Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Charlotte FC overachieving, RSL bucking advanced numbers & where every team stands after MLS Week 13

Lucky matchday No. 13 is in the books. Because of the nature of this weekend – backloaded with Sunday night games – there’s just no way to go in-depth into every game, so I think it makes more sense to go in chronological order of the games and try to use each as a focal point for a sort of season-up-to-now overview.

In other words, I’m playing with the format a bit.

In we go:

Columbus Crew 0-2 LAFC

What’s the deal with these teams? LAFC’s not beating themselves in the ways they managed to each of the past two seasons. The backline is still dynamic and takes lots of risks, but that’s not coming at the cost of overall solidity. Add that to a midfield that still generally controls things, a solid goalkeeper and vicious set pieces, and that’s the recipe for a Supporters’ Shield run.

What hasn’t happened yet is any sort of explosion from Carlos Vela, though he does appear to be warming up – he scored a consolation goal midweek and the winner in this one after scoring just once in his previous 10 outings. He’s still not re-signed to that long reported extension of his DP deal and yes, his current contract is set to expire on June 30.

Brian Rodriguez is back, too, after missing a month with injury, and LAFC have an open DP slot they’re expected to use this summer. In other words, they are already among the three (or so) best teams in the league and have a very clear path toward improvement.

The same is probably not true for Columbus, who’ve now won just once in their past nine and are staring at a stretch in which three of their next four are on the road. And they don’t win on the road – it’s something they’ve managed just three times in 33 tries going back to the start of the 2020 season.

I think there are a few issues with Columbus. One is they’re fairly predictable, and another is they’re fairly ponderous (they advance the ball more slowly than anyone else in the league, as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data). It all adds up to a team that generally has a decent chunk of possession, but has struggled more to turn that into high-quality shots as the year has gone on.

Sometimes Lucas Zelarayan can bail them out with a bit of long-range magic. But when that dries up, as it has over the past two months, they don’t really have anywhere else to turn for a match-winner.

D.C. United 2-2 Toronto FC

What’s the deal with these teams? D.C.’s still pretty much the same team they were before Hernan Losada was fired, just with the extra spicy addition of Taxi Fountas, who has quickly established himself as one of the most fun players in the league. So that means a lot of pressing, a lot of long-ball, and a lot of getting it to Julian Gressel or, in this instance, using Gressel’s gravity to open up the half-space for Taxi:

The issue, though, is playing such a wide-open, high-risk style leaves you wide open when you take risks, and the backline hasn’t been great at scrambling its way out of those situations, while we’ve officially got a large enough sample size to say ‘keeper has been an issue no matter who’s between the sticks.

Toronto, meanwhile, are the worst team in the league if you want to go by the underlying numbers (and the Power Rankings!). They do a very poor job of getting early pressure to opposing backlines, their midfield struggles to close down quickly, and their entire backline has a nasty habit of losing track of runners on and off the ball. Just watch that clip again.

If there’s one smoking gun of a stat, it’s the number of times they lose possession. As per TruMedia via StatsPerform, it’s a league-worst 2,139 times through 13 games. That’s actually more possessions lost than teams like RBNY or Philly, who have “lose possession in good spots” baked into their entire philosophical approach. Losing possession a lot is a good way of compounding the disadvantages inherent to playing a midfield bereft of ball-winners.

There is a silver lining, though, and it’s that a ton of academy kids are getting valuable minutes. So there’s a chance the lumps the Reds are taking this season make them much, much better come 2023 and beyond.

FC Cincinnati 2-3 New England Revolution

What’s the deal with these teams? I think I’ve written more about these two than any other teams in MLS this year, so I’ll give you a quick recap:

- Pat Noonan has done a good job of getting more out of the talented young players on his side, while at the same time relying more upon the MLS veterans on the roster than previous Cincy coaches even attempted. He’s doing this by going all-in on an attacking ethos, which is the complete opposite of what new managers in charge of no-hoper clubs tend to do. It’s refreshing.

It’s led to a breakout season for Brandon Vazquez at center forward (he got his seventh goal of the year in this one), and a potential MVP season from DP No. 10 Lucho Acosta.

Basically every Cincy game is must-watch at this point. Even this one, which ended their club-record four-game winning streak, was fun as hell.

