Only one perfect team left in the whole damn league after just three weeks. Let's start with them:
There's No Other Way
Usually there are a few poor-ish teams that start the year hot by playing low-block, high-energy counterattacking soccer. It is famously easier to destroy than to create, and this is especially true early in the season. Nobody’s sharp, which means turnovers are more frequent, and more frequent turnovers means more frequent counterattacks born of opportunism rather than true creativity.
This is fine! This is a very good plan for lots of teams, and if I was a manager of a non-playoff side I’d likely do the same thing myself.
After RSL’s win last week at Minnesota United, I was pretty convinced that this is exactly what Freddy Juarez’s gameplan was going to be. After their 3-1 win on Saturday against Sporting KC, I am reassessing … basically everything. RSL weren’t just deserving winners, they were objectively good and fun to watch by basically any measure.
There are the boxscore stats, as RSL had a comfy 55 percent possession and outshot Sporting 10 to 6, with four of those on target to just the one for the visitors. And there are some advanced stats, as RSL generated a respectable 1.4 xG while holding Sporting to just .5.
But it’s more than just numbers. Look at this quote from Sporting’s veteran d-mid, Ilie Sanchez:
“They do three, four, five things really well,” Sanchez said after the game. “Obviously with their new players, they can put them on the field and try to implement new plays into their game. I think we did a good job for the first 30 minutes and then they broke us with the ball.”
Emphasis mine. I don’t think RSL ever broke anything with the ball last year except for their fanbase’s spirit. But this is just gorgeous, gorgeous soccer:
That view, taken from Second Spectrum’s tactical cam, gives you a clear picture of just how easily RSL evaded any pressure from the Sporting front three — Nick Besler’s skip pass to Justen Glad is the low-key star of the show — and then got the ball onto Pablo Ruiz’s foot with no pressure anywhere near him.
When Ruiz is in that spot he is always going to pick out the overlap, and with Damir Kreilach now a late, box-arriving midfield threat taking advantage of the space Rubio Rubin is creating rather than miscast as a No. 9 himself, this pattern of play has the potential to be deadly.
This isn’t quite the same thing, but the principle is the same: progressive distribution from Glad (he completed 36 of 38 progressive passes on Saturday; last year his average was 16.8 for 23.4 as per Second Spectrum) finds Ruiz in space, and then it’s through-the-lines-and-off-to-the-races once again:
Rubin, by the way, had a brace in this game to go along with the pair of assists he picked up in the win at Minnesota. This is hopefully just the start of a mid-career rejuvenation (or maybe just “juvenation” given his lack of production over the past eight years) for Rubin, who at one point was the USMNT forward of the future but who has never quite panned out at any of his previous stops.
Regardless of what the future holds, though, watching RSL on Saturday brought me more joy and provided more proof of concept with regard to the talent on the team and Juarez’s vision for how to make it work than all of 2020 combined. It was beautiful and fun, and they capped it with my favorite new MLS tradition:
They are at the top of the standings for points per game and pettiness per 90, and have made themselves must-see TV real quick.
Sporting, of course, had something to do with that. They were slow to get pressure to the ball while being poor and disjointed at closing down gaps, which is a deadly combo. A lot of RSL’s comfort running play through Ruiz had to do with how deep Ilie was sitting, which meant there was always time and space to exploit right in central midfield for the hosts.
That gappiness is what killed them in the playoffs last season vs. Minnesota United and Bebelo Reynoso, and it was the defining defensive trait of KC's miserable 2019 season. Peter Vermes has some stuff to figure out here.
Anyway, Here's Wonderwall
Speaking of Bebelo, he and his Loons also have a ton to figure out and remain on the struggle bus. They are officially dead last, both winless and pointless after a 1-0 home loss to expansion side Austin FC on Saturday.
First, the visitors: I wrote last week about how quickly they’ve developed an identity as a pass-and-move team that constantly creates outlets and danger with coordinated off-the-ball movement. And in this one, watch how Diego Fagundez — a central midfielder — decisively pushes forward to take space out wide when winger Cecilio Dominguez drops into the half-space:
This goal was not an accident; it comes from a blueprint. Over the past two weeks they’ve inflicted that blueprint on the road against two playoff teams and come away with six points. And the truth is that this should’ve been their second-straight multi-goal victory, with some poor finishing from the center forwards (a looming issue) sparing Minnesota any further blushes.
