Big weekend. Go Huskies.
Let’s dive in:
Our own J. Sam Jones did some great work this week, both for MLSsoccer.com and over at The Striker, in the build-up to the latest edition of the weirdest “rivalry” in MLS: Atlanta United vs. the New York Red Bulls.
“Rivalry” is in air quotes because it isn’t one, really. There was legitimate bad blood between these two teams half a decade ago when they were both competing at the top of the Eastern Conference, but since then both have fallen off to one degree (RBNY still make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs every year, but that’s it) or another (Atlanta were something of a tire fire from 2020-22 and are only just coming out of it now).
And what makes it weird is that 1) Atlanta have literally never beaten the Red Bulls in the MLS regular season, and 2) everyone still remembers the one time Atlanta actually did beat the Red Bulls – in the first leg of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals – because that is the one time RBNY elected not to press the Five Stripes, which ended RBNY’s best-ever season.
Literally every other time these two teams have met it’s been RBNY doing Red Bull things and Atlanta trying to play through it and it’s just Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner stuff at this point. These two teams have, in other words, scarred each other deeply.
Cue Sam’s very simple, very rational question to Atlanta head coach Gonzalo Pineda this week:
“Amar [Sejdic] said that the goal was to play through Red Bulls’ press to some extent. Frankly, ‘why?’ is my question there. It’s just… it’s never worked.”
Now, following Atlanta’s 1-0 win on Saturday, Pineda can argue that it has. The hosts did occasionally play through RBNY’s press – especially in the second half – and while they didn’t always create the type of tempo and control that Pineda said he wanted in response to Sam’s question, they did limit their own mistakes, they didn’t give up a ton of set pieces, and they didn’t get rattled by RBNY players pressing through the ball in the way that Atlanta teams of the past always have.
Want to see what that looked like at its best? Here’s three minutes from late in the second half where the Five Stripes knew exactly when to stretch into the channels, exactly when to find Thiago Almada in the pockets, and exactly how to force RBNY to cover touchline to touchline (and thus limit the amount of pressure they could bring to the center backs):
That wasn’t the only sequence in which Atlanta nearly put the game away. Just minutes before that, Red Bull had been turning it into more of a head-tennis match in central midfield – they live for midfield 50/50s, so that’s all part of the plan. But look who comes out on top in this one:
Those missed chances didn’t come back to haunt the Five Stripes on the day. And in the long-term, showing the ability to repeatedly create stuff like that against what is still the highest and hardest-pressing team in the league… I don’t know. Maybe it means nothing, and maybe the next time Atlanta meet an Energy Drink Soccer team they’ll walk right into the same exact pitfalls they’ve always found
But I don’t think so. I think the monkey might, in fact, be off their backs now.
“The players showed who they are today. A team that wants to play always, that shows a lot of bravery to play under pressure,” Pineda said in the postgame. “I just told them, 1-0 and I have my goalkeeper dribbling a player inside our own six-yard box. That’s not something I like all the time, but the message is very good. We want to always play.”
As for the visitors, they have now managed just one win and four goals in six games. The 4-2-2-2 has already been scrapped and, in the second half of this one, brought back. New DP forward Dante Vanzeir has played only 118 minutes and put only one shot on goal. And Carlos Coronel has yet to rediscover his elite, 2021 stretch-run form.
I don’t think it’s time to panic just yet. But they’re 12th in the East and some concern is not unwarranted.
Make it two straight weeks now that the Rapids have largely outperformed teams that topped last year’s Western Conference and come away with a credible draw. Last week it was a 1-1 at Austin; this week it was a 0-0 at home against LAFC with the hosts generating more possession, more shots, more shots on target and more xG than the still unbeaten Black & Gold.
Key to the back-to-back points (which pulled Colorado out of a 0W-3L-1D nosedive to start the season) has been a switch to a 3-4-2-1, a formation that can flex pretty easily into a 5-4-1 when things start to get hairy. Head coach Robin Fraser has always had that in his bag – he had to lean on it a lot last year – and so it makes sense, with midfield conductor Jack Price done for the year with a torn Achilles, that it’s back to the old standby.
The advantage of that formation is several-fold, but let’s focus on two aspects of it:
First is that it puts more of the game on the Colorado center backs rather than in the central midfield.
“The attributes of the three players who play the positions for us right now are somewhat different, but it gives us different things in different parts of the field or different phases of play. Basically, Danny [Wilson]'s passing has been an important part of this team for a long time, and Lalas [Abubakar]’s tenacity has been an important part of this team for a long time,” head coach Robin Fraser explained after having sung newcomer Andreas Maxsø’s praises.
“And I think when you look at the three of them on how well they're playing together, it's really about three good players learning to play with each other, having a good understanding of themselves and what is being asked of the team, so then, therefore they can transmit that information throughout the group.”
