We are now entering the part of the season where there begins to be a strong correlation between where you are in the standings, and where you finish in the standings. In other words: If you're well below the playoff line right now, you're probably in some amount of trouble.
Obviously this is most interesting, from a neutral's point of view, in regards to Toronto FC. The Reds dropped a 2-1 home result to the Sounders on Wednesday night and now have seven points from eight games. FiveThirtyEight's model still has a certain amount of confidence that TFC and Seattle will both get it done eventually:
That makes a lot of sense to me, given that both teams are A) near the top of their respective conference in terms of raw talent, and B) their stuttering starts have been a product of CCL congestion and a damn-near devastating raft of injuries. Those are mitigating and understandable factors, and I think it's prudent to still believe both of these teams will figure out a way to get it done.
But they really do need to start getting over those injuries ASAP. If things go squirrelly this weekend TFC could end up a full 10 points below the playoff line, and Seattle could be six points out. That's far from ideal.
Into the weekend we go:
Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs. Houston Dynamo
Way back in March I declared that Houston would be a Good Team™ that did mostly Good Things™ and while they've delivered on a lot of that – they really do play pretty, inventive attacking soccer, and I'm starting to buy Wilmer Cabrera stock – they haven't delivered enough points.
A story in two clips:
That's from last week.
That's from the last time they played the 'Caps.
Obviously both of those games were at Houston, where the Dynamo habitually play with more of the ball and thus come a little farther up the field than they tend to on the road. But Vancouver would probably be just fine if Houston played this one like it was a home game since the 'Caps, as they showed last week, have no idea how to attack a packed-in defense.
On the other side of the ball, everybody is currently sleeping on just how good Alberth Elis is:
It's not a perfect comp since Miguel Almiron has mostly played as a No. 10 while Elis has been almost strictly a winger, but the past two months have felt a lot like "young player finding the range and about to come into his own, then start laying waste to all comers." Given how much Vancouver have struggled at both fullback spots this year, that's something to keep an eye on.
Seriously though, I know the Dynamo aren't at the top of everybody's ESPN+ power rankings, but they should be. Elis is a Best XI talent and once he finally breaks down the last few barriers in his game, he will be unplayable.
Update: The Dynamo took the lead twice, but the Whitecaps dragged them back twice in a 2-2 draw. The biggest surprise, perhaps, was that Vancouver's goals came from their center backs, including one that appeared to be a set-piece routine.
Minnesota United FC vs. San Jose Earthquakes
One of the discussions we've had repeatedly on Instant Analysis is "can Minnesota be a playoff team?" They are above the playoff line on total points right now (and just under it in PPG), and the west is a feather bed, so it's starting to feel like the answer is "possibly." They're not particularly good at any one particular thing but they've strung results together at home and have done just a little bit more than the bottom-half of the West.
So with that as the setting: If you're going to be a playoff team, this is the type of game you win. The Quakes have been a disaster since Week 1 – a 3-2 win at Avaya Stadium over these Loons – and are a league-worst 1-5-2. They have been soft as hell in Zone 14, which is right where MNUFC's Darwin Quintero should be operating, and they've been a mess at left back, which is right where Miguel Ibarra should be operating.
The Loons haven't had a ton of games in their MLS existence in which they're outright favored to win. This is one of them. If they don't, and if we get to October and this group finishes a point or three below the playoff line, this is the very first game everybody should point to.
Montreal Impact vs. Philadelphia Union
Philly's season in one stat:
Two bad months to start the year have probably doomed them, to be perfectly honest. This isn't Toronto, so I don't see a path up the standings for this group – just hopefully some incremental improvement and a "trust the process" vibe with that young and promising but still error-prone defense.
I also have serious questions about how Borek Dockal was scouted and signed. Dockal is a fairly skillful No. 10, but not the type of 10 who likes to get into the box and find goals. He instead prefers to stay deep and try to orchestrate.
On another team that would be fine, but on this team... well, this team has both Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin deep in central midfield to do the orchestrating. So when Dockal drops deep, that leaves the Union bereft of attackers in the 18.
That simply can not happen this weekend against a Montreal team that still can not defend. The Impact have often been good and fun going forward (especially when at home), but as we saw against Chicago midweek, they're prone to dropping into a not-very-effective shell when defending.
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
The FC Dallas midfield and forwards in 2017:
- 24 throughballs
- 175 crosses
The FC Dallas midfield and forwards in 2018:
- 16 through-balls
- 76 crosses
We've given Oscar Pareja some deserved props for getting this team out of their death spiral and up into the top three in the West (which feels about right, given overall talent and balance) on PPG. We've given him additional deserved props for finally instituting some squad rotation – not just for rest, but for holding underperforming starters accountable. Both Maxi Urruti and Mauro Diaz have responded positively to a good degree, as has Carlos Gruezo and hopefully Kellyn Acosta is next. Pareja also rode out Reggie Cannon's early-season jitters and the kid has quietly become one of the better two-way right backs in the league.
But he also, at some point, realized that his team skewed waaaaaay too cross-heavy last season and has made necessary adjustments toward fixing it. Roland Lamah in particular has flown under the radar as a defense-splitting menace, and while Jacori Hayes isn't that kind of central midfielder his Nagbe-esque knack for early and accurate distribution to the feet of his attackers has meant fewer hopeful crosses from those guys.
Dallas are playing good soccer. And given the Galaxy's historic struggles in Texas, this one doesn't bode well for LA.