The Loons should be blushing anyway. They were chasing the game at home for 73 minutes and created just one half-chance and one good chance. The half-chance came from the singular genius of Bebelo, who came off with a knock just before the hour. The good chance came off a cross from rookie Justin McMaster to 17-year-old Homegrown attacker Patrick Weah, who was making his MLS debut.
This is not how it was supposed to go in 2021. This year was supposed to be about translating last season's late run and playoff magic into a full season of progress marked by occasional dominance.
“I think the biggest thing, I said after the game, we’re certainly not controlling any part of the game for long enough periods,” said head coach Adrian Heath afterward. “We certainly haven’t had enough of a threat in the attacking third. And that’s put everybody else under pressure in terms of, that one goal either way at the moment, is going to prove very costly for us. And, that proved again today.”
A big part of what's going wrong is how ineffective Minnesota have been at driving the game forward off the dribble, which was one of their strong suits last year. They were third in dribbles attempted and ninth over the course of the entire season in dribble success rate in 2020, a number that climbed into the top five for the stretch run and the playoffs.
This year they're still third in attempts but are 24th in success rate, completing just 45.5 percent of their dribbles. Bebelo is 11-for-20 on his attempts, which is really good for a guy who's the focal point of every opposing gameplan. The rest of the team combined is 19-for-46, which is really, really bad for guys who should, in theory, be benefitting from Bebelo's gravity and the extra space it opens up.
Let's make it more granular:
- They do not eliminate defenders in high-leverage 1v1 sitautions.
- They do not progress the ball easily against rotating midfields after good passing sequences, which means Bebelo habitually has to drop deeper.
- They do not get the ball to fullbacks in stride, on the overlap against backpedaling defenders.
It is a slog just to get into the final third for this team. Once they manage it, it's been Bebelo or nothing. That is not a winning formula.
Since the league scrapped the old shootout after the 1999 season only six teams have started the year 0-3-0 or worse and gone on to make the playoffs. Two of those came last year with the expanded, 10-team field in the East, so really it's four teams over 20 "normal" years. That's a decent sample size.
Minnesota have a lot to sort out. There's more than 90 percent of the season remaining so they have time, but the numbers are the numbers, and right now they say teams that start like this don't usually come to any sort of good ending.
A few more things to ponder...
11. Gerhard Struber seems to be figuring his team out, or at least seems to have a knack for figuring his team out at halftime. For the second straight week he made some useful changes at the break, this time moving young Caden Clark up to the tip of the 4-4-2 diamond, and for the second straight week it paid off with an improved performance.
This time it paid off with a win as well, as first Cristian Casseres and then Clark (off a volley of course) got on the board for what ultimately turned into a comfortable RBNY win over the visiting Chicago Fire FC.
The three takeaways from the changes:
- Clark is better as a 10 (he is goal dangerous the moment he steps on the pitch) rather than as an 8 (he has trouble finding the game when he's deeper).
- Dru Yearwood isn't the rangy ball-winner he was advertised as, but his passing from deep can open up the game (caveat: The Fire were basically begging to get opened up).
- Overloading the right side when Kyle Duncan's on the field seems like a really good plan!
Chicago, on the other hand, are kind of lost. Their body language wasn't great, their central defense remains fatally error-prone, and I don't think they turned the RBNY defense around and made them run at their own goal at any point after about the 25th minute.
10. LAFC’s Eduard Atuesta always has one contender for Pass of the Week. I could honestly dedicate a special segment of this column just to him every Sunday night. This is sorcery:
Diego Rossi should’ve scored there. He was understandably not sharp in his first appearance of the year, and LAFC as a whole were kind of stuck in the mud in what became a 1-1 draw at Houston. They are in second or third gear at best, and the big difference between this year and last is that between Atuesta at d-mid, one of the league’s best center back pairings and goalkeeper Pablo Sisniega leveling up, they have the toughness to grind out results.
For Houston this was a pretty good point. They're committed as hell out there and Joe Corona's shored up the central midfield, as has the switch to more of a 4-2-3-1, which means they're much less vulnerable in transition than they were in 2020. Tim Parker at center back has obviously helped a bunch as well.
They’re staring at a big question, though: Are the attackers good enough to win them games?
The Crew took just three shots; Montréal took 20. No bangers this week, though, with Mason Toye nursing an injury.