The second part is that by having three center backs and two wingbacks, you can defend across the width of the field more easily against teams with dynamic wingers. And, of course, LAFC have been all about their dynamic wingers since before Day 1 of their existence.
But even that’s not enough if you’re letting the opposing midfield set terms, and Colorado refused to let LAFC’s triumvirate do that.
That’s Ilie Sánchez’s pass map, courtesy of Opta – green are complete, red incomplete. And that’s way fewer touches and way more sideways and backwards passing than usual from the guy who’s arguably LAFC’s most important player. If he doesn’t get going, chances are the champs won’t look like the champs.
“We talked so much about dealing with pivots who are the guys that can get on the ball and turn and make the game,” said right wingback Keegan Rosenberry. “[Ilie] is such an important player for them and our ability to limit the amount of time he has on the ball and the amount of times he can look forward and pick passes out to their most dangerous players that are behind us. Even such a small concept like that, the defending starts with the guys in the front, and I think they did a really good job and total team clean sheet for sure.”
The Rapids are still winless on the season, have scored just twice all year and remain bottom of the West, so I’m not about to pencil them into the playoffs or anything. But they’ve taken a couple of steps over the past few weeks, and we’ve seen Fraser spin that kind of incremental improvement into something more substantial in the past.
The ability to pick up results when you’re not playing your best remains the hallmark of teams that contend for trophies. But we’re nearly 20% of the way through the season and the Garys have yet to put together an attacking performance that at all resembles what they looked like in the second half of 2022.
Sporting did a good job of limiting the Union on set pieces and not giving them run-outs in transition. And thus far this year, if the Union’s not doing either of those things, they’re not going to score.
10. Carles Gil got back into the XI, went 90 and scored New England’s only goal in a pretty cagey and tactical 1-1 draw vs. NYCFC in Foxborough. Be sure to check Instant Replay for Bruce Arena’s thoughts on a Video Review'd off Pigeons' own goal that would’ve made it 2-0 Revs (and probably would’ve ended it).
Talles Magno got the only NYCFC goal, rising up to head home a set piece. More interesting than that, though, is the fact that he spent most of this game out on the left wing instead of as a false 9.
One note: Thiago Andrade was not in the gameday roster for the Pigeons. Nick Cushing was asked why in the post-game – twice – and dodged the question both times.
9. RSL were unable to dodge anything the Crew threw at them in Ohio on Saturday night, as a fairly experimental Claret-and-Cobalt XI got absolutely buried. The final was 4-0 and it didn’t feel that close because this was the level of defensive pressure RSL were able to get to the ball when the Crew were knocking it around:
Columbus are cooking, now with 10 goals in the past two weeks. They’ll face another struggling team as they travel to D.C. United next.
8. Yeah, D.C. are struggling. This tweet, from their scoreless draw in Chicago, just about sums it up:
A road point is not a bad result in and of itself, but United are 13th in the East and haven’t won since February.
The Fire, meanwhile, are unbeaten in three and probably should’ve taken full points from this one, but what would’ve been a second straight stoppage-time winner from Kei Kamara was denied by a spectacular Tyler Miller save in the 91st minute.
7. Orlando City are in the same boat as the Red Bulls: It’s not panic time yet, but I think it’s fair to start feeling a little bit of concern about this punchless attack – they’ve scored just five times in six games.
While for RBNY it’s a case of failing to turn their press into clear-cut chances, with Orlando it feels like a case of too many touches on the ball from too many of their attackers. No matter who they’re playing they always seem to slow their own sequences down, which gives scrambled defenses time to recover.
Against a team as well-drilled about getting into banks of four as Nashville are, that’s death. And so the Lions died over the course of 90 minutes, as first Fafà Picault and then Hany Mukhtar got into space and hit on the break in a 2-0 final.
6. I spent a lot of time earlier this year writing about how the complexities of Christian Lattanzio’s 4-3-3, which shifts into a 3-2-2-3 with the left back underlapping to become an ad hoc second central midfielder in possession, seemed to be beyond his Charlotte FC side. So it’s only fair that I show you a clip of exactly what it’s supposed to look like when it works:
That’s left back Harrison Afful sliding into central midfield and hitting the switch to Kerwin Vargas for Kamil Jozwiak’s equalizer (yes, folks, Kamil Jozwiak scored a goal!). Deandre Kerr was doing the right thing by taking away the easy distribution to Derrick Jones, but Federico Bernardeschi was just not at all interested in tracking Afful from the wing into central midfield.
It was good stuff from the Crown, who absolutely deserved their point in a 2-2 draw after having gone down 2-0.
TFC, for what it’s worth, are unbeaten in five. But I don’t think anyone’s celebrating that after this one.
