And onwards into the summer we go. Let’s dive in:
Won’t Get Fooled Again
Orlando City came out of the gates this year scuffling along in attack but just strangling teams to death defensively. It was good enough to keep them near the top of the Eastern Conference while Oscar Pareja figured out both the depth chart — they haven’t had their first-choice XI even once this season, which means Pareja’s been busy juggling lineups — and their best tactical approach. Papi has done this before, and it was no real surprise to see him do it again.
Pareja’s still juggling but now, on the other side of the Nations League break, the Lions are roasting teams and not having to rely upon their defense to do it. Friday’s come-from-behind 2-1 win at Inter Miami completed a nine-point week in which Orlando scored 10 goals. They had six different goalscorers, including the returned (for now) Daryl Dike and the reinvigorated Chris Mueller, not to mention guys who have proved to be valuable depth pieces like Tesho Akindele and Benji Michel.
At the center of it all has been Nani. The 34-year-old Portuguese had the game-tying assist and the game-winning goal in Fort Lauderdale, and while that type of productivity is commensurate with what can be expected from a high-level DP, it’s the way he did it that stood out. Because Nani, who basically had a month off after the multi-game suspension he served in the second half of May, sure looks like he put the downtime to good use:
That first highlight is Nani riding the offside line to get behind Miami’s defense in the 73rd minute of a steamy South Florida night. The second clip is of him inverted on the left, still with enough legs to drive at an exhausted defense and scorch home the game-winner in the 80th minute. This was despite having already logged 71 minutes midweek and 90 minutes the previous weekend.
He looked fresh. He looked damn near unstoppable, and his boxscore numbers — 6g/3a in just 675 minutes so far this year — tell that same story. The general feeling is that as long as Nani is playing like this and as long as he and Dike (or a Dike-level replacement, should Dike be sold) are in the XI, Orlando City are among the league’s apex predators. That feeling is not wrong even if this week’s wins came against bottom-feeders.
But here is the warning: We have seen Nani look like this before. And now we have two seasons' worth of data that says it’s hard to get him to maintain this level through the end of the season.
In 2019 he recorded 8g/8a in 19 games to start the year, then produced just 4g/2a in the final 14 games — roughly 40% of the season — as the Lions crashed out of the playoff picture and the US Open Cup (they won just two of those 14 outings). The underlying numbers matched: He recorded 0.7 expected goals + assists per 96 before August 1 as per our friends at AmericanSoccerAnalysis, while that dropped to just 0.5 xG+xA/96 afterward.
Damn near the exact same thing happened in 2020. He posted 6g/5a in his first 14 games across all competitions last year, including seven magnificent outings at the MLS is Back Tournament. Then he disappeared, producing just 3g/0a in his final 11 appearances — again running out of juice with roughly 40% of the season left. Orlando City, who’d been perched near the top of the standings, won just three of those 11 as they fell out of Supporters’ Shield contention.
Second Spectrum’s tracking data tells the same story the boxscore numbers do. Nani’s key passes fell off a cliff, dropping 35% over the final 11 games of 2020. There was also a 16% dip in forward passes attempted per 90, a 20% decrease in defenders bypassed on completed passes, and a 13% decrease in completed forward passes per 90. He was getting less of the ball and making less use of it than he had in the summer.
He was out of gas.
The real smoking gun, though, was in his dribbling. Nani, when healthy and fresh, is a wizard, one of the best in the league at eliminating defenders off the dribble and leaving them in the dust. Nani, when spent, is a turnover machine.
Per Second Spectrum’s data, Nani experienced a huge dropoff in dribbling success rate from 87% over the first 14 games to 60% in the last 11. This was despite the fact that Orlando were playing on the counter much more often down the stretch, and playing on the counter usually leads to a higher dribble success rate. He just didn’t have the legs to do it. He couldn’t make the kinds of plays we saw on Friday night.
Nani has been special — he has “magic,” as Pareja said after the win over Miami. But he’s an older player whose minutes clearly need to be managed if he’s going to deliver during the most crucial time of year. That’s something he really hasn’t done in either of his first two seasons in central Florida.
The effect on Orlando City’s teamwide success is once again in the numbers. In the first 60% of the past two seasons combined, they are 18-12-10 (1.6 ppg) with a +16 goal differential. In the final 40% of the past two seasons combined, they are 6-10-11 (1.07 ppg) with a -8 goal differential. That’s a gigantic drop-off.
