We’re almost a third of the way through the season. Let’s take a look at two teams that are definitely Supporters’ Shield contenders, one that might be, and one that almost certainly isn’t yet, but is playing some damn good soccer.
And of course, we’ll look at everything else as well, because that’s what we do here. In we go!
I’m going to let this excellent thread from Matthew De George do the explaining for how the direct movement of Philadelphia’s shuttlers (in this instance he’s highlighting Leon Flach, though Ale Bedoya’s movement on the other side is even better) always opens lanes for the attackers, and did so once again late into Saturday night during Philly’s 2-2 draw a continent away at LAFC:
(Click through into that whole thread. It's very good.)
There is nothing in the boxscore from this for Flach. Hell, it barely shows up in the advanced stats – you have to dig through Second Spectrum’s tracking data to sift through off-ball attacking runs. And there, lo and behold: the Union are recording the highest number of off-ball attacking runs per transition opportunity that’s ever been recorded in this league. That is, above and beyond everything else, who they are – they live for transitions. And it is perhaps a little bit ironic for a team that, as LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo put it after the game, “skips midfield entirely,” that Flach and Bedoya are so crucial to the process of turning those transition moments into chances. They are the unsung heroes there.
Every Shield-contending team (as both these obviously are) needs guys like that. Every team also needs guys who are more loudly sung, and such has started to be the case for Philly’s young Julian Carranza, whose quality is coming to the fore now that he’s with a team that has the patience to develop him and has put him in a system that suits him. He had a goal and a secondary assist, and is now up to 4g/3a in about 620 minutes for the team atop the Eastern Conference.
It’s a long way from his miserable two years in Fort Lauderdale. And yes, if watching Carranza occasionally reminds you of the guy up I-95 who won the Golden Boot presented by Audi last year, you’re not alone.
“Julian certainly has had a great season so far,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said after the game. “He has that kind of South American savvy and intensity in the box.”
Against most teams, that would’ve been enough. But LAFC are LAFC; atop the West, atop the Shield standings, at home and on the front foot. They are still among the very best teams in the league in all the stuff they’ve been excellent at for years, like xG generated via pressure, xG generated via long, possession-intensive passing sequences, penalty area entries, etc. It’s not quite ramped up as high as it was in 2019, but it’s there.
What they’ve added on top of that is just complete set piece dominance, and yes, that is where Franco Escobar’s late equalizer came from. LAFC now have a league-best nine set-piece goals in 10 games. That rate is unsustainable, but still, if they’re generating a dozen corner kicks (as they did against Philly), there’s a decent bet at least one is going to end up on the scoreboard.
And so there’s a mounting body of evidence that this LAFC team is just tougher to beat than previous versions because you have to be better in more and different ways. They’re spreading the wealth – Carlos Vela hasn’t scored in eight games, Chicho Arango has yet to really blow up this year and Brian Rodriguez is hurt – so you can shut the big names down and still ship two. They’re more experienced, so their shoulders don’t slump when they go down early. That allows them to do stuff like come back from multiple deficits against a Union defense that has spent most of the season being impregnable.
“Anytime you come back twice, you have to come away smiling,” Cherundolo said afterward, “and we do.”
Also smiling after this weekend are CF Montréal, who absolutely pumped a short-handed Orlando side 4-1 at Stade Saputo, which is becoming a legitimate fortress. The hosts outshot the Lions 20-2, had almost 60% possession, completed nearly 90% of their passes and – this is the damning one for Orlando – won 50 of 88 duels. I understand going to the house of a superior opponent and intending to close up shop, but if you’re going to do that, you’ve got to compete. Hard. Orlando didn’t.
So Montréal buried them, and while that alone is impressive, the fact that they did it without DP d-mid Victor Wanyama, who’s been excellent for them all season, says that they have the kind of depth that might translate to a Shield run.