- The Revs are another team that have had to go all-in on attack because the defense has not been up to it. Part of this is just underperformance – lots of guys who were very good-to-excellent last year have been meh (or injured) this year. Part of it, though, was tactical, as Bruce Arena was initially reluctant to switch out of the 4-4-2 wide diamond that badly exposed central midfield. He finally tossed that formation to the scrap heap, though as this game showed, New England’s problems have hardly been solved in their entirety.

A big, looming issue is talent. Tajon Buchanan is gone and, while Sebastian Lletget has been okay in his stead, there are levels here. Matt Turner’s gone this summer, and I think it’d be naive to expect any of his replacements to match what he’s done in basically any of the past four seasons (they certainly struggled when Turner was injured over the first two months of this year). And Besiktas fans keep showing up in my mentions anytime I tweet about Adam Buksa, which… yeah. I imagine New England are going to get an offer they can’t refuse this summer.

Still, I struggle to imagine this Revs side missing the playoffs. But I do think “Revs miss the playoffs” is a much likelier 2022 headline than “Revs win a trophy.”

Back to Lletget for a second: His golazo to open the scoring in this game gave us our Face of the Week:

Nashville SC 2-2 Atlanta United

What's the deal with these teams? Nashville had made linear progress from Year 1 to Year 2 look so easy that it seemed a safe bet they’d do the same in Year 3. And for a while, as they were able to grind through that season-opening eight-game road trip, it looked like they were doing it.

But cracks started to show toward the end of that trip, and those cracks have turned into chasms now that the ‘Yotes have come back home. They cross too much; they don’t create anything unless it’s rugged hold-up play from CJ Sapong, or Hany Mukhtar getting loose on the break; they are still weirdly bad defending set pieces, and are suddenly more fragile than they used to be defending from open play.

They’re still not bad by any stretch of the imagination. But it doesn’t feel like the ceiling is any higher than it was last year, and with their final DP slot spent to give Walker Zimmerman a well-earned raise, it doesn’t seem like a midseason match-winner is coming in the summer window.

Atlanta are, of course, loaded with match-winners, and Gonzalo Pineda has done a good job of getting his attacking midfield triumvirate of Thiago Almada (spectacular for the past four weeks or so), Luiz Araujo and Marcelino Moreno to start actually playing together, rather than just taking turns going 1-v-1. Even without Josef Martinez – who, it should be noted, is back in training and is reportedly finally progressing well – they are hugely dangerous in the attack.

They are, however, dangers to themselves and others defensively. Obviously when you lose your starting goalkeeper, d-mid and best center back to season-ending injuries, you’re going to struggle. And that’s what we’re seeing from the Five Stripes, who are especially poor defending in their own 18.

CF Montréal 1-2 Real Salt Lake

What’s the deal with these teams? Even with this loss, I think it’s fair to say Montréal have been one of the best teams in the league this year. It took a while for folks to realize that – they took a beating through the first four weeks as they were trying to juggle CCL with regular-season play, which virtually no one can do – but then they came screaming out of that with an eight-game unbeaten run.

It was driven by MVP candidate Djordje Mihailovic in attacking midfield as well as DP d-mid Victor Wanyama, but as great as those two guys have been, it’d be wrong to give them all the credit because Wilfried Nancy has just been able to pull more and more and more out of the cadre of young (or youngish) player he decided to make his foundation last season.

And that’s how to get goals like this one:

I’m still not quite convinced these guys are A-Tier contenders since their defense is only pretty good, and their goalkeeping is a measure less than that, and both Romell Quioto and Kei Kamara are more band-aids up top rather than true fixes to the situation. They needed Mason Toye to hit, but because of his injuries, he hasn’t even gotten on the field this year.

As long as they keep the group together – not a given since there’s plenty of European interest in Mihailovic – they’ll be one tier below the elites.

RSL have made a good case they could end up at that same level or even above. We’re almost 40% of the way through the season and nobody’s really sure what to really make of this team because nobody’s really sure what kind of DPs the new ownership group will bring in, nor what shape head coach Pablo Mastroeni will opt for when (if?) the new guys arrive, nor when (if?) Damir Kreilach will be healthy again.

And yet even with all that uncertainty they’ve logged six wins against teams I’m pretty sure will make the playoffs, and they’re just four points off the Shield pace set by LAFC. I legitimately don’t know how they’ve done it – they’ve got a negative-3 goal differential and most of the all-in-one advanced numbers have them mid-table at best.

Yet here they are, still in the hunt and still fighting like hell. Mastroeni demands full commitment from his charges, and thus far they’re giving it.

