The season is more than 90% done. Two weeks from now the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs field will be set.
Let’s dive into Week 32:
The hottest team in the league left it late but eventually found a winner, as RBNY beat Columbus 2-1 in Ohio to basically end the Crew's slim postseason hopes, continuing Caleb Porter's bizarre streak of missing the playoffs every other year. Meanwhile the Red Bulls continued to breathe real life to their own streak, as they are now above the playoff line for the first time in months. If they stay there over the next couple of weeks it'll mark 12 straight seasons of playoff soccer, second in league history only to Seattle's current run of 13.
This is borderline inconceivable if you think back six weeks. Even just a month ago RBNY seemed all dead. The fans saw it, felt it and were cutting through the pockets for loose change:
But it turns out they were just mostly dead, and a quick trip to Miracle Max now has RBNY as hot as any team in the league. They've taken 16 of 18 points since the Viking Army posted that letter (and unfurled an accompanying banner in the stadium), and I'm willing to accept that correlation = causation here.
Loud and livid fan sentiment isn’t the only thing that’s changed for RBNY during the course of this run, though. Gerhard Struber has juggled the lineup a good bit before finally settling on a dual pivot of Sean Davis (who generally holds a little deeper) and Dru Yearwood (given license to go more box-to-box) in front of the defense, while at the same time mostly dropping the two forward look for either a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-2-1 set-up.
Those two set-ups were the story of this particular game. Despite starting both Patryk Klimala and Fabio, RBNY started the first half in a 3-4-2-1 (Fabio played in the halfspace alongside Cristian Casseres Jr., while Klimala was the true No. 9) and dominated the opening exchanges before Columbus controlled the final 25 minutes of the first half.
And then Struber switched to the 4-2-3-1 at the break and the Crew had no answer.
“We changed the shape in the second half, and this helped us, I think, in the first 20 minutes,” Struber said afterward. “Yeah, we have, I think, many things in our control. We created chances, we missed a penalty, but in the end when we go back, we change ... the shape and then I think they were completely confused in this moment and find no way against us.
“Yeah, I think the win in the end was extremely deserved.”
The big thing about RBNY’s shape change was that it prevented Columbus from having a numbers overload on the flanks -- RBNY’s 4-2-3-1 mirrored the Crew’s -- and thus limited the effectiveness of those cross-field, fullback-to-winger switches that Columbus had repeatedly rifled over the New York press in the first half. At the same time it freed up Davis and Yearwood to hunt and overrun central midfield, which is what led directly to the penalty:
Obviously that was not the entire story of the game since Klimala missed the subsequent PK and Sean Nealis would not find the winner until the 87th minute. But Struber’s not wrong about his side being in complete control as they allowed the Crew, who were in a pure desperation, must-win home game, just two shots in the second 45 minutes. On the night RBNY won the xG battle 3.2 to 0.8. That’s a paddlin’, even if the scoreline was close.
And it was not a performance this side was capable of during the summer.
“I think I can remember two or three months ago when we speak about resilience, what we need in some difficult moments. And now we realize we have completely a different mindset in difficult moments,” Struber said afterward. “I think when we get sometimes a hit in the face, now we can manage that, now we can handle that. We are not, after a mistake, confused.
“I think I have now the feeling after mistakes every single player shows the right reaction. Yeah, I think we make a big progress in this topic and the mentality, the character shows me we are ready for more.”
I don’t want to bury the lede here, so let’s just start with the highlight: Sporting KC's game-winner in their 2-1 victory at Seattle on Saturday, one that secured KC’s playoff spot, pulled them within three points of the Western Conference's top seed and officially clinched the Revs their first-ever Supporters’ Shield, is one of the greatest team goals I’ve ever seen in this league.
This, courtesy of Second Spectrum’s tactical cam, is a perfect example of using patient, methodical possession to probe a defense for weaknesses, and then of teamwide recognition and coordination of off-ball runs to turn the one crack that finally appeared into a chasm for Espinoza and Russell to run into. This is champagne football.
This was also Sporting’s only shot of the second half. They weren’t precisely hanging on for dear life out there -- as Russell said afterward, “you only need one shot” -- but it wasn’t a vintage second 45 from the visitors.
Sporting had been able to overwhelm and pin back Seattle’s wingbacks for most of the first half, which defined the opening stages of the game. But as Seattle’s midfield got on the ball, Alex Roldan and Jimmy Medranda got higher and what looked like a 5-4-1 slowly morphed into the 3-4-2-1 that has been the Rave Green’s default formation this year.
