This is the weekend 2018 officially rounds the quarter pole, by Sunday night 98 of 391 regular-season games will officially be in the books. We throw some numbers around here in this column, and elsewhere, and some of them mean more than we'd like them to and others much less, but here's the one that really matters:
That's the current goals per game in MLS in 2018. The league as a whole hasn't been scoring at that rate since 2001, and has only gone over 3.3 for an entire year twice (in 1996, MLS's debut season, the leaguewide average was 3.37 gpg, and it was an insane 3.57 in 1998).
I like goals. So I like what I've seen so far in 2018.
Let's look at Week 10:
Toronto FC vs. Philadelphia Union
Naturally given all that, the second-lowest scoring team in the league just happens to be last year's treble winners and this year's defeated CCL finalists, Toronto FC. They've got six goals and four points through six games after banging home 74 for 69 points in 34 games last year en route to the greatest season any MLS team has ever had.
We all know why they're off to a slow start. Injuries and midweek international dates have taken a toll, and here they are at the start of May eight points below the playoff line. Given how good the East is, they need to start winning now.
“For me, I’m sure what a lot of teams try to do is disrupt his game,” Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoyatold ProSoccerUSA.com this week. “They try to put pressure on him and get him away from the ball so other guys make plays because he’s probably one of the only guys on that team that can ping a 60-yard ball or get it to [Sebastian] Giovinco on the counterattack.
“As long as we get him off the ball and disrupt his flow as much as possible, I think we’ll be alright and be able to handle the rest. Looking at tape, they’re a team that can be countered on and we just have to be opportunistic and take our chances.”
I'm less convinced that TFC can be countered on, and more interested to see how they plan to handle the Union's cross-heavy attack. I think there are goals at the back post for Philly in this one, but they can't just settle for hitting cross after cross, and Borek Dockal has to be just as aggressive about getting into the box as he was last weekend.
Update: Bradley stayed at home in central defense, and TFC easily ran away with a 3-0 win anyway, as Victor Vazquez and Sebastian Giovinco offered plenty of quality to bring the Union back to the drawing board.
Montreal Impact vs. New England Revolution
So after two months I feel like it's safe to say that the Remi Garde era has not been kind to the Impact. They've conceded 21 times in eight games, and whether they put two men behind the ball or 10, it doesn't seem to matter. Teams figure out a way to crack them open:
The Revs don't have nearly the same patience or explosiveness as Atlanta, but they are murder when they see any sort of hesitation or loose distribution from an opposing backline. New England's been selective about how and when they use their press, but what really matters is that when they unleash it, they come in waves.
Expect to seem them on the front foot for a good chunk of this one. And if that's the case, expect to see the Impact try to Route 1 it to Ignacio Piatti at least a little bit.
New York Red Bulls vs. NYCFC
Bradley Wright-Phillips has been beyond human thus far in 2018:
And for the record: David Villa is at 1.24 G+A per 90 so far in what's been an injury-plagued start to the season.
Obviously it is fun to conceive of this as two of the league's great forwards going mano a mano, and on some level it is always that. On a bigger picture level, it's "Can the Red Bulls disrupt NYCFC's fanatical devotion to building from the back?" and it's also "Can NYCFC punish RBNY for throwing both fullbacks so high, so hard, so often?"
Minnesota United FC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC
MNUFC got themselves a nice and necessary home win last weekend, and made what I felt was a pretty good trade on Tuesday when they picked up Eric Miller from the Rapids, and obviously Darwin Quintero has fit well. Despite their never-ending injury battles, they are a better and more balanced and deeper team than they were a month ago, even if defensive midfield and central defense still appear to be season-defining problems.
This game won't be about those two spots, though. This game will be about being responsible with the ball and not letting the 'Caps go vertical. Vancouver are under 40 percent possession so far in 2018 – a staggeringly low number – because they really only want to do one thing: sit deep, turn you over and get out on the run. And in Alphonso Davies, they have this:
Davies is currently the most vertical 1v1 player in the league, and is the most successful high-volume dribbler. He has elite pace, and he's also got elite change-of-pace, and a great (plus improving) first touch. To all of that he's added a more precise last touch, as he's creating and finishing chances this year that he simply didn't see last year.
Simply put: If the Loons turn the ball over anywhere near Davies, I think they're cooked. If they don't, they should end up in good shape here.
LAFC vs. FC Dallas
One of the things I've been talking about with my colleagues over the past two months is the effect Marco Ureña has had on LAFC. He's amongst the most unselfish runners of any center forward on the continent, and his passing – he has five assists, which is tied for the league lead – sort of speaks for itself. Obviously his finishing is awful, which is why he's bounced around so much in his career, but with plenty of goalscorers around him that hasn't been an issue so far with LAFC.
But now Ureña's out. He's got facial fractures which means he'll be gone for the next month (and probably longer, since he'll be at the World Cup after that) and this, my friends, is the Black-and-Gold's first big hurdle. Ureña hasn't given his team goals, but he's given them shape and definition when pushing forward whether it's been in their usual 4-2-3-1 or the 3-5-2 they've toyed around with here and there.
The obvious solution here is "just put Adama Diomande into the lineup," though that sentiment may be at least a little bit misguided as the Norwegian international hasn't played since February and almost certainly lacks match fitness. Same goes for Lee Nguyen, though the idea of Nguyen, Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi and Benny Feilhaber in the same XI is intriguing in a sort of "let's see how many true 10s and false 9s we can get onto the field together" way.
By the way, Dallas have been very good recently, and it seems like internal competition for spots is finally paying some dividends in terms of mentality. They're not sleepwalking through games anymore, and while that didn't help change the final result at NYCFC last weekend they were far more competitive than most teams who venture to Yankee Stadium these days.
