One month left! Let’s go:
With that goal the match -- a 2-1 Orlando City home triumph over D.C. United -- and his team's five-game winless skid were over. It was only three weeks but to Orlando City fans, who are collectively still processing the trauma of the club’s first half-decade in MLS, it felt much longer and all too familiar.
But unlike in years past this Lions side is actually really good, and unlike in months past they’re actually close to healthy. And thanks to some help elsewhere in the East (which we'll get to, of course), the Lions finished the weekend at fourth place in the conference standings.
“At this time of the year, every single point matters,” Dike said afterward. “We tell each other every single second of the game matters, every play matters, whether it be the first minute, whether it be the 90th minute. You saw it from last game, you saw it from this game, that we’re going to keep fighting until the whistle is blown in order to get the points that we need.”
They're not precisely safe; the gap between Philly in third and Atlanta in eighth place is just three points, so it looks very much like the race in the East is going to go down to the wire. But the team and the fanbase had been waiting for something to stop the bleeding of the past month, and, well, there it was.
"It was emotional," head coach Oscar Pareja said afterward. "We have seen how hard the players have worked to get over this hurdle, this period of three weeks where we couldn’t get the results. The players were really united and after dominating the game, being constant in our purpose and idea of the game. One point was not enough for them."
The win concluded a three-game stretch for Orlando against the teams that had been first, second and third place in the East entering this weekend:
That is some solid work. I’d argue that even without Dike’s winner, Orlando were going to exit this weekend pointed in the right direction. But obviously the extra two points help.
Still, the underlying numbers from this game are undeniable. They racked up 65 percent possession against D.C. and turned it into a pretty pronounced xG advantage. That’s good.
Better: How comfortable Orlando were using the ball to get at and pin back an uber-aggressive D.C. side, one that typically allows only 3.2 passes per possession -- a top-five mark in the league, as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data. United press hard and spend every moment on the field trying to disorganize the opponents with their energy, and have been really, really effective at it since about mid-May.
They weren’t on Saturday. Orlando City completed 5.1 passes per possession, blowing up D.C.’s entire scheme in a way few teams have managed. Sure, it didn’t lead directly to either of the goals, both of which came off of set pieces. But by being so comfortable with the ball in the face of United’s pressing, it was Orlando City that dictated the terms of how the engagement would play out. They controlled things and made D.C. adjust instead of the other way around.
In the process they inched ever closer toward becoming the side that, last summer, made it all the way to the final of the MLS is Back Tournament. I still think that team’s in there somewhere.
For D.C. it was an uncharacteristic outing combined with a bad beat, especially after Julian Gressel's early thunderbolt gave them an early 1-0 lead. And they’ve now not won on the road in two months.
But four of their next five are at home. All they have to do is keep taking care of business at Audi Field like they have done for the past four months, and they’ll be fine.
Vancouver came into MLS 10 years ago. They have been 10 largely undistinguished years, and I’ll be very up front about the fact that I have rarely enjoyed their brand of soccer. There was a brief run, back in 2014, when Pedro Morales was basically playing as a shotgun quarterback that was a ton of fun, and of course there were the collection of highlights Alphonso Davies produced in 2017 and 2018.
But that was pretty much it. The ‘Caps were rarely truly wretched, but almost never were they fun.
Folks, I’ve got some news: The ‘Caps, right now*, are a lot of fun. They try to play open and often intricate attacking soccer, they shift formations and personnel, and they do so while maintaining recognizable principles of play from game to game. Over the past month they have climbed into the top 10 of my personal watchability rankings.
(*) Please pay no attention to the midweek draw in Houston.
Armchair Analyst: Brian White first goal + Gauld movement v3
Second Spectrum’s tactical cam gives us a great look at the chaos Ryan Gauld’s movement sows. His horizontal run across the backline makes it impossible for any one Quake defender to track him, and so when there’s a “hunt the ball, protect space, or track the man” situation… there’s just no good choice for San Jose’s Oswaldo Alanis.
At the same time there’s relentless forward pressure and a willingness to play forward out of midfield that makes this version of the ‘Caps, under interim head coach Vanni Sartini, much easier on the eye and more effective than the version we saw too often under his predecessor Marc Dos Santos.
See how Nathan is keeping both Gauld and Brian White well onside there? You could get away with it against Dos Santos’s ‘Caps because they were so ponderous when playing into the final third. Under Sartini, there has been much more ruthlessness when attacking a scrambled opponent.
“I think the approach and a lot of things that we worked on the previous week and in this week went very well,” Sartini said afterward. “The pressure was fantastic. The movement of the midfielders when we had the ball... [everyone did] what they were supposed to do.
“And so, I will say, congratulations to the players because they did fantastically today.”
No one, of course, did more fantastically than White, who bagged his first career hat-trick and has no doubt supplanted DP Lucas Cavallini as the starting No. 9. White has been useful since he arrived early in the season from RBNY in exchange for $400k of assorted allocation money, but has positively come alive since the coaching change with six goals in his past seven games.
