Welcome to the first weekend of June, which doubles as the first weekend in which the full cadre of World Cup call-ups will be away from their MLS teams. Things have a chance of becoming very MLS-y.
Let's dive in:
Colorado Rapids vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
The Whitecaps have, for the first time all season, dropped below the playoff line thanks to a stretch during which they've won just once in their past nine games. This has come – weirdly, I'll admit – during a time in which they've actually gone out and played some of their most attractive soccer in years. They were devastating getting out onto the break against New England last weekend, and with Yordy Reyna and Felipe both quietly balling they have had more ideas than usual in the attacking third.
But their defense is a train wreck. Only Montreal have shipped more than the 27 goals the 'Caps have conceded thus far, and it's hard to imagine that number's going to look much better now with Kendall Waston in Russia.
Even that might not be enough to wake up a moribund Rapids attack that's scored just four goals in their last six outings, all losses.
Hard as it is to believe, though, it's not the attack that's been killing Colorado's season. If you want the deep dive, I recommend Rapids Rabbi's tome published this week. If you want the abridged version:
There sure, sure sure have been a lot of passes like that. And there sure have been a lot of counterattacks when Colorado desperately and haphazardly throw their center backs forward.
Update: Called it? Reyna and Co. ripped the Rapids to shreds on the counterattack, and the Rapids obliged with more poor defending in transition, leading to a 2-1 win for the Whitecaps.
Portland Timbers vs. LA Galaxy
Granted, that's five levels beyond pretty from FC Dallas, but whether the goals are pretty sequences or simple service from out wide, LA have not been able to defend.
They've also become too reliant upon long balls in an attempt to advance the ball up to the attacking third, which doesn't make a lot of sense given they have some actual ball-playing central midfielders. Bottom line is that they've had enough talent to sneak past the poorer teams they've played, but Portland, at home, aren't that.
Atlanta United vs. Philadelphia Union
Philly have won three of four and four of seven, and are unbeaten in four, and have conceded just twice in that span. They spent the first 45 minutes on Wednesday night looking far superior to the Chicago Fire, and then the second 45 looking pretty lost for the first time in a while. Jim Curtin blessed his troops out, which is probably necessary heading into a game against the Five Stripes.
What do we make of this Atlanta United bunch? As of late, I think it's safe to say they're finding a way to leave points on the table with some poor decision-making and poorer finishing. That was the case in Wednesday's 1-1 draw at New England – not a bad result in a vacuum, but one in which they definitely, definitely should've bagged more than one:
They've now won just once in their past four. I think it's a blip, and I think that someone – maybe Philly, or maybe NYCFC or Columbus in the coming weeks – is going to suddenly feel the business side of a bus as the Five Stripes rediscover their collective finishing touch.
Be super-aware of Keegan Rosenberry pushing up from right back, by the way. Atlanta like to flare Miguel Almiron out to the left in order to overload that side, and if the Union lose possession while Rosenberry's way up on the front foot, they are in trouble.
Columbus Crew SC vs. Toronto FC
My take for the past month is that TFC will be fine once they get their squad to something approaching 80 percent health (or so). New England going into a slump (one win in five) and Orlando City doing the same (three straight losses) has given them a little more breathing room than they otherwise might have had, but here's a simple fact that my colleague Bobby Warshaw pointed out on Wednesday night's Instant Analysis: TFC likely have to take 41 points from their final 23 games, which is at or above a typical Supporters' Shield-winning pace.
It is a big ask, even for this team. I maintain my belief that they are likely to be up to it, though a loss here would force me to at least begin to rethink.
I'm not sure what version of Crew SC we'll see given their suspensions (Federico Higuain), injuries (Pedro Santos, Jonathan Mensah) and international absences (Cristian Martinez, Zack Steffen, Wil Trapp).
Don't be tooooo shocked if they bunker-and-counter a little, especially given TFC's recent lack of speed at the back. Gregg Berhalter's done that before in big moments, including way back in the 2015 playoffs against the New York Red Bulls. There is an oft-underappreciated flexibility to how his team plays.
Montreal Impact vs. Houston Dynamo
The Impact have lost eight of nine and head coach Remi Garde is gaslighting his players:
Houston once again dropped late points on Wednesday – this time they couldn't defend a corner kick – and we all know how they struggle on the road. This time it'll be on the road, on short rest, coming off a game at altitude, halfway across the continent. It's not an ideal situation.
But I'll say it again: Montreal have lost eight of nine and their coach is out there saying that his players are not good at soccer. The Dynamo have to figure out a way to win this one.
New England Revolution vs. New York Red Bulls
The Revs jumped out to a good start in March and April, taking 13 points through their first eight games. They've followed that up with five points from their subsequent five, including two very fortunate ones in their past two outings (a road draw at Vancouver, followed by Wednesday's 1-1 against visiting Atlanta). There is one big reason why:
He's absolutely had to be because the Revs are still struggling to defend. They are a dangerous and organized team through their front six, but if you can play through their front six – through the high pressure that got them off to such a fast start this year – then you are going to force their defense to make plays that they've shown little ability to actually make.
Which is to say that New England have to win the ball in midfield or higher. If they don't, it leads to the types of breakaways that both the 'Caps and Five Stripes squandered (with some help from Turner) because there's just a natural dislocation between the New England lines.
There is every chance the Red Bulls will see this and figure out how to put Kaku to work in that spot.
NYCFC vs. Orlando City
NYCFC won five of six to start the season, but are now in a stretch during which they've won just two of seven. That includes three blow-out losses, at Portland, at RBNY and at Houston.
