Matchday 14 is in the books. Let’s dive in:
There are certain hallmarks you learn to look for in a potential Supporters’ Shield winner. Depth is obviously a huge one – nobody makes it through an entire MLS season unscathed – as is, frankly, luck. Sometimes you just roll nat 20s all year long (the 2021 Revs are a good example) and ride that all the way to October.
A sort of calm assuredness is another, as is its opposite: the ability to summon unhinged desperation when the moment calls for it. Our game is a glorious study in contrasts sometimes.
But there are two big ones at the top of the list as far as I’m concerned:
- The ability to impose your game plan and style of play upon almost everyone you face.
- The ability to brute force the occasional win through pure talent.
FC Cincinnati, who I picked to win the Shield ahead of this season, still aren’t quite there on the first of those two bullet points. As I’ve written about before in this space, they aren’t consistently flowing through teams and burying them, making the game a foregone conclusion by the hour mark. It felt like that was changing on Saturday night in the first 2023 edition of Hell is Real, but the Crew had other ideas. Cincy took a 2-0 lead inside 25 minutes, switched off, and Columbus turned it into 2-2 with goals on either side of halftime.
That second bullet point, though… there’s just no question about it with this Cincy side, and I’m going to show it to you in two clips.
Clip No. 1 is their Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate No. 10 Lucho Acosta, who was on a brace, showing some of that unhinged desperation in closing down Crew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte and turning that 2-2 into 3-2 with just over 20 minutes left:
Armchair Analyst: Lucho press and Moreno goal
Clip No. 2 is goalkeeper Roman Celentano, deep into second-half stoppage, making sure it stayed 3-2:
Armchair Analyst: Celentano save
Cincy won this game because they have the type of players who win big games. That’s the hallmark of a potential Shield winner because that allows them to endure the types of down spells that kill lesser teams, and it has allowed them to not just survive, but actually thrive in the midst of injury (they haven’t lost a ton of guys throughout this year, but neither have they consistently had their best XI available), international absences and a bit of roster drama at the top end (remember, they’re doing this without Brenner, and there will surely be a replacement DP coming in this summer).
They are now leading the Shield race in both points and points per game, and I still don’t think they’ve collectively gotten out of third gear. But they’re getting closer, and it feels like a derby win against a very good rival might’ve just juiced things at least a little bit.
“I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel different,” Cincy head coach Pat Noonan said afterwards. “This was a neat experience when you knew it was going to be difficult, and it was. But to be able to win against that team in front of our fans was important.”
The Garys are now 8W-0L-0D in front of those fans this year and have earned their spot atop the table. Now comes the hard part: They are 1W-1L-3D in their five away dates thus far, and six of their next nine are on the road over the next two months.
If they’re still on top, looking down on 28 other teams by then, the Shield will be so close that they can touch it.
First, I’m going to start by recommending my buddy Ben Wright’s recap of St. Louis’s 4-0 demolition of Sporting KC in the as-yet-unnamed rivalry between the Border War clubs, because he did a great job of explaining the passion/intensity/unhinged desperation with which St. Louis played, and how that – beyond tactics or talent or anything else on display – truly set the tone in this one.
And I’m going to steal the lead quote from that story because I think it’s important:
"[The boys] took it personal; what it means to St. Louis and what it means to every individual who works for this club," said St. Louis head coach Bradley Carnell.
Ok, with that understanding of the game’s stakes locked in, let’s take a moment to appreciate the midfield adjustment Carnell’s made over the past few weeks that is, I think, paying off a bit. Here is their network passing graph from the game:
The big thing is not the lack of connection between left center back Tim Parker (26) and ad hoc left back Kyle Hiebert (22) – that’s not an issue when John Nelson is available – but the positioning of their No. 10, Eduard Löwen, and the knock-on effect of what that allows central midfielder Indy Vassilev (No. 19) to be.
You see, when DP center forward João Klauss went down with an injury a little over a month ago, Carnell’s initial instinct was, I think, the logical one: Push Löwen up into a true No. 10 role underneath center forward Nico Gioacchini (No. 11) in a 4-2-3-1, while Vassilev would stay deeper in the box-to-box destroyer role he’d owned pretty much all season.
But that didn’t work. Gioacchini is good, but he’s not a dominant, focal point center forward in the way that Klauss is. He’s more comfortable having some kind of partner.
Löwen, meanwhile, is also quite good. But he’s not a 10 in the Lucho Acosta or Carles Gil chance-creation-genius way, and is really just more of a game-conducting 8 with some creative tendencies.
So the obvious thing – which, again, I don’t blame Carnell for trying – put both Gioacchini and Löwen into spots that didn’t maximize their strengths, while asking too much of the wingers in terms of individual creation, and putting too much in terms of distribution on the shoulders of Vassilev.
Over the past couple of games, then, he’s just flipped Vassilev and Löwen, and wooo boy did it work in this one. By pushing Löwen deeper in the midfield structure, St. Louis were both more difficult to press (Sporting still try to do that) because of his class on the ball, and, because of his passing range, were better able to move the game to the spots on the field where they wanted it to be decided.