White can help connect play a bit in possession -- his smart, early movement means he gets into a lot of good spots for one-touch lay-offs -- but he’s truly at home in the box where he can live that poacher’s life. And so the better the ‘Caps midfield looks, the better White’s going to look. Their strengths amplify his and vice versa.
“Being able to play with guys like [Cristian Dajome], Deiber [Caicedo], Ryan up front, obviously makes my life a whole lot easier when they have such great quality,” White explained. “So I’m fortunate to come into a team with such great players, such great guys in the locker room, and I'm just trying to make the most of it.”
What it’s all turning into is a charge up the standings. Vancouver are now 4-1-2 with a +7 goal differential since the coaching change and reside just one point below the playoff line. They’re facing murderer’s row in the next three games -- at the Sounders, home to Sporting KC, then at Portland -- but if you want to be a playoff team, you’ve got to beat some playoff teams. That’s just how it is.
I don’t know if they’ll do it. I do know that it’ll at least be fun watching them try.
As for the Quakes, it seems like there is no late playoff push coming from this team. Chofis made it fun for a few weeks, but the window is just about shut.
11. I’m just endlessly impressed with the job that Wilfried Nancy has done with CF Montréal this year, squeezing more out of the roster than I thought was available. His latest bit of artwork was Saturday’s come-from-behind 2-1 home win over visiting Atlanta United, a very necessary six-pointer.
They did get a little bit of help, though, as Gonzalo Pineda had to take Josef Martinez off at the half with what looked like a recurrence of the knee issues that have slowed him all year. Atlanta really did have the better of the first 45 with Josef -- even a hobbled Josef -- out there. Without him in the second half, Montréal just squeezed their lines tighter, gave Victor Wanyama less ground to cover and let him dominate central midfield.
Montréal finished the weekend in seventh place in the East. Atlanta are a point behind them in eighth.
10. Over the course of the season Austin FC score 0.9 goals per 90, while they concede 1.4. That’s over a span of 2250 minutes and yeah... pretty bad.
When Sebastian Driussi is on the field, they score 1.5 goals per 90 and concede 2.0. That’s over 866 minutes. Better -- or more exciting, anyway -- but not great.
When Driussi and U22 Initiative center forward Moussa Djitte are on the field, they score 2.1 goals per 90 and concede 0.7. Holy crap!!!
Armchair Analyst: Driussi Pass of the Week off Djitte hold-up play
It’s too late for Austin to make a playoff push this year, but the foursome you see involved in that above goal -- Driussi and Djitte along with Cecilio Dominguez and Diego Fagundez -- looks like it has the potential to be a very, very good attacking quartet to build around next year.
RSL are playing hard as hell for interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni but that 3-5-2 has repeatedly left them wide open and has asked the left center back in particular to do a ton of defending in space.
9. Minnesota United went down to Frisco and got themselves a useful-if-not-entirely-inspiring point courtesy of a scoreless draw. The simple fact is the Loons, with a self-inflicted lack of depth born of Adrian Heath’s reluctance to use subs, aren’t really made for the regular season -- short rest and cross-country flights aren’t their thing. So it’s no surprise they kind of laid an egg on the heels of the midweek paddlin’ they took at D.C.
The bigger worry has to be how quickly Heath appears to have lost all faith in Adrien Hunou. The French forward has played just 57 minutes over the past four games, and has gone 90 just twice since his arrival. He didn’t even get off the bench on Saturday despite the fact that Ethan Finlay (a right winger playing right wing) and Robin Lod (a right winger playing center forward) kept stepping on each other by making the same runs.
There was zero chemistry to be found, and while Hunou hasn’t exactly made a great case that he’s the answer, at least he presents a different look. It makes sense to at least try to see how he functions with the other main attacking pieces, but, for whatever reason… no.
8. No new-coach bounce for the Fire, either, in the wake of Raphael Wicky’s dismissal following Wednesday’s 2-0 win over NYCFC. They coughed up a 1-0 lead and eventually lost 3-1 at Toronto FC on Sunday, and are one of the most “obviously headed for a massive offseason overhaul” teams I’ve ever seen in this league.
Toronto’s more in line for an offseason makeover rather than a full-on overhaul. They’ve now won three of four and have been pretty fun with Yeferson Soteldo -- now up to 3g/10a on the year -- as a false 9 flanked by two direct, speedy wingers.
Armchair Analyst: Gutman run and goal with replay
The Red Bulls are now five unbeaten and just six points below the playoff line with a game in hand. I would be surprised if they were able to make it happen, but the book’s not entirely closed on their 11-year playoff streak.
6. For 70 minutes neither NYCFC nor Nashville could put a shot on frame in Harrison, then for the final 20 minutes the Cityzens turned it into a shooting gallery. Joe Willis came up huge, though, to preserve the scoreless draw for his side.
