I've been looking for the right place to use this tweet...
Hope you've been enjoying the World Cup.
Since the past weekend was dark in MLS, this is a good time to reboot our understanding of the teams that are on the docket this weekend. So instead of the usual format for this column we're gonna play around a little bit.
Philadelphia Union vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Who the Union Are: To this point in the season the Union have been one of the most ball-playing teams in the league. They love to build out of the back – though they do so not through their young center backs, but rather their veteran midfielders who drop deep and their high-usage fullbacks. The gamble they took on those young CBs has started to pay off, as Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty have both looked very good.
Philly play pretty, effective soccer, sort of a "Columbus Crew SC Light." At times they look like one of the best teams in the league.
Then they get into the final third and become the Gang that Can't Shoot Straight. Their finishing has been abysmal just about all year long, as both David Accam and C.J. Sapong, who were supposed to be the one-two punch to put this team to the top of the East, have struggled (to put it kindly).
Philly are a vastly different team without the left foot and field-spreading brain of Haris Medunjanin, who's suspended for this one.
Who the 'Caps Are: Sit back, relax and let yourself go. Over the past six to eight weeks they've evolved from a "long-ball and cross" team to a more modern counterattacking side. They still hit a lot of long-balls, but now they're diagonals to streaking wingers instead of hoofed clearances to the center forward. They still hit a decent number of crosses, but most of them come after driving at a backpedaling opponent:
Vancouver have scored 17 goals in their last six games, and it feels like most of them have come exactly like that – on the break, annihilating the stretched opposition.
The problem is they've won just two of those six and three of their past 11 because they can't defend. Sitting deep as they've done invites pressure they haven't been equipped to handle, and so they've conceded 30 goals already this season, good for (bad for?) 20th in the league.
New York Red Bulls vs. FC Dallas
Who the Red Bulls Are: They are the highest and hardest pressing team in the league, one that thrives on winning 50/50 balls then as rapidly as possible turning those midfield wins into chances going in the other direction. The more teams try to come out and play against them, the better they seem to do (especially if you're foolish enough to try to build up the gut).
I still think they need, at some point, the ability to put their foot on the ball, knock it around and use it to pull a scrambling opponent apart. But they haven't really shown much inclination toward that.
Who FC Dallas Are: It looks quite a bit like they're the team that hit 60 points in both 2015 and 2016, and with just under half the season gone they're leading the league in PPG. They're off to the best 14-game start in franchise history.
So are they back? They were sitting pretty at this time last year, remember (I know you remember, I write about it every week), and then they fell apart in historic fashion. There is, I'm sure, a cadre of Dallas fans who will be waiting until the very, very bitter end to decide whether or not they're gonna have any faith in this team.
But I'm there already. Oscar Pareja's gotten buy-in from the whole roster, and has subsequently used a bigger chunk of the roster than he did in the second half of last season. The competition for places has had this team coming out with a real edge, and has kept legs fresh, and has even allowed Pareja do do fun tactical things like using Mauro Diaz as a wing playmaker, or Roland Lamah as a direct-to-goal threat out of central midfield, or Ryan Hollingshead as basically a left wingback instead of a left back.
Orlando City SC vs. Montreal Impact
Who Orlando City Are: A team without a coach! The Purple Lions bid farewell to Jason Kreis last week after their latest six-game losing streak, one that's seen them drop to sixth in the East. At times they haven't been able to score, and at times they haven't been able to defend, and at no point have they looked like they knew how to both score and defend at the same time. Plus they've been badly injured throughout.
They have more talent than this recent streak suggests, and just gutted out a nice U.S. Open Cup result at D.C. this past Wednesday. It was hardly clinical, and it was hardly familiar – they played in a reactive 3-6-1 for that game, a vast departure from the 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 diamond they used under Kreis – but a win's a win.
Bottom line, though, is this group has to figure out how to play the game together. Their runs are slow and reactive and disjointed no matter how they've lined up, and that's led to a bunch of midfield turnovers, and that's led to a bunch of counterattacking chances going the wrong way.
Who Montreal Are: I still have no idea to be perfectly honest with you. Remi Garde's team lacks any sort of identity – they're not tough to play against through the middle; they don't defend well in the heart of their defense; their fullbacks don't add all that much to the attack or possession; they're not a fearsome counterattcking bunch.
