The 26th MLS season is three-quarters over. Let’s dive in:
I think the New England Revolution pretty much won the Supporters’ Shield this week. On Wednesday they went to Chicago and got a late goal for a 3-2 win, and on Saturday they hosted Orlando City, got a late penalty save from Matt Turner to preserve a 2-1 win. They are on 62 points from 28 games, 14 ahead of the second-place team in the Shield race (Seattle), and … it’s finished.
If the Revs were gonna blow it, it had to start happening this week. It didn’t. The Shield is headed to Foxborough for the first time in its history, and now what's left is the question of whether or not New England have enough left in the tank to break LAFC’s two-year-old single-season points record of 72.
They’re 12-1-2 in their past 15 games. I think they’ll get there.
How did they get here, though, to a place no other Revs team has ever been? The answer is "In very typical Bruce Arena fashion." One of Bruce’s favorite ways to describe his best teams have been “your best players need to be your best players,” and while I could insert a clip of Turner saving Nani’s penalty on Saturday night, I’ll instead go with Carles Gil’s game-winner on Wednesday:
(Yes, I decided to use the Revs’ social media cut because sometimes it feels good to celebrate true artistry).
Anyway, that’s full Canadian international Tajon Buchanan, who is headed to a Champions League team on a record fee, trucking the opposing d-mid and setting up the presumptive Landon Donovan MVP Award recipient. The Fire have no answer for that. Few teams do.
When guys like Turner – who, after stoning Nani, is now 9-for-19 saving PKs in his professional career – Gil, Buchanan, Adam Buksa and (sometimes) Gustavo Bou perform like they have for most of the year, you’re going to win a lot of games. The guys the Revs have paid to be their best players have, in fact, been their best players.
Another hallmark of Bruce’s teams is that a lot of those wins have been close. His Shield/MLS Cup-winning 2011 Galaxy side, for example, took 12 of their 19 regular-season wins and then three of their four playoff outings by a single goal. For this year’s Revs, 16 of 19 wins have been by one goal.
“I couldn't really tell you why it is the way it is but again, I don't think that's an accident either,” Turner said about that number. “I think that we've been able to make enough plays in games to keep games one-goal wins. Rather than maybe in the past, those one-goal wins would turn into draws or maybe even losses. So, we've been able to sort of steady the ship after maybe a few nervy moments and get out of places with a win.”
My theory is that Turner’s played the biggest part in that number by almost never conceding soft goals, but maybe just as big has been Arena’s ability to make the right subs to either get a late win (as we saw against the Fire) or preserve a late lead (as we saw against Orlando City). He’s also done a good job of rotating players throughout the year, which has kept almost everyone fresh, and so the Revs don’t break down over the final 15 minutes of games.
On a more tactical level, the Revs are simply a whole lot of fun because of how they often choose to play out of the back. Remember the middle of this past decade when it seemed like everybody dropped their d-mid deep to split the center backs, throwing both fullbacks forward and spreading the field? That went out of vogue by about 2018, and almost nobody does it anymore.
Matt Polster’s bringing it back:
Polster’s been one of the league’s two best d-mids this year. Arena has him as the focal point of New England's press break patterns because he’s adept at receiving the ball in tight spots (look at him constantly checking his shoulder) and then breaking the first line of opposing pressure by either passing or dribbling through it. And once he does that, it turns into those semi-transition opportunities where guys like Gil, Buchanan and the rest have thrived.
If those sequences remind you a little bit of that great 2017 Toronto FC team, well, me too.
Now, the underlying numbers don’t really like the Revs as much as that legendary TFC side – New England give up A LOT of chances, many of them quite good – but given what they’ve done since the season kicked off in April, and the record they’re threatening to break, I don’t think we should be at all surprised if that’s the company they end up keeping when it’s all said and done.
Orlando City are keeping different company these days. They’ve now lost four straight, have won just twice in their past 10 and are 4-7-5 over the past three months. They’re down to fifth in the East but are only two points above the playoff line. It has gotten precarious.
I still think they’ll be fine. Daryl Dike is back, the fullbacks are back and healthy, Nani and Mauricio Pereyra have been rested and should be fresh, and – most importantly, I’d say – Jhegson Mendez is finally back. He makes a massive difference in central midfield for this team.