NYCFC haven’t scored in three games and have gotten themselves into a bit of worry having dropped down to sixth in the East, just a point ahead of Atlanta. The fanbase is not super happy right now.
I don’t know what to say other than “Keep playing like this and the goals will come.” Go back and watch how easily NYCFC -- finally back in the 4-2-3-1 -- gashed the usually excellent Nashville defense, and how quick and relentless the off-ball movement was. It required an absolute blinder from Willis to keep them off the board.
Willis has had something of a down year compared to his last couple. If this performance signals a return to last year’s form, Nashville are going to keep their lofty perch near the top of the table and are going to be tough as hell in the playoffs.
5. Sporting KC buried Houston early, then cruised to a 4-2 win at Children’s Mercy Park. Johnny Russell had a brace and is now up to 10g/7a on the year. Gadi Kinda and Daniel Salloi each had 1g/1a, and the latter now leads MLS in goal contributions with 23 (16g/7a). He is tied for second in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race.
Notice how in that graph I was talking about how good Sporting’s attack is? Notice I didn’t talk about their defense?
Yeah, there’s a reason for that. Even during this good run of results they’ve been gappy and very exploitable in transition and especially semi-transition moments. That’s dangerous for a team as committed to holding the ball (they’re second overall in possession) and building from the back (Andreu Fontas and Ilie Sanchez are Nos. 1 & 2 in the league in passes attempted and completed) as Sporting are.
Regardless, it’s now four wins in five for them as they made the most of a stretch in which they had four-of-five at home. Now they’re on the road for four of their next five, facing some desperate teams.
We’ll get a better feel for how much that gappy-ness matters against playoff-caliber opponents.
4. The very essence of Philadelphia Union soccer distilled down to a single goal:
Armchair Analyst: Union up the gut vs. Columbus
Every turnover -- even your own! -- is an opportunity to re-press, win the ball and create a transition going in the other direction. What’s notable about the Union’s 2021 season is that they’ve dropped their line of confrontation so much lower than in 2020 and are much less of a “high pressing” team than one that pretty often looks kind of like a counterattacking team. It’s less Red Bull-ish and more Atletico Madrid-ish.
Whatever you want to label it, it’s been quite good and Columbus, fresh off their Campeones Cup win, presented very little resistance until Kai Wagner got himself sent off in the 64th minute. By that point it was already 2-0 and thanks to some Andre Blake heroics and, uh, the opposite of that from Evan Bush, it would end 3-0 to the hosts.
I think that just about puts a fork in the Crew season. They’re six points back of the playoff line in 10th place and would need to leapfrog three teams to earn a shot at defending their MLS Cup.
Philly, who are up to third in the East on PPG, have taken 10 points from the past 12 on offer, spinning that good performance in the CCL semis vs. Club America forward into the regular season.
3. The Timbers have repeatedly answered the bell over the past month, and on Sunday evening made it eight unbeaten with a 1-0 win over visiting Inter Miami. They’ve taken 22 of 24 points and have strung together a Rapids-esque run of set-piece dominance. The game-winner on this one came when Jaroslaw Niezgoda (slowly working his way back to full health) rose up to head home a Sebastian Blanco corner kick with his first touch of the game. Niezgoda has taken 14 shots in his MLS career; nine of them have turned into goals.
Portland are now up to fourth in the West. They’ve run away from the RSLs, Minnesotas and LAs of the world and are now very clearly going to get at least one home game in the playoffs.
Miami, after a promising late-summer run, have faded into four straight losses over the past couple of weeks.
2. I'm gonna steal a line from my guy Charlie Boehm: The Sounders played like they were offended Colorado were only three points behind them in the standings entering the night. They absolutely smashed the visitors, getting up 3-0 by halftime and cruising to a very comfortable win.
The Sounders did the things the Sounders have done all year long: Cristian Roldan flared out to the right, Joao Paulo conducted the game through the middle (before taking things into his own hands just before the break with one of the best individual goals I can ever remember seeing in MLS), and the forwards ran the channels. The Rapids had no way to keep up. Seattle were just brilliant.
Colorado were not. It says something about how good this team's mentality is that this was their first loss in nearly two-and-a-half months, but it also says something that they've now won just once in their past six.
It feels much more likely that they'll spend the rest of the season fighting to hang onto third place in the West rather than trying to push into the top two with Sporting and the Sounders.
1. This should've been a goal. This should've been the end of the Galaxy's now nine-game winless streak. Instead it'll be our Face of the Week:
Armchair Analyst: Chicharito Face of the Week
It's a shame we didn't get a close-up of young Efra Alvarez at the back post, because judging by his body language his face would've been the more expressive one.
Anyway, the latest version of El Trafico produced a scrappy and hard-fought 1-1 draw. Both teams defended better than they have been of late, which probably makes both coaches relatively happy, but I don't think either will be thrilled to come away with only one point.
The Galaxy stay in sixth place, a point above the line. LAFC are in ninth, four points below it.