Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Armchair Analyst: Zlatan's taekwongolazo can't save LA & more from Week 29

Let's just get it out of the way at the top: This is absurd:

That goal, the fourth of eight total that were scored on Saturday night in Toronto in TFC's 5-3 win over the Galaxy, is maybe the greatest goal in MLS history. It's probably the goal of the year, and the only other contender is Zlatan Ibrahimovic's first goal, that spectacular 45-yard volley against LAFC in the first ever El Trafico.

It was not enough. Zlatan has 17g/8a in a shade under 1700 minutes, and that hasn't been enough, either. The Galaxy have spent tens of millions on their roster, and it's both too much and not enough. Dom Kinnear took charge this week after Sigi Schmid found the door, and that wasn't enough.

LA are a team in crisis, and a team certain to face another overhaul this offseason, and a team likely to have their fifth new head coach in two years once camp opens in January. I hope Zlatan will be there as well, because he's been worth the price of admission week after week. Nobody else on the Galaxy can say the same.

The above isn't precisely true for TFC, who are nonetheless having one of the most disappointing seasons in MLS history. They took a 3-0 lead in this one and looked like they were cruising, then took the foot off the gas and let the Galaxy bring it back to 3-3. Then they found the pedal again with two late goals, and their season is nominally still alive.

But only nominally, because no matter what formation they put out there (they were in a 4-4-2 diamond on Saturday), and no matter how much of the ball they get when all their wonderful attackers are healthy, they still can't defend.

TFC have shipped 55 goals this year, the same number as Minnesota United. Only San Jose, the Galaxy and Orlando City have been worse.

There is a path to the playoffs for the Reds, who are nine points behind the Impact and with a game in hand. But it's a path that involves winning at the Red Bulls, at D.C., at Montreal and at home against Atlanta, and it's a path that involves jumping three teams in the standings. Even if they get Chris Mavinga and Drew Moor back – and we've been talking about that particular "if" for four months now so let's not hold our collective breath – it's too narrow to traverse unless they score five goals a game.

But they have to score five goals a game, and I think they know it. So what we're headed for right now: A TFC team with a healthy and motivated Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Victor Vazquez and Jonathan Osorio out there every week trying to drop five. It's not gonna work, but god I am so here for that.

Runnin' Down a Dream

As I said, TFC's charge (if they really do conjure one) isn't going to work and the biggest reason is because of what Montreal did on Saturday night. It's conceivable that both New England and D.C. United could flatline and leave the door open for the Reds, but all three teams directly ahead of them in the standings? Nah.

And there's no mystery here, as what Montreal did is what Montreal does: They sat deep, they got out in space on the counterattack, and they used their dynamism to kill the Union in the open field. I sort of casually dismissed Montreal's 3-0 win over the Red Bulls two weeks ago, as it was against a RBNY team playing their fifth game in 15 days. I will not make the same mistake of dismissing Saturday night's 4-1 win over Philly. It was:

  • A come-from-behind win, and
  • A multi-goal win
  • On the road
  • Against a playoff team
  • That had been playing well

You could see Philly ease off a little bit when they took a 1-0 lead via Auston Trusty's header. And you could see them get a little bit sloppy on the ball. And at that point, if you're on the field, the only thing you can see is Ignacio Piatti running away from you and either creating or scoring a goal (he had a foot in all four Impact tallies and is now the King of Chester).

There is an X-factor these days for Montreal, though – one that didn't exist in Quebec a month back:

I'm not talking about Saphir Taider, who did a nice job of sniffing out the chance to poach a rebound goal. No, I'm talking about journeyman veteran center forward Quincy Amarikwa, whose rugged work in the attacking third – selfless runs, contesting every header, hold-up play, making opposing CBs feel him for basically the full 90 minutes – has given Montreal a focal point and a bit extra ball security in the attacking third. You can play to his feet, and he can create something.

He can also get out and run on the break with the likes of Piatti and Alejandro Silva, and he draws a ton of fouls, and all of that makes a difference.

