Carlos Vela - Mark-Anthony Kaye - LAFC celebrating

One more week of load management for Doyle before his triumphant return to this space, so put your pitchforks away for a few more days (please? Thank you.) 

Let's get after Week 18 in MLS. For midweek thoughts on Wednesday's seven games, check here

Kings do King things 

Josef Martinez is back. Bradley Wright-Phillips is back. Atlanta United and the New York Red Bullsgenuinely loathe each other. Thirty-eight fouls. Four yellow cards. Endless jawing. Martinez blew a kiss to Luis Robles; BWP silenced the Benz with one touch, one finger over his lips. What a game. 

It was another classic between the Red Bulls and Atlanta, who drew 3-3. There were four goals in the final 30 minutes, two of which in stoppage time. The game was great even before all hell broke loose. It may be difficult to try and pull some tactical thoughts from such a wild, emotionally charged game — plus about eight starters unavailable between the two teams through injury, red card suspension or international duty — but indulge me, if you will. 

ATL played more like they did Tata Martino than Frank de Boer on Sunday in the sense that the Red Bulls forced the hosts to play more direct, yielding more opportunities in transition. Unlike in last year's Eastern Conference Championship, RBNY dialed up the press yet again. Even without Tim Parker and Aaron Long, too. 

Atlanta missed former talisman Miguel Almiron in the transition game, as well as injured duo Tito Villalba and Ezequiel Barco

Playing high pressure relies on defenders who are comfortable defending in more space than normal. The team will get stretched easily due to the high line of confrontation. Defenders must recognize in an instant when there's no pressure on the ball and to drop, or, when they need to take a calculated risk and step in to win a tackle in the open field. Atlanta's opening goal was a breach of that plan for the Red Bulls.

Sean Nealis neither pressured the ball nor dropped off; Kyle Duncan got beat by one touch as the last man back. The result is an easy finish for Justin Meram. That's the inherent risk with high pressing.

But, for most of the game, that was the only moment when Atlanta truly broke the Red Bulls press and created a big chance. Nealis and Amro Tarek played well, but Sean Davis and Cristian Casseres Jr. continually applied pressure on the ball, ditto for Alex Muyl, who was awesome. So was Danny Royer. Brian White scored again. BWP returned to his throne to spoil the day for ATLUTD.

Let's do this again in the playoffs, yeah? 

One more thing: Pity Martinez was substituted after 63 minutes, just after the Red Bulls took the lead. De Boer said Martinez didn't win enough of his duels then continued to say: "I want 11 men who work hard, not 10 or 9 or 8 men. Everybody has to work, especially in these types of games." Not great.

Chasing ghosts

Just in case anyone was wondering after their 1-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids last week, LAFC are just fine. (I don't think anyone was worried.)

LAFC ripped apart Sporting KC 5-1 on Wednesday then dropped the people's elbow directly on the city of Vancouver, exploding for six unanswered goals in their 6-1 win over the Whitecaps. It was a bloodbath.

The 'Caps had lost by more than one goal just once all season. They are far from an easy win, except this is just what LAFC do. Ten of their 13 wins have been by multiple goals. Four of those were by four goals or more.

Bob Bradley's side did it Saturday without most of their regular defensive unit (no Tyler Miller, Walker Zimmerman, Steven Beitashour or Jordan Harvey). Forget about other teams in the league at the moment: LAFC are chasing ghosts. They already have opened up a +34 goal difference after 19 games — PLUS THIRTY-FOUR! 

What else is there to say? They pass and press teams off the pitch. They have the best player in the league alongside a panoply of individuals that can go out and win a game on their own when things break down. They even regularly get goals off set pieces just in case the attack, which has already reached 50 goals, isn't firing perfectly. They have an open DP slot, that they might use this summer even though they have clearly shown they don't need it. 

We're witnessing potentially one of the very best single seasons in MLS unfold in front of our eyes. It can't be said enough. Enjoy the excellence. 

Timbers march on

On July 7, 2019, for the first time since July 5, 2015, the Portland Timbers won an MLS game in which Diego Chara did not start. What a stat. The Timbers ended NYCFC's 12-game unbeaten run with a 1-0 victory at Yankee Stadium. 