Let me ask you this: Who is the player that Montreal's system runs through? Every team has one guy like that, and while some are more obvious than others, you can pretty much point to the guy on every team. Can you do that with the Impact?
And before you say "Ignacio Piatti!," be aware that he's getting fewer touches overall, fewer touches in the attacking third, and fewer touches in the box than he did the last couple of season. His talent and box-score stats are still elite, but with the way Garde has his team set up Piatti's out there trying to rescue games, not control them.
Sporting KC vs. Houston Dynamo
Who Sporting KC Are: Sporting aren't pressing as high or hard as they have in years past. They've done what I've asked of the Red Bulls – learned to put their foot on the ball and control the game by creating space, not just closing space down. It's led to some nervy moments at the back (anyone who thinks this team has been as good defensively as what we're used to is deluding themselves), but in the long run I suspect it'll be worth it.
There is this, though: Sporting still don't have a center forward who can go out there and win them the game. I maintain that's a potentially fatal issue, but what Khiry Shelton has been part of shouldn't be overlooked:
Shelton makes hard, committed, unselfish runs, and his teammates have used those well.
Forwards should score, though.
Who Houston Are: They're the team that should be 8- or 10-points better in the standings than they are. I generally love the way the Dynamo have played – they're still primarily a counterattacking team, but are more comfortable using the ball through midfield and playing the game inside-out than purely down the flanks, a la last year, and they're infinitely better at combining in the final third.
What they're not good at is defending. And what they're super not good at is defending a lead. The Dynamo have dropped nine points from winning position, and have turned two more draws into losses by conceding sloppy second-half goals. You could argue that they should be battling Dallas and Sporting at the top of the West, not Portland, LA and RSL down at the playoff line.
Injuries have taken a toll, as has occasionally awful finishing. But the bottom line is that this group feels like last year's Revs: Fun and fast and largely good, but too soft to win most of the games they should.
Colorado Rapids vs. Minnesota United FC
Who Colorado Are: They're dead last in MLS on 9 points through 14 games, which is the worst start in club history. They talked about a new, attacking approach playing out of a 3-5-2, but have gotten very little in terms of combination or creative play, and halfway into the season their only consistent attacking idea is to lump a clearance up top and hope that Dominique Badji can run onto it and finish. That worked decently for a four-game stretch back in March and early April, but they're 0-10-1 since in all competitions (including a listless 2-0 U.S. Open Cup loss to USL side Nashville SC).
The worst part about the 3-5-2 has been the way it's exposed their not-at-all mobile new backline. It's put Danny Wilson, Deklan Wynne and Tommy Smith into positions where they have to defend in space, and none of them are suited for that. Add in Tim Howard's struggles, and that's a recipe for a high draft pick this winter.
Who MNUFC Are: Through 14 games last year the Loons had 14 points. Through 14 games this year they have 16 points, so I guess you could say they've improved? They've had some credible performances, and despite a raft of injures are still often fun pushing forward.
But to my eye they still have zero idea how to defend as a unit and stop getting carved up in the most dangerous spots on the field. Namely, they're toast in Zone 14:
This graphic is from Jamon Moore's excellent work over at AmericanSoccerAnalysis. Read the whole thing.
The bottom line is that when teams are able to operate in front of your goal like that, you're going to spend a lot of time scrambling defensively. 1) that's not sustainable, and 2) that means you're rarely going to be able to to control games.
Real Salt Lake vs. San Jose Earthquakes
Who RSL Are: The Claret-and-Cobalt are 5th place in the West despite being tied for the second-worst goal differential in the league. That's because they've generally played just well enough to win at home, and have gone out on and gotten annihilated most games on the road.
That's befitting what's a mostly young team. Right now there are five Homegrowns in the first XI, and the kids are suffering some typical ups and downs. But it's fun to watch them work together:
So RSL's biggest problem hasn't been the kids. Rather, it's been the one place they've been over-reliant upon veterans: Central midfield. The Damir Kreilach/Kyle Beckerman pairing has been helpless defensively and minimally impactful in possession, and only recently did Mike Petke decide to drop one or the other in favor of Sunny, who is capable of doing at least part of the field-shrinking duty this team was lacking.