“Maybe it doesn’t show directly on the stat sheet but I feel like the guys are learning about me, and through that seeing they’re going to get a lot of opportunities off second chances and second balls,” Amarikwa said to our Dave Zeitlin. “I think Saphir does a great job to follow up my shot. That’s him anticipating it’s going to be on frame … and he’s there to put it away. It’s great to see us come together and figure it out, especially with this run into the playoffs here.”

He's 30 years old and he's never been a great finisher, and he's never going to be a great finisher. But he's a snug fit for the role Remi Garde is asking him to fill, and through two starts it's absolutely impossible to quibble with the results.

And the defense is mostly holding up, too (another new arrival, d-mid Micheal Azira, has a lot to do with that). They've allowed just a single goal in five of their past six games, and while nobody's going to confuse them for a versatile, dynamic defensive bunch, they certainly seem to have clarity as to what they're trying to do, and as of late they're doing it very well. 

Learning to Fly

Real Salt Lake got let off the hook in a big way on Saturday against Minnesota United, 1) whose 2nd goal was correctly ruled offside, but 2) probably deserved the full three points anyway. They pretty thoroughly dominated RSL in the second half, and only their own lack of finishing (boy they could’ve used a Christian Ramirez-type!) kept it level:

Via my colleague Bobby Warshaw: “Damn, RSL. All your fans wanted us to show more respect. This is why were remained hesitant. There's still a level of naivety to their game, that creates a level of unpredictability. Yeah, they are the team that can be the most fun to watch. But they are also the team most likely to have this weekend happen to them.”

RSL head coach Mike Petke was similarly blunt:

“I’m at a little bit of a loss. In reality I didn’t see this coming and we allowed them to walk out of here with a point. All the good that these players have done in these last three games, with really going for the jugular, we just didn’t seem to have that tonight. We controlled the game still; did well against Quintero which was a main focal point considering how good he is. We didn’t finish them off when we had opportunities and even before that I think our transition was sloppy. We’ll take the point and now we have to find two points on the road, two more points than we were planning on getting.”

That naivety expressed itself via defensive recognition and an overall lack of compactness – i.e., Minnesota actually got more dangerous after subbing out an attacker (Abu Danladi) for a central midfielder (Rasmus Schuller) and starting their attacks deeper. RSL’s backline came out to meet them, the fullbacks in particular played high and a little detached from the rest of the team, and that created the types of gaps or opportunities for overloads that Darwin Quintero et al have feasted upon.

This is a hugely damaging result for the hosts, who desperately need homefield advantage in the Knockout Round. Does anybody think they could go to Seattle or Portland or LA and win a playoff game?

A few more things to ponder…

8. I'm not even sure what to say about D.C. United after the week they had. Somehow they went 1-0 down against Minnesota United on Wednesday, then rallied back for a 2-1 win. Somehow they went one-goal up three times against the Red Bulls on Sunday, but each time squandered the lead – Bradley Wright-Phillips is a legend – en route to a 3-3 draw

Do they end the week happy? Well, I'd guess the answer is "kind of," because they just plowed through the toughest, busiest part of their schedule (six games since August 26), one in which they were missing players via injury and international duty almost constantly, with a 2-2-2 record, which probably falls under "good enough." They are four points back of the Impact with a game in hand, and are staring at five straight at home, then a trip to Chicago to end the season.

All those games are winnable. The biggest one is the next one, which is almost certain to be the tipping-point game in the Eastern Conference playoff race this season: Montreal's trip to Audi Field on September 29. 

7. If Colorado’s going to play the diamond, they have to get the basics right. They did not get the basics right in their 3-0 loss to Atlanta United on Saturday:

That basically ended the game, and officially ended Colorado’s season.

6. Columbus went to Frisco and played FC Dallas to a very credible scoreless draw, keeping themselves solidly in fourth place in the East.

Both of these teams have, in theory, another gear they can hit. Dallas haven’t shown it in months, though – they’re just 4-4-3 since July 4 – and Crew SC’s really does only exist “in theory.” Justin Meram’s had his moments since arrival but hasn’t entirely clicked, and on the other wing Pedro Santos continues to get into great spots then fail at turning them into end product.