It had to happen eventually for NYCFC, who were without Heber, Alexander Callens, Sean Johnson and Alexandru Mitrita against the Timbers. A handful of defensive errors did them in, though just one resulted in a goal. In attack, they couldn't quite find the mojo. Credit Portland for that, too, especially without Chara. Sebastian Blanco's defensive work rate is key to Gio Savarese's first-choice XI that is heavy on attacking talent.  

Brian Fernandez failed to score gasps! for the first time since joining the club. On another day he might have had a brace, between slightly mistimed runs and slightly mistimed passes. This attack is scary. 

Face of the Week goes to everyone holding up Timbs. 

Weekend observations

9. It wasn't quite "loser go home" as Sporting KC faced the Chicago Fire, but it was at least "loser make a mental checklist of your belongings." SKC slipped to the bottom of the West following Wednesday's shellacking at the hands of LAFC. The Fire only just ended a six-game unbeaten run and were drifting from the pack in the East.

Both teams treated it with the urgency the game deserved, lending a playoff atmosphere amid SKC's 1-0 win. Peter Vermes opted for Yohan Croizet as false nine, which may well be their best option at center forward at the moment. It feels like a weird thing to say. Krisztian Nemeth's hot start cooled right at the time that Johnny Russell missed six straight games. All the while, Gerso and Daniel Salloi combined for 0g/1a in 910 minutes in his absence. 

Good news for SKC? They got their third (!) shutout of the year on Saturday while Gedion Zelalem looked like the controlling passer in central midfield that he's been hyped to be after years of starring at various youth national team levels. (Granted, he had exactly one defensive action in 84 minutes.) 

As for the Fire, their next two games — home against both FC Cincinnati then Columbus Crew — will go a long way in deciding if there'll be a fire sale in Chicago this summer.

8. Against D.C. United, FC Dallas young star Paxton Pomykal took it upon himself to shoot more. A lot more. It's something that U-20 US coach Tab Ramos challenged him to improve. It's another way to continue his development and raise his already sky-high ceiling. 

Pomykal took a season-high five shots in FCD's win over D.C., including the effort below from a counter-attack. He picks up the ball at midfield, immediately bursts forward, keeps the pace in the counterattack and doesn't force a pass just for passing's sake. No defender stepped so he continued gliding forward and shot. It was the right play. It was a decisive action from the 19-year-old midfielder. All of that is good. 

These will start going in. And when they do, Dallas' asking price for any potential suitors will continue to rise. 

The asking price for Lucho Acosta might be dropping, though. Out of contract after this season, the Argentine hasn't come close to his 2018 form. His 2019 got worse on Thursday when he picked up a red card against Dallas for stepping on Pomykal's face. His future is one to keep tabs on this summer. 

7. What a week for Minnesota United. On Wednesday, they beat the Quakes at Allianz Field in a pivotal game in the playoff race. Then, they went to Montreal on Saturday with a rotated starting XI and got all three points there, too, despite conceding in the first minute. In a few days, they'll play in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals.

The Mason Toye hype train is leaving the station. The 20-year-old has 3g/2a in 151 MLS minutes this season, including this brace in his first start.  

It's a tough loss for Montreal, particularly given the context and the early lead. As currently constructed — i.e. with Ignacio Piatti out injured — it's difficult to see how this team makes noise in the playoffs. Their foundation and tactics are set. Saphir Taider is a strong second banana to Piatti. But the Argentine's health will be the defining factor in if Montreal will have a decent season or if they can push the other contenders in the wide-open East. 

6. A pair of 17-year-olds helped lead the Galaxy to a 2-0 win over Toronto FC on the Fourth of July. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, too, of course. Even if his jersey had a typo.

Before diving into the #PlayYourKids narrative, let's enjoy a pair of top-notch Zlatan quotes after the game:

  • On his misspelled jersey: maybe the “kit guy celebrated [Independence Day] before the game. ... People know my last name. I'm not worried about that.”
  • On re-entering the Golden Boot race: “As long as they don't suspend me, maybe I can break some records. But I'm not in control of that.”