Think I’m kidding? Right now, Montréal are on a seven-game unbeaten streak, taking 17 of a possible 21 points from that stretch despite four of those games being on the road. The two draws were at Atlanta (the first game after their CCL run, and clearly Montréal’s legs weren’t quite there yet as they melted down in the final 20 minutes) and at the Union (I don’t need to explain to you that a point at Philly is an excellent result, right?). They beat the Red Bulls in Harrison, and a better-than-you-realize FC Cincinnati team in Cincy. If you go by single-game xG, which is dicey but doesn’t mean nothing, they have just destroyed Vancouver, Atlanta and Orlando at home, and the step forward this weekend was turning that dominance into lots of goals in a way they didn’t manage to in those first two home wins.
“Everyone is getting on the board right now,” said center back Joel Waterman. “You can see different people scoring and we are doing it at the right moments. With Champions League at the start of the season, it was hard. But now we’re getting a flow. The locker room is strong. But it is still early in the season, and we want more from this team.”
They are right to want more. If you don’t believe your eyes or the scoreboard, then believe the data. CFM’s underlying numbers are still skewed by the first few weeks of the year when they were busy trying to juggle both the season itself and their CCL duties (they couldn’t, just like New England, Seattle, NYCFC and Colorado couldn’t), but since the CCL run ended they are unbeaten and have the second-best expected goal differential in the league, just behind NYCFC and just ahead of LAFC and, yes, FC Cincinnati.
They are, in other words, really, really good. Head coach Wilfried Nancy, who seems to be turning into Montréal’s version of Curtin, seems to know it and is happy about it.
“The guys put in a good performance. I'm pleased. We had to remain calm after the goal we conceded, but the players are progressing,” Nancy said in the postgame. “I feel it and I see it in training. They are proving they are capable of handling many different situations. We are in good form right now and we will enjoy it.”
I will go on record that I’m pretty sure this is the best Montréal team I’ve seen in their decade in MLS. I’m not entirely convinced they’ll end up in that top tier of Shield contenders – I think they’re a notch below the likes of LAFC, NYCFC and Philly – but it’s at least a possibility.
With a third of the season gone, that’s never been the case for this club before.
Even with Cincy nearly keeping up with Montréal in the underlying numbers (not quite, but still) I can’t quite bring myself to say that they’re Shield candidates.
But now pause, for a minute, and think about what that sentence actually means. If you’re struggling to say a team that’s now won three straight, that are 5W-3L-1D in their past nine and have great underlying numbers aren’t quite Shield candidates, then what, implicitly, is that team?
That team is good! FC Cincinnati are good! They have spent a third of the season playing like a playoff team! They have what could end up being a franchise-changing SuperDraft class! They have what already appears to be a franchise-changing coach and GM! They have multiple match-winners! Here, enjoy Lucho Acosta hitting what could be a Pass of the Week:
Armchair Analyst: Acosta to Vazquez with replay
Lucho leads MLS in expected assists by a freaking mile. TruMedia via StatsPerform has him at 6.32 xA, with Lucas Zelarayan second at 3.72. That gap of 2.6 xA between first and second place is the same as the gap between Zelarayan and 78th-place Inter Miami right back DeAndre Yedlin. This is, right now, a more dominant chance creation season than Carles Gil put together last year en route to winning the MVP.
Here, have another:
Armchair Analyst: Acosta to Badji with replay
This is FC Cincinnati, on the road, just pouring it on against a Minnesota team that has been playing good soccer (especially defensively) over the past few weeks. With Acosta sitting in that hole as the No. 10 behind a pair of forwards, and with an actually solid central midfield behind him in Pat Noonan’s 3-5-2, he is back to doing the types of things that got him into the Best XI (and onto PSG’s radar) back in 2018.
And he’s not even the biggest story in the attack. This is Brandon Vazquez, who now has 6g/2a in 804 minutes this year, and who’d be leading the Golden Boot race if he took penalties:
Armchair Analyst: Vazquez double move with replay
This is the type of double move in the box that Chris Wondolowski built his legendary career upon. Selling that first move and then making the second is how you end up all alone inside the six-yard box, tapping home the latest game-winner in club history against a team that’s desperately trying to prevent you from doing just that.
