The penultimate weekend of the regular season means we're changing the format a little bit, and placing equal emphasis on the games with playoff implications. Also, don't forget there's Monday night f̶o̶o̶t̶b̶a̶l̶l̶ soccer this week! The Sounders host the Galaxy (10 pm ET; TUDN, Twitter) in what is the final game of what we're considering to be a long weekend. Or the first game of the final week of the regular season, if you prefer.
In we go:
Inter Miami 1-3 NYCFC: And just like that NYCFC have ended their crisis. A week ago they were winless in six and had just one win in 10, had sunk below the line and seemed on course to miss the playoffs for the first time since their expansion season way back in 2015. Things were grim.
Then things got way less grim. Over the span of eight days they took nine points from three games, outscoring opponents 10-1 and officially qualifying for the playoffs for the sixth straight year. They are up to fourth in the East, once again looking like the team that their underlying numbers have said they are all season long.
I don’t want to chalk it all up to one thing, but Ronny Deila’s decision to revert back to the 4-2-3-1 sure seems like the catalyst for this resurrection. The familiar, straight-forward formation has NYCFC’s attackers moving more often and with more conviction – as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, the number of off-ball attacking runs per possession have climbed back up after slowly trending downward since June – which has opened up attacking windows that had snapped shut by mid-September.
This, specifically, is the type of window that would not exist without coordinated off-ball movement. This is the type of goal that NYCFC had not been scoring for months.
The grain of salt here is that it came against an Inter Miami side that have lost eight of their past 10. So while NYCFC have looked good this week, bear in mind that their 270 dominant minutes came against three teams that won’t make the playoffs.
D.C. United 1-3 Columbus Crew: Yes, D.C. fans, I’m sorry to say I’m including your team in that same group with Miami and Chicago (who NYCFC had beaten midweek). Hernan Losada has gotten his team to empty their tanks time and again throughout the year, and they have in large part played exciting, attacking, high-energy soccer. It pulled them above the line by mid-summer and kept them there through September.
They have come crashing down to earth in October, however, going just 1-4-1 and dropping below the line. This eight-day stretch was a study in just how spent United are, as they got trucked 6-0 last weekend by NYCFC, then threw everything they had at the Red Bulls in a gutsy “three points or the season’s over” 1-0 win midweek, and then had nothing left to throw at the Crew after the first half-hour this weekend in another “win or the season’s over” contest.
"It is disappointing because I think this group deserves more, based on all the expected goals, chances we create – we should have a lot more goals than we already have based on all the effort and the mental toughness that this group have showed every single game," Losada said afterward, and to a degree he’s not wrong.
At the same time, though, D.C. were always going to be fighting an uphill battle this year based on raw talent, and the grade of that hill has steepened over the past six weeks as more and more of D.C.’s best players went down with various soft tissue injuries. Edison Flores, for example, has made just one start since August and hasn’t played in a month. Kevin Paredes limped off in the first half against the Red Bulls on Wednesday. Yordy Reyna, against the Crew, returned to the gameday squad for the first time in six games and got on the field only for the final 30 minutes. That’s not ideal for a playoff push.
Talent, of course, can win you a lot of games, and it won two for the Crew this past week. It is simple calculus: Lucas Zelarayan is playing his best soccer of the year, and so, therefore, are Columbus.
Both teams finished the weekend on 44 points, both have one game left (at Toronto for D.C.. while the Crew host Chicago) and both still have a mathematical chance to make the playoffs. But the two teams directly ahead of them have a game in hand, as does the one directly behind them, so it’d take something of a miracle for either D.C. or Columbus to punch their way into the postseason.
New York Red Bulls 1-0 CF Montréal: RBNY may have used up their allotment of miracles over the past week. First, last weekend, it was Sean Nealis with an 87th-minute winner over the Crew. This time around Fabio left it even later, pinballing home Caden Clark’s cushioned header in second-half stoppage time for the game’s only goal.
This is RBNY’s version of jogo bonito:
To any Red Bull side, this is beautiful. The type of 50/50 that makes this play possible – where Patryk Klimala outbattles Rudy Camacho to control a long ball into the attacking third – is what all Red Bulls live for. It’s the essence of Energy Drink Soccer, the bet that if you impose enough of those 50/50s onto the opponents you’ll win enough to, eventually, find yourself a one-touch finish from inside the six-yard box.
RBNY have been forcing and winning more of those 50/50s since mid-September as per Second Spectrum, and while it hasn’t exactly paid with a deluge of goals, it has certainly paid with control of where on the field the game is played* and the nature of the game itself. In this instance, New York just set up shop in Montréal’s half in the second 45 and basically never let the guests string more than two passes together.
(*) You don’t need possession to dominate field position!
