Since everyone’s head has been in the international break for the past two weeks, now seems like a good time to go around the league team-by-team to pick out some trends and get a broader overview rather than the usual breakdowns that purely focus on the weekend’s games*. Let’s familiarize ourselves with everyone to a decent degree, shall we?
(*) Though, of course, I will be using the games themselves as a framework to talk about the teams in question.
In we go:
Chicago Fire 0-0 FC Dallas
The biggest news here from a Fire perspective is that Xherdan Shaqiri limped off injured midway through the first half. Shaqiri’s been pretty good – he’s getting a ton of the ball and is involved in a lot of the good stuff the Fire are doing, even if he’s not exactly been an incisive, irresistible force out there. I like 18-year-old Homegrown Brian Gutierrez a lot, but if he’s got to do Shaqiri’s job for a prolonged period of time an already somewhat lacking Chicago attack could be in a bit of trouble.
The good news, though, is that the defense is extremely well-organized, focused and compact, and remained so even without veteran CB Rafa Czichos in this one (he missed the game for health and safety protocols). Gaga Slonina’s been getting a ton of the credit for the Fire having conceded just once in five games, and he deserves much of it, but most of the time it feels like I could be in goal and pitch a shutout with the way this team has defended.
As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, they’re third in the league in xG allowed in transition. Combine that with the elimination of the types of errors that killed them the past few years (Calvo!!!!!!!), and it’s understandable that they’re posting lots of zeroes.
Also, Wyatt Omsberg is maybe the leading candidate for Breakout Player of the Year.
Dallas are also a much-improved defensive team over last season. Part of it is Matt Hedges being back and healthy, and part of it has been Nico Estevez’s newly-constructed midfield just being better about understanding spacing both with and without the ball. Buzz over at 3rddegree.net had a great look at how Homegrown d-mid Edwin Cerrillo has played a particularly significant role in this defensive rebirth (and yes, it was a little bit weird that he didn’t start against the Fire).
Los Toros Tejanos weren’t sharp enough in the final third to break down Chicago’s well-drilled defense on Saturday, which is perhaps not surprising given that Dallas were without Paul Arriola (he’ll be gone for a couple of weeks) and Jesus Ferreira (he came in as a second-half sub following his time with the USMNT).
But even with those guys on the field they have sometimes struggled to turn the possession wrought by Estevez’s intricate system into goals. Keep an eye on that.
FC Cincinnati 3, CF Montréal 4
The day after coughing up four goals and multiple leads at home is not exactly a day for celebration, but Cincy really do have something to celebrate, because not only is Brandon Vazquez leading the Golden Boot presented by Audi race, but the underlying numbers say that he actually is, in fact, an elite forward in this league. He just has a knack for finding chances, and guys who find chances at a good clip generally figure out a way to finish them. And Vazquez, it should be noted, is more than just a finisher.
Armchair Analyst: Vazquez hold-up play
In addition to his goal in this one, Vazquez forced an own goal, dimed a cross to Dom Badji’s head for what should’ve been an assist, and had a handful of little moments like that one.
Between his form ending last season and what he’s shown to start this year, we’re past the “this is an incredibly small sample size” phase. Yes, the kid’s on a heater, but he’s not just on a heater.
The other thing to celebrate is that Lucho Acosta is still doing a lot of the stuff he did last year, and is doing it better. Through five weeks he leads the league in both chances created and expected assists, as per TruMedia via StatsPerform. Those are two building blocks that Pat Noonan’s using well.
The defense… I think the structure’s not as bad as the numbers suggest right now? They’ve had two outright disasters (Saturday’s loss and First Kick at Austin), two pretty good performances and two kinda bad ones. That’s not great, obviously, but it’s a massive improvement over anything Cincy’s ever been in the past, and as Chris Albright adds new personnel over the next few windows in both central midfield and along the backline, I see reason for hope ahead.
A month into the season and I am mildly concerned about CF Montréal. Djordje Mihailovic is playing as well as anyone in the league, and Victor Wanyama’s been a rock at d-mid. They’ve gotten good minutes from Kei Kamara and Romell Quioto as well, and youngster Ismael Kone has been a borderline revelation.
The defense and the situation in goal, though, have not been great. Kamal Miller has hit a serious dip in form after an excellent end to his 2021 season and some stellar performances in qualifying with Canada, and Sebastian Breza has been good for at least one howler every time out.