“I saw Calvin [Harris] get slipped in, and I thought, 'I do this in training every day.’ It's just natural for me, I already knew what to do,” Vazquez explained afterward. “When I say I'm on autopilot, it was like, I've done it so many times already and it just comes natural, make a double movement always in the box, going one, and then going to another place and defender fell for it and I slipped it in.
“Scoring a goal in the 90th minute to win, it's the best feeling there is in this game. So I'm ecstatic.”
Acosta is legit, and Vazquez (10g/5a in his last 1600 minutes, and he’s leading the league this year in non-penalty expected goals) is legit, and new DP d-mid Obinna Nwobodo has made a really good impression through two games. On top of that the No. 2 overall SuperDraft pick, goalkeeper Roman Celentano, might’ve already won the starting job with three wins and two shutouts in his four games (poor Alec Kann, who finally got his chance to be a starter, got injured, and might not get his job back), while center back Ian Murphy, who they took later in the first round, sure seems like a long-term MLS starter.
So not only are there match-winners, but there are now fewer weak links in crucial spots, and there is actual depth. The turnaround hasn’t quite been overnight – I’m old enough to remember the first two weeks of the season – but it’s been about a year faster than what I expected. Noonan and Chris Albright have done very quick, very good work.
And now they have three wins in a row. It really is a new dawn for this team.
“You can feel it, you could hear it in the locker room. You could hear it and feel it in our stadium when we got a result at home against Toronto [on Wednesday],” Noonan said after the game. “The winning is important for this club, to show signs of progress but to also show that the group that we have is as capable of winning games. Regardless of who we're playing, where we're playing, as long as we have the mentality that we've shown I think certainly over the last week, this can continue.
“Hopefully we don't settle because we've had a good stretch, that we understand that we can do this quite often with the commitment from every player, every single day, and every time we step on the field. It sounds cliche, but when you have that commitment, when you have the buy-in, when you have that effort, nights like tonight, when you're not your best, you still can find a way to get results. And that's just a testament to the group of players that were out there working really hard for this club, for these fans.”
This is pure Friday Night Lights stuff, but you know what? Cincy fans deserve it. They spent three years watching the worst soccer imaginable, and are now finally watching… well, it’s not quite the best. There’s not going to be a Shield at the end of the season.
But it’s been damn good. So let’s make it explicit: Cincy are playing good soccer. They look like a good team – a playoff team. I don’t think, at this point, that anyone should be surprised if that’s where they end up at season’s end.
11. The Quakes, following their 1-0 home win over Colorado on Saturday night, have won three of four across all competitions since parting ways with Matias Almeyda. This one was – and I'm not making anything up here – an uneventful win. An uneventful win! I don't think the Quakes have had one of those since like 2016.
“We owe a lot to Matias and his staff,” goalkeeper J.T. Marcinkowski said after posting his first shutout of the season. “A lot of the way that we pressure and the way that we defend can be credited to them for teaching us over the past three and a half, four years. But, with [Alex] Covelo’s system, I think it’s a little more structured, a little more less-is-more approach, I would say. I think this is a good indication of how we’ll play moving forward.”
That is, I think, what Quakes fans were hoping for. They were desperate to get off Mr. Almeyda’s wild ride.
As for the game itself, the only thing remarkable about it was how well-worked the set piece leading to the only goal was. It was all very un-Quakes.
Part of this falls on the Rapids, who lack the creativity to punish the disorganization that's still hardwired into San Jose (even without Almeyda there’s still the occasionally adventurous moment that needs to be deprogrammed out of the center backs). Without Jack Price and Diego Rubio, there’s just not enough magic coming out of midfield or, in Rubio's case, dropping into midfield off the front line.
10. Dallas handled an almost fully rotated Seattle side on Saturday evening, winning 2-0 in Frisco.
It took some flexibility from head coach Nico Estevez to do it, because the Sounders did a very nice job of clamping the hosts through the hour. At that point, Estevez went to a 4-4-1-1 – he dropped a midfielder for center forward Franco Jara, put Jesus Ferreira into a free role and brought Paxton Pomykal into a more central role, one where he was getting on the ball in higher-leverage spots. Ferreira subsequently got the first goal, and Pomykal's ability to pick up the ball centrally and drive forward was key to the sequence on the second, which came from Paul Arriola:
Armchair Analyst: Pomykal midfield turn Arriola goal
Seattle's kids and back-ups didn't create much, but they were well-drilled and resilient, and didn't really break down until Dallas's shape and scheme changed. They are now 13th in the West with seven points from eight games.