So even though it took another last-second miracle goal to get the three points, I’d argue that the Red Bulls earned their miracle by being clear-eyed about their gameplan and then just relentlessly hammering away at Montréal with it. It’s exactly what they’d done last weekend to the Crew, and with similar results.
Montréal aren’t quite dead yet. They’re in 10th place on 43 points, but finish with two home games, first against Houston on Wednesday and then vs. Orlando City on Decision Day. Win both and they’re in!
Atlanta United 1-1 Toronto FC: The Five Stripes could’ve been popping bottles this weekend. Should’ve, really, as they hosted a TFC side that 1) had already been eliminated, and 2) presented one of the league’s worst transition defenses for the hosts to attack.
And the hosts did, in fact, attack it. Repeatedly, and to the point that they should’ve walked into halftime up 2-0 or more. Single-game xG is always dicey, but in this case both the totals and the race chart itself paint an accurate picture of how the match played out:
You can see what the final act was: after being dominated for the entire game but somehow conceding just once, TFC converted their only truly good chance. 1-1 final.
“How do you close out the game in a better way? I think scoring goals is the best way,” Atlanta head coach Gonzalo Pineda said in his postgame press conference, during which much of the talk focused on his team’s propensity for conceding late. “When we are not able to do that because we are just not clinical, it is really hard. Today we created many chances, but it wasn’t a typical day for our forwards to miss so many chances.”
While he’s mostly right – Josef Martinez and Luiz Araujo weren’t quite themselves in the final third, and Marcelino Moreno showed a hint of the selfishness that had mostly disappeared since Pineda took over – I’d argue that it was a typical day for Ezequiel Barco. The DP attacker was not solely at fault by any stretch, but even as Pineda made the decision to sacrifice some midfield control for more transition moments, Barco repeatedly made the decision to smother those moments in the crib. His propensity for slowing down every breakaway, for always cutting back into traffic on his right foot, for always taking too many touches and for rarely playing an early ball? Those have not disappeared. To the contrary, after Saturday’s performance it seems they’re stronger than ever.
And so that xG chart, if anything, undersells Atlanta’s dominance because it only reflects the attacking movements that finished with a shot. There were three or four others that Barco just murdered despite being in the open field against a scrambling backline.
It was brutal, especially against the super young right side of Toronto’s defense, which was composed of 17-year-old wingback Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, a converted winger, and 20-year-old right center back Julian Dunn, who was making his first appearance since 2018 and just his second MLS start ever.
Atlanta have two games left, both on the road. Wednesday’s is, as mentioned, against the Red Bulls in Harrison – so yes, the team that’s been scoring tons of late back-breakers is hosting the team that’s been conceding a bunch of the same. Then they’re at FC Cincinnati to close out the season. Win either and they’re in.
Orlando City 1-1 Nashville SC: I will let Oscar Pareja have the floor:
"It's a very sad day for the league,” Pareja said after a controversial VAR decision wiped out what would’ve been a late winner from Andres Perea, who’d bundled home Alexandre Pato’s free kick after it rebounded off the crossbar. “There is no explanation on a play that we saw evident. And it destroyed the joy of our people ... Allow me not to say more. I will have to talk about the game, which is obviously what brought us here. But it is incredible what happened tonight."
And now I will let Gary Smith have the floor:
"We can huff and puff and blow and say whatever we want but the final goal was a foul," he said.
If you want to dive into it further, that’s what Instant Replay is for.
The game itself had the physicality, choppiness and chippiness of a playoff match. Neither of these sides have been playing anything close to the type of soccer that they’re capable of recently, and when you get two teams in a rut like that this close to the playoffs, ultra-physical wars of attrition will ensue.
Here is the problem in a nutshell for Orlando:
There is little attacking cohesion among the preferred front three of Nani, Daryl Dike and Chris Mueller. Those three guys actually combined to create the Orlando goal, but that was very much the exception to the rule, and has been. Both wingers are always flaring wide and demanding the ball rather than getting into the box on a secondary or tertiary, potentially goal-scoring run.
So that leaves it up to either the No. 10, Mauricio Pereyra, or the No. 8, Junior Urso, to get into the box and attack the space that Dike creates with his gravity. Those guys have combined for just five goals all season, so it’s not going great.
Of course, Nashville are good at tracking those types of runs and preventing teams from getting possession in spots to feed those types of runs in the first place. They have played some very good soccer this year – there is a reason they’re third in the East and have lost just four times – but “wear ‘em out and wait ‘em out without the ball” is still very much a part of who they are, especially when on the road.
That road odyssey has taken its toll, though, as they’ve gone just 1-1-6 since mid-September and, as mentioned, they’re not playing their best soccer right now. They finish with a home game against the Red Bulls next weekend, with playoff seeding (Nashville could climb as high as second or drop as low as fifth depending upon how things go this week) on the line.