Still, I’m sure nobody in Montréal (or Fort Lauderdale, I guess) is complaining about five points from three games to start the season.
8. Nobody in Orlando will be complaining much either after they got their first win of the year, 3-0 over visiting FC Cincinnati. The competitive portion of the evening came to a close after 33 seconds when Tesho Akindele pounced on Nick Hagglund’s mutinous back-pass and curled it inside the far post.
Tesho is, with Daryl Dike on loan and Pato injured, the starting No. 9 in Orlando for the time being. I understand why a certain segment of the fanbase is not entirely in love with that, but he’s really, really good at initiating the press Oscar Pareja wants to run. And that killed Cincy this weekend.
In even better news for central Florida: Joao Moutinho made his long-awaited return from injury, getting in for a late cameo. This is huge for Orlando City’s upside as a possession-heavy team that can (and did, for huge chunks of last summer) use the ball to break opponents to bits.
After a good first 12 minutes of the season, Cincy have struggled in the subsequent 258. They are 4-15-6 with a -30 goal differential in Jaap Stam’s 25 games in charge across all competitions, and are headed in the wrong direction having taken just one of the past 24 points on offer.
7. FC Dallas got a desperately needed win, dominating a heavily rotated Portland squad for 45 minutes before cruising to a 4-1 final. There was lots of good news for Los Toros beyond just the scoreline, as the central defense held up even without Matt Hedges; Andres Ricaurte and Jader Obrian finally got on the board; and the 4-2-3-1 worked and looked natural after two aimless weeks spent in the 3-4-2-1.
But the best news was probably the play of Paxton Pomykal. The 21-year-old is still on a minutes restriction — he played the final half-hour and given his injury history, I’d be perfectly fine if they kept him to 35-minute outings for the next three months. But even in limited time he’s still shown the things that got him into the USMNT picture and onto the radars of clubs like AC Milan:
Great central midfielders constantly check their shoulders and map the whole field before they’re even on the ball. You can see Pomykal doing it three times in this clip — once at the start, again before Ricaurte even gets to the clearance by the left touchline, and once after Ricaurte slides his pass in Pomykal's direction.
That means he doesn’t even have to look up before thumping Franco Jara into space. He knows where the defenders are, and knows where the runs are. It looks like he’s hitting a blind ball over the top, but this is the opposite of that. This is seeing so well you don't even have to look anymore.
"He's an excellent passer of the ball, he plays the central midfield role with confidence and authority, often looking to open the opposing defense with a deep pass," was the analysis from ESPN scouting expert Tor-Kristian Karlsen in a feature on which American in MLS could be next to make the move to a huge European club. "He displays smart off-the-ball movement [and] generally plays with few touches.”
All of that analysis is correct, and all of it was on display in one clip. If Dallas can keep him healthy, a lot of the concerns raised by their play last year and through the first two weeks of this season evaporate.
Portland obviously have some concerns, but CCL teams took a beating this week across the board. Hard lessons are often useful ones, especially if it means a clearer path toward building meaningful depth.
6. The Revs are really good, and showed a bunch of what makes them so in a closer-than-it-should’ve-been 2-1 win over a heavily rotated Atlanta United squad in Foxborough on Saturday night.
The difference between “good” and “great,” though, will come down to consistent goal-scoring from the guys who are paid to provide it. Adam Buksa got in good spots repeatedly in this one, but came up empty and is now on one goal from three games this year. The wingers were always in dangerous spots, but none of them finished. Gustavo Bou missed the game nursing an injury.
One of those guys needs to be consistently available and consistently productive. Thus far, none of them checks both boxes.
Atlanta suffer from the same thing, only more so. They’ve played six times across all competitions and scored one or fewer goals in five of them, and the injury bug has bitten them once again with Ezequiel Barco and Jurgen Damm both limping off.
I think it’s undeniable that they’re playing with more energy and esprit de corps than last season, but it’s not really translating on the scoreboard in any meaningful way.
5. There's not enough translating on the scoreboard for Nashville, either. Sunday’s scoreless home draw vs. Inter Miami means they’re now 0-0-3, having previously drawn Cincy in Week 1 and CF Montréal in Week 2. There is no other way to see it than six home points dropped because of slow starts — they were up against it in the first 15 minutes as usual — and poor finishing.