Guess what? I'm going to vote them No. 1 in the Power Rankings anyway, and you can't stop me.
9. Let's stay with the shape change theme: For 65 minutes the Revs, playing out of a 4-2-3-1 these days after finally scrapping the wide diamond, had a ton of the ball but created virtually none of the chances against visiting Columbus, and were trailing 1-0. Then Bruce Arena finally did what a certain segment of fans (and me!) have been asking for, and switched to a 3-5-2.
They spent the next 15 minutes running circles around the visitors, absolutely drubbing them and turning a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead. I highlighted the portion of the game during which the Revs were in a 3-5-2 on the xG race chart below:
Yes, you’re seeing that right: During the period of time in which the Revs were in a 3-5-2, a formation that really suits their personnel (it gives Carles Gil a free role with two bodyguards; it gives obvious spots for two of New England’s stable of forwards, none of whom play on the wing; it gets DeJuan Jones further upfield as a wingback, which has obvious benefits as we saw on the first goal) they constantly got forward and created chances, scoring two goals in the process, while holding Columbus literally without a shot.
As soon as New England took that 2-1 lead, though, Arena swapped out Sebastian Lletget for Omar Gonzalez and went to a flat, passive 4-4-2. Omar immediately got beat inside by Erik Hurtado, who finished neatly past Matt Turner.
That made it 2-2, and that’s how it ended. The Revs have now conceded a league-worst eight goals in the final 20 minutes.
“You’re at the end of the game, you have a goal lead, you went from three to a back four,” Arena said afterward. “Common sense. It’s safety, and it shouldn’t backfire the way it did.”
I understand that every manager has a preferred formation and principles of play, but at some point you’ve got to err on the side of playing to your roster’s strengths.
Arena has not yet done that.
8. Sporting went to Queens – yes, Queens, not the Bronx for this one – and got a very credible scoreless draw from NYCFC. They didn’t create hardly anything, and spent virtually the whole game playing against the ball (they had just 26% possession, which has got to be one of the lowest single-game totals for this team since Peter Vermes took over 13 years ago).
There is nothing wrong with that. When you’ve been shipping goals and are in the midst of some lineup turnover, some forced by injuries and others clearly by choice, given the form of certain defenders, closing up shop is often the right call.
“We played a 4-1-3-2,” said Vermes, who almost always lines his team up in a 4-3-3. “We just felt, based on the size of the field, that it was going to be imperative that we had numbers in the middle, especially how they like to play through the middle. We tried to clog that up on them."
Sporting did a good job of that. Nonetheless the Pigeons, playing without Taty Castellanos, left points on the board here. Heber, sadly, has not recovered anything close to his pre-injury form, and the fact that was subbed off in the 68th minute of a goalless home game might signal what direction NYCFC’s front office will go in via the transfer market if/when Taty is sold this summer.
7. This past week I wrote a column titled “The Blueprint,” which examined how the Sounders have built a CCL champion-level roster. One of the sub-principles focused on the type of DP attacking midfielder to look for, which basically came down to two things:
- Play the percentages by looking for a guy in his prime. Wunderkinds are fun, but the hit rate is lower, so age 25-29 makes more sense if you want to win.
- Look for someone who’s had success in multiple leagues.
Taxi Fountas checks both boxes. To be fair, he is more of a second forward than a true No. 10 playmaker, and he keeps proving it by scoring goals. On Saturday night he had two in D.C. United’s 2-0 win over visiting Houston.
Fountas, a 26-year-old Greek international who’s had successful stints in both his home country’s league as well as Austria (D.C. acquired him from Rapid Vienna), now has 4g/1a in 250 minutes, and has brought a level of spice previously missing from this attack.