It can't be said enough: Kreilach/Beckerman together is flammable, and burns hot enough to melt steel beams.
That's not to say it's all their fault. RSL's front-foot pressure from the frontline exists on the spectrum from "disorganized" to "wut?," which is why teams who want to build with the ball are able to find such easy entree into and through the central midfield in the first place.
Who San Jose Are: I don't know. They've tried, by my count, six different formations and (I'm not gonna count) probably 10 different backlines. Maybe more.
There are just three consistent things about this team:
- Danny Hoesen finally looks like the goalscoring, playmaking No. 9 everyone (including Fulham and Ajax) hoped he'd be. He's been excellent.
- They can't defend in Zone 14.
- Their attackers barely defend at all. I mentioned above that RSL's front-foot pressure is mostly disorganized; San Jose's is non-existent.
Add in the struggles of Andrew Tarbell in net – he's allowed seven goals from outside the box, which is easily the most in the league – and you're gonna have a bad season.
Seattle Sounders vs. Chicago Fire
Who Seattle Are: They are very much in the mold of what they were last year: A talented, veteran team who take freaking forever to move the ball from the back to the front. Other teams play in transition; do the Sounders? Nobody in MLS is as likely to kill their own counter opportunity by playing back or square after winning the ball at midfield, and if you do that, you've got to make sure you are excellent – absolutely on point – when you do actually have the ball.
Seattle have not been that. Last year they could be because everybody was (mostly) healthy and a year younger. This year everybody's been mostly hurt and Father Time is winning some battles. The margins have gotten narrower.
But this is the West, and Nicolas Lodeiro has brought some spark back into this team the past couple of weeks, and Raul Ruidiaz is probably on his way, and that might be enough (provided there are no more catastrophic injuries). But Sounders fans... please say some fond farewells now, because this group of players is unlikely to be around past the end of the season.
Who Chicago Are: They're a group that Veljko Paunovic marches out every week and does something weird with. Sometimes it's a 3-5-2 with Bastian Schweinsteiger as a sweeper; sometimes it's a 4-3-3 with ball and on the front-foot; sometimes it's a 4-5-1 with man-marking, purely reactive soccer; sometimes it's a 5-4-1 just trying to break the game.
Paunovic is a tournament coach – he made his name coaching Serbia to the U-20 World Cup title in 2015 – and it's almost like he's treating every game as a tournament game. Rather than building up the strengths of his own team he goes at the weaknesses (perceived or real) of his opponent, so it's not unexpected that this whole season has had a choppy, stop/start feel to it.
Chicago's midweek U.S. Open Cup win at Atlanta was impressive, by the way. Though after their exertions on turf on that side of the continent, it's fair to wonder how much they'll have left to spend in Seattle four days later.
LAFC vs. Columbus Crew SC
Who LAFC Are: Skill skill skill skill skill. They might lead the league in players who I look at and think "Yeah, I'd just be happy to watch him surrounded by 10 trash cans." Bob Bradley has made a concerted effort to build, in his first season, a team that plays with the ball rather than against it.
Which is not to say they're a heavy possession team. LAFC love absorbing your pressure and then pushing in the other direction on the counter because they have like 150 guys who, when they're in that spot, can cut multiple defenders out of the play with a single pass. And in Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, Marco Ureña, Latif Blessing and now Adama Diomande, they've got a ton of attackers who love love love to get into space.
Their defense has been iffy at times, and Tyler Miller's had a significant number of young 'keeper problems. But they've shown they have multiple ways of beating you, and this isn't even their final form.
I maintain that teams in the West should be afraid of what this group can become by August.
Who Columbus Are: They are who we thought they were! Crew SC, under Gregg Berhalter, have always been willing (and usually been able) to build from the back, spread the field, hold onto the ball in spots where other teams lose their nerve, and generate tap-ins for their center forward:
The surprise is that they're way up high in every defensive metric as well, including goals allowed (they're one of two teams – Sporting's the others – allowing fewer than one goal per game). They've done this by being less error-prone out of the back, but also by being harder to build against through the middle. A full, healthy season from Artur is the biggest and most obvious reason why.