NYCFC 1-0 Chicago Fire FC

What’s the deal with these teams? NYCFC have probably been the best team in the league since finishing their CCL run. They’ve taken 19 of 21 available points, and have a +15 goal differential. They are now just fractionally behind LAFC in the Shield race on PPG, and are atop the East on the same.

They have done this despite constantly juggling injuries and absences – they’re down to their third-string right back, who’s actually a d-mid, and their No. 10 has had to be a No. 6, and their back-up LB has had to be their starting LB, etc etc etc. Everybody has to handle injuries, but I don’t think anybody’s done so as well as the Pigeons.

The one problem on the horizon, though, is the Taty Castellanos situation. In the 10 games he’s played they’ve scored 23 goals; in the two he hasn’t, they’ve scored once, and it was a PK (in this game!). Heber is back, but he’s not back, and if Taty’s sold this summer (seems likely)... how do you replace the best pressing forward in the league, who also happens to be the best playmaking forward in the league, and also happens to be one of the top goalscoring forwards in the league?

I think they’ll still be really good. But having an elite center forward has consistently been the difference, leaguewide, between being a really good team, and a team that wins hardware.

Sadly for the Fire, the only hardware they look like they’ll be competing for is the Wooden Spoon. Obviously that can change, and I’ll argue they’ve looked better in attack over the last three games as Chris Mueller has gotten into the team.

But that’s not saying much. They’re now winless in nine, Xherdan Shaqiri has been a massive disappointment, and the defense has consistently broken down after a promising start. I think they can point to the fact Jairo Torres has barely played as a mitigating factor (he only just arrived a couple of weeks ago and is carrying a knock), and perhaps moving Torres inside as a No. 10 and Shaqiri out to his more natural right wing spot could help fix things.

Though to be clear, I don’t think that’s how it was drawn up when they made those acquisitions. Rather, that’d just be Ezra Hendrickson trying to make the best out of a rapidly deteriorating situation.

So even though a lot has changed in Chicago, not much actually has.

Charlotte FC 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps FC

What’s the deal with these teams? Charlotte have been far from the utter disaster Miguel Angel Ramirez warned us all about in preseason, and I think Ramirez has a lot to do with that. They’re generally compact and difficult to break down, and mostly don’t beat themselves. They don’t have many match-winners – maybe none, to be honest? Though I’ve still got some Karol Swiderski stock – but they work hard as hell, and teams that work hard as hell tend to make their own luck:

Am I calling that our Pass of the Week? Of course I am.

I don’t think this team really looks anything like Ramirez wants (they’re mostly playing a 4-1-3-2 against the ball, and I think he’d rather put out a 4-3-3 team that has 60% possession every game), but he’s figured out how to make them sometimes dangerous and always respectable. For an expansion team, that’s damn good.

For Vancouver, who are this year’s Cursed Club™, “sometimes dangerous and always respectable” would be a massive improvement. I’m willing to write a lot of this off to injuries and health & safety protocol absences, as well as not working to get Andres Cubas (who is absolutely the right signing for them) into town this winter. It also shouldn’t be forgotten that Maxime Crepeau is gone, and he was their best player last year, and I’ll just very gently say goalkeeper is no longer a position of strength.

But a lot of this has been compounded by some wild personnel decisions from head coach Vanni Sartini, especially at wingback. I’m actually not convinced they have even one natural wingback on the team, and they have a bajillion wingers, so I’m constantly perplexed at the fact they play a formation that features zero wingers and asks a ton from the wingbacks.

I do think they’ll get better as the season goes on – the arrival of Cubas and a (hopefully) healthy Caio Alexandre basically guarantees it. But they’re digging themselves quite a hole here.

Inter Miami CF 2-0 New York Red Bulls

What’s the deal with these teams? The Red Bulls are the Red Bulls: They’re pressing high and hard, are more direct than anybody in the league (though the Union are giving them a real run at it), have excellent defenders, an excellent goalkeeper, promising young midfielders and disappointing center forwards. It’s what it’s been for a few years now.

The difference this year is they were bought in from the start, and have played really energetic – even by Energy Drink Soccer standards – soccer. They just haven’t turned it into goals often enough, and I think the knock-on effects of that have been apparent over the past few weeks as the defense has really started to suffer. Prior to May there was a lot of dominance and strangling the life out of teams. Since the start of the month there’s been a lot of hanging on for dear life, and zero wins in four to show for it.