Nani’s stretch-run struggles are not the only reason why, but they are probably the biggest reason why, and Pareja knows as much. He talked about it to the Orlando Sentinel’s Julia Poe earlier this year.
“We will pace him out,” Pareja said of managing Nani’s minutes, as well as those of frequently injured DP No. 10 Mauricio Pereyra, before name-checking strength & conditioning coach Fabian Bazan.
“Fabian’s job with Nani, with Mauro, with players who have already 20 seasons on their shoulders, 15 seasons for sure ... is sometimes we need to pace them,” Pareja said. “We try to do a better job just to keep players fresher.”
It is essential that they do so. Orlando City look like apex predators now, well-rested and feasting upon the likes of Miami, San Jose and Toronto. But we know that if minutes aren’t managed we’ll see a different Nani — and thus a different, lesser team — this autumn.
And that means it’ll be another tale of two seasons for the Lions, one with the ever-so-familiar unhappy ending.
I Can’t Explain
Sullivan, who only just turned 17 last month, is the latest in a long line of Union homegrowns to play meaningful minutes. “He’s got that IQ where he’s very coachable, he learns quickly and takes information well,” Curtin said on the Union website earlier this week. “The kid’s going to have a very long professional career, and then it’ll be a matter of, is it going to be an amazing All-Star-level MLS career, or is it going to be a career in Europe?”
On a long enough timeline, I think what the Union are doing with their academy — both producing Champions League-caliber players and competing at the top of the league — is going to change the way MLS as a whole does business for the better, both for the league and for the US and Canadian national teams.
But anyway, let's talk tactics because I think Chicago head coach Raphael Wicky did something a little bit clever to give his cellar-dwellers something of a chance against the Union: he changed his team’s shape to a 3-5-2 for the first time since MLS is Back last summer.
The idea behind playing with wingbacks against a diamond is to stretch that diamond out, and it worked pretty well — Chicago were probably the better team on the day, and the first goal quite literally came from the positioning of left wingback Miguel Navarro:
Navarro’s got chalk on his boots and he’s positioned higher than an overlapping fullback would be when playing out of a back four. That means he was ready to take the space as soon as Philly right back Alvas Powell committed to stopping the ball instead of shading the run.
Back in May I wrote about how NYCFC’s Ronny Deila used a 3-5-2 to shatter the Philly diamond, and Wicky clearly took a page from that book. It was a good choice.
It also was not enough to get a win, though. Through one lens Chicago got that own golazo, scored off of two set pieces and came back from 2-1 down to get the point. Through another, they conceded two set-piece goals and an own goal themselves, and squandered both 1-0 and 3-2 leads.
Wicky, whose team had scored just four goals on the year entering this game, is using that first lens.
“We have to take the positive from this, we have to analyze what we have to do better and then keep working and keep trying to do the similar things, taking the positive out of it,” he said afterward. “That's all we can do.”
I do want to say this for Chicago: It’s a very “sports talk radio” way of viewing the game, but they were willing to go out there and fight all the way to the end for Wicky, a coach who is very clearly under pressure right now.
A few more things to ponder…
11. The first step on the road to becoming a good team is beating the, uh, not good teams, and that’s what FC Cincinnati have started to do with a 1-0 win at Chicago on Wednesday and then a fairly assured 2-0 win “at” Toronto on Saturday evening.
While there’s a lot to be said for the play of many of the newcomers — I’m particularly fond of winger Isaac Atanga — I think the single biggest change of the past month has been the play of central midfielder Allan Cruz. He has been engaged and disruptive, and while he’s not the type of player to control a game himself, he is the type who will fight for control of the game.
The knock-on effect of that is more of the ball for Lucho Acosta, who quite easily had his best performance of the year vs. the Reds. In order for Acosta to be worth it as a DP-caliber investment, Cruz has to keep playing like this.
There are no silver linings to be found for TFC, who have won just once in 10 outings this regular season and are conceding a league-worst two goals per game.
