Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Armchair Analyst: Your complete guide to the Week 30 MLS slate

Something just above 80 percent of the 2018 MLS season has been played, and so far MLS games are averaging 3.24 goals per game, which is the most in nearly 20 years.

There've been complaints about the quality of defense we've seen, but I'm enjoying the hell out of this. Goals are fun, and while 0-0 draws are often respectable... meh. Goals are fun. Goals are fun.

Let's dive in...

Saturday Slate

LAFC vs. San Jose Earthquakes
3:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

The Steve Ralston Era got off to a great, and aesthetically pleasing, and then ultimately tragic start on Wednesday in a 4-3 loss to visiting Atlanta United. I'm willing to call it the weirdest eight-goal thriller this league's yet seen.

How did the Quakes under Ralston differ from the Quakes under Mikael Stahre?

  • Personnel changes
  • Team shape change to a 4-5-1
  • They actually passed the ball

Playing the 4-5-1 with Jackson Yueill and Luis Felipe holding allowed Anibal Godoy to go explore his id all over the field, and generally provided good, sound defensive structure against the league's best team. And when I say "they actually passed the ball" I mean they actually passed the damn ball, using their ability with it to constantly spread out the Five Stripes and create useful attacking angles. Yueill is particularly good at this, in a Wil Trapp sort of way:

The Quakes were, for a night at least, a lot of fun. They hit 500 passes and completed 426 of them, both their second-best single-game output of the year. And their collective defensive effort was much better and more coherent than it had been under Stahre.

LAFC have been fun for most of the year by enacting a similar philosophy (passing is good!) but doing so in a different way. You don't see as many cross-field switches, as they instead prefer to combine with small triangles through central midfield, bait the opponents to step up, then play one of their livewire attackers through.

For what it's worth, that's fairly close to how Atlanta got their last two goals on Wednesday. We could see another 4-3 result in this one.

NY Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC
5 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

If the Red Bulls win, the Supporters' Shield race stays alive another week. If Toronto FC win, their path to the playoffs stays possible (if not necessarily plausible) for another week. If neither win, the Shield race is almost certainly over, and the same goes for TFC's season.

There's a lot on the line here for each team. The Reds will be playing for their lives on short rest after Wednesday's 3-1 Campeones Cup loss to Tigres, a 90-minute performance that summed up their season:

  • Poor goalkeeping was at least partially to blame on the first goal
  • They missed two clear chances off of set pieces
  • They conceded a fluky, unlucky own goal
  • A key player came off injured

About the only thing that didn't go according to 2018's script is that they made their penalty. The rest of it felt like 2018 in a nutshell.

For what it's worth I thought they actually played pretty well against a Tigres side that's an absolute wagon. They mostly kept Andre Pierre-Gignac and Eduardo Vargas under wraps, and they didn't let Guido Pizarro dictate the game. The three-man midfield of Marky Delgado, Jonathan Osorio and Jay Chapman were particularly good.

If, 1-through-11, they play as well on Saturday as they did on Wednesday, they've got a real shot of getting the result they need to keep their 3 percent chance of a playoff appearance alive. Especially because the Red Bulls can no longer defend set pieces (keep an eye on Nick Hagglund on corners).

This is a very large game for Chris Armas & Co. Yes, they're a very good 7-3-3 under him, but their goal differential is just +3 in those 13 games, while it was +18 in the prior 16 as they went 10-4-2. Recent expected goals totals also suggest merely a very good team, rather than a truly elite side capable of strangling the life out of games.

Even with two weeks off heading into last weekend's game at D.C., RBNY couldn't impose their will upon the game. Is that a thing they can still do?

Atlanta United vs. Real Salt Lake
7 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Have you heard the term "Central Winger?" It's a concept of positional play, i.e. how to play as a "central attacking midfielder" if you have the speed and skill to find gaps in a stretched, backpedaling defense.

This is an archetypal central winger assist:

Miguel Almiron is the most central winger-y playmaker I think this league has ever seen, in that he does a lot of conducting of the game in midfield (traditional No. 10 role), he does a lot of popping up in the attacking third (traditional second forward role), and does an insane amount of making diagonal runs to that spot behind the opposing fullback, getting into position to deliver the types of crosses that we usually see from wingers.

Because it's your central playmaker making that run, and it's your actual winger staying deeper to deliver the secondary assist, you're creating a 1v1 situation for Josef Martinez off the ball in the box. If you want to prevent Atlanta from scoring these goals, you need to either add a third CB, or you need to have a defensive midfielder man-mark Almiron every time he crosses the midfield stripe.

That's the choice Mike Petke's facing this week.