By pushing Vassilev higher, Gioacchini effectively had a partner up top, one who would stretch the defense with direct runs out of midfield off the ball (allowing Gioacchini to drop in and get away from the center backs a little bit), but still with the energy and commitment to get back into the midfield shape on the ball and defensively (which made for a truly miserable night for Sporting’s No. 6, Nemanja Radoja).
Vassilev had two goals. Gioacchini and Löwen each had one. Jared Stroud had a pair of assists, and the winger who replaced him, Tomas Ostrak, had one of his own. The patterns came out of the underlying structure of the team, which came out of the personnel being put into spots where they could succeed.
It was just really, really good stuff from St. Louis, and a lesson for KC.
12. Hany Mukhtar is putting together yet another MVP-caliber season, it seems. He bagged two more on Saturday night, including a winner from the spot in the 93rd minute in Nashville’s come-from-behind 2-1 victory at Charlotte.
I thought it was interesting that Gary Smith used the 4-4-2 diamond, with Hany at the point, on the road for the first time all year. It’s usually a look he saves for home games, but it was effective in this one because it blunted Charlotte’s ability to dictate the game through central midfield with possession.
11. Christian Benteke tapped home a 71st-minute gift from Jonathan Bond to break a scoreless deadlock, the floodgates open and 20 minutes later D.C. United were celebrating a 3-0 win over the hapless, dead-last LA Galaxy. D.C. are now 4W-1L-2D in their last seven going back to mid-April and are plucking the low-hanging fruit when it’s offered. That’s a good way to start.
The Galaxy have been singularly unable to manage as much. However, I’ll offer at least one dissenting view:
(No relation, by the way).
It’s worth noting that the underlying numbers said the same thing about the Red Bulls, and lo-and-behold…
10. RBNY, following their 2-1 win over visiting CF Montréal, have now taken seven points from three games under new head coach Troy Lesesne.
Lesesne, like Gerhard Struber before him, is a believer in Energy Drink Soccer. Unlike Struber, however, he seems to be interested in more than just murderball, and sequences like this one have been much more common in the three games since he took over:
Armchair Analyst: Burke goal vs. Montréal
The sample size is too small to be definitive, but RBNY are winning the ball deeper under Lesesne (giving them more space to run into), but their direct speed is actually significantly slower because they’re hitting fewer long balls. They’re actually keeping it on the ground more, leading to sequences like that one above.
Montréal have returned back to earth with two straight losses and five goals conceded following that four-game, win-by-shutout streak.
9. Miami have also returned to earth over the past two weeks on the heels of their three-game winning streak, this time taking a bad, 3-1 home loss in the Copa del Sol (I heard someone – I forget who – call the Miami/Orlando game that, and it rules so I’m sticking with it).
What made it bad was two things in particular:
- Miami created almost nothing. They better hope they’re able to sign a DP playmaker (gee, I wonder who they’ve got in mind) this summer.
- Once they got an equalizer out of almost nothing, it took Orlando just 11 minutes to restore the lead.
- The first goal they conceded, which came directly off a throw-in, was brutally soft.
Ercan Kara had that goal. He also had our Pass of the Week with this through-ball on the game-winner:
Armchair Analyst: Kara Pass of the Week
Kara’s been really good lately, and Orlando have lost just once in five. They’re still not clicking, but a month ago they were veering toward disaster. Not the case any longer.
8. That’s starting to maybe be the case for Atlanta, who’ve now won just once in five after a 3-3 draw at Chicago. There was simply no excuse for this one – the Five Stripes went up a man and a goal twice, and all three DPs played, and just… yuck.
Getting a point out of that situation was fun for Chicago, but they don’t look like a team that’s capable of stringing together the type of run that would be needed to push them up the table a significant amount.
7. Philly, unsurprisingly, look the opposite of that. Their 3-0 win over New England in Chester was pretty thoroughly their best win and best overall performance of the season.
If there is one concern, though, it’s that the Union couldn’t really make themselves felt until the second half. The xG race chart tells an accurate story there:
They’ve won four of five, are unbeaten in six and are up to fifth in the East (fourth on PPG). They will be a threat to win every competition they’re in for the rest of the year.
The same would be true of the Revs if they could get healthy. The good news is that Giacomo Vrioni got on for the final 24 minutes of this one. The bad news is that Gustavo Bou still can’t play. The worse news is that Carles Gil came off with what looked like some kind of muscle injury after 35 minutes.
If he’s out for a chunk of time, the Revs are in some trouble.
6. Toronto are obviously already there. They gave up a 91st-minute winner to Gyasi Zardes in Austin’s 1-0 win down in Texas. It’s the Verde & Black's second straight win, and not coincidentally it’s Gyasi’s second straight game with a goal. They have actually climbed above the red line out West on both points and points per game.
Toronto are rock bottom in the East. Lorenzo Insigne is hurt again – there are unconfirmed rumors he’s traveling back to Italy for treatment. Just about everyone else is hurt as well. They managed only three shots total.