I still think the structure for Montréal is quite good, and in general I think they’ve been playing more good soccer than bad, and expect results to follow as they move past the “we’re exhausted because of the CCL” part of the schedule.
But they’ve given up 14 goals in five games, and from where I’ve sat, it’s looked like a personnel issue.
Toronto FC 2, NYCFC 1
I really think Bob Bradley wants this team to eventually shift into a 4-3-3 shape similar to the one his best LAFC teams played, with Lorenzo Insigne slated to play the Carlos Vela role – just cutting in from the left instead of the right. But they don’t have the pieces for it now, and more to the point, the 3-5-2 (which often morphed into a 3-4-2-1) they’ve played the past few weeks gives a little bit more defensive protection to that central midfield.
That’s made them a lot tougher to break down than they were at the start of the season. The other two things TFC have going for them right now:
- New No. 9 Jesus Jimenez has god-tier chemistry with just about everyone he steps foot on the field with.
- Bradley, as has always been his way, is getting a ton out of the kids. Guys like Lukas MacNaughton, Luca Petrasso and Kosi Thompson were not considered A-Tier prospects by anybody, but each of them is out there doing more than just soaking up minutes. Petrasso, in particular, has been really impressive.
On the flip side, literally nobody has been impressive for NYCFC this season. I thought they’d come out of the international break rested and refreshed, and ready to start looking like the team they were for most of last season. But this wasn’t that kind of performance.
It is entirely plausible that the weight of Wednesday’s CCL trip to Seattle was pressing down on them to an unfortunate extent, and the fact that they were missing both starting fullbacks – nobody asks more of their fullbacks than the Pigeons – shouldn’t be dismissed.
Forget that, though, because here’s the giant red flag: NYCFC are 27th in xG allowed when defending in an organized state, as per Second Spectrum. This is despite the fact that only the Quakes spend less time actually defending in an organized state (if you’re never organized, you can’t concede goals in an organized state!).
I went back through all the tracking data for the past couple of years and NYCFC have never had a five-game stretch like this. I still think it’s fatigue combined with championship hangover (it’s real – just ask last year’s Crew), but whatever the cause, Ronny Deila’s got to get this fixed ASAP.
Columbus Crew 0, Nashville SC 1
Face of the Week to Caleb Porter for this halftime interview:
His tone of voice became very expressive when he was talking about Nashville’s approach.
Anyway, baked into that clip is a breakdown of how Columbus want to play: sideline-to-sideline; use possession and use the ball to stretch the opponents out; create wide overloads with attacking fullbacks and the wingers; get coordinated movement in behind.
With Porter’s system, it’s not a question of what they’re going to do. Rather, it’s a question of what tempo they’re doing it at. When the tempo is high and the Crew start flowing, it feels like an avalanche. When the tempo drops, they can feel pretty punchless.
In general it’s edged more toward the former this season, though bear in mind that Lucas Zelarayan’s unsustainable goalscoring form has covered up some issues. Once that dries up – as it has the past two matches – then… well, one point from two games against two of the better defensive teams in the league makes some sense.
Nashville are still one of the better defensive teams in the league, even without Dax McCarty (suspended) and with Walker Zimmerman coming off the bench after his USMNT duty. They have conceded just five times so far on this season-opening odyssey (five games down, three to go), and just one of those has been from open play.
It is not pretty soccer. I sometimes feel like Gary Smith is stealing my life from me 90 minutes at a time. But if they end up with 10 or 11 points from this trip (they’re currently on 7), then they will be in very comfortable shape with 17 of their final 26 games at home.
So I can’t really blame him for doing what he’s doing with this group. But it’s pretty obvious that if the ‘Yotes want to improve upon what they were last season, they need to get at least one more dynamic attacking piece out onto the field.
D.C. United 0, Atlanta United 1
D.C. are just this year's version of last year's team, except less fun because their system is no longer new, they sold their two best players and the replacements either haven't arrived or have arrived and aren't great.
On top of that their games thus far have been kind of boring, and the results have been kind of to script. Two straight wins to open the season over Charlotte and Cincy? That tracks. Three straight losses to teams with much more ambitious budgets, and more high-upside players? That also tracks.
Andy Najar at right center back is still cool and fun, but he hasn't been as dynamic yet this season and actually came off at the half with a knock in this one. Guys who could or should have turned into stars – Bill Hamid, Russell Canouse and especially Edison Flores – haven't.