“I thought we were better in the middle of the field, winning balls off their midfield and with them playing a false forward we were able to step in to get it cleaned up and win the ball a little bit more,” Sounders midfielder Kelyn Rowe said afterward. “We did do that and win second balls. We had more space to spring guys like Cristian [Roldan], Alex Roldan, Nico Benezet, even Will [Bruin] coming to hold the ball up. I think we were better in the middle and in the backline to create ball-winning opportunities to then go forward.”
It was the “go forward” part that was the problem, though. It took until this point in the season, and they deserve a ton of credit for getting this far, but the Sounders finally seem to have hit the “one absence too many” wall. Or perhaps “two injuries too long.” Still no Nicolas Lodeiro, still no Jordan Morris, and still no Raul Ruidiaz meant that too many of those nice moments amounted to too little, and they are now staring at a three-game winless skid. They need their match-winners* back.
(*) This is where Sporting fans will point out that they were without Daniel Salloi for this game and have been without Alan Pulido for a while, which in a vacuum is fair. But now imagine being without those guys all season. That’s basically what the Sounders have done this year.
11. NYCFC finally got right, ending their six-game winless streak with a 6-0 home win over D.C. United, a record loss for the visitors. The Cityzens climbed back over the line and into fifth place with the win.
Ronny Deila made an interesting tactical choice by starting James Sands at right back and having him tuck inside as a third (or sometimes fourth) central midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, thus clearing out the whole flank for right winger Thiago Andrade. But I think the game was less about that and more about 1) a desperate NYCFC team coming out hot and finally comfortable at home in Yankee Stadium, and 2) a dispirited, injured and exhausted D.C. side not coming out at all.
"It's impossible to analyze a game that after 10 minutes you're 3-0 down,” D.C. head coach Hernan Losada told media afterward. “The game was over after 10 minutes. That's painful but that's the price you need to pay with so many missing players and injuries."
D.C., who Losada said are still expected to be without at least a half-dozen injured players this week, host the Red Bulls on Wednesday in what is a must-win game. While United wouldn’t be mathematically eliminated with a loss or, obviously, a draw, it is hard to see a reasonable path for them into the postseason if they don’t take the full three points.
10. Philly took the full three points in Chester against a heavily rotated (for some reason) Nashville SC squad, winning 1-0 thanks to a first-half Kacper Przybylko penalty. The result left both teams on 49 points, though Philly leapfrogged the visitors based on total wins, which is the first tiebreaker.
Jim Curtin had his side come out in the old AC Milan 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree, which they have not played much of. That shape allowed the Union to create wide overloads, which meant that when they played back and recycled possession…
There would be room for Jakob Glesnes or, in this case, Jack Elliott to get on the ball and stride forward past the first line of pressure and into the heart of the Nashville midfield. That’s always a risk, but you have to take risks in order to break down (or break apart) good, compact defensive teams. In this case it paid handsomely; the free kick Elliott won here subsequently led to the penalty that Przybylko converted.
I suspect this isn’t the last time we’ll see Philly in this particular shape.
I’m genuinely surprised at how heavily rotated Gary Smith’s side was. I know he wants them to be less reliant on CJ Sapong and Hany Mukhtar, but pushing them* into the fight from the start here -- and Walker Zimmerman at the back, and Dax McCarty in central midfield -- seems like it would’ve been worth it given the standings implications.
(*) Turns out I blanked on the fact that Mukhtar was out via a yellow card suspension.
Anyway, Nashville are now winless in six and have scored just three goals during that stretch. They’re at FC Cincinnati on Wednesday though, so that’s good.
9. FC Cincinnati lost 5-1 at Inter Miami on Saturday night, a record win for the hosts. Gonzalo Higuain had probably his best MLS game, bagging a goal and adding three assists in order to keep the hosts mathematically alive.
The silver lining for Cincy: Brandon Vazquez had their only goal, and now has 3g/2a over the past month. He has looked both more composed and more clever in the box.
For what it’s worth, Jozy looked fitter than I’ve seen him since 2019, and was noticeably lighter on his feet. Only some heroics from CFM ‘keeper James Pantemis kept him from getting into the scoresheet earlier.
The goal was a crushing if not necessarily fatal blow to playoff hopes of Montréal, who’ve now won just one of their past six. They go to Harrison to face the Red Bulls next weekend then have their final two games at home, which means they still control their own destiny. But they finished the weekend below the line in eighth place, staring up at teams either ahead of them on points or with a game in hand. Or both.
7. Chicago have themselves a star in 17-year-old homegrown ‘keeper Gabriel Slonina, who posted his fourth shutout in nine starts thus far in his very young career as the Fire beat visiting Real Salt Lake 1-0 in front of 31,308 fans at Soldier Field on Saturday night.