And this attack, it should be noted, is largely the same under Chad Ashton as it was under Hernan Losada. D.C. don’t care about the ball, they care about field position, and they’re willing to get it by having their center backs burst forward off the dribble (Brendan Hines-Ike looks like he’s having the time of his life filling in for the injured Andy Najar). Julian Gressel and Brad Smith are both pushing way up from the wingback slots, while central midfield is all about disruption and transition.
As a neutral, they are still fun. And now the players look like they’re having some fun as well.
Houston head coach Paulo Nagamura, to his credit, put his finger on exactly why his side struggled. “We lost too many easy balls in the middle of the park,” Nagamura offered. “We gave the momentum to D.C. to push us back and defend for most of the first half.”
6. Charlotte were unable to really crack Miami open until Miami obliged and basically just did it for them, gifting the hosts the only goal in a 1-0 Charlotte win:
A simple long-ball and a neat bit of hold-up play from the center forward should not cause the entire central midfield to empty out, nor the subsequent jailbreak, but somehow it did. As the tweet says, credit to Charlotte for taking advantage of that, and credit to the newly acquired Andre Shinyashiki for his excellent finish of some precise service from Yordy Reyna.
It’s worth noting that Miami left back Kieran Gibbs (that’s him a step behind Shinyashiki) was subbed immediately after this goal.
"We didn't get back into shape quick enough,” is what Miami head coach Phil Neville said, and clearly he’s right.
Neville, we all know, is not afraid to bench an underperforming veteran. It’ll be interesting to see if Gibbs is in the lineup for Tuesday’s US Open Cup game (which they’re putting a bunch of emphasis on).
Charlotte weren’t great – they were lucky not to get gashed themselves in transition, but Miami couldn’t quite find the final ball. Still, the ability to pick up results even when not playing all that well is a very good trait, and with three of their next four at home it’s entirely possible that they hit mid-June and find themselves sitting comfortably above the playoff line.
Miguel Angel Ramirez has done a very good job with a mismatched and incomplete roster.
5. The Red Bulls are flipping MLS convention on its head. Our league is known for a lot of amusing things, with one of them being the fact that home-field advantage is more pronounced here than in any other league in the world. There are a lot of theories as to why – mine is that it’s a combination of parity (SuperClubs in every league skew the stats by winning more often on the road, and MLS by its nature has no SuperClubs) + travel (a much bigger factor than fans realize) + environmental differences (everything from heat/humidity to altitude to turf) – but nothing’s been proven, and the simple fact is that the home-field skew in MLS has held firm since the league’s inception.
Following Saturday night’s 1-1 home draw against Portland, this year’s Red Bulls have taken just three of a possible 15 home points. They have taken 15 of a possible 15 road points. There has never been anything like this in league history.
I have a theory on this, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an explanation: When playing on the road, RBNY are facing teams that are more likely to get on the ball and try to carry the game, taking risks through midfield. A great pressing team turns those types of risks into chances and goals.
When they’re playing at home, RBNY are facing teams that are much more willing to drop numbers behind the ball and play it safe. The conventional wisdom against pressing teams has always been to counter them to death, and while I don’t think it’s playing out exactly that way, it’s pretty close.
RBNY head coach Gerhard Struber, at least, agrees.
“Of course we can see that every team here in our stadium, every opponent, they stay much deeper. They give us not so much space for transitions, and also, I think in this time, also we have to be more in on-ball moments,” Struber explained afterwards. “I think I can see that the boys grow in this direction. We find also in possession a better setup.
“But I think the situation is that we have in these times when we create chances, not always a dynamic advantage, and not always the space what we have away, and this is the difference.”
So in short, RBNY are consistently creating more and better chances against almost everyone they play, no matter if it’s home or on the road, and that was no different against the Timbers.
Here’s the problem with that theory: RBNY under Struber aren’t substantially different, from a tactical perspective, than what they were under Jesse Marsch or even under Chris Armas. Hell, they’re really similar to the Union under Curtin, and every single one of those teams evinced the expected home/road split.
With that, what is becoming more salient is the argument that the center forward corps just isn’t quite good enough.
