The final weekend of May does not mark the final collection of games this month. There's a quartet scheduled for Wednesday – two East, two West – so between that, injury and certain players headed off to World Cup camps, expect a decent amount of squad rotation this weekend.
Should we expect goals, though? A month ago the league was averaging nearly 3.3 goals per match and just about everybody was lighting up the scoreboard. Now we're down to 2.8, and my gut feeling is a bunch of the bottom-dwellers looked at the top teams and said "wow we'd better just bunker against that because if we try to come out and play we're going to get killed."
It's part of the ongoing stratification of the league. Parity is still at the heart of MLS, but certain teams have been better at acquiring top talent, or developing young talent, or integrating all their talent (or all three), so there's starting to be haves and have-nots.
We know what happens in those situations because we see it all over the world: The have-nots play for the 0-0, or the smash-and-grab. Thus the onus is on the haves to crack 'em open early, control the game state and force them to come out and play.
Of late that's been easier said than done.
Let's take a look at Week 13:
Toronto FC vs. FC Dallas
Have you seen the Sebastian Giovinco to Tigres reports? You should look at them, and then think about the fact that Giovinco is 1) 31 years old, 2) not the player he was two years ago, 3) injury prone, and 4) on $7 million per year. Then look at this:
That is not a real denial, is it? The question isn't "have you received an offer from Tigres?" it's "would you listen to offers from Tigres?"
I'd wager they would. Giovinco is still arguably the best player in MLS, but he's on the downslope and almost certainly won't be the best player in the league when his current contract ends after next season. But he's clamoring for a new contract already and, from afar, things seem to be at more than just a gentle simmer.
If Giovinco plays angry it's usually good, provided he can avoid getting carded for abusive language or simple dissent. Nonetheless the Reds have to deal with all of that as they re-integrate a bunch of newly healthy players, and as they try to climb out of the early-season hole they dug for themselves. It feels slightly dangerous and combustible.
Dallas will be waiting, happily, to try to throw a wrench into the works. They have just one loss all season but just one win in their last four, and tossed away two points last weekend.
Houston vs. NYCFC
Way back in Week 1 the Dynamo blitzed Atlanta United 4-0 in Houston. Atlanta came into that game attempting to play the way that NYCFC play just about every game: four at the back, build with the ball on the ground, push the fullbacks up in order to create overloads and turn possession into both width and penetration.
Houston knew it was coming and just battered the Five Stripes by drawing their line of confrontation at the midfield stripe and turning every 50/50 ball into a breakaway opportunity. If Atlanta were going to play so much on the front foot, and bring their defenders so high upfield, then Alberth Elis was going to run into space all day.
And so he did. That, plus set-piece dominance, made for what is still one of the most resounding wins of the year, for anybody.
Obviously there should be some warning sirens going off for the Pigeons. Patrick Vieira has been adamant that he doesn't want to change the way his team plays – under him they value the ball and always will – but he's been a touch pragmatic about where they build, what formation they play (it was a 3-5-2 last week) and how high they'll push their fullbacks. In other words, don't expect Ben Sweat to get too far upfield on the left since that's where Elis lurks.
Do, however, expect Alex Ring to be under heavy pressure from the Houston attackers. If he handles that well, NYCFC will give themselves a much better shot than Atlanta did two months back.
LA Galaxy vs. San Jose Earthquakes
My colleague Bobby Warshaw has been working on the assumption, since he arrived, that the Galaxy would be better with Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the bench. The idea is that with him out of the lineup the entire team would end up playing with a more egalitarian bent, working for and with each other in order to carve out chances rather than playing through their fulcrum of a superstar No. 9.
This point of view is not without merit (though to be clear: he is wrong. You can build a scheme for a heavy-usage Zlatan and be successful if you're smart about it).
The real problem for the Galaxy isn't Zlatan, or the attack at all, really. It's... elsewhere:
That clip's made the rounds this week, as it should've. It's never clear how LA intend to shuttle the ball from back to front, and so there tend to be a lot of aimless long-balls. With or without the big Swede, that's not a great plan.
Of course it might be good enough against a Quakes team that, week to week, looks like it has no idea how to defend, and no idea of how to play as a unit. They almost certainly lead the league in hospital balls and are probably second only to Montreal in blown offside traps.
Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake
How many healthy starters do the Sounders have left? It's not a ton, but honestly they might still be OK because RSL are just shocking when trying to defend on the road.
Borek Dockal is not, and never has been particularly fast. And yet:
It's becoming more and more apparent by the week that Kyle Beckerman and Damir Kreilach can not play together without getting carved up because neither has any kind of footspeed. If this was circa 2013 RSL – a team that kept the game small and tight, that constantly used the ball to create angles and meaningful possession – they could probably pull it off.
But that's not how they play. They're a "spread the field and run at 'em" team when they have the ball, which means any turnover is an existential crisis. And while it's undeniably true that RSL aren't 2013 RSL, it's undeniably-er true that MLS isn't 2013 MLS. Teams are better and smarter and even the bottom of the barrel can go HAM if you don't track through the midfield.
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. New England Revolution
Columbus did a very clever job last weekend of playing over the Revs high press and turning it into a game of second balls in midfield off of Gyasi Zardes knockdowns:
This is pretty much the default setting for Vancouver, a team who hit more long-balls than anybody else in the league. The key will be for them to be measured long-balls rather than the rushed, aimless types they often resort to. And the other key will obviously be to understand their own midfield shape – the 'Caps play with multiple d-mids, and while that can gum up opposing attacks there's also often a bit of "you take him, no I've got him"-type uncertainty when it comes to closing down lanes and making zonal reads.