Know what it doesn't include? Many home games, or any dropped points at home. NYCFC are 5-0-0 at Yankee Stadium, one of two remaining perfect home teams in the league (Portland's the other), and are officially staring at a stretch during which they play six of seven in the Bronx. I will make this prediction: By July 14 – the final game of that stretch – the Pigeons will be atop the Shield standings (provided David Villa stays healthy).
One change Patrick Vieira's toyed with over the past month in his efforts to ensure that Villa does indeed stay healthy is playing some 3-5-2. The idea is for Villa to float off the frontline and let Jo Inge Berget get into the physical battles with defenders that are so draining. It's a good long-term play, but it's been a bad short one: Berget is doing his best Adam Nemec impersonation with just one goal in nearly 800 minutes.
It's tough to justify putting him out there on the road, and not at all justifiable at home. My guess is it's back to the 4-3-3, and a focus on splitting Orlando City's central midfielders away from the ball:
This is a run Maxi Moralez makes.
The question is, "is this a run that Orlando City are now prepared to track?" And even if they do, the Purple Lions backline is now as banged up as anybody's, TFC included. It's damn near impossible to imagine that makeshift group riding the 6 train all the way to a result.
FC Dallas vs. LAFC
If you want our full take on FCD, watch the video embedded at the top of the page. Short version: I think they've become really good again, and if Mauro Diaz keeps playing as he has been, they'll jump back up into the ranks of elite teams. You could argue they've already done so, given they have just one loss this season and given they've bagged quality wins both at home and on the road.
The same is mostly true of LAFC, though it's fair to say they won't quite be the same team that's had such a good first three months of existence. Carlos Vela, Marco Ureña and Laurent Ciman are gone, to name three. Adama Diomande will likely make his first start at center forward. I'm not sure exactly how the backline will line up given Ciman's absence and Dejan Jakovic's suspension. Diego Rossi is carrying a knock and hasn't been all that effective over the past six weeks.
These are the mostly normal trials and tribulations of a regular MLS season, but they hit expansion teams – which, almost as a rule, don't have a ton of depth – harder than others. The Black-and-Gold deserve credit for grinding out some results recently, including a 1-1 at home against Dallas a month ago. They'll have to grind again to get anything out of this game.
Chicago Fire vs. San Jose Earthquakes
Last week Bobby and I made a video examining San Jose's weakness protecting Zone 14:
Jamon at QuakesEpicenter took that observation and ran with it. I'm going to crib a paragraph of his here:
In terms of passes coming into the golden zone, the Quakes sit dead last with the highest number of pass attempts against (27.2 per game) and completions against (18.4 per game). For passes within the zone, San Jose is 19th (10.3 per game) in attempts against and 19th (8.0 per game) in completions against. And for passes going out of the zone (the most dangerous), the Quakes are 22nd in the league in both attempts against (17.6 per game) and 21st in completions against (13.1 per game). There is no silver lining in this data. Against the Earthquakes, talented players know they can get access to Zone 14, move the ball within it, and then move the ball out of it (or shoot) when a good opportunity presents itself. Even WhoScored’s algorithms have figured out the Quakes have a big issue against skilled players rating them “Very Weak”.
Until San Jose figure out how to deal with this – and as per the video above, I still believe it's their insistence upon a double pivot – they will be losing lots of games.
Of course, the Fire lack the sort of top-end skill players who've given San Jose the most trouble. But Aleksandar Katai has had his moments, and perhaps all he needs is a bit of breathing room to really settle in.
Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle Sounders
While RSL have been mostly disappointing this season, they've found life recently by going to work down that left flank. It's not a mistake that's coincided with Danny Acosta's re-introduction into the lineup. His ability to handle that spot (he shut down Alberth Elis on Wednesday – Elis' goal came after he was moved to center forward) defensively, as well as his on-point distribution, lets Bofo Saucedo push up higher and that in turn gives opposing defenders less time to settle into their spots.
The other big change has been breaking up the Kyle Beckerman/Damir Kreilach pairing deep in central midfield. Sunny doesn't have much passing range, but he's mobile and committed, and his strength has now, in back-to-back games, hid the weaknesses of the guys around him (Nick Besler deserves some dap as well). The Claret-and-Cobalt have finally figured out how to be a little bit difficult to play through.
And I'm not sure any of that matters against this battered and punchless Seattle team. They're 2-6-2 with 7 goals scored all season, and while a couple of guys might be back – Brian Schmetzer has been hinting at Will Bruin's availability – there are zero excuses for RSL should they come away with anything but the full three points.
Sporting KC vs. Minnesota United FC
So here we are, back to this old conversation again. Through SKC's first eight games of the 2018 season, they scored 19 goals. They did so largely by having their center forward work hard to drag the opposing defense around, then hit the gaps that chaos caused with a bunch of wingers and a couple of goal-hungry midfielders. It worked and there was a lot of "yeah our No. 9's not scoring, but this time it's different."
In the five games following that hot start, SKC have scored just five goals. Khiry Shelton – now the starting No. 9 – has one of them, which was and remains his only goal of the year. It was a few weeks back against the same MNUFC team Sporting will be facing this weekend, but it's fair to wonder if this particular approach has hit the point of diminishing returns. It's fair to wonder if the old conversation is once again the right conversation:
Shelton wasn't able to get Columbus moving around and chasing him, and thus SKC's attack was once again unable to do much of anything.
To put a number on it: SKC's attack hasn't scored an open-play goal against an 11-man defense since April 20. If it's not a set piece or not 11-v-10 (or sometimes, even when it is!), they're looking nothing at all like the group that tore through the league in the first seven weeks of the season.
We'll see if the Loons can trouble them again, even without their captain and backline leader, Francisco Calvo.
One more thing to ponder...
Happy weekending, everybody.