They’re in the toughest part of the schedule with two more tough games coming up, and Oscar Pareja has been holding things together with duct tape and popsicle sticks. But they’re almost through it and to be honest, I quite liked what I saw from them this weekend on the road against the best team in the league, which we might eventually consider to be one of the best teams in league history.
So yeah, it hasn’t been pretty for the Lions. But my money’s on “strong October, and a terrifying potential playoff opponent.”
Atlanta went to Chester on Saturday as one of the league’s hottest teams. They also did so without Josef Martinez, and while that was obviously a concern going into it, there was also the comfort of knowing that the last time they’d played without Josef, Gonzalo Pineda had opted for dual false 9s in a 3-5-2 and his side had subsequently ripped Orlando apart by 3-0.
That was only a couple of weeks ago. Jim Curtin had obviously seen the tape, because Philly battered the Five Stripes on Saturday, winning 1-0 in a game that was nowhere near as close as the scoreline indicated.
“I thought overall our best performance of the season,” Curtin said afterward. “In some ways, maybe the players were a little extra motivated just reading all the headlines this week about how good Atlanta is and certainly they are an incredible team. Very good attacking players, but we think we have a good team too. They probably got sick and tired of hearing me pump up Atlanta, too, and talking about how dangerous all their players are on the field.”
Probably, but I found it amusing that Curtin chose to frame it as “all” Atlanta players being dangerous, when in fact what defined the game was the willingness of literally every Union player being willing and able to push up and just overwhelm Atlanta, be it on the flanks or up the gut. Just watch center back Jack Elliott go!
When it wasn’t Elliott it was center back partner Jakob Glesnes, and the reason they had so much time and so little worry about pushing forward was because Atlanta’s false 9s were too busy trying to play underneath or between the lines, and nobody was stretching the field. The very nature of how Atlanta set up just constantly invited the Union forward, Elliott and Glesnes just kept pushing higher and higher and higher and higher, and then on the goal it was d-mid Jose Martinez who got on the ball, skinned two Atlanta defenders, got to the endline and got an assist.
At the same time the Union neutralized Atlanta’s wingbacks by pushing both fullbacks and both shuttlers in the diamond way, way up. Atlanta’s formation was supposed to be a 3-5-2, but it ended up being more of a 5-4-1 because the Union just constantly put so much pressure on them that they were pinned back.
Pineda was too late to adjust, and his team generated almost nothing on the day (Opta had them at 0.2 xG, which is not great!). You could see the seeds of something threatening once Jackson Conway, a true center forward, got on the field:
That run puts legitimate pressure on any backline and had been missing all day. But it really was a case of too little, too late. And it didn’t come off, anyway.
Pineda, who is an absolute breath of fresh air with his honest and introspective approach to postgame pressers, summed it up.
“I think not having Josef Martinez is not easy. He’s a top-class forward that’s important to us. But that’s not an excuse,” Pineda said. “We have to be better even without Josef. We have to create more chances and have to get better movement with the ball. We didn’t do that today. That’s it.”
Back to the Union: They have now won two straight after a fairly heartbreaking CCL elimination vs. Club America a week-and-a-half ago. I have to admit a fair bit of surprise, as the vast majority of recent CCL semifinalists out of MLS – 2020 LAFC, 2019 Sporting KC, 2018 Toronto, and 2017 FC Dallas – basically tanked in the league (the 2018 Red Bulls are the exception).
It would’ve been understandable given the still-unpatched holes in the lineup, the iffy fit and underperformance of their one big signing this year, their lone, unhappy DP, and their lack of elite quality in the final third if the Union had gone that more well-trod path toward a missed postseason.
But it hasn’t happened that way. Here’s what Curtin said after the second-leg loss to Las Aguilas:
“If we play like this – look, we can play with any team, certainly in our league, that's for sure. If we bring the energy and the effort that we had tonight, we'll be in a good spot by the end of these last 11 games,” Curtin said. “It's all in our hands. It's up to us.”
The players heard him, and have responded. Last year’s Shield champs are up to fourth in the East with a game in hand and have the wind at the backs. They won’t catch the Revs, but everything else is in play.