Which is to say that you can get in between the lines against a Vancouver team that's not as defensively sound as they were last year. The Revs weren't able to do that at all against Crew SC last week, but Columbus are made of sterner, more organized stuff. Watch for Teal Bunbury to release into space as Diego Fagundez drifts into pockets between the 'Caps midfield and defense.
New York Red Bulls vs. Philadelphia Union
The Union have won two in a row in commanding fashion. Their "Trust the Process" central defense of Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie has largely been very good, and it's nice to see a coach give his young players time to improve. Jim Curtin deserves some dap.
It's been a feel-good two weeks for Philly. And now they head to Harrison to take on the Red Bulls.
Orlando City vs. Chicago Fire
A few weeks back I looked at Orlando City's schedule and said that they were entering a brutal stretch in which they'd be outright favored in just two of the next 13 games. This, the third game in that stretch (they're 0-2-0 so far, though they've played well), is one of them.
The Lions have been much more structurally sound over the past three halves of defensive soccer, having mostly cut out allowing the breakaways that had caused them so much worry through the season's first two months. The fact that it hasn't paid off with a point is a type of cruel irony.
Regardless, here's the simple truth: At home against a slow, injured and fading Chicago team, they can't afford anything but the full three points. And that means the central midfield has to be better at tracking runners than they've shown:
Minnesota United vs. Montreal Impact
MNUFC – go ahead and @ them if you want to – have taken just seven points from their last nine games as they've struggled mightily to defend in the box. Bobby Shuttleworth is putting in damn near man of the match performances on the regular, which has kept more than a few of these games respectable.
By the eye test I'd say that the Loons actually have a better front-to-back defensive structure than they did for much of last year, and recent acquisition Eric Miller has helped noticeably at fullback. But they are sloppy and epically prone to mental lapses in central defense, and if you're sporting that particular flaw you're going to lose a lot of games.
Montreal have all those same flaws plus a few more. They're comfortably ahead of MNUFC's all-time-worst-defense pace the Loons set last year and have lost seven of eight. FiveThirtyEight puts their chances of claiming a playoff spot at just 8% (which IMO feels high).
They should trade Ignacio Piatti, sell whatever other veterans they can part with, and go into full rebuild mode. Piatti's not the problem – he never has been – but the timeline Montreal are looking at, he's too old to be part of the solution. Montreal have largely ignored the draft, have been slow to develop their Homegrown talent, and have been far too in love recently with importing injury-prone, 30-something defenders. They are years away from competing, and Piatti doesn't have that kind of time left.
Chicago? Columbus? Seattle? Somebody out there will give up all their TAM and a young talent for the guy.
Colorado Rapids vs. Portland Timbers
The Timbers have been a counterattacking machine over the last few years. That kind of disappeared in March, but it's come back with a vengeance since then as they've ripped off five straight wins. Here ya go:
The question against the Rapids is always "will they give you room to counter?" Colorado are still very much a sit-deep-and-break group (they love a good, direct long-ball over the top to Dominique Badji) and that kind of reactive approach obviously has its benefits in the modern game – if you're not trying to play with the ball in your own defensive third, you're not going to have as many potentially fatal turnovers.
But the truth is that somebody's going to need to be on the ball in this one. Given Colorado's miserable start, their ever-present 5,280 feet of home-field advantage and the existential nature of their upcoming stretch (four of five at home, and I'd say they need nine points to keep their playoff hopes at all realistic), it's perhaps time to throw caution to the wind spend time playing on the front foot.
Is that a switch they can just flip without exposing themselves in transition? I doubt it. But nothing else has worked.
LAFC vs. D.C. United
D.C. got themselves a nice-looking win at San Jose last week. They scored two goals off of high pressure and one on a lovely long-ball over the top that caught the Quakes backline predictably flat-footed and out of alignment. It was good stuff from D.C.
It was also a rarity this season. United have spent less time in the attacking third than anyone else in MLS, and despite a very nice collection of committed, skilled, two-way attackers they just haven't really been able to figure out how to move forward with intent more than every so often.
The numbers back that up:
Passes Into Final Third
Sporting Kansas City
New England Revolution
Columbus Crew SC
Minnesota United FC
New York City FC
New York Red Bulls
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Orlando City SC
Los Angeles Football Club
Atlanta United FC
Real Salt Lake
Seattle Sounders FC
San Jose Earthquakes
If you can't even figure out how to get into the most dangerous spots on the field, maybe your best bet is to just defend there? That's why there's promise in the high pressure they used to undress San Jose.
LAFC are obviously a level or three above the Quakes, but they've been susceptible to the high press themselves at times this season. Of course they've also annihilated a few teams that have attempted to press them badly, and their whole ethos is "we will pass right through you."
They've done so with less effectiveness since Marco Ureña went down injured last month, but what you're hearing is Adama Diomande's music. The Norwegian was superb in a midweek friendly vs. Borussia Dortmund, and Bob Bradley – who coached Diomande at Stabæk a few years ago – went out and got him for a reason.
Sporting KC vs. Columbus Crew SC
Two of the best teams in the league right now, but both have obvious shortfalls at the moment. For Crew SC it's still their inability to generate goals from the wing – an ongoing concern that my I'm guessing Gregg Berhalter is prepared to wait out (Niko Hansen has loads of promise as a goalscoring winger, but his decision-making needs lots of refinement).
For Sporting it's been a lack of any sort of creativity from central midfield in the absence of Felipe Gutierrez. And it's not just "hey see if you can ping the ball around and open up the defense" creativity, but the sort of goal-hunting, dangerous-movement-off-the-ball creativity that the Chilean brought to the table back in March.
DP signing Yohan Croizet has, uh, not been up to the task: