Week 4 is the end of the beginning of the season. It’s still small sample size theater, but we do, at this point, have a pretty good grasp on who was ready, who wasn’t, who’s been capable of making adjustments and who’s out there just flailing away.
In we go:
Here Comes Your Man
And here comes Chris Wondolowski off the bench to play the hero, potting two goals in the final 10 minutes to give the San Jose Earthquakes a thrilling, come-from-behind 2-1 win at RSL on Friday night.
I swear Wondo can play this role until he’s 50. It’s primarily because he’s just brilliant at finding space, and then when the shot’s taken, he’s brilliant about playing for the rebound. What I mean by that is that his instincts aren’t to react to the shot, they’re to square up and react to any loose ball.
But first things first: Cade Cowell talked a couple of weeks ago about Wondo teaching him “double moves off the ball,” and here’s an example, via Second Spectrum’s tactical cam, of what he was talking about:
Justen Glad actually does a really nice job of staying touch-tight and not biting on any of those feints. He also comes off of Wondo at the right time to try to close down the shooter, but in so doing … yeah, Wondo is the only one there to react to the rebound. He’s on his toes, and his balance is so good* that there’s never any doubt who’s getting to this first even if there was a defender next to him.
(*) Those of you who always point to Wondo as a subpar athlete have not recognized how the man never gets wrong-footed, and haven’t realized that’s because his balance is absolutely elite.
This type of chance-finding approach works anywhere, against anyone. Remember the 2012 All-Star game? Movement and balance and a goal that he’s quickest to:
Scroll ahead to the 44th second of that above video. “Your movement is incredible. It’s like a nightmare for me,” said John Terry and yes, it’s that John Terry.
How many times has Wondo scored this type of goal? It feels like a hundred. It feels like he could do it a hundred more times, because it’s really not about being bigger, faster or stronger, and neither was his second — a leaping header that he just saw unfolding earlier and timed better than anyone else. It’s about understanding the way the pieces on the board are arrayed, where the soft spots are, and using that preternatural balance.
Wondo long ago passed Landon Donovan for the crown of all-time MLS regular-season leading scorer. On this night he tied Donovan’s mark for total goals in MLS competition (170), and total goals for MLS teams across all competitions (178).
I could watch him do this forever.
Four weeks into the season, though, the best news for the Quakes isn’t that Wondo is forever young or that Cade Cowell looks like a budding superstar. It is that Eric Remedi, acquired from Atlanta United in the offseason, has filled in so well for Judson. It's now at the point where he might no longer be “filling in” for Judson; he may just be the starting defensive midfielder.
Remedi was fine for the first 70 minutes of this one. But when Wondo came on for Tanner Beason, Remedi dropped into the backline and suddenly began driving the game forward both off the dribble and off the pass, and each of San Jose’s three best sequences (including both goals) started with Remedi getting on the ball, stepping forward and eliminating defenders.
Over the final 20 minutes of the game he eliminated more defenders per touch than anyone on the field as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, and when a guy coming from the backline is immediately cutting opponents out of the play, it forces the entire team to move toward the ball. And that creates space for Wondo and the rest of the attack.
RSL, who'd had the better the game to that point, did not adjust.
The Quakes had nothing approaching this kind of depth and flexibility over the past two years, or really at any point since that magical, Supporters' Shield-winning 2012 season. Early returns are that this is the best ‘Quakes team since then, which to be fair is not a particularly high bar to clear.
RSL are neither as deep nor as flexible as the Quakes at this point, but I think they’re also good and fun. Rubio Rubin certainly is both. Obviously his bike is going to lead every RSL highlight video for the next half-decade, but it’s the fact that he’s doing Wondo-esque things in terms of dragging defenders around and finding space off the ball that are the best indicators of his ability to keep producing.
He probably won’t score 180 all-competitions goals in MLS, but then again he’s two years younger than Wondo was when Wondo finally got regular playing time for a team that believed in him. The lesson is that good things happen if you stay on your toes and get into the box, and that it doesn’t matter what path you took to get there as long as you're ready to produce when your chance comes.
Josef Martinez used to be that kind of striker. He’s not right now, though I hope he will be once again someday soon. But even after his goal at Inter Miami on Sunday afternoon, the first of his post-ACL tear return and the opener in what eventually became a 1-1 draw, he doesn’t quite look like that guy.
To be clear, it was a lovely pirouette and finish to the far post with his off foot. Someone on the Miami staff should’ve given Ryan Shawcross a better scouting report, because it’s insane to give Josef that much time and space in the box.
It’s especially so because Josef doesn’t really move like Josef used to just yet. The version of Josef we’ve seen in 2021 isn’t going to blow by anybody. Keep sample size considerations in mind here, but the Second Spectrum tracking data is not kind:
Josef’s been a statue in his 150ish minutes so far. Again: I trust that will change, since I can’t remember the last high-level player whose career was completely derailed by an ACL tear, and recall that it took Jordan Morris, for example, three or four months before he started looking like himself again after his ACL tear a couple of years ago (let’s hope he can pull off the trick a second time). Josef seems superhuman so it felt like he’d walk back onto the field and look like Peak Josef immediately, but that’s clearly not been the case.
That’s not helped by a pretty static attack around him. As per Second Spectrum Atlanta have the longest possessions in the league judging by passes per possession, and since they hit so many passes they get the ball off their foot pretty quick — only Seattle, Toronto, NYCFC and LAFC move the ball quicker.
But almost everything is to feet because the Five Stripes aren’t sending a lot of runners at goal or into good spots generally. Of the 53 distinct teams (26 last year and 27 this year) who’ve taken the field in MLS across 2020 and 2021, Atlanta are 32nd in off-ball attacking runs per 90 and 45th in the average max speed of those runs. That is not a great way to open up space and create the kind of dynamic attack that characterized Atlanta in 2017 and 2018, as well as the second half of 2019. And I think it’s fair to say that it has been pretty de Boer-ing (I’m so sorry) thus far in 2021.
So that’s how you get a game where, to borrow some analysis from Producent Anders, “They did have some nice moments of combination play to get the ball wide and get the fullbacks and wide attackers involved. When the fullbacks were able to press high and get into the attack it opened up some space [but] most attacks ended with either an aimless deep cross or a pullback. The pullbacks were decent enough and generated a few chances but there weren’t many ideas outside of ‘get it to a full back cross the ball in.’”
Miami probably should’ve punished Atlanta for the above and taken all three points but weren’t quite clean enough playing through midfield (losing Blaise Matuidi early hurt badly), and then weren’t quite ruthless enough in the final third.
A looming issue: They are so much better with Federico Higuain on the field as the No. 10. Those high-intensity runs are valuable even when they’re pretty slow and there’s no intent to actually even get on the ball:
The elder Higuain has been a game-changing super-sub for them on several occasions already. Phil Neville needs to get that kind of performance from more of the starters in the attack, and needs to get the younger Higuain to find his finishing boots.
A Few More Things to Ponder…
11. And now, for Minnesota United, it is probably time to find the panic button and think really hard about pressing it. They dominated the Rapids through the opening exchanges in Commerce City on Saturday night, pulling the hosts apart with patient possession and carving them up with some final third ruthlessness. They went up 2-0 on Hassani Dotson’s first goal of the season in the 24th minute, and they were cruising.
They didn’t create another worthwhile look for the game’s final 65 minutes, while the Rapids found their footing and began peppering Dayne St. Clair’s net. The Opta xG race chart tells a gruesome — and accurate — story of the game for the Loons:
One or two good chances, and a metric ton of half-chances, and eventually a not-so-good defense will break. That’s what happened to both St. Clair and the Loons as a whole in what ended up as a 3-2 loss, dropping them to 0W-0D-4L on the season. In the post-shootout era (2000 onwards) only two teams have ever gone pointless through their first four games and made the postseason, and both of them (NYCFC and Inter Miami) were in last year’s expanded Eastern Conference playoff field.
Put a different way: No MLS team has ever started 0-0-4 in a “normal” year and made the postseason. Minnesota probably need 50 points to get in, which means they need to take 1.66 ppg from their final 30 games.
They could do it — they played well above that pace for the second half of last season, and multiple reinforcements are on the way. But the odds are starting to stack against them, especially given that all four of these losses were six-pointers against fellow Western Conference teams, three of whom are likely to be in the fight for the last couple of playoff spots.
Yes, that includes the Rapids. They flipped a switch defensively in the 25th minute when Cole Bassett came on for the injured Younes Namli. Bassett hasn’t been much of a defensive presence in his career thus far, but he played like he’s been reading comments saying that he needs to be more of a defensive presence (you’re welcome, Rapids fans), and regardless, Namli’s defense makes Bassett look like prime Roy Keane.
I understand why Robin Fraser wants to get Namli out there. The Dane is easily the classiest Rapid on the ball, and one most likely to create some sort of magic. But as with last year, I think Fraser’s got to stash him on the wing.