LAFC's defense is similar to NYCFC's in that both take tons of risks, both with and without the ball. If the Dallas midfield is able to draw those defenders upfield, they'll be able to send runners through on goal.
Seattle Sounders vs. Columbus Crew SC
I called Cristian Roldan a "false 10" in that role because his job isn't necessarily to be a playmaker. Rather, it's to run and combine, to sniff out overloads and to drag defenders around. He doesn't create chances; he creates space.
When it's Clint Dempsey playing that role the whole focus is "let's do what we can to get him on the ball in the final third and then see what happens." Both approaches have their merits.
As for Columbus... it's hard to write the same take 34 times a year, right? They still do pretty much what they've always done under Gregg Berhalter, and their two weaknesses – not enough goalscoring from the flanks, and an error-prone central defense – are still their weaknesses.
Chicago Fire vs. Atlanta United
A month back Veljko Paunovic made the decision to start flipping Bastian Schweinsteiger between central midfield and sweeper, alternating between a 4-3-3 and a 3-5-2. Chicago have responded with a 2-1-2 stretch – obviously not great, but much better than their 0-2-0 opening to the season – during which they've played mostly credible defense and mostly covered up for everybody's weaknesses by figuring out a way to play to each other's strengths.
Schweinsteiger's been organizing the backline, and on occasion stepping into the midfield to create useful overloads. This is what the sweeper's supposed to do, and he's been good at it.
That said, the sweeper as a positional/tactical choice went out of vogue 20+ years ago and never really came back for a reason: It's a fundamentally reactive way to play defense, and fast, front-foot teams could punish any side that played with a classic sweeper. Teams got smarter at understanding where the gaps were and faster at exploiting said gaps, and no amount of emergency defense or after-the-fact organizational ability could change that.
Which is to say: I like Atlanta's chances on Saturday.
Houston Dynamo vs. LA Galaxy
This graphic is very easy to read. The dotted red line is actual points. Look where the Dynamo are on their particular curve:
They haven't been finishing, and their defense has not been good enough to make up for it. At some point that stops being an unfortunate trend and starts being "well, you are what you are" – which is a journey the Revs made last year.
Houston have only two wins in two months: Back in Week 1 they blitzed Atlanta 4-0, countering them to death. And a few weeks back they beat Toronto's USL team 5-1, capitalizing on the Reds being catastrophically short-handed.
Other than that they've gotten two draws and three losses, and I'd say they left points on the table in four of those five games.
Sporting KC vs. Colorado Rapids
One of the most entertaining games of the year was back on March 24, a 2-2 draw between these two teams in Colorado. The Rapids were up 2-0 inside the first 10 minutes, and during the subsequent 80 SKC battered the door down before finally coming up with a point.
The raw number of long-balls the Rapids hit has come down since then, but they're still the most Route 1-reliant bunch in the league, as 20.1 percent of all their pass attempts are long-balls. Despite protestations to the contrary they are, indeed, a long-ball team.
And it'll be interesting to see how SKC handle that from a defensive perspective. They're much better on that side of the ball than they were in March, but are still slower to get pressure upfield than in years past – obviously having a bunch of new personnel being one of the reasons for that. None of their preferred starting front three have what I would consider to be exceptional defensive instincts, and that has, at times, left the backline exposed (especially since both SKC fullbacks push way up).
It's been an ongoing project to fix the above, and credit to Peter Vermes & Co. for collecting a bunch of points while making some necessary adjustments. Three of their last five outings have been very good defensively – last weekend at New England was a legitimately excellent performance – and beyond that, Tim Melia's been able to save them some points here and there.
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Portland Timbers
It is two months into the season and I have no idea what the Quakes do well. They're near the bottom of the league in expected goals because they generate fewer shots than last year, their defense has been a mess and they allow a ton of useful possession to teams in and through central midfield. Their doesn't seem to be a unifying approach to... really, to just about anything.
The same is nearly true of the Timbers, but not quite and it's because we know one thing for sure: This continues to be a devastating counterattacking team. Two weeks ago Portland hung back in their own defensive third, invited NYCFC forward and then cut the Cityzens up in a 3-0 win. It wasn't the beautiful game, but it was effective and it got them three necessary points.
If I'm Portland I do damn near the same thing in this one. There's every reason to think that the Quakes will over-extend themselves pushing their fullbacks up, and no reason to think they'll be able to stop the ball through central midfield once the counter's on.
Orlando City SC vs. Real Salt Lake
I don't entirely agree with my colleague Bobby Warshaw's take here that Orlando City are just scraping out some points:
They've legitimately been the better team in each of their last three outings, and in the previous two some good adjustments from Jason Kreis earned them the points. They have depth and flexibility in attack, and that's been their main asset. Since Cristian Higuita's been inserted into the starting lineup they've been harder to play against through central midfield – in the last three weeks they've only allowed goals on set-pieces or long-balls, none through build-up play – and that's allowed them to do more with the ball.
It's been a process and they're not where they need to be, but this doesn't feel like the early-season, 2017 version of the Lions. That team was scraping out wins they didn't deserve, and were eventually exposed.
As for RSL, they've taken one of 12 available road points thus far, and have been outscored 9-1 in their last three away games. It has been neither good nor cohesive, and while they did some fun stuff in attack during the first half of last week's eventual 2-0 loss at Vancouver, it felt typical of this year's Claret-and-Cobalt in that they would advance into the final third with the ball but then create nothing meaningful once there.
They have nine goals in eight games, and just one is from a center forward. This is a song we've heard before.
One more thing to ponder...
A & B are the same color.
Happy weekending, everybody.