“I think we entertain the people once again, and at the same time, we are doing what we need to do – that’s winning our home games,” head coach Hernan Losada said, and he’s not wrong. The lopsided 3-4-2-1 they play with Andy Najar as an underlapping right center back and Julian Gressel as an advanced wingback who uses the room the threat of Najar going HAM off the dribble creates to whip in pinpoint crosses is, I think, unique in MLS history.
And to be clear, I don’t mean it’s “distinct.” I mean “unique” as in “one of a kind.” I’ve never seen an MLS team play a system at all like this, and it’s glorious. D.C., who are finally getting healthy (Paul Arriola had a brace and Edison Flores is looking more like a DP), are much better than their record indicates.
10. The Crew, after a long, miserable summer, have turned it around a bit with seven points from their past three games. That includes three points from their “win or the season ends” home match against CF Montréal this past weekend, which finished 2-1 thanks to a brace from Gyasi Zardes.
Still, Columbus aren’t creating much. Gyasi’s first was their only truly good look of the day, and this shot map tells that story:
Montréal need a little more from Joaquin Torres in the attack. The Argentine attacking midfielder has had some wonderful individual moments, but he needs to do more to knit sequences of play together and turn possession into actual danger.
9. Colorado need a little more juice these days as well. Their scoreless home draw vs. last-place Toronto was their fifth draw in six outings, a span during which they’ve managed just six goals.
They are still top three in the West on both points and points per game and remain one of the toughest teams in the league to beat – the draw ran their unbeaten streak to 11 games. But the lack of an elite goal-scorer is starting to wear them down.
8. While Colorado’s getting worn down, Portland – with their stable of high-priced, elite goal-scorers – are on their way up. They absolutely smashed RSL by 6-1 on Saturday night in Providence Park, repeatedly getting out on the break and looking every bit like the contenders most of us thought they’d be heading into 2021.
Portland are back to being set-piece bullies and counterattacking fiends. RSL, who are still just above the line in seventh place, had no answers.
7. No answers from Houston, either, after they went down 2-0 early in Minnesota. It stayed that way until the final whistle, even though Loons manager Adrian Heath was not particularly pleased with his team’s performance.
"When I look at our performances in the last month, we haven’t played that bad that many times – maybe in Kansas,” Heath said. “This might be the next worst after that."
Heath is probably right and MNUFC will certainly have to play better midweek at D.C., though given it’s a midweek cross-conference road game during a busy part of the schedule, it might make more sense to rotate heavily and go for ye olde smash-and-grab.
Houston’s mini three-game unbeaten run came to an end.
6. Meanwhile in Vancouver, FC Dallas’ minuscule playoff hopes likely came to an end with a 1-0 defeat at the ‘Caps. Dallas’ midfield was non-existent in their first post-Luchi Gonzalez outing, as they devolved into one simple pattern: CB to Facundo Quignon to CB to Justin Che for a blind, hooked pass in the general direction of Jesus Ferreira or Ricardo Pepi, asking them to chase against a five-man backline.
It was ugly, and the performance was capped by DP center forward Franco Jara having just about the worst 60 seconds a center forward can have:
It won’t matter who gets the permanent job as Luchi’s successor if Dallas’ recruitment doesn’t improve.
It wasn’t much prettier from the ‘Caps, who went out in a 3-5-2 while missing most of their starting backline and midfield, but it was tough and scrappy and the Brian White acquisition keeps paying dividends. Their recruitment, both from inside and outside the league, has been among the league’s best over the past few windows.
Dallas are 11th on 27 points. Vancouver are in ninth, three points back of RSL but with a game in hand. They’ve lost just once in over two months and have a real shot at getting and staying above the line if they keep playing as they have been.
5. Level with Vancouver on 33 points are both LAFC and San Jose following the Quakes’ fairly comfortable 2-0 home win on Saturday night. Eduardo “La Chofis” Lopez continues to go supernova for the Quakes with 1g/1a, which follows up a brace and a hat-trick in his previous two outings.
21-year-old Benji Kikanovic, a local kid the Quakes signed this offseason after he impressed in limited USL minutes last year with Reno, got the opening goal. He now has a goal and an assist in the past two Quakes games, which are the second and third starts of his MLS career. Given his physical tools – he is 6-foot-1 with elite speed – he is one worth keeping an eye on.