5. The Timbers took advantage of the #TacticsFreeZone to find a late equalizer, courtesy of new arrival Franck Boli in the 92nd minute, in their 1-1 draw in Frisco on Saturday night. I was surprised that, after last weekend’s dramatic bit of name-calling in the press, Aljaz Ivacic was in goal for Portland, but there he was.
Dallas’s inability to turn something approaching dominance in most facets of the game into clear-cut chances and a multi-goal lead was very, very reminiscent of last season’s summer malaise. The difference right now is that they were able to turn around after those types of games and toss a shutout the next time out in 2022. Thus far in 2023, through six games they haven’t kept a zero.
4. Minnesota had kept a zero heading into Saturday’s battle of unbeatens in St. Louis – way back on opening day against Dallas – and they helped themselves to another one, finally spoiling the new kids’ party with a 1-0 win via a 78th-minute Luis Amarilla PK at CITYPARK.
The game played out as we all expected: the Loons defended deep, kept the game in front of them, were selective about going forward on the break and were even more selective about coming upfield in possession (though they definitely had some spells, like at the start of the second half). And throughout, they managed to avoid the types of self-inflicted horrors that have propelled St. Louis from Matchday 1.
"This is not luck," head coach Adrian Heath said afterward. "We're better than people think."
And hey, when you’re 3W-0L-2D, fourth in the West with only three goals conceded all season despite missing your star No. 10 – the guy who the whole thing is built around – you’re entitled to crow a little bit. This team’s faced legit adversity and Heath’s gotten buy-in.
Bradley Carnell has obviously gotten buy-in as well, though this loss is the first moment that can remotely be considered “adversity.”
For what it’s worth, I think this, from goalkeeper Roman Bürki, is the right message for the guys in the locker room:
“We did not have the energy like we usually have,” Burki said. “I would say everyone was missing a little bit, including me and including everyone. It was not enough. … To be honest, when you are 5-and-0, it's hard to just keep going and have the same energy level on the field every day. We tried our best to keep it that way, but at the end of the day today was not enough. We have to bounce back.
“Now, everyone is on the floor again, if we weren't before. We need to bring the same energy, we need to be aware of that it only works if we give 100 percent, not only quality-wise or mentally-wise, also energy-wise.”
That’s a paddlin’, and that marks Vancouver’s first win of the season after a pair of losses followed by three straight draws.
“The differences between today and the other games is that we scored the goals,” is what Vancouver head coach Vanni Sartini said afterward, and while it sounds kind of flip and reductive, he’s not wrong. His ‘Caps have had seriously good passages of play – anywhere from 30 to like 70 minutes – in each of their five outings, but had been snakebitten in front of goal.
That obviously changed in a big way. Young Simon Becher, the second-year pro who put up 2g/1a in his first start, and has now scored in each of his four appearances with the first team (5g/1a in 132 minutes) was the key to it, teeing Brian White up on the first then showing Wondo-style box instincts on the second and fifth.
He and White seemed to have pretty incredible chemistry together up top in the 4-3-1-2, which was a change from the usual 4-3-2-1. I’ll be surprised if we don’t see more of that in the weeks to come.
Montréal lost four of their five best players from last year’s team, and possibly the best coach in the league. And they look like it.
2. San Jose look like a team that are determined to put the recent past behind them, locking in their third win of the season by 2-1 over visiting Houston on Saturday night. All three of the goals came off of PKs.
It’s early yet, but the underlying metrics like the Quakes quite a bit (and just by the eye test, so do I – they’ve played well in five of their six outings so far). Their better ball security and passing through central midfield is getting the fullbacks – primarily Carlos Akapo and Paul Marie – on the ball in good spots, and those guys are giving the attackers a hell of a platform to work from.
That attack isn’t really clicking yet, but the pieces do seem like they’re coming together.
The same, by the way, is true of Houston, though I would say they’re a few more high-level pieces away than the Quakes.
There were two big notes to take away from this one (one for each team):
• Even with the return of Raúl Ruidíaz, Brian Schmetzer kept Jordan Morris at center forward and Léo Chú at left wing, and lo-and-behold, Chú assisted Morris (again) on the first, then scored the second himself.
Chú, at left wing, solves the “how do we get width on that side?” issue Seattle were staring at earlier this season, and Morris is leading the Golden Boot presented by Audi race. Ruidíaz is a legend, but I’m not sure Schmetzer can change that starting lineup right now.
• LA went to a 3-5-2 in the second half and were just significantly better than the Sounders. Granted, some of this had to do with Seattle taking the foot off the gas when up 2-0, but a big, big chunk of it has to do with the Galaxy’s personnel being much better suited to a 3-5-2 than to the 4-3-3 Vanney has been dying to play.
This is it, man. This performance has to be the breaking point for his intransigence.