10. Vancouver got a 2-0 “home” win over CF Montréal, and are now 2-1-1 from their first four games. None of it has been pretty, and none of their five goals on the season have come from open play (three set pieces and two penalties).
That is fine for now, especially when taken in the context of 1) their ability to keep generating attacking set pieces thanks to the relentlessness of Lucas Cavallini, and 2) their general improved defense despite some key absences. Nobody was making plays like this for Vancouver last year:
This is a superb play by Ranko Veselinovic in the open field against Romell Quioto, who usually destroys center backs 1v1. It's a small moment, but small moments like that can change a game. Just ask Toronto (Week 1) or Nashville (Week 2) if they'd like to have someone who could make open field plays like that against Montréal.
“I was afraid of the first four games cause when you look at Portland, Toronto, Colorado, Montreal, I wasn’t sure how ready we were based on the month of March,” said ‘Caps head coach Marc Dos Santos. “That was incredibly challenging, so for the guys to show the commitment and work we do during the weekend, it’s been incredible.”
As for Montréal, they do look better than last year, but as I said after their first couple of games, you can’t rely upon scoring a couple of bangers every week. At some point you have to start generating high-quality chances.
They don’t, and they’ve been shut out twice in a row now.
9. Philly pretty easily dispatched Chicago by 2-0 in Soldier Field on Saturday afternoon. The Union’s goals came directly off a throw-in — the third goal Chicago have allowed directly off a throw-in in four games — and off a set piece. The Union weren’t particularly sharp, and probably should’ve put the game away inside an opening 20 minutes they dominated. But they handled a Jose Martinez-less week with aplomb, and in their very Philly way have found both depth and match-winners from within.
Chicago have neither at this point.
“This is a frustrating game again,” said Fire head coach Raphael Wicky. “This is very disappointing right now because, again, we were in the game, we had good moments … So we went with that mindset into the game and we were in the game at halftime and then, yeah, two goals again.”
Again and again.
8. Chris Armas had himself a rough return to Harrison as the Red Bulls took a 2-0 win over a TFC team that just wasn’t really there for the final 20 minutes or so. The shoulders definitely slumped and they looked defeated after Caden Clark got himself another nice goal in the 69th minute, his third goal (to go along with an assist) in four games.
Even before that RBNY were pretty clearly the better team, pressing out of that 4-4-2 diamond and even stringing some very nice passing sequences together, including on Frankie Amaya’s opener. Dru Yearwood, meanwhile, was once again a game-changer off the bench.
Upcoming trips to Philly and New England, and then a home match vs. Orlando will teach us a lot more about this group over the next few weeks.
As for TFC I think we’re slowly learning that they’re really not meant to be a pressing side. Given the talent in this roster (including Yeferson Soteldo, who made his MLS debut with 34 second-half minutes) they seem well set-up to be a high-level possession team.
They need to figure out how to let the ball do some of the work, because right now their legs can’t.
D.C. did a lot of scoring in this one, though most of it was for the wrong team as they added two own goals to go with Kamara’s and now have three own goals in four games. The single-season record is four own goals, set by four different clubs including the 2000 and 2013 versions of D.C. United.
All of that is pretty weird!
Also weird: Columbus are at the bottom of the league in total shots, shots on goal and expected goals through four weeks. Granted, they’ve played one fewer game than most teams, but even controlling for per-90 they’re in the bottom quartile of all those attacking stats.
They look nothing like the well-oiled machine we saw in last year’s playoffs and, I’d argue, in the first three CCL games this year. Five points from three games is fine, though. And xG really only becomes predictive after about eight or nine games, so there’s no reason to think the Crew aren’t going to be among this year’s elite.
But I’m sure their fans would rest a bit easier if they were generating high-level chances for fun like they did in the 2020 postseason.
6. Nashville have had zero trouble generating high-level chances this year, and finally on Saturday they turned that into a win, posting a well-earned 2-0 victory over the visiting Revs.
Nashville were nowhere near as pretty in this game as they’ve been at times this season, but they were smart and effective. Gary Smith scrapped the 4-2-3-1 for a 4-4-2 with Dom Badji and C.J. Sapong up top, doubling down on Nashville’s strength — they are murder on set pieces — against a long-standing New England weakness. And sure enough, the game’s first goal came on a recycled set piece when Sapong stabbed in a cushioned header from Walker Zimmerman, who’d stayed up after the Revs hadn’t cleared their lines.
The second goal came when off a miscommunication amongst New England’s deep-lying midfielders as they tried to play through Nashville’s press, and thus it’s appropriate that Alex Muyl, one of the best pressing wingers in the league, got the gift. Muyl was also one of the defining players of the day as Smith lined him up inverted on the left as a way of neutralizing Carles Gil, which I would say worked pretty nicely!
