season. I've sold a little bit of my RBNY stock, but am holding onto all of my Sounders stock and would happily overpay for a little bit more.

Anything that gets Tommy McNamara into somebody's starting XI.  

May 11, 2017

McNamara, Harry Shipp and Kelyn Rowe – none of whom play as a No. 10. It's worrying.

Between that mid-20s group and the true kids, Ian Harkes has a bit of a playmaker in him, and RSL have tried at times to play Jordan Allen as a central midfield creator. Allen, though, is better on the left in a role where he can open up and see the whole field rather than pulling strings from the middle, while Harkes is a deeper-lying player and not a true No. 10.

In the younger generation, I think Paxton Pomykal ends up being a No. 10, and it wouldn't shock me if Andrew Carleton ended up as a Giovinco-style, second forward No. 10 rather than a winger or a midfield playmaker. Jackson Yueill can definitely play that spot, but right now he's only getting minutes in the USL and has never caught Tab Ramos's eye with the U-20 national team.

Our Canadian friends may be in better shape with Jay Chapman and Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla both playing variations on the role, and doing well with it, last weekend.

May 11, 2017

The US roster for the U-20 World Cup was announced this week. Here's the group:


Goalkeepers (3): Jonathan Klinsmann (University of California), J.T. Marcinkowski (Georgetown / San Jose Earthquakes Academy), Brady Scott (De Anza Force)

Defenders (7): Danny Acosta (Real Salt Lake / MLS), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur / England), Marlon Fossey (Fulham / England), Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake / MLS), Aaron Herrera (University of New Mexico / Real Salt Lake Academy), Erik Palmer-Brown (Sporting Kansas City / MLS), Tommy Redding (Orlando City / MLS)

Midfielders (5):Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls / MLS), Luca De La Torre (Fulham / England), Derrick Jones (Philadelphia Union / MLS), Eryk Williamson (University of Maryland / D.C. United Academy), Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal / England)

Forwards (6): Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers / MLS), Lagos Kunga (Atlanta United Academy), Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake / MLS), Emmanuel Sabbi (unattached), Josh Sargent (St. Louis Scott Gallagher Missouri), Sebastian Saucedo (Real Salt Lake / MLS)

Zelalem's (lack of) development has been a disappointment, especially given the way Arsene Wenger hyped him once upon a time. Remember when he said "Why didn't I sign Cesc? Well, all I can tell you is remember the name Gedion Zelalem."

Yeah, Zelalem's 20 now and he's not looking anywhere near being that kind of player. He's not that guy – he's a dude who struggled to get minutes in the Dutch second tier and was out of his depth with Rangers in Scotland last year.

What he is, though, is a proven commodity at the U-20 level. He had a good-not-great tournament two years ago, and his comfort on the ball can and should be an asset for this US group. He doesn't have to be a playmaker, he just has to do what he did last time: Help circulate in possession, defend a little bit and get the ball to the wings early enough for them to be dangerous.

Pomykal has higher upside but he's almost three years younger (he's two weeks too old to be part of that US U-17 team) and less proven as a central midfielder at this or any level. So I don't have a problem with Ramos going with the known quantity.

Doesn't look great! Sporting KC have a Homegrown claim on Sargent, but the kid's already been overseas to train (they're trials, really) with multiple big European clubs, including Schalke (who've already signed three talented US teenagers, and didn't release any of the for the tournament). He'll play in the U-20 World Cup, then come home and perhaps train with a USL club, then play with the U-17s in autumn in that World Cup, then come back for the winter.

And then he turns 18 in February and can sign wherever he wants. It's not hard to do that math.

May 11, 2017

All-time? Pretty easy:

1. Simon Borg

2. Nick Firchau





387. Matt Doyle

388. That leaky, noisy radiator from the old office

389. David Gass