ANYWAY. Julian Araujo and Efra Alvarez starred, the former helping lock down a shutout and the latter providing an inch-perfect assist in his first MLS start. It's our Pass of the Week:

As for Toronto, they're about to get Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez back from the US national team. They are clinging to the final playoff spot in the East, which isn't an awful spot to be considering they have just one win since May 4. The trio of USMNTers will have to hit the ground running, though, because 10 of TFC's next 11 games come against Eastern Conference opponents. 

5. First things first, props to Nick Rimando for making his 500th MLS regular season appearance. What a career. He almost got his 149th shutout against San Jose on Saturday, except Danny Hoesen had other plans. 

Hoesen scored a game-winning goal in the 93rd minute. bringing joy to a frustrating evening in San Jose. Real Salt Lake, amid a congested stretch of games, opted to sit deep, concede possession and play direct. The Quakes didn't get many chances to truly apply their man-marking system and reduce the game to a number of duels. It almost worked until a quick corner caught everybody napping (even most of the Quakes attackers), allowing Hoesen to win the game for San Jose. 

SJ out-passed RSL 609-338; 20% of RSL's passes went long. One-off, or blueprint for how to frustrate the Quakes?

The playoff race in the West is looking sumptuous. Minnesota are fourth with 30 points and RSL in eighth with 26. Sporting KC and Portland are charging, too. For now, San Jose jostled into sixth. Those teams are going to trade places on a weekly basis. It's going to be fun. 

4. Soccer is weird. That's why we love it. Given the Union beat Orlando on the road on Wednesday and that Orlando rotated their starting XI in Philly on Sunday, conventional wisdom would expect a Union win, right?

Wrong. A thrilling 2-2 draw played out at Talen Energy Stadium as Marco Fabian marked his triumphant return to the Union starting XI with a goal, as did Dom Dwyer. It's the type of result that has kept the Union from opening up a sizable lead atop the East despite D.C.'s recent struggles, though. 

Orlando continue to hang around the playoff line. Every point counts, especially those without Nani and Robin Jansson in the starting XI. 

3. It's just one of those seasons for Columbus, isn't it? They fell 2-1 to the Seattle Sounders at the death as Nico Lodeiro's brace earned the Seattle Sounders a big road win.

The Crew are now 1-12-1 in their last 14 games. Not great. At least help is on the way, with young DP Luis Diaz and Curacao's Gold Cup hero Eloy Room ready to be added to the roster. 

Help is on the way for Seattle, too. It was Lodeiro's first game back after returning from Copa América. Raul Ruidiaz will be back soon, as will Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris. They've held water over this stretch where they missed double-digit first-teamers. It's a wonderful nod to their depth. If LAFC weren't having a historic season thus far, they'd have done enough to keep themselves in the Supporters' Shield race.

2. There's no two ways around it:Houston's 3-2 loss to Cincy is a gut punch for the Dynamo. Cincinnati had lost their last six games with a goal difference of -19. The Timbers, SKC and RSL are lurking below the playoff line with the Dynamo the first team over it. Not great, particularly the manner in which the goals were conceded.

It was a good way to break the losing streak for Cincy, even if they made it a bit more stressful at the end than the fans at Nippert Stadium would have liked. The 3-0 lead quickly turned to 3-2 after a penalty and own goal, but they held on. What will the summer hold for Cincy? Can new GM Gerard Nijkamp replenish some assets and build flexibility moving forward? 

1. Something had to give when Conor Casey's Rapids and Bruce Arena's Revs, right? Both teams playing well under a new coach met on the Fourth of July, experiencing fireworks (and the opposite of fireworks during a lengthy weather delay.)

It was the Rapids' unbeaten run that gave, as the Revs outlasted Colorado and the weather for a 2-1 win. Credit to Matt Turner's late heroics for that, too.

It might be the match that brings the Rapids back down to earth. Their next three games? At Portland, vs. NYCFC and at San Jose. 

As for the Revs, Arena went for a 4-2-3-1 again. Is this going to be his first choice set moving forward, with Luis Caicedo and Wilfried Zahibo as a double pivot behind Carles Gil?