So what we have here is a team that needs to run you to death. Except after last year teams are now prepared for exactly that, and D.C. have a little less attacking talent to bust down the door.
We’re two years past the ACL tear and it’s starting to feel, sadly, like Josef’s never going to be Josef again. Through five games only one starting center forward makes fewer attacking runs into the box per 90 – Jesus Ferreira, a false 9 whose job is to come back to the play and be a playmaker, not to stretch the defense. Josef, right now, is making about half the off-ball attacking runs into the box as guys like Chicharito and Adam Buksa and at least 50% fewer than Taty Castellanos, Jeremy Ebobisse, Karol Swiderski and Diego Rubio.
In this case, the tracking data is the eye test: Josef is static and is spending a lot of time waiting for his teammates to unlock the defense for him. It is fine to be like that sometimes, but that was never Josef’s default setting when he was at his best.
The Five Stripes are 3W-1L-1D and clearly have enough talent to brute force some wins even with Thiago Almada looking more like Barco 2.0 than a top-level MLS No. 10 (Bear in mind it’s early yet, and Marcelino Moreno’s a good example of an attacking midfielder who struggled at first but has become very good).
But the ceiling on this team is lower than expected if Josef’s just a poacher and not a guy who causes havoc with his off-ball work.
New England Revolution 0, New York Red Bulls 1
The Revs had a remarkable season last year based primarily upon two things:
- They had high-level match-winners on every line, from goalkeeper to forward, and those guys delivered.
- They were utterly dominant on set pieces.
The underlying numbers last year said that the Revs were not supposed to be a 73-point team – Bruce Arena basically agreed with that at the end of the year, saying they were “probably not as good as our record” – but game-breaking talent can, on occasion, break statistical models as well.
2022’s been different. To start out with, the Revs have two fewer game-breakers with Tajon Buchanan’s departure and Matt Turner’s injury. Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa, meanwhile, have combined for zero goals. And while they’ve still been ok on set pieces (two goals scored in five games isn’t bad at all), it’s nothing like what they were doing last year.
Add in some injuries in central defense and you’ve got a pretty sad stew going. It will probably get better as the season goes on, but those underlying numbers are screaming a warning at this team.
It’s the opposite for the Red Bulls, whose underlying numbers have been good since last September, and are now verging on great (their expected goal differential of +4.71 is second in the league, though bear in mind that really only gets predictive after about eight games), but who mostly seem to lack the high-end attacking talent to turn it into consistent dominance. So sometimes a bit of luck, as they got in this game, helps.
Note that they actually do have high-end talent in goal and defense, and maybe even in deep midfield where both Dru Yearwood and Frankie Amaya are developing nicely. Combine high-level players like Carlos Coronel and Aaron Long with Gerhard Struber’s brand of energy drink soccer – as per the tracking data RBNY players close ground at a faster speed than any other team in the league, and force turnovers off their pressure at a higher rate than any other team in the league, and in neither category is it particularly close – and you just have to be ready for 90 minutes of misery when you face this group.
I don’t know if the attack will get there, but be aware that all of the underlying data loves Patryk Klimala in the same way it loved Taty Castellanos at this time last year. What I’m saying is that on a long enough timeline, the underlying numbers are usually right.
Orlando City 2, LAFC 4
For the first time all year, Orlando City had some flow in their attack. They were able to get at the LAFC midfield, pull them apart, flatten them out and create space for playmaker Mauricio Pereyra, who obliged by diming assists on both goals. This performance served as a reminder of just how much quality the little Uruguayan has when he has the time and space to orchestrate.
The issue with Orlando, so far, is that they move the ball too slowly and predictably to create that kind of time and space for the attack, which then bogs down and becomes a series of 1v1s or, eventually, a bunker-and-counter approach.
Oscar Pareja has played this game before. Even his best FC Dallas teams – I’m thinking in particular of the 2016 group that did the Supporters’ Shield/US Open Cup double – spent a huge amount of time just doing absorb-and-counter stuff at the start of the year before evolving into a more possession-heavy side a few months in. I’ll be shocked if that’s not what he’s aiming for with this particular Orlando side.