Usually, teams that control games (even if they don’t control the ball) start stringing together wins. Usually, forwards that find chances (like Patryk Klimala always finds chances) start burying goals. That’s what advanced analytics tell us.

But advanced analytics are just more predictive than pure results, they’re not guaranteed. And we’re getting to the point where the Red Bulls are one of those teams that just breaks the models. Not in a good way.

Miami, meanwhile, have almost fully shed the meme team label. They’re 4-2-2 in their past eight games after that miserable first month, during which they took just one point out of a possible 15 on offer. The big move, quite obviously, was Phil Neville’s decision to call out and bench Gonzalo Higuain.

That did three things:

  1. It allowed Neville to make Leo Campana the undisputed starter at center forward.
  2. It allowed Neville to play a high-energy, counterattacking 4-3-3 with speed in both midfield and up top.
  3. It eventually lit a fire under Higuain to the point that he seems to be embracing his role as a change-of-pace sub.

There’s still a lot wrong with Miami – it’s not clear whether or not they have any starting-caliber center backs, for example, and they can definitely get gashed if they go behind and have to come out of their shell.

But it’s really been quite good for almost two months now, and I’m not sure anyone saw that coming.

FC Dallas 1-2 Minnesota United FC

What’s the deal with these teams? Los Toros Tejanos have leaned hard into their youth, and it’s paid: Jesus Ferreira is leading the Golden Boot presented by Audi race, Paxton Pomykal has been one of the best two-way central midfielders in MLS, and guys like Brandon Servania and Edwin Cerrillo have provided quality minutes. On top of that their veteran(ish) acquisitions – Paul Arriola and Martin Paes – have been excellent, and Matt Hedges has come back to full health.

All of this is happening within the context of Nico Estevez’s system. The Spaniard, who came to Dallas last year from Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT staff, runs a system similar to what Berhalter initially tried to do with the US, meaning ball-dominant positional play out of a 4-3-3.

That’s given Dallas control over most of the games they’ve played. In recent weeks, though, as the front-foot 4-3-3 has been figured out a little bit, Estevez has had his side come out deeper, looking more toward sending runners in behind in order to weaponize that frontline speed.

The project isn’t complete. Sunday’s loss knocked them into a two-game losing streak, and their lack of defensive depth and attacking firepower are reasonable concerns. Young Alan Velasco getting comfortable quickly would help a ton, and so would more boxscore production out of the central midfield.

I’m going to borrow from last week’s column for the Loons:

…with Minnesota, look at this progression, via Second Spectrum’s tracking data: In 2020 they pressed 99.7 times per game outside their defensive third. In 2021 it climbed to 102.6 times per game and in 2022 they’re at 117.5 presses per game outside their defensive third, which is third-most in the league. And while their pressure has jumped an eye-catching amount in the middle third (last year: 79.5 times per game; this year: 94.3), it’s actually their front-foot pressing of opposing backlines that Heath has really leaned into this year. They are third in the league in pressing opposing backlines, and do so almost 25% more often than they did last year.

Minnesota have not turned the above into goals, and so Sunday’s win snapped a four-game winless skid.

Still, they’re not just going to disappear. Emanuel Reynoso has started playing better after a rough March (and April), and Robin Lod has capitalized on the chance to win a starting job as a No. 9 (a false 9, really, when he plays there). It’s not great resource allocation – Minnesota have two DP No. 9s on the bench, and zero consistently productive wingers – but it’s been enough to keep their heads afloat.

Well, I should say it’s been enough to keep their heads afloat when combined with Dayne St. Clair’s otherworldly shot-stopping. He’s basically saved this team half a goal a game which, if he keeps it up over the course of the entire season, would be the best season by any ‘keeper in American Soccer Analysis’s database.

He’s running away with Goalkeeper of the Year, and should honestly be getting some MVP buzz as well.

San Jose Earthquakes 1-1 Sporting Kansas City

What’s the deal with these teams? It basically comes down to the Matias Almeyda Era vs. the post-Matias Almeyda Era for San Jose. Here are the numbers:

  • With Almeyda: 0-4-3, -6 goal differential.
  • Without Almeyda: 4-1-3, +5 goal differential.

Interim head coach Alex Covelo has changed a bunch, starting with scrapping Almeyda’s man-marking defensive scheme, which literally everyone had figured out by the middle of last season at the very latest. That, combined with a less adventuresome remit for the fullbacks (they still get forward, but there are restraints now), has mostly fixed the defensively bleeding that largely defined the Almeyda era.