4. If you told me last Thursday that RBNY were getting seven points from games away to Miami followed by a home-and-home with NYCFC I’d have been pretty skeptical, but following the blowout in Fort Lauderdale, the wild midweek draw in Harrison and Saturday night’s not-quite-as-chippy 1-0 win in the Bronx, that’s exactly what happened.
A good eight days for the Red Bulls: 7 pts with 6g for & 1 against, and on the road twice. It’s still not enough – for the first time since 2009 they are not going to make the playoffs – but it’s a good response after an awful summer.
I adore their network passing graph, by the way:
That’s what happens when you only complete 58% of your pass attempts. But remember: The Red Bulls don’t care about completing passes! They want to create 50/50s, and dictate where on the field those occur, then win them. They’ve done a much better job of that over the past 270 minutes than they’ve done since like May.
NYCFC are largely headed in the other direction, now just 1-3-2 over their past six. James Sands, who has played mostly center back lately, looks worn out (he was a step slow reading the pattern on Omir Fernandez’s game-winner, which is a read Sands usually makes in his sleep), the deep-lying central midfielders have struggled, and while Taty Castellanos has been more consistent in front of net, everyone else has started to go dry.
As well as they’ve played all year, they are just three points above the playoff line. They have juuuuuust about used up their margin for error.
3. Nashville probably weren’t thrilled about Sunday afternoon’s scoreless snoozer in Chicago, but a road point is a road point, and a road shutout is a road shutout. That’s how you make the playoffs, and they did actually create a bit of distance between themselves and the chasing pack in the East.
That said, while they’re not exactly fighting for first (as mentioned, nobody’s catching the Revs), they are now behind each of the top three teams in the West on PPG. They’re one of the few teams to have beaten New England this year, so it’s not at all implausible that Nashville will make MLS Cup.
And if they do, I’m sure they’d like to host it. Got to find a way to start collecting all three out of games like Sunday’s.
Following a brief, early-August surge, the Fire are 1-6-1 in their past eight games. Andrew Wiebe promised he’d do shots of Malort if they missed the playoffs again this year, and it’s our job as a society to hold him to it.
2. Austin broke their five-game losing streak with a 2-0 win over the visiting Galaxy on Sunday night in front of yet another loud and raucous sold out crowd. Moussa Djitte, who scored his first MLS goal in his second MLS start, makes such a massive difference for this team both up top and with his hold-up play. They are fun when he's out there and absolutely will break some hearts down the stretch.
Which, obviously, is what they did to the Galaxy, who are in an honest-to-goodness tailspin here with no wins in their past seven, and just three in their past 14.
I don't see anything tactically wrong with LA. It's more just a case of the defense not quite being good enough to shut teams down, Jonathan Bond regressing to the mean after a scorching start, and the secondary attackers – Kevin Cabral especially – being unable to pick up the slack with Chicharito being a measure less productive than he had been back in the spring. It's a bad combo.
LA are still in fifth place, with a nice little five-point cushion between themselves and the chasing pack on 33 points. But the next two games (at RSL and home vs. LAFC) are massive and potentially season-defining.
The Sounders eventually won 2-1 in a game that was both spectacularly well-played – these are two of the four best teams in MLS – and defined by the home team’s uncharacteristic sloppy errors. I think Peter Vermes will be pretty steamed at that (at Zusi, in particular), but I don’t think they’re indicative of anything other than an off night. The errors are “uncharacteristic,” after all, right?
The way Seattle punished those errors was also uncharacteristic as of late and must have Brian Schmetzer breathing a sigh of relief. Seattle weren’t clinical, per se, but they were relentless when gaps presented themselves and unlike the Leagues Cup Final against Club Leon, they did eventually find that second goal. They haven’t often been able to do that over the past few months.
Seattle are now 8-2-2 on the road. That’s obviously the best away record in MLS, but get this: the Sounders’ road PPG is better than all but two teams’ (New England and D.C.) home PPG. They are having their best regular season since they won their one and only Shield in 2014, and if the Revs weren't having an all-time great season this year, Seattle would be right in the mix.