Columbus Crew SC vs. Colorado Rapids
7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

After a good few games in August, the bottom has fallen out for the Rapids yet again. They're continuing to play a 4-4-2 diamond, which I respect, but they're struggling with basic defensive principles like "cut the damn field in half or you're going to give up three goals in 20 minutes."

Nobody switches the field as often as Columbus, whose entire approach is built upon the types of diagonals you see above. Even on the road, on short rest, playing without five starters on turf Wednesday in Portland, they were able to constantly pull the Timbers apart and generate chances. Only shoddy finishing and a blinder of a 90 minutes from Andy Polo prevented them from getting a result.

Colorado have to get more defensive commitment from their frontline or they won't even be a speed bump. They've lost four straight, and have been outscored 13-0 in that time.

Montreal Impact vs. NYCFC
7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Montreal are 4-3-3 in their last 10, which is not great but which has nonetheless been good enough to keep their heads above water in the slap-fight for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. What I will say is that only twice have the Impact looked completely and utterly outclassed during this 10-game stretch: Last month's loss to TFC, and way back on the first game of the streak, which was a 3-0 loss to this very same NYCFC team.

The big issue for NYCFC is that they're just not the same team when they play on the road, so there's little reason to think they'll be able to exert the kind of control they showed two-and-a-half months ago in that win. Domè Torrent has talked repeatedly about the psychological devolution his side experiences every time they leave the Bronx, and he's not wrong.

Regardless, Montreal will do what they've been doing since mid-May: Sit deep and absorb as much pressure as possible, then hit on the break. The new wrinkle is that center forward Quincy Amarikwa will do a ton of work with his hold-up play – more than Matteo Mancosu or Anthony Jackson-Hamel ever dreamed of – to open up running lanes for Ignacio Piatti and Alejandro Silva.

It used to be you could just hang back and try to keep all of Montreal's attackers in front of you. Now you need to honor the threat of Amarikwa creating something as he checks back into midfield with his back to goal, and just moving defenders around that little bit has made the Impact wingers much more dangerous. Philly couldn't handle them last week, and they were in much better form than NYCFC have been.

By the way: Don't be shocked if NYCFC come out in some sort of two-forward system now that Jo Inge Berget's back. 

New England Revolution vs. Chicago Fire
7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

The Revs have been better over the last three games for one big reason: They've stopped making such elementary defensive errors in their own box. If you're not going to gift opponents at least one cheapo goal per game, you're probably going to give yourself a better chance of collecting points. And so New England have five from their last three outings as they've at least temporarily revived their slim playoff hopes.

I'd also argue that, after months of ineffective demolition derby, they've committed at least partially toward getting more guys who can pass the ball out onto the field. That hasn't made them soft – they kicked chunks out of LAFC last week – but it's made them at least a little more interesting in attack.

Chicago were interesting in attack last week as well, though that take comes with a caveat: It was at home against what's shaping up to be the worst defensive team in MLS history (Orlando City).

This is a must-win for the Revs. Period.

Orlando City vs. Houston Dynamo
7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

The most goals any MLS team has conceded in a single season is 70, by last year's Minnesota United expansion side. Orlando City have shipped 66 with six games left in 2018. And yeah, things have not improved since the midseason coaching change despite a few promising performances to start the James O'Connor era:

under Jason Kreis:

  • 15 games played
  • 6-8-1 (19 points), 1.27 ppg
  • 24 GF/31GA (-7 GD)

under interim head coach Bobby Murphy and fulltime replacement James O'Connor:

  • 13 games played
  • 1-10-2 (5 points), 0.38 ppg
  • 16 GF/36 GA (-20 GD)

I don't know how many of these players will be back next year. I don't know how many should be back next year.

That said, this should be a great chance to pick up three points as I fully expect Houston to rest pretty much everyone ahead of Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup final.

Minnesota United vs. Portland Timbers
8 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

So we've reached the tipping point with Portland's 4-3-2-1 formation, I think. They switched to it months and months ago after a brutal start to the season, with the idea that it would provide them defensive solidity while providing a platform for the three-headed attack of Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Samuel Armenteros.

It worked really well for a long time, and while Gio Savarese was willing to try other looks, he did stay primarily in the Christmas Tree. But as more tape got out there, the ROI started to decrease because A) most teams can defend against a three-man attack, led to B) the fourth man getting into the attack has usually been an overlapping fullback to provide width.

And so since the start of August they've conceded 17 goals in nine games, the majority of them exploiting, in one way or another, that gap created by throwing the fullbacks so high up the pitch. It was apparent even in Wednesday's win against the Crew's B team, and on a different day Columbus could've had three just by pounding that mismatch.