Federico Bernardeschi sounded off, and there’s no mistaking who he’s pointing the finger at:
“Sincerely, this team, this city, the fans, everybody don't deserve this, and I think maybe we need to change something,” Bernardeschi said afterward. “We need to [have] a little bit more tactics. We need an idea of how we play because this is the real problem for me. It's impossible to play like this when we play without [an] idea. This is the big problem for me.”
Read my colleague Charlie Boehm’s whole column on the situation. It seems grim.
5. Houston punished Dallas for the hosts’ inability to turn a 1-0 lead and a decent level of control into a 2-0 lead and three points. So it finished 1-1 after Thor Úlfarsson headed home Héctor Herrera’s 85th-minute corner kick for the visitors.
An interesting tidbit that might indicate what direction Dallas will be going with when using their open DP slot this summer: Nico Estévez had his side lined up in a 4-2-3-1 instead of their usual 4-3-3 or the 4-4-2 he’s tried at times this year. Tsiki Ntsabeleng was the No. 10.
Ntsabeleng’s a useful player, but he’s not a No. 10. Neither, really, is Jesús Ferreira (he’s more of a second forward who also plays center forward very well), and neither are Paxton Pomykal or Sebastian Lletget.
Almost every MLS Cup winner of the past decade has played with a true No. 10. Almost every Supporters’ Shield winner of the past decade (including Dallas in 2016) played with a true No. 10.
I’m reading some tea leaves here.
4. RSL don’t play with a true No. 10 (note that I’m dying for Pablo Mastroeni to give Diego Luna a run of games there when he returns from the U-20 World Cup), and they didn’t need one in their 3-2 Rocky Mountain Cup win in Commerce City on Saturday.
The Rapids were uncharacteristically stretched and sloppy, which let an RSL team that doesn’t have a lot of ways to beat you a clear path to doing the one thing they really want to do: switch the field and get out on the run.
That is a really poor goal to give up just before the break, and Robin Fraser was not happy.
“It's frustrating to give up the goals that we have recently,” he said postgame. “Really what we did throughout this [unbeaten] stretch, I think I said this in the last press conference three days ago, is that we kept ourselves in games by being solid defensively. Even in games we didn't play particularly well, we were very solid defensively and we kept ourselves in games.
“Tonight, one goal turned into three and for me it was just defensive frailty. Like we just need to be better. We absolutely need to be better. All three goals I thought were soft.”
The Claret-and-Cobalt were able to hold on in the second half to end their four-game winless skid.
3. Bongi Hlongwane! The 22-year-old South African earned an entirely understandable excessive celebration yellow for his 95th-minute winner at Portland, which somehow snuck past Aljaz Ivacic and into the side netting.
Bongi’s now got four goals in 1,056 minutes this year. That’s not going to win the Golden Boot presented by Audi or anything, but he makes good runs, gets into good spots and is in the top 10 in the league in xG for that reason. Once Emanuel Reynoso gets on the field (he’s still working his way back to full fitness), I wouldn’t be surprised if Hlongwane started breaking out to the point that people outside of Minnesota take notice.
Portland generated a ton of shots, but most of them were speculative or into a mass of bodies in the box since the Loons played a deep block. The Timbers have been better lately – they were unbeaten in four entering this game – but they don’t move the ball fluidly in possession, which limits them creatively.
2. There are few creative limits on LAFC even in the midst of injuries, CCL-induced fatigue, US Open Cup-induced squad rotation, and the pressure of being the defending, double-winning champs.
That’s the start of the story. The end of the story is you bring on Carlos Vela and he pots a 95th-minute PK to snatch a 2-1 win from a game and gritty San Jose side in downtown LA.
LAFC are now 7W-1L-4D on the season for 25 points, which tops the Western Conference. The fact that they are doing this – competing for the CCL title, advancing in the Open Cup, and sitting second in the Shield race with nearly 40% of the season gone – while sitting on an unused DP slot… man. It was all supposed to have taken a toll on them by now.
The Quakes had a rough week in LA with last weekend’s loss in Carson followed by this late disappointment. They’ve now won just one of their past five.
1. And finally, Vancouver stopped their two-game losing streak with a commanding 2-0 Cascadia Cup win over the visiting Sounders late Saturday night. Vanni Sartini, as is his wont, gave us our Face of the Week with his celebration after Pedro Vite’s opener:
Armchair Analyst: Vanni Sartini Face of the Week
The ‘Caps have been playing either a 4-3-2-1 or a 4-3-1-2 all year, but came out in this one in a 3-4-2-1 that really seemed to rock Seattle. The Sounders never managed to account for either of the Vancouver wingbacks, whose service led to both goals on the evening. But Sartini said he went with it for defensive reasons.
“We changed the system this game mainly because we didn't have [Alessandro] Schöpf and Julian [Gressel] starting. Without them playing as a number eight, we wanted to have like maybe more security at the back and Sebastian [Berhalter] when we defend this is more of a double six with Andrés [Cubas],” he explained afterward.
Seattle have lost two in a row and three of four. They’ve looked a little bit worn out, and Raúl Ruidíaz’s absence has robbed them of a huge chunk of their in-the-box dynamism.