The issue, though, is that even with Antonio Carlos Orlando’s defense might not have been good enough to play this way for an extended period. The attackers are not difficult to play through, and so the deep-lying central midfielders are always scrambling. And when that happens, it means the center backs are always scrambling and Pedro Gallese is always being asked to stand on his head.
So when Carlos limped off injured 18 minutes into Saturday’s loss*, the result became something of a fait accompli. Orlando opened it up and tried to match LAFC’s firepower, but doing that has always been a good way to ship four goals. Alas.
(*) Awful news for Orlando, as the first updates say that it's a torn hamstring for Carlos, which would mean a 4-to-6 months recovery period.
The first of those four goals produced our Pass of the Week from Carlos Vela:
Armchair Analyst: Vela pass of the week vs Orlando
Vela has been occasionally missing and occasionally spectacular. Chicho Arango, who you see picking up the primary assist there, has been mostly hurt and has yet to score this year.
It hasn’t mattered. The midfield and defense are just massively improved over last season – with all due respect to Slonina, Ferreira and a host of other guys, Mamadou Fall should absolutely be considered the front-runner to top the annual 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list – and Maxime Crepeau is providing, for the first time in LAFC’s history, the kind of goalkeeping that can actually win you points instead of the kind of goalkeeping that costs you points on an almost weekly basis.
LAFC have, since day 1 of their existence, been a spectacularly entertaining team, and have usually been a really good team on top of that. For only about three months in the middle of the 2019 season have they felt like a solid team, one that absolutely would not beat itself.
Through the season’s first month, that’s where they’re at. And it’s why they’re starting April atop the Supporters' Shield race.
Philadelphia Union 2, Charlotte FC 0
While there was some question heading into the year as to whether or not LAFC could push themselves toward the top of the standings, I think just about everyone expected as much from the Union. It’s not just that they’ve been consistently excellent for about a half-decade now under Jim Curtin, it’s that they managed to keep a high level in 2021 even while splitting time between the regular season and CCL.
We’ve seen what playing in the CCL does to teams, both in MLS and Liga MX. The fact that the Union were able to keep in the mix near the top of the East standings while pushing all the way to the CCL semifinals speaks to the depth and adaptability of this team.
And so this year, with no CCL to worry about and more attacking firepower on hand than they’ve ever had in the past, along with the league’s best goalkeeper and quite possibly the league’s best backline… the Union are who we thought they were.
I’m going to include “questionable center forward ruthlessness” in that assessment, by the way. Julian Carranza has been good and deserved his game-winning goal in this one. He and Sergio Santos are two of the very best defensive forwards in the league, which helps Philly control exactly where on the pitch the game is played, and the two have combined for four assists.
But that goal from Carranza is the only goal either of them have scored. Cory Burke, meanwhile, has got a pair, while new DP Mikael Uhre has been on the field for just 46 minutes and has yet to get his name into the boxscore.
Philly need one of them to be a 15+ goal scorer. Or, I suppose, two of them – and they’ll get the chance, since Curtin’s reverted back almost exclusively to the 4-4-2 diamond after last year’s use of the 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree to end the season.
Charlotte snapped back to reality a bit after the schedule had softened up in the prior two games, but I’ve seen nothing from them to suggest they’re going to have an FC Cincinnati-style disaster of a first season, and plenty to suggest that a bunch of their core pieces – including No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick Ben Bender, as well as DP forward Karol Swiderski – are the types of core pieces you should want to build around. It feels much more like an Austin-level debut, though I think Charlotte have the potential to pick up more points this year than Austin managed last year because Swiderski’s a match-winner.
Most of the rest of it is as expected. The veteran defenders they signed are probably not as good as they need (just a flagrant lack of pace) while goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina is capable of both the sublime and the ridiculous.
One thing to note is that both Swiderski individually and Charlotte overall have been much better when Daniel Rios is up top as a target forward to partner the DP in a 4-4-2 of one shade or another. The assumption was that this team would be built toward a 4-3-3 since that was manager Miguel Angel Ramirez’s preferred formation in his previous stops, but that might not suit the talent on the team – particularly Swiderski.
Charlotte started this one in a 3-4-2-1, then subbed Rios in for a defender at halftime and spent the second 45 playing out of a 4-4-2, and I thought they were significantly more dangerous than they had been.
I wonder if this is going to shape their thinking with regard to DP targets in the coming months.