The Dynamo battle and they have an identity as they are now a dangerous pressing team. But this one was much more about the same old story for Dallas rather than anything Houston did:
Dallas have taken 43 shots on the year, 37 of which have come from inside the box, which is an absurdly high percentage — the league as a whole is around 65 percent. Their final third kill patterns look much cleaner and more intuitive this year, and especially in the last two games.
Yet they have just six goals on the season.
4. Dallas’ old coach, Oscar Pareja, has Orlando City playing largely solid and often rugged soccer. Unlike Dallas, though, the Lions are struggling to turn ball-dominance into regular high-quality looks, and ultimately Nani’s golazo was cancelled out by a Taty Castellanos penalty. And then Orlando were bailed out by a superb Pedro Gallese stop on Jesus Medina in second-half stoppage, preserving a 1-1 draw they had largely controlled but were, at the same time, kind of lucky to scrape by with.
I think this is more a case of early-season rust and one very big missing piece for Orlando rather than something structurally wrong. I also think it’s encouraging that they’re grinding out results even while missing that one big piece as well as a number of smaller, but still important pieces. The ability to do that was always a hallmark of Pareja’s better Dallas teams.
3. Also not going away any time soon: the LA Galaxy! They got themselves an early, opportunistic goal after turning LAFC over when Jose Cifuentes tried to take a cheeky touch, and they got a late, opportunistic goal after turning LAFC over when Jesus Murillo tried to take a cheeky touch. And they got enough from Jonathan Bond to take a 2-1 win over their downtown rivals.
The Galaxy don’t really have a tactical identity yet, though I’m sure with Greg Vanney in charge they will aim to be a possession team. What they have done is max out the effort-o-meter every week while partially excising the catastrophic defensive errors that have plagued them for half-a-decade, and they have Chicharito. Those are the three legs of the stool this nine-points-from-four-games start rests upon.
LAFC shot themselves in the foot in this one. To this point in 2021 they’d avoided doing that, but this was a throwback to most of what we saw from them in 2020. That includes the continued absence of Carlos Vela, who has yet to be seen or heard from since that Week 1 injury and early sub vs. Austin FC.
2. Peter Vermes gave a fantastic in-game hit in the 26th minute of Sporting KC's come-from-behind 2-1 win over Austin FC, handing the Verde their second-ever MLS loss. The tl;dr was "the one time we didn't press they broke us and got the goal, but every time we really commit to the press we're smothering them and creating chances."
He was right. Sporting didn't panic at all after going down 1-0 in the seventh minute and generally just surviving through the first 15 minutes. They committed to pressing Austin and eventually carved out chance after chance after chance.
In short, they dominated. Brad Stuver had himself a hell of a day and needed some good luck besides to keep it to just 2-1, and I'm going to be gentle and say that while many of their new signings have impressed, center back Jhohan Romaña has, uh, not been the Jamison Olave-esque presence he was billed as. Add that on top of Alex Ring's inexplicable red card and, well, that's how you blow a lead.
I've been down on Sporting but they looked really, really good for the vast majority of this game. They used both the press and the ball to create chances, and I think Ilie Sanchez played a little tighter to the more advanced midfielders, which made it harder for Austin to find the kind of spaces that RSL danced through last week.
1. And finally, our Pass of the Week comes from Seattle's 2-1 road win at Portland:
Seattle have made a killing finding Cristian Roldan and Will Bruin — and Fredy Montero a little bit — in those pockets this year. If you're going to let them hit that pass (and to be clear, Portland were very good about not letting them hit that pass for an hour) then you have to be ready to deal with the one-two that puts them into space.
On this play the Timbers weren't, and it led to the game-deciding penalty.
Everything that happened in the chunk of time around that play, including Diego Valeri having a penalty saved then missing his re-take, and Portland 'keeper Jeff Attinella going down with what looked like a hip injury, completely undid the game. Portland were comfortably on the front foot while Seattle seemed snakebit in front of goal, one of those days where Raul Ruidiaz would be left shaking his head for all his missed chances.
Then the Valeri PK sequence happened and from that point onward, the Timbers got pummeled, with only Bill Tuiloma's late golazo of a free kick pausing the onslaught.
Seattle have conceded just twice this year, and are atop the Supporters' Shield race with 10 points from four games. Portland have one win from four and are near the bottom of the Western Conference standings, but if they can bottle what they did for the first hour of this one they won't stay there for long.