It’s much dicier for Orlando. They’ve got just one game left, at Montréal, and there’s a pretty decent chance the Lions will need to take a result out of that game to get into the postseason.
Philadelphia Union 2-0 FC Cincinnati: The Union made sure it wasn't dramatic, getting their first goal in the 11th minute and the second just on the other side of halftime as they just cruised against Cincy, as expected.
Daniel Gazdag scored the first goal, and also got himself Face of the Week after almost grabbing a second:
Yes, Jack McGlynn is exactly that Mesut Ozil-ish with his playmaking.
Philly finished the weekend second in the East and are all-but-guaranteed to have at least one home playoff game. They end their regular-season slate next weekend at Yankee Stadium against NYCFC, though, and if the Cityzens win that one, they will leap the Union in the standings.
RSL 3-4 San Jose Earthquakes: For 40 minutes, this was the game:
Yes, you’re seeing that correctly, and yes, it means what you think it means: San Jose finally reverted back to the full-on man-marking that Matias Almeyda had mostly scrapped by early summer. So RSL had acres, which they used to turn into one transition chance after another.
But they couldn’t turn that into one goal after another. Instead, what happened is that RSL developed what might be a terminal case of QuakesBrain. It was like the game got so wide open in one direction that they were compelled to make it wide open in the other direction. That’s how you give up goals like this pretty magnificent solo effort from Cade Cowell:
RSL were pushing so hard for their second that they lost every bit of cohesion and shape and started conceding goals of every sort, eventually falling behind 4-1 before a late rally to make the scoreline respectable. It was wild, and it became the type of game that the Quakes have loved under Almeyda.
“It was a very emotional game and at times when emotion takes over it overrides reason. We were trying to get back into the game, but we lost a little bit of discipline in that second half,” RSL head coach Pablo Mastroeni offered in the postgame presser in a clear attempt to master understatement.
“It was a very up and down game. We played with some of our best stuff and as well as our worst stuff against a team that always makes it difficult with their style of play.”
For what it’s worth this is the second straight time in this series that the visitors have won 4-3, as RSL pulled it off in San Jose back in mid-September. It’s been a wild 2021 between these teams.
Minnesota United 2-1 Sporting KC: The reason RSL sank down below the line is that Minnesota came out at home on Sunday afternoon and took care of business against first-place Sporting.
The Loons did make it more interesting than they wanted it to be, as they conceded in the eighth minute and had to dig out of a 1-0 hole. But it took them just 12 minutes to equalize, and just 20 more to find the eventual game-winner minutes before the half.
Minnesota deserved that and, truth be told, they made Sporting look ordinary. The visitors were out-possessed 54% to 46%, were outshot 15-4 and only put one of those shots on target over the game’s final 80 minutes.
But what was really impressive about Minnesota’s performance – or concerning, if you’re approaching it from a Sporting point of view – was how easily they played through the first two lines of Sporting’s pressure and were able to keep their shape in possession without being disrupted. You can get a feel for it from their almost incomprehensibly symmetrical 4-2-3-1 via the network passing graph:
This is not the network graph of a team that was the least bit bothered in possession. Minnesota cut through KC just as they did last year in the playoffs. They just didn’t finish as well.
It might’ve been a Pyrrhic victory, though. The Loons have only one game left while all the teams chasing them have two, and that game (at the Galaxy next Sunday) is definitely going to happen without Ozzie Alonso, who will be serving a suspension for yellow card accumulation, and might happen without Emanuel Reynoso, who was scythed down by Amadou Dia late and had to be subbed off.
Early reports are that Reynoso was not seriously hurt, but keep an eye on this. It was a gruesome challenge that head coach Adrian Heath was right to be steamed about.
Anyway, if Minnesota win, they’re in. A loss or draw, though, and they need some help.
Houston Dynamo 0-1 Colorado Rapids: The Rapids have been maybe the best team in the league, outside of New England, at going out there and just grinding out a result. That’s certainly what they did in this one, an ugly affair in which the teams combined for 0.9 xG between the two of them.
There’s no decision for Junqua to make if Kaye doesn’t make that run – he can just stay on Badji’s hip. And if Junqua’s on Badji’s hip, there’s no room for Badji to turn and shoot, which means there’s no goal.
If you just keep getting stuff like that right, you make it more and more likely that your team’s going to win. Colorado have won a lot this year.
FC Dallas 2-1 Austin FC: The only game of the weekend with no playoff implications produced a surprisingly intense and hard-fought affair on Saturday night, with much-maligned Dallas DP striker Franco Jara getting a late winner for the hosts. Jara is finally getting a little bit hot, and has 3g/1a in his past four games even as the book has basically closed on Dallas’s season.