The playoff implications, though, were all for the visitors. They came out flat and slow to create any sort of danger that would put Slonina into tough spots, and on the flip side they were somehow content to let the Fire build from the back. Letting Mauricio Pineda pick his head up and dime a diagonal like this… well, you get what you deserve:
“There's all kinds of psychological variables that go into these games,” interim manager Pablo Mastroeni said in the postgame. “I just felt like we were waiting to get punched.
"If we're going to take one lesson from this game, if we want to win, we have to be the instigators to win."
RSL are in eighth place, two points below the playoff line, though they do have a game in hand on the four teams directly ahead of them.
6. One of those four are the Timbers, who lost 2-0 at the Rapids and have now followed up a four-game winning streak with a three-game losing streak. Braian Galvan sent Dom Badji a perfect alley-oop just before halftime, and then got the edge past Bill Tuiloma to set up Diego Rubio for the game’s second goal midway through the second half.
Colorado generated 14 shots; all but one was in the box. Portland, with a rotated lineup, generated eight shots. Only one came from inside the box. Not great from the Timbers.
With the win Colorado clinched a playoff spot in the West, and are actually even with Sporting on 55 points (though SKC have a game in hand), and are just three back of the Sounders. They really could top the conference!
Portland stay in fourth place despite the loss and are probably safe given how soft their remaining schedule is. But this three-game streak makes playoff qualification a dicier proposition than it looked like just a couple weeks back.
5. Minnesota United are one of the three West slides that missed a chance to jump or at least match Portland on points, struggling to a 1-1 home draw against LAFC. The Loons had damn near total control of this one, with over 70 percent possession and outshooting LAFC 18-6, but couldn’t find a late winner despite peppering Jamal Blackman's net.
They stay in sixth, while LAFC stay in ninth, three points below the line. The door is not shut, but it’s shutting.
LA, like Minnesota, squandered valuable home points against a team that’s residing below the line, though like Minnesota they can take some heart from the fact that they managed to come back and snag a result. They are now unbeaten in four and sit fifth in the West.
Still, Greg Vanney’s got some stuff to figure out and you could see him trying to work through it with his subs, first switching from a 4-2-3-1 to more of a 4-3-3 at halftime, and then eventually to a 4-4-2. I’m not sure what the best look will end up being.
3. The final West playoff team to squander a chance to climb was Vancouver, who headed to San Jose for what looked sure to be an #MLSAfterDark late Saturday night special, but what turned into a fairly gritty and hard-fought 1-1 draw.
The ‘Caps were never quite able to exploit the fact that San Jose had to start Jackson Yueill in central defense, and the Quakes, for their part, did well to capitalize on the extra bit of possession and ball security having Yueill in the middle of the backline provided. They dominated possession and were pretty consistently able to move the ball into good spots, though a lack of coordination in the box -- not surprising given the turnover in personnel we’ve seen from San Jose this season -- often prevented that possession from turning into high-quality chances.
The Quakes, remarkably, are not yet officially eliminated. Vancouver sit seventh, two points ahead of RSL (who have a game in hand), one behind Minnesota and two behind both LA and Portland.
2. Austin FC put together one of their most complete efforts of their inaugural season, outclassing the Dynamo by 2-1 on Sunday evening in Austin in a game that was not as close as the score indicated. El Verde went up early, kept the pressure on, got a second goal and avoided the types of deadly turnovers -- until second-half stoppage time, anyway -- that have plagued them all 2021. They showed, once again, that the attacking quartet of Moussa Djitte, Sebastian Driussi, Cecilio Dominguez and Diego Fagundez has significant potential (though Djitte needs a ton of work with his off-the-ball movement in the box, which is at times non-existent).
1. And the Revs celebrated their Shield win by... going down to Orlando City and breaking some hearts. Bruce Arena rotated the hell out of the squad -- Matt Turner and Andrew Farrell were the only regular starters in the XI -- and so Orlando City completely dominated the first hour, but the final 30 minutes was all Revs as they turned a 2-0 deficit into a 2-2 draw thanks to a late brace from Adam Buksa.
Arena brought all three DPs as well as left back DeJuan Jones (who was excellent) and winger Tajon Buchanan off the bench by the 65th minute, and Orlando just couldn't cope. New England's top-end talent is just the best in the league, though Turner did give up yet another "should've done better" goal when he got a hand to Nani's headed opener but couldn't push it around the post.
The Revs are now on 70 points and a win in either of their final two games will set a new single-season league record. LAFC's 72 from the 2019 campaign could soon fall.
Orlando are now on 47 points and are probably furious about it. There's good news in here for them -- Nani finally scored after a nearly three-month drought and they're three points clear of NYCFC, sitting in fourth place and riding a five-game unbeaten run. But these kinds of late breakdowns are becoming all too common, and this time Pedro Gallese wasn't able to save them.