Columbus Crew SC vs. Chicago Fire
Chicago will do the opposite of this on Saturday. As Bobby broke down in a column this week, the Fire eliminated Ignacio Piatti from Wednesday night's proceedings by man-to-manning him all over the field.
I don't think you can do that against Crew SC. I suspect they'll eat that up.
New England Revolution vs. Toronto FC
This is the biggest game of the weekend for all the reasons listed in the lede. TFC will almost certainly be playing with a makeshift defense again, and it'll be up to the Revs to punish Michael Bradley's occasional wanderlust:
One of the things that's made TFC so good over the past couple of years is that they've been shape-shifters. They can play a 4-4-2 diamond, a 3-5-2, a 4-1-4-1, etc. They've also been able to switch between front-foot play and back-foot play pretty easily, and I suspect in this one they'll be playing somewhat on the back foot in order to coax the Revs up the pitch.
New England were sloppy when they did that last weekend, and constantly let the Impact run through the lines. Don't be surprised if we see Greg Vanney use his notes from that film session.
Colorado Rapids vs. New York Red Bulls
This year's Red Bulls team has done a mostly excellent job of pressing the hell out of all comers and playing constant, high-energy soccer. But it's tough to do that a mile high, and it's arguably tougher still to make it work against a team who's completely happy to hit long-ball after long-ball. The Rapids just want to play over the top – it's how they're built, and they're pretty good at it. So if the energy of the press slips by five percent or so because of altitude, that can/probably will lead to breakout attempts for Dominique Badji.
If RBNY gets a goal early and controls the game-state, and thus forces the Rapids to come out and play, this one could get interesting/ugly by halftime.
Real Salt Lake vs. D.C. United
You can see from that expected goals chart above just how poor D.C. have been at creating chances through the first two months of the season. There are obviously some mitigating factors because of their road-heavy schedule and their extensive injury list, but at some point you have to come play a little bit of soccer.
They did so for a minute in their most recent outing, a 3-2 loss at Philly:
I absolutely think you can press RSL this same way, especially since left back continues to be an open, gaping wound, and because the Claret-and-Cobalt central midfield tandem of Kyle Beckerman and Damir Kreilach just have not worked together. You have to go right at them and punish them for their disorganization.
Of course, the same is true of D.C., and RSL have plenty of skillful attackers who can open up a defense. Whether they'll put those chances away, though...
Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders
Best sustained attack of the season from Portland:
Orlando City SC vs. Atlanta United
I have gone on this assumption since early in the season: Atlanta United, Toronto FC, NYCFC and the Red Bulls (who convinced me via their CCL throttling of Tijuana) are the four alphas in 2018. Columbus, if they can replace Justin Meram's goals from the wing – which they haven't, and that's a huge problem – could join them.
Beyond those five, I saw two other teams I liked a lot on paper: Sporting KC and Orlando City. SKC have proved their worth and mettle by going to the top of the West and capped it off in taking three points at Atlanta on Wednesday night. The Five Stripes played great despite being down to 10 men and Peter Vermes even admitted afterward that they're probably the best team in the league, but the fact that SKC could go into that environment and get three points, and are now a third of the way through their season and are averaging 2.1 ppg, and have in large part sorted the defensive issues that had so many so shook back in March, and have managed to keep scoring goals without Felipe Gutierrezz... SKC's in the group. The top four have now, in my eyes, become a top five.
That's the group Orlando City's trying to get into. They're riding a six-game winning streak, but those wins have mostly come against bottom-of-the-barrel teams (it started with a win over the Red Bulls, but it was basically the RBNY USL team since Jesse Marsch was resting his regulars for CCL action), and as they've been winning they've still managed to look horribly vulnerable at the back:
A win here is a signature moment for OCSC, and an indication that they are, indeed, for real. We know the attack is, and I like the hell out of their deep central midfield combo as well. But until that defense shows it's able to do fundamental things right – like not get undressed by a simple ball over the top two or three times a game – I'm reserving my right to remain skeptical about Orlando City's ceiling.
As for Atlanta, I'm very curious to see if it's back to the 3-5-2 after Wednesday night's disappointment.
LAFC vs. NYCFC
The other team on the verge of joining that top group are, of course, LAFC (and no, NYCFC are in no danger of falling out of that top group despite a pair of emphatic losses in the past month). LAFC have had an identity and purpose since Week 1, and have largely kept it over the past two outings despite playing without starting striker Marco Ureña.
To be clear, though, they have missed the Costa Rican international. The intelligence of his movement, his workrate and passing touch all opened up room for the likes of Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi and Latif Blessing. It hasn't quite been as flowing, and gaps haven't been busted open quite so wide over the past 180 minutes.
Bob Bradley's compensated at least in part by inverting the midfield triangle from time to time, going from two deep and one up to one deep and two up (basically the difference between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-1-4-1). That's how both Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye got forward in Wednesday night's 2-0 win over MNUFC.
So they've found a way
NYCFC, meanwhile, have not. They were naive and sloppy last weekend against the Red Bulls:
LAFC want to turn you over in different spots than New York do – the Red Bulls press high, while the Black-and-Gold compress you deeper, at or beyond the midfield stripe. But the principle is roughly the same, and the Cityzens need to be smarter and sharper than they were last weekend.
If they're not, they'll be looking at a run during which they'll have taken just three points from four games. That would be the worst stretch under Patrick Vieira since May of 2016.
One more thing to ponder...
Happy weekending, everybody.