Savarese has tried to adjust by playing Diego Chara in more of a box-to-box role – he's getting forward more than I think he ever has since his arrival in Portland – but that has the drawback of softening the team significantly up the spine, and thus exposing the central defense. It's all felt pick-your-poison for Portland lately.

MNUFC, of course, have a bunch of wingers. Last week they repeatedly dragged RSL right back Brooks Lennon way upfield, and then did what they could to exploit that space:

I honestly wouldn't be shocked to see Portland come out in a 5-4-1. We know they're going to rotate the squad some, and we know that they're not super confident about playing on the front foot with the ball. It might make sense to go with a new baseline look, and sort of improvise the attack from there.

Sunday Tripleheader

Philadelphia Union vs. Sporting KC
1 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Philly's win in Seattle on Wednesday night was one of the more surprising results of the year, given that it came on short rest, across the country, on turf, while missing their playmaker against a side that had won nine straight. Oh, and it was a man down. Well done to the Union.

It also probably gave Jim Curtin license to rotate the squad more than just a little for this one, which comes just three days before the U.S. Open Cup final. Curtin doesn't rotate much, but to me it would be worth it here in order to have a fresh squad on Wednesday. If they hadn't won on Wednesday they'd be legitimately sweating this outcome re: playoff hopes, but those three points in Seattle give them some wiggle room.

Sporting obviously have a ton of wiggle room, and something close to their best team available for the first time in months and months (Diego Rubio is questionable with a knock picked up while on international duty with Chile). They should probably win the West, all things considered, and the underlying numbers agree.

Bear in mind that Sporting are still capable of being one of the most vicious high-pressing teams in the league. But also bear in mind that they have become the league's best and most effective pure possession team.

They lead the league in:

  • Chances created from open play (337)
  • Passing accuracy (84.59%)
  • Passing accuracy in the opponent's half (79.72%)
  • Passes ending in the attacking third (4916, nearly 500 more than the second-place Red Bulls)

They are second in the league in:

  • Total possession (58.03%)
  • Passing accuracy in the attacking third (74.57%)

They are third in the league in:

  • Big chances created (chances Opta reckon should be scored)
  • Goals per game
  • Goal differential

There have been times throughout the year during which SKC have looked hella vulnerable defensively, and I've pointed them out when they've happened. But in the grand scheme of things, it sure looks like those were attributable to a few injuries and a few more growing pains as their approach has evolved.

LA Galaxy vs. Seattle Sounders
7 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Seattle's record winning streak came to its conclusion on Wednesday, and now the question is "do they rebound immediately or fall into a sort of malaise that usually happens at the end of long streaks?" We saw it with Portland, who went unbeaten in 15 and have been mediocre since then. The Sounders were unbeaten in 12 and now... I guess we'll see.

You could arguably throw the Galaxy into that mix as well, as they had a nine-game unbeaten run through the end of July and have gone 0-4-3 since then, falling juuuuuust about out of the playoff race. Anything less than a win here probably drives what I'll say is the second-to-last nail into their coffin of a season.

Gratuitous Zlatan highlight:

I still can not get over how absurd this goal was. But we all know that the attack has not been the problem for the Galaxy, whose 59 goals allowed are second-worst in the league, and have a chance of being second-worst in league history.

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. FC Dallas
7 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

If the 'Caps win this one they'll likely finish the weekend two points behind RSL and with a game in hand. They could also end up just one point behind the Sounders, and even on games played.

Yordy Reyna has 5g/9a in about 1600 minutes, good numbers but not jump-off-the-page numbers. What he provides, though, is a version of No. 10 creativity that they lack without him. He was particularly devastating against San Jose a few weeks back, setting up in Zone 14 and carving up the Quakes:

Armchair Analyst: Your complete guide to the Week 30 MLS slate -

Blue arrows are assists, and yellow are chances created. The Quakes never got pressure to him, and paid the price. Dallas will pay the same if they make the same mistake. Seattle didn't have to worry about it last week as Reyna was suspended, but he'll be in the XI from the start this Sunday.

On the flip side, FCD are still figuring things out in terms of their own No. 10 situation. Maxi Urruti has been given the job of late, and his performances have at times been very good (a win over Houston) and at times non-existent (last weekend vs. Columbus). They've won two of their last seven, and have been coming back to the pack hard since July 4. It's plausible that they finish the weekend in third place, and with fifth place – and thus a road trip in the knockout round – in sight.

One More Thing to Ponder

This is, at 365 gigapixels, one of the largest images ever created. You can see the full, zoomable one HERE.

Happy weekending, everybody.