In attack there’s a lot of the same stuff that made Almeyda’s Quakes fun, but it’s been combined with more sensible use of the personnel on hand. That begins with a shift to a 4-1-4-1 as the default formation, and a commitment to getting the wingers, Cade Cowell inverted on the left and Cristian Espinoza on the right, into space running off of center forward Jeremy Ebobisse. A pair of attacking midfielders, Jackson Yueill and Jamiro Monteiro, operate in the half-spaces underneath and occasionally sneak forward unmarked to head home goals (seriously, these guys are scoring like a header a game).

All that was staring Almeyda in the face. He didn’t have to be a genius to use it, he just had to be rational.

Sporting have been heading in the opposite direction. I know that’s kind of a cruel thing to say after they bounced back from last weekend’s 7-2 humiliation with four quality points this week, but this is still a team that lost 7-2 last weekend and has won just once in their past nine.

They still press a bunch (though they’re dialing it back way more often now), but when that first line of pressure gets broken they tend to be in a world of hurt. Peter Vermes has started churning through the roster trying to look for potential answers, and to be fair guys like Cam Duke and Kortne Ford have provided some nice moments. Hope is springing eternal, even among the hardened vets:

I am more skeptical. Nonetheless, this was a very good bounce-back week after the humiliation in Portland.

Austin FC 2-2 Orlando City SC

What’s the deal with these teams? Austin are among the league leaders, currently second in the league on points and third in PPG. That is good!

They also play intricate and fun ball-dominant soccer, and Josh Wolff’s system puts an emphasis on both making the field big as well as getting guys with individual skill in high-leverage spots. That, also, is good!

What was less good was the schedule they faced out of the gate, a nine-game waltz through the lilacs that Verde, to their credit, smashed. They went 6W-1L-2D with a +14 goal differential.

Things have not gone so well since they got into the second part of their schedule, a 10-game stretch that mostly comes on the road, or against good teams, or both. Through four games they are a not-great-but-not-disastrous-at-least-yet 1W-2L-1D record, good for four points with a -1 goal differential.

One thing that is clear is they’ve gotten better at limiting transition opportunities, and being a little more conservative with how high their fullbacks push has served them well. But it’s still not clear they’ll be able to consistently create high-level chances against the better teams in the league, and that was once again the case in this one (for the first hour anyway).

So I think, at this point, Austin look like a playoff team – maybe one that can sneak into the fourth seed and host a postseason game. They haven’t looked like anything more than that just yet, but they haven’t looked like much less.

Orlando, on the other hand, have looked like both much more than that and much less than that, and sometimes have pulled it off over the course of a single game. That was the case on Sunday, when they played a dominant first hour, but then picked up a red, conceded a penalty, picked up a second red, conceded a late equalizer and ended up hanging onto the point by the skin of their teeth.

It’s been weird. The Purple Lions have had no flow – coming into this game they’d won four of six, which is great, but the two losses were absolutely feeble three-goal drubbings they took at RBNY and at Montréal. Like, literally two of the worst performances any team has put forth this year.

The schedule stays manageable for a while longer, then gets much, much more difficult in the second half of the season. They need to start stringing together some performances, and that probably means getting more out of their new DPs Facundo Torres and Ercan Kara, each of whom has been underwhelming.

Colorado Rapids 1-0 Seattle Sounders

What’s the deal with these teams? The amount of turnover from one year to the next for Colorado has been a little understated, I think? Yes, Sam Vines left midseason, but left back is still kind of a question mark. Cole Bassett and Kellyn Acosta were loaned and traded, respectively. Auston Trusty is gone in the summer. Younes Namli didn’t play a huge role last year because of injury, but he was the team’s only DP and he’s gone. Dom Badji came in late in the season, immediately won a starting job and was awesome; he signed with Cincy as a free agent. Andre Shinyashiki, the former Rookie of the Year, saw his role reduced and was then traded to Charlotte.

It’s been a lot, and so we probably shouldn’t be surprised Colorado are not proving to be either as solid or as flexible as they were the past couple of seasons – they just don’t have the firepower to manage that. What they do, instead, is this:

As last season went on the Rapids played more and more out of a 3-5-2, and more and more in transition. That trend has continued into this season.