10. Pass of the Week to young Gianluca Busio, who was instrumental in Sporting KC’s come-from-behind 2-1 win over visiting LAFC. Busio’s best attribute as a player right now is his ability to take an extra touch while driving at the defense in order to commit defenders. He forces them inside then is so, so good at sliding a pass wide on what is more or less the half-beat. He operates on just a slightly different tempo than the defense, and Second Spectrum’s tactical cam gives us a good look:
It’s aesthetically wonderful and it’s also effective. Busio’s ability to manipulate defenders like this before he actually plays the pass led to the red card on Tristan Blackmon and gave Daniel Salloi enough room to whip in the cross that led to the equalizer.
Enjoy him while you’ve got him, Sporting fans.
LAFC have dropped 12 points from winning positions already this year. I think there’s going to be a dose of summer window roster surgery incoming.
9. Houston goalkeeper Marko Maric should be in the Team of the Week discussion following his heroics in the Dynamo’s 1-1 draw at RSL. The hosts were dominant in the air — especially coming down the right — but Maric repeatedly bailed Houston out, and that gave them the chance to grind out yet another result courtesy of yet another bit of Maxi Urruti opportunism.
Tab Ramos has been reluctant to use Darwin Quintero, but the Colombian playmaker came off the bench and nearly won the game for the Dynamo in the dying minutes when he slipped Ari Lassiter through. I think there’s a strong argument for Ramos to start using Quintero in the Ilsinho role.
As for RSL, their subs … did not help. And they’ve now got just one win in their last seven despite five of those games coming at home.
8. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Nashville, at home, control play, can’t break through and concede a semi-soft goal. Then they throw the kitchen sink at it and eventually find a late equalizer to salvage a point.
Such was the story in Saturday’s 1-1 draw against CF Montréal, who were very game with a heavily rotated squad. Wilfried Nancy dared Nashville to beat them by crossing the ball a ton, and Nashville obliged, bending in 28 on the day.
That’s a low-value proposition, and it was the right tactical choice from Nancy even if Abu Danladi’s late equalizer did, in fact, come off a cross (albeit a cross from a very good spot after Romell Quioto was waaaaaay too weak with his hold-up play and coughed it up).
Nashville are fourth in the East but that’s something of a mirage as seven of their 10 games have come at home (3-0-4), and just two of the 10 have come against teams above the playoff line. Things are about to get tougher, and that looks like it’s going to be a big problem.
7. Vancouver became the first team to breach Seattle’s previously impregnable open-play defense, going down to Lumen Field and coming away with a 2-2 draw (that was heavy on the gamesmanship over the final 20 minutes).
This was the first time all year where the absences of Nico Lodeiro and Stefan Frei were telling for Seattle. Stefan Cleveland had been very good in Frei’s absence, but did not cover himself in glory on Cristian Dajome’s equalizer early in the second half, and probably could’ve done better on Lucas Cavallini’s go-ahead goal (though that one was much more on the backline).
Vancouver packed it in once they got the lead, and then especially once they were clinging to a point. Cristian Roldan, playing as a central winger in place of Lodeiro, has been great at creating transition moments and overloads, but he is not one to pick the locks of a bunkered-in defense.
So for the Sounders, there was just no one in the middle to make that magic pass to unlock the 'Caps. Instead, they were relegated to moving the ball side to side and crossing off of overloads on the wings.
They are still unbeaten in 11 and top of the Supporters’ Shield race, but the gap — in terms of form if not necessarily in PPG — is narrowing.
6. Of course it didn’t narrow as much as it could’ve, thanks largely to a command performance from 18-year-old FC Dallas homegrown striker Ricardo Pepi, who registered his first MLS brace in a 2-1 win over visiting New England.
My favorite moment from Pepi, though, wasn’t one of the goals. Both of those came from him finding space in behind and finishing ruthlessly, something he’s always been good at. What he hasn’t always been good at is finding space in the box for one-touch finishes.
He didn’t stick this one in the net but this is the type of poacher’s movement that will take the kid to another level:
He now has seven goals in about 950 minutes of MLS action — regular-season and playoffs — across the past three years, including four in 381 minutes this season. He has started each of the past three games and it is pretty hard to imagine he has not earned an even longer run.
Dallas badly needed this win, which put them on 10 points from 10 games. That is not good, and not at all, I’m sure, where they expected to be. But it is also just three points below the playoff line.
The Revs, who lost for just the second time this year and saw their five-game winning streak end, looked exhausted. Even with Dallas giving them the ball for the final 20 minutes, they couldn’t do much with it.
I don’t think it’s anything to really worry about in the long-term beyond Bruce Arena maybe trying to figure out how to get Carles Gil a little more rest.
5. The best-played game of the weekend was probably Minnesota United’s 1-0 win at Portland on Saturday night. The Loons got a picture-perfect goal whose genesis was on the foot of playmaker Bebelo Reynoso (who is starting to look more like he did late last year) and then were constantly dangerous in transition.
Portland, meanwhile, repeatedly used the ball to break down Minnesota’s midfield and defense to carve out high-level chances that they just couldn’t finish. Jeremy Ebobisse, in particular, will probably want to burn the film of this one.
Unfortunately, the game was marred by an alleged incident of racial abuse.
"We are all in support of Diego Chara. What happened to him today, the discriminatory word that was said to him, should not have a place anywhere," Portland head coach Gio Savarese said to open his press conference after the game.
4. The short-handed Red Bulls went down to Atlanta and kept the Five Stripes — who are also short-handed, to be fair — almost completely out of the highest-leverage spots on the pitch. Here’s the map of Atlanta’s completed passes:
I don’t think you needed the visual aid to figure out where RBNY did a particularly good job of bossing the hosts, but I provided one for you anyway because graphic design is my passion.
3. Austin are who we thought they were: a team committed to playing pretty, stylish soccer but one that lacks a goal-scoring edge. Such was the case in their scoreless home draw against the Crew on Sunday night.
"We do need a striker,” head coach Josh Woff said before Sunday's game. “We don't have a striker."
He’s not wrong.
Columbus are not yet who we thought they were, or who we thought they’d become after last year’s dominant MLS Cup win. They were shut out for the sixth time in their 10 outings thus far in 2021, and have scored just nine goals. They are down near or at the bottom of the table for all the advanced metrics with regard to attacking play as well.
Maybe that changes with Milton Valenzuela and Kevin Molino back, but that knife cuts both ways, as putting those two guys on the left side will invite whoever they happen to be playing against forward. Austin lacked the final-third quality to take advantage of it. A better team, though?
It could’ve gotten ugly in the first half.
2. NYCFC have spent the year playing largely excellent soccer and getting largely less-than-excellent results for a variety of reasons: injuries, iffy finishing, regular variance and a healthy dose of bad luck.
Throughout it all my take on the Cityzens was this: be patient. The injured players will come back, luck will eventually even out and the $20 million (or more) of South American attacking reinforcements will probably make a positive difference.
And that brings us to Sunday against visiting D.C. in the sixth borough of Harrison. NYCFC actually played kind of lousy — the second time this year they’ve struggled against D.C., it should be noted — but first got a bit of luck and then got a whole lot of help from one of those reinforcements, as Thiago Andrade raced the length of the field deep into second-half stoppage time for the game-winner in a come-from-behind 2-1 final over the visitors.
This is pretty much it. “Play really good soccer with most of your best players healthy and available” is a fantastic blueprint for picking up points, and I’ll be genuinely shocked if that’s not what NYCFC continue to do. They’re fourth in the East right now, and to me that feels like the floor for this group (especially if Thiago is as good as he’s looked so far, and to be clear that is very, very good).
D.C. are worth paying attention to, by the way. They’ve now played NYCFC, Philly, Orlando, Columbus and New England close, but just don’t have the firepower to beat those teams yet. But with players getting healthy and Hernan Losada’s system starting to lock in, it feels like they’re much closer to that top tier in the conference than people realize.
Nothing is working for the Quakes. They had 60% possession and completed damn near 90% of their passes, but only rarely were they able to turn that into quality chances. The Galaxy, meanwhile, were breaking as a team any time there was the sniff of a transition opportunity and got all three goals — two of them from Chicharito, who’s now up to 10 on the year — that way.
Almeyda, as per SB Nation’s Alicia Rodriguez, reiterated “his commitment to remaining Earthquakes head coach,” saying that he’ll “continue to fight to turn things around for the team” as long as he stays employed.
I will say the same thing for Almeyda that I did for Wicky: the players clearly fight for him. I just don’t think they have the horses, and Almeyda’s man-marking tactics and handling of the roster — dead-tired players can’t win their individual duels — have only seemed to exacerbate the weekly talent differential the Quakes have to surmount.