“I think we cannot always expect against a team with this quality, they stay in a low block and that you can create in every few minutes a big chance,” Struber offered. “I think in these moments, you have to score.”
Portland got their only goal from their much-maligned center forward, Jaroslaw Niezgoda. He has not been good this season, but I thought his movement was a little bit better in this one, and certainly was on his goal.
That’s 11 passes and a goal, the first of three from on-loan Mexican striker Ronaldo Cisneros, in about 20 seconds. That is gorgeous.
Atlanta head coach Gonzalo Pineda warned us last week that his team was starting to play good ball, and they obliged him this week by going out there and showing it, then backing it up with goals. I thought Cisneros and Luiz Araujo did a good job of threatening to push into space behind the Fire’s backline (and obviously, at times, doing more than just threatening), which brought some penetration to an attack that can get too bogged down just playing with the ball.
That is the good news for Atlanta. The bad news is really bad, though: Miles Robinson was subbed out in the first half with what sure looked like a left Achilles’ injury. Pineda couldn’t confirm exactly what the injury was, but he did say, both at halftime and afterward, that it looked bad.
As for Chicago, all the good vibes from their solid defensive start have disappeared. They are 0W-4L-2D in their past six games, have scored just twice in that span, and have shipped nine goals in losing the past three.
3. Vancouver rediscovered a tiny bit of last season’s magic – their attack finally looked dangerous on the break again – in Sunday afternoon’s 1-0 win over visiting Toronto FC. It is probably not a coincidence that Vancouver looking good happened in the same game in which Ryan Gauld finally looked like last year’s version of himself.
Armchair Analyst: Incorrectly disallowed TFC goal
I think Bob Bradley was right to be furious. I look forward to hearing Andrew Wiebe and Charlie Davies break this one down on Instant Replay.
As for TFC, they are by most metrics the worst team in the league right now, and most of it stems from their inability to stop, or even slow down, opposing transition moments. This outing did nothing to change that assessment.
- A towering set-piece header from one of their giant center backs.
- A Hany Mukhtar joint on the break.
And damn, you’d have been close. The first goal was, indeed, from one of their center backs off a (well-worked, straight-off-the-training-ground) set piece, but it wasn’t a towering header, it was Dave Romney poking home a left-footer from just outside the six-yard box after Walker Zimmerman’s shot had been saved off the line.
The second goal did, indeed, come on the break, but it wasn’t Mukhtar who finished it off. It was C.J. Sapong, the veteran forward picking up his third of the season.
But the larger point stands, in that this one played out the way almost everyone would’ve predicted. Nashville were in charge from the jump, never let RSL get into the game, and it was only a matter of whether or not they could bang down the door in their typical ways.
In a way, it’s very good – Nashville have a clear identity. They know who they are. But I still think it’s fair to wonder whether or not this team’s going to have the necessary firepower to push further in the postseason than they did last year.
1. And finally, we go to Austin for our Face of the Week, from this guy:
Yes, it's about his shirt. I can't decide if he's in Andrew Wiebe's head or if Wiebe's in theirs.
Anyway, the Verde started their 10-game run against the varsity segment of the schedule with a sloppy and frustrating 1-0 home loss against the visiting Galaxy, who got a 6th-minute banger from Mark Delgado and then created most of the best chances for the rest of the game (even though they were just as sloppy as Austin).
I’m not sure I feel any differently about either of these teams after this game. I am certainly, for one, still doubting Austin's ability to stay near the top of the West, as I don’t think have the firepower to really push the best teams in the league. I am, however, slowly moving toward bullishness re: their ability to hold up defensively given how good Danny Pereira’s become at d-mid. He has leveled up.
As for the Galaxy, they continue to get nothing from Efra Alvarez, Douglas Costa and Samuel Grandsir (I’m cutting Kevin Cabral a break this week since he should’ve had an assist), and so they are making things harder on themselves than they need to be.
Even so, they are 4W-1L-1D in their last six games, a stretch that includes wins over each of the top two teams in the Shield race. It says something about how far LA have come defensively that they’re taking points even when they’re leaving goals on the table.