4. I love playing a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-2-1 against a 4-4-2 diamond, and apparently so does Ronny Deila. The NYCFC boss trotted his Cityzens out in a "new" (for this season anyway) look on Saturday night against the Union, and his side dominated the opening exchanges even before Jose "El Brujo" Martinez lost his mind, karate chopped Taty Castellanos in the neck and earned himself a red.
Here's what the NYCFC network passing graph looked like from the evening's festivities:
Note how wide the wingbacks are. That's one of the built-in advantages of using any 3- or 5-at-the-back formation vs. the diamond, since the positions wingbacks take up naturally force a choice upon the diamond team: send a shuttler out to deal with them, which risks breaking the diamond apart (diamonds shatter when they allow gaps in the midfield), or have your fullback come way up and engage them, which risks opening up space in behind and puts a ton of strain on the center backs.
The other built-in advantage against the diamond is that by having three center backs on the field you're almost always going to have a spare man to 1) snuff out transition moments, and 2) pull the diamond side-to-side by switching the point of attack via the middle center back. Caleb Porter talked last week about how he wanted his Crew team to switch the ball with the No. 6 or the No. 8 against the Union; the 3-5-2 de-complexifies the situation and puts it on the foot of the middle central defender.
Related: Deila dropped his usual d-mid, James Sands, into the middle of the backline and he hit a million diagonals to pull Philly apart. It worked.
I don't think this signals a long-term switch away from the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 that Deila has used as his default, but he deserves credit for making the right call here.
El Brujo, meanwhile, owes his teammates an apology.
3. The Sounders just smashed the hell out of the Galaxy on Sunday night, winning their individual duels, winning second balls and winning my vote for No. 1 in this week's Power Rankings after a 3-0 win. They were dominant from the whistle.
Let's stay on the 3-5-2 point for a minute: If the strength is how naturally wide the wingbacks play, the weakness is that the wingbacks are the only actual wide players in a 3-5-2. That makes it tough to create the type of overloads that are crucial in the modern game. Any 3-5-2 is in danger of getting stagnant on the wrong day.
Seattle have solved this by letting Cristian Roldan, nominally a No. 10 but actually a central winger, go wherever he wants either to rip defenders away from the play with his off-ball movement, or to create the type of overloads the 3-5-2 can often lack.
It is terrifying that the Sounders have been this good mostly without Nico Lodeiro, who made his season debut with 25 minutes to go, and before they make their annual massive midseason addition.
The Galaxy aren't as bad as they looked in this game, but this was a lesson on the gulf between where they are and where they want to be.
2. The Rapids are back in the win column. They went to Utah and beat Vancouver 1-0, mostly outplaying them but also outscrapping the "hosts." Getting Sam Vines healthy again was crucial in part because he's very good -- kid made some plays and never let the 'Caps' speedy wingers get the edge — and also because his return allowed Kellyn Acosta to return to central midfield, which is basically life and death for this group.
The only goal of the game was a Diego Rubio free kick rocket. Both teams probably deserved a little bit more, but I don't think 1-0 to Colorado was unfair.
I'm not breaking any news here by saying that Vancouver are missing a touch of quality in the final third. We'll see what they do with that open DP slot.
The Quakes were once again good and fun, and 17-year-old striker Cade Cowell had yet another A+ performance with a goal and two assists. Yueill had himself a brace and new No. 10 (it bothers me so much that he wears No. 9) Javier "La Chofis" Lopez both opened the scoring and played a really, really encouraging all-around game. Eric Remedi, meanwhile, continues to deputize well for Judson at d-mid, and second-year center back Tanner Beason had a good outing in place of veteran Oswaldo Alanis.
San Jose were a playoff team last year. They look better so far this year thanks both to internal improvement and external signings, and that poor first half in Houston feels like a blip.
D.C., on the other hand … oof. Hernan Losada is not happy with a number of things, including the injury list — which is already a mile long.
“I'm not planning to change the way we are training or the way we are working. All the departments need to change, need to adapt to our way of work — not the other way around,” Losada told The Washington Post.
"I told you before the first game, this group was not fit enough. They came back from four months’ offseason, totally unfit. Many were overweight. Nobody had control over what the players were doing in those four months and some of them are paying the price."
I am of two minds on Losada’s stance here. One one hand, I absolutely understand his point. On the other hand, this feels a lot like Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson coming back from the River Kwai to manage a soccer team on his own terms. IIRC that movie didn’t have a happy ending.