There are two reasons to be worried that this team isn't quite so good as they've looked thus far, though. First: They've had a very home-heavy schedule, with 10 of their 17 games having been played in Ohio. Second: They're not getting consistent production in front of goal from anybody but Gyasi Zardes.
In Berhalter's system the wingers pinch in and get more than their share of looks. The failure of those wingers to make good on said looks has cost Columbus a bunch of points this year already.
Atlanta United vs. Portland Timbers
Who Atlanta Are: They are not the pressing team that took the league by storm last season. Yes they're still fast and committed to defending front-to-back, but no, they're not defending particularly high up the pitch and no, they don't smother you to death as in 2017.
This is by design. Tata Martino talked in the offseason about wanting his team to evolve, and to do different things both on and off the ball, and to win games in different ways. That was probably necessary given his side's struggles against quality opposition last year.
It's still a work in progress, but it says something about Atlanta's overall talent that "work in progress" can still have them atop the Supporters' Shield standings and capable of gutting out 1-1 draws at places like NYCFC. That they've done so while battling a couple of key injuries and while integrating Ezequiel Barco (who's been merely "good", not "$15 million good") also says something about Atlanta's overall talent.
Here's a question, though: What's their best formation? What's their best XI? And what happens during the summer transfer window?
For a team atop the standings, they're also very close to being a team in flux.
Who Portland Are: Merry Christmas, kids! Underneath this particular Christmas Tree you will find a vicious counterattack:
The Timbers switched to a 4-3-2-1 "Christmas Tree" formation after a rough March and have largely prospered since. They draw a pretty deep defensive line and invite your pressure, then win the ball with their block of seven before shuttling it forward to Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and either Samuel Armenteros or Fanendo Adi.
The key in this scheme is for Valeri and Blanco to read each other's movements and understand how their own roles switch on the fly. Since the 4-3-2-1 often lacks pure width, one or the other will at times become an ad hoc winger. Since it presents the problem of the center forward becoming isolated, one or the other will at times become an ad hoc second forward. Since both nominally occupy the same latitude on the field, one or the other will take up the role as a pure No. 10 on the fly.
Having a mobile and smart line of "3" behind them allows the ability to often just attack with a trio and still be effective, and defending deep means Portland's skill players don't spend a ton of energy pressing. While most of the league has zigged, Gio Savarese has zagged.
NYCFC vs. Toronto FC
Who NYCFC Are: Officially a team in flux. That's what happens when you lose your coach in the middle of the season.
Here's a list of things they did well under Patrick Vieira:
- Build from the back
- Generate scoring chances
- Limit scoring chances
- Protect Zone 14
- Push the fullbacks forward
- Smother low-skill teams
- Roast unprepared/gappy teams
- Play pretty soccer
Here's a list of things they didn't do well under Vieira:
- Be pragmatic about where to build (DON'T PLAY UP THE GUT AGAINST THE RED BULLS YOU MADMAN)
- Defend set pieces
- Get the right personnel out on the field
Vieira was wonderfully stubborn about certain things, and it always made NYCFC fun to watch. We'll see how/if that evolves in a new era.
Who Toronto FC Are: So far in 2018 they've been the sloppiest team in the league, full stop.
“Being stingier defensively as a group, also aware in how we lose possessions, is really important,” head coach Greg Vanney said to ProSoccerUSA last week. “We’ve been losing possessions in bad areas and putting ourselves in tough situations. That’s what I mean by being stingier: not putting ourselves in these bad situations sometimes, and giving ourselves an opportunity to get the first goal, get the second goal and build off of those things.”
It seems like every week on Matchday Central we're recapping how a defensive third gamble didn't pay off or how turnovers in the box killed them or how they gave up four goals to freaking D.C. United. This isn't because TFC are structurally deficient, and while injuries have played a huge role, and the CCL hangover is real... these are mistakes of arrogance and concentration. These are gifts.
The Reds are still one of, if not the most talented team in the league. That alone isn't going to be enough unless they start playing with more respect for what got them three trophies last season.
Execute. Or miss the playoffs. Your choice.
One more thing to ponder...
Happy weekending, everybody.