San Jose Earthquakes 2, Austin FC 2
Search virtually any defensive metric out there and the Quakes are at or near the bottom of the standings. I think the most damning, though, is that they spend by far the least amount of time defending in an organized state, as per Second Spectrum, than anyone in the league. In fact, the gap between the Quakes in 28th and NYCFC is about the same size as the gap between NYCFC and Montréal in 18th.
Let me ask you a question: Does this count as defending in an organized state?
Armchair Analyst: Quakes man-marking disaster
The clip starts with center back Tanner Beason pushing up 80 yards from his own goal to press an opposing winger, because that’s how it’s done in Matias Almeyda’s man-marking scheme. And the other thing that happens in man-marking is you leave one center back free, so Julio Cascante strides forward and dimes a ball over the top to Maxi Urruti, who is wide open because Jackson Yueill is trying to mark two players, while Francisco Calvo is just standing there keeping everyone onside.
Yeah, it’s a golazo and J.T. Marcinkowski is probably not happy with himself, but Marcinkowski has been standing on his head all year keeping the Quakes’ scorelines respectable.
Nice comeback for the point, but I don’t see any plausible path toward playoff contention as long as Almeyda sticks with his man-marking approach. It’s been figured out.
What hasn’t quite been figured out yet is the right attack/defense/possession balance for Austin. They don’t have the horses to be a purely defensive team that drops guys behind the ball and absorbs, but they also don’t have the firepower to open up the throttle and blow teams out. If they did, it would’ve been 3-0 by halftime in this one.
The most likely scenario feels like one where they get better at using the ball, to the point that they can take the chaos out of games like this one. But they’re not there yet, and I’m sure this result felt like two points dropped rather than a valuable road point earned.
Minnesota United 1, Seattle Sounders 2
There is a wager you make when you build your team around a No. 10. The wager is that putting most of your eggs in that particular basket is worth it because you always have a game-breaking creative outlet as a fulcrum, and that the guy wearing the 10 is so good that he can break the game even when everyone knows to plan for him.
For a year-and-a-half, that was a good wager in Minnesota. Emanuel Reynoso was MVP-level down the stretch and into the playoffs in 2020; in 2021 he reprised that, ranking second overall in chances created and second overall in expected assists. He did that while also being a superb release valve, a problem-solver in possession the other Loons could just dump the ball to when they ran out of ideas.
Reynoso hasn’t been that guy this year. As per TruMedia he’s 39th in chances created per 90, surrounded by the likes of Pablo Ruiz (d-mid), Julian Araujo and DeJuan Jones (fullbacks), and is just 66th in expected assists.
And so the Loons’ attack is currently stuck in the mud, with just five goals in five games. The good news is that Dayne St. Clair’s been on a heater, so they’ve conceded just four times. That has them mid-table in the West, which… when you consider that Bebelo’s barely shown up this year, that’s not bad!
But man do they need him to start showing up. The 10’s a heavy number, and the guy wearing it’s got to be able to bear the burden.
Joao Paulo scores STUNNER for Seattle Sounders
He just completely understands that Minnesota’s central midfielders have been beaten and have stayed beaten instead of busting it to get back into the play. And Joao Paulo… do not let him fire a shot off from there.
The Sounders, like the other CCL teams, have been up-and-down, and then a little more “up” than the rest of them. They remain murderous on the break and able to defend deep and resolutely – as they had to in the final 15 minutes of this one, with Stefan Frei putting in a vintage performance.
The main concern right now is that both starting center backs, Yeimar Gomez Andrade and Xavier Arreaga, are injured. But beyond that, I think it’s reasonable to be a little bit concerned about Albert Rusnak’s fit when he’s on the field with Lodeiro. Rusnak’s been poor when he’s been on the wing, and so in this one Brian Schmetzer tried to solve it by pushing Rusnak deeper and having him play next to Joao Paulo in more of a No. 8 role, but the lack of defensive range in that duo is not ideal. And the knock-on effect is that it makes it more difficult for the fullbacks to push into the attack, which has been a crucial missing ingredient this year.
Right now, the Sounders are a team that’s better on paper than they have been on the field. But they have so many good players and such defensive solidity that they could very well go out there and win the CCL anyway.