Columbus have scored 35 goals in 28 games, which is the worst of any team in the playoff hunt.

Two notes from FCD:

  1. Matt Hedges was subbed at halftime with an injury. That's potentially huge.
  2. Maxi Urruti was good as a No. 10 against San Jose and Houston two weeks ago, but he struggled to find the ball against Columbus, and the few times he did get on it he couldn't do anything with it.

5. We used to talk about Sporting KC’s goalscoring woes at this time of year, but 2018 is a very, very different time. They went to San Jose and just drilled the Quakes, winning 5-1 via combination play and set pieces and 1v1s and yeah of course this throughball from Felipe Gutierrez is our Pass of the Week:

They have 54 goals through 28 games. That’s their most goals since 1997, when they scored 57 over the course of the entire season.

Sporting are now atop the West, the first time anybody’s jumped ahead of Dallas since mid-June. I feel pretty confident in saying that, for the first time since 2013, they won’t have to go on the road in the Knockout Round.

San Jose's miserable season beats on, and the fans are calling for changes from the front office on down. It's understandable.

4. Portland, on the other hand, might end up being out on the road during the Knockout Round as their stop-start form continued on Saturday with a 4-1 loss at Houston. The Timbers got an early lead, then kind of lost their shape, their intensity and their minds – why are you bringing your backline up at Houston? – as the Dynamo put together four unanswered by absorbing pressure, then getting out on the break.

It was a really strange game from Portland, who are now 2-5-1 since their 15-game unbeaten streak came to an end in early August.

Houston, meanwhile, ended their 10-game winless skid. It’s too late to save their season, but this rediscovery of their identity is useful in the week before they host the U.S. Open Cup final against the Union on Sept. 26.

3. Let’s stay on the “home field in the West” theme:LAFC had what should’ve been three points beaten out of them by an, um, physical Revs team in a 1-1 draw in downtown LA on Saturday night:

September 16, 2018

It’s easier to destroy than to create, and New England have fully embraced that ethos this year even as they’ve had constant personnel turnover in goal, in defense, in midfield and up top. Truth is they had their chances to win this one, and forced LAFC to scramble like hell over the final 15 minutes of the match.

That the Revs have won just once in their last 11 games, and just five times in the past five months and are still in the hunt for the sixth spot in the East should tell you all you need to know about that race.

LAFC have five straight games in which they should be heavy favorites before finishing the season at Sporting. These were two points dropped, but don't count them out of that top spot in the West just yet.

2. Don't count out the Sounders, either! They weren't great at Vancouver on Saturday night, but they picked up their post-shootout single-season record-extending ninth straight win, taking a 2-1 out of BC Place. They were able to mostly keep the 'Caps counterattack under wraps – Seattle's biggest strength is that they tend not to commit bad turnovers – and got some help from a very friendly post.

Seattle are seven points off of SKC's pace atop the West, but have a game in hand (Wednesday vs. Philly) and the league's best defense. You could make a case for them finishing atop the conference, and you could make a case for them finishing sixth. The West is a glorious mess and I love it.

1. Chicago came back from Munich and ended their nine-game winless skid with Sunday evening's 4-0 stroll past Orlando City, who've now taken 5 of the last 57 points available to them.

The Purple Lions have now conceded 66 goals on the season. The league record for defensive futility is 70, set by last year's Minnesota United expansion side.

And let's bring it back to the top for a bonus Face of the Week, courtesy of the one and only Zlatan...

September 16, 2018

They were, in fact, mic'd up after the game. Bradley said “I'm not worried about perfect. I'm not worried about Zlatan. I'm worried about three points tonight.”

Zlatan, however, gave us a hell of a quote: "He thinks he’s a philosopher of football. I have more goals than he has [played] games, so he should follow my rules."

For the record: Bradley has 566 pro games, and Zlatan has 500 goals.