Know what trend hasn’t? Finally? Set piece dominance. They are midtable after years and years of just absolutely wrecking folks on restarts. I’m pretty sure injuries to Jack Price and Danny Wilson have a good bit to do with that.

Seattle are below midtable in the standings, and this game was a stinker from them. They are also, you might have heard, the champions of North America.

Yes, they’ll miss Joao Paulo, and yes, it’s reasonable to expect both Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz to need a little more downtime than they’ve gotten in past years.

But does anyone have a real argument as to why this group isn’t going to finish top four in the West for the 13th straight year? If that argument’s been made I’ve yet to see it, and I’m not in the mood to make it myself.

LA Galaxy 0-3 Houston Dynamo FC

What’s the deal with these teams? Are the Galaxy in trouble? I know they started well – they had one of the best defenses in the league for a while, and Chicharito was scoring a bunch, and that central midfield pairing of Mark Delgado and Rayan Raveloson was controlling games out of Greg Vanney’s 4-2-3-1 – but things started trending down about a month ago, and I think they’re officially getting ugly.

  • LA are 1W-3L-1D in their past five.
  • LA haven’t scored more than once in any of their last seven.
  • Chicharito has not scored in his past eight.
  • None of the wingers have scored an open play goal all year.

Those are troubling signs for any team. For a team that’s either squandered good starts or failed spectacularly on Decision Day for most of their recent history, it’s starting to feel like the very worst kind of deja vu.

The Galaxy were supposed to be past this! Kevin Cabral was supposed to adjust, and Efrain Alvarez was supposed to grow, and Douglas Costa was supposed to be the kind of proven creative talent who could give Chicharito tap-ins, but literally none of that has happened. And Chicharito, for his part, has started missing the chances he does get with alarming regularity.

I don’t think they’re good enough defensively to 1-0 their way to the playoffs. They allow a fairly high number of box entries, as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, and then once they’re in there on the back foot, the center backs aren’t exactly dominant.

Paulo Nagamura also has some stuff to figure out, though at least he’s got his Dynamo side pointed in the right direction a bit now. This marks their second win in three on the heels of a really poor four-game winless skid, and there are promising signs – they’re getting goal contributions from their DP striker Sebastian Ferreira, and Darwin Quintero has been a high-volume chance creator when he’s been healthy, and the defense has suddenly started limiting high-quality opportunities, and the wingers are producing at least a little.

They are right there in the playoff race, just above the line. I think if you’d offered that to the Dynamo (coaches, front office, fans) before the season started, and before Hector Herrera got there, they’d have taken it.

Portland Timbers 0-2 Philadelphia Union

What’s the deal with these teams? The Timbers are, I think, in a holding pattern? Right now it seems like everything is on pause until we see – they see – how far back Sebastian Blanco can get. That’s the big one, because over the past few years they’ve collected points at a Shield-winning clip when Blanco’s been healthy, and at slightly above a Spoon-winning clip when he hasn’t been.

He is not alone among the walking wounded, though. Eryk Williamson, last week, had his first truly excellent game since popping his ACL; this week he was taken off injured in the first half. Felipe Mora has been out for months and has at least one more month before he’s expected to return. The backline has been dinged up as well, and even Diego Chara has missed some time.

The other stuff we’re all waiting for is some level of development from guys like Santiago Moreno, Cristhian Paredes and even young David Ayala. With Chara and the rest of the regulars aging, the 25-and-under group has to pick up more of the slack. Thus far, they haven’t.

Portland’s 12th in the West on PPG and have two wins in 11 games going back to mid-March. I do think they’ve played a bit better over their past few outings, but they haven’t looked much like the group that made it to MLS Cup last autumn.

Philly, on the other hand, look quite a bit like the group that almost made it to MLS Cup last autumn. They have the same strengths – rock-solid defense, elite goalkeeper, tough-as-nails midfield, lots of pressing energy everywhere on the pitch – as that team. They also have the same weakness, which is a lack of high-end production from the No. 9 spot.

Maybe when Mikael Uhre gets healthy that changes. But maybe it doesn’t, and also, there’s no guarantee he’s ever going to be completely healthy for this team. Weird stuff can happen! At least for now, Daniel Gazdag is picking up a bunch of the slack.

One note on the Union: They are even more direct and full-throttle this season than they have been the past couple of years. They just refuse to play with the ball through midfield unless they’re running at a dead sprint toward goal.

It’s not the prettiest stuff in the world to watch, but it’s an ethos.