Vancouver Whitecaps 1, Sporting KC 0
The ‘Caps have not been a good team, by any stretch of the imagination, defensively. But if you take out that 4-0 Week 1 destruction at Columbus, they haven’t been a bad team at all. Tristan Blackmon is looking like a steal of an acquisition, Thomas Hasal has filled in admirably for the departed Maxime Crepeau, and Ranko Veselinovic has been healthy and good. They still need a midfield ball-winner, but the pieces are in place to be a pretty good defensive team.
The struggle has come in the attack. Brian White only got on the field for the first time this weekend, and Ryan Gauld has been either absent or limited – he certainly hasn’t looked anything close to what he was last year. Deiber Caicedo has struggled to build upon a very promising debut season, and that goes triple for Javain Brown, the right wingback whose Gressel-esque crossing ability was a huge part of Vancouver’s very fun attack down the stretch.
That’s a lot of guys regressing all at once. Given the number of variables we’re handling here (injuries, absences, new player integrations), I can’t say what in this is signal and what is noise. Of the non-CCL teams they are, I think, the biggest mysteries in that regard.
Not so for Sporting, as injuries age and an inability to defend in transition have finally caught up with them. Tim Melia, Roger Espinoza, Graham Zusi, Andreu Fontas… all of them are in their mid-30s, and none of them have performed at their previous levels. Uri Rosell, Gadi Kinda, Alan Pulido, Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell… all of them hurt and either limited or entirely absent.
In 2020 they finished second in xG allowed in transition. Last year, they were 23rd. This year they’re 26th. Teams know how to attack them, and Sporting just can’t stop it.
Colorado Rapids 1, Real Salt Lake 1
The Rapids have the type of team that can put together a game in which they claim 65% possession, outshoot their opponents by a better than 3-to-1 margin, carve out the game’s best half-dozen chances… and walk away with only a point at home against their biggest rivals.
I’m pretty sure we were all correct about the Rapids. They’re going to play a lot of good soccer – better than most people realize – and will be tactically flexible doing it. They are going to do murder on set pieces, and are going to be dangerous on the break. They will only rarely allow themselves to be exposed defensively.
And they will lack the firepower to put away games they should otherwise be able to put away. It happened two weeks ago in Houston, and it’s happened again here.
A few weeks back I wrote about the kind of threat they need Diego Rubio to be, and how for a couple of weeks he’d actually been that guy. If there’s a silver lining from this home draw it’s that Rubio was dangerous as hell throughout, though obviously they sure could’ve used a goal from him.
RSL are the opposite of all that. Somehow they are getting results despite the fact that half their roster’s in the infirmary, and despite the fact that they’re out there every week giving up better chances than they create. Zac MacMath, along with St. Clair and Slonina, has been one of the league’s three best ‘keepers thus far. That explains a huge chunk of it, but this team is also just maxing out the effort level every single week. It doesn’t matter if it comes out of Pablo Mastroeni’s preferred 3-5-2 or, as in this week, out of a 4-3-3. It hasn’t mattered how far down the depth chart they’ve had to go – in this case, they had maybe only three of their first-choice XI available, and had to throw 17-year-old center back Jaziel Orozco his first-ever start.
It’s been pretty remarkable and it defies any sort of tactical or statistical analysis. So I’m just going to go back to the well and let Pablo explain it:
"We knew we were going to endure waves of possession. As long as we stayed organized and had cover for each other, although it’s agonizing at times, at the same time it builds belief in the group with every wave that you snuff out,” Mastroeni said after the game. “Given our current situation, nothing is ideal that we’re going through. What is ideal is the mindset of the guys to not make excuses for what we don’t have but really step up, be brave in difficult moments and come away with a result."
All the underlying numbers say that RSL are going to come crashing back to earth, and hard. But their xMindset remains sky high, and for now that’s been more than good enough.
Inter Miami 1, Houston Dynamo 3
It is April. The season started in February. Miami have yet to lead any game for a single minute.
There is nothing, really, to point to and say “yeah, that’s been good.” Phil Neville has not been able to find a formation or principles of play that can stop the bleeding, and the players themselves reliably lose their individual battles in the types of ways you’d expect a team with one point from five games to lose those battles.
One of the biggest issues remains the original roster build. Why did Miami sign Carranza, a Young DP center forward who can’t really play any other spot, and draft Robbie Robinson, a young, high-upside (it’s still there, I swear) center forward who really isn’t suited to playing any other spot, and then sign DP center forward Gonzalo Higuain, who really isn’t suited to playing any other spot?
It was madness. By logjamming one position, Miami robbed Robinson of the chance to develop at the only spot where he projects to be above average, and Carranza of the chance to develop at all. And at the same time it dropped Higuain into a Frankenstein of a team that spent two of its most valuable chips on guys whose skillsets would not amplify his own. Imagine if Miami had had an actual plan and signed, say, an Alan Velasco or a Santi Moreno to play on the wing, and had drafted a center back like Jack Maher or Henry Kessler, each of whom was available.
There just doesn’t seem to have ever been a plan with this team, and even this season it feels like Neville’s throwing stuff at the wall desperately in search of results rather than accepting that this is a massive rebuild and focusing on the process and player development.
This team’s in a deep, dark hole, and this despite the fact that three of the five games they’ve played have been at home, and none of the teams they’ve faced made the playoffs last year.
That includes the Dynamo, obviously. They’ve now won two of three and have lost just once in their past five. The best news out of all that is they’ve done the above while allowing only four goals on the season, and never more than one in a game.
Paulo Nagamura has achieved this by making two big changes since the start of the year:
- He’s scrapped the 4-3-3 for a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot to protect Darwin Quintero at the 10.
- He’s scrapped the high press.
Houston have evolved into a mid-block-and-counter team, which is appropriate given how devastating Darwin can be in transition and how at home guys like Corey Baird, Fafa Picault, Tyler Pasher, and overlapping right fullback Griffin Dorsey all are on the run. Center forward Sebastian Ferreira seems to be as well; he’s often in the right spots, even if he is struggling to even get shots off and is starting to tread dangerously close to Cristian Colman territory.
It’s been solid, and after a month it feels like a decent foundation for future improvement has been laid. Add in some promising moments from younger guys like Dorsey, Coco Carrasquilla (sign him!!!) and Ethan Bartlow, and I feel like Houston fans should be a little more optimistic than they were to start the season.
Portland Timbers 1, LA Galaxy 3
One win through six games for the Timbers, who have been without Felipe Mora and who have mostly been without Sebastian Blanco, the DP No. 10 who’s been easing his way back into more significant minutes as he recovers from what has become a pretty long-term knee injury. Blanco has appeared in every game this season, but only made his first start on Sunday and has yet to go 90. He’s also yet to register a goal, and has just one assist on the season.
Some of the expected drop-off in Portland has been mitigated by some superb moments from young winger Santiago Moreno, but you can only mitigate the absence of a full-strength Blanco – you can’t outright replace a player like that (and obviously the hope in Portland is that Blanco will recover to the point that they don’t have to).
The defense, without Larrys Mabiala from Week 1, has probably held up better than folks expected, but the drop-off in goal has been pretty steep thus far, as Aljaz Ivacic has shipped 11 on 8.3 xG conceded. With just under a fifth of the season in the books, Ivacic is in the bottom quartile of shot-stoppers. The departed Steve Clark, meanwhile, is snug in his usual spot in the top 10.
So far it seems like the offseason impression that Portland got worse at two important spots was correct.
Flip that for the Galaxy, who have become much better at the very important spots of d-mid and… left back? Yes, left back.
This is something close to the Platonic ideal of Greg Vanney’s soccer. And my god, look at Chicharito just bury poor Dario Zuparic at the back post with that stunt and fade. His movement remains terrifyingly good.
And it’s left back Raheem Edwards, picked up from LAFC this offseason as a free agent, who’s currently got the best chemistry with the Little Pea. Edwards finished this weekend leading the league with four assists, and please understand that these aren’t low-probability crosses from the touchline that happen to be bouncing the right way. No, Edwards is driving into the half-spaces to play little slip passes behind the defense, or getting to the optimal assist zone for pullbacks – like the one he had on Sunday for Chicharito’s second goal. The way he’s worked in concert with the d-mids in order to get forward without compromising LA’s shape… it’s been damn good soccer.
The defense can still be a little bit rickety, but the real issue for the Galaxy at this point is that nobody but Chicharito can finish. He’s got four goals, while Efra Alvarez and Douglas Costa each have one. Kevin Cabral and Samuel Grandsir have zero between the two of them, and several of the worst flubs of the season. It has cost this team points.
If the Galaxy solve that they’ll be contenders again, for the first time in nearly a decade. If they don’t… It’s a massive, massive “if” at this point, though.