We saw D.C. United add to Toronto’s misery in spectacular fashion, while the Red Bulls picked up a statement win in Orlando. Elsewhere, Atlanta’s troubles deepened, while Cincinnati and Chicago are showing signs of a turnaround.
Here are my top takeaways from Saturday's action.
Editor's note: This column was submitted before Toronto FC announced their decision to part ways with head coach Chris Armas on Sunday.
The obvious approach when trying to summarize this 7-1 result would be to look at Toronto and once again wonder how a team that not long ago looked like one of the best in MLS, could suffer such a lopsided defeat. In actuality, the signs have been there for a while, and though the scoreline was definitely a surprise, the result wasn’t. DC deserve all the credit for what they did and I intend to give it to them. But first, for Toronto to have any hope — and hope is fading fast — of salvaging anything from this season, they’ll need to get back to basics, which means completely transforming their defensive approach.
I’m not talking about tactics or team shape as much as I’m talking about defending with pride and going that extra mile to make the last-ditch tackle. Winning teams come in many forms, but the one common thread among them is they are stingy defensively. They make the opponent work very hard for anything they hope to get. Toronto are the opposite of that right now. Teams aren’t even having to be super creative to break them down. Instead, they’re almost being invited to do whatever they want, however they want – and the result of that has been disastrous for TFC.
DC’s second, fifth and seventh goals all came from one pass that beat the entire backline, and we are not talking Kevin De Bruyne-level passes here. We are talking about simple through balls that good defenses don’t allow to happen three times in a single game. I’m not sure there’s a tactical fix for that — maybe there is — but when I watch it, I think it comes down to sticking with runners, pressing the passer, making sure your backline steps up as a unit — basically the very basics of defending. A lot needs to change before the next game for Toronto, but recapturing some pride in their individual and collective team defending would be a good place to start.
As for DC, they did what they had to do. When a team is there to be beaten, you seize the opportunity every single time. My coach, the legendary late Sigi Schmid, would always tell us: “If you are three goals better than them, then be three goals better. If you’re seven goals better, then be seven goals better.” His point was that you should never play down to your opponent because the focus should always be on maintaining your level, and if your level is significantly superior to your opponent, then let it show on the pitch.
The passing and movement was good from D.C.’s attacking core, everyone seemed to be buzzing and involved, and getting six different goal-scorers shows how well they played as a group. Hernan Losada and his staff have clearly spent a great deal of time working on the patterns and movements in the final third, because they are a team that consistently registers double-digit shot attempts. It’s now just one defeat in the Black-and-Red's last five, and while they won’t win 7-1 every week or find it so easy to play through teams like they did against Toronto, they have to take the momentum and confidence this win will give them and see if they can climb into the top two or three positions in the East.
And while I hate to pick out one standout player from such a dominant team performance, Andy Najar deserves special mention as he was simply fantastic. The right back's role on the third goal was especially breathtaking.
I played against Najar when he first burst onto the scene as a D.C. United homegrown player, and he seems to feel right at home again. He's beginning to show the special qualities I always felt could set him apart from a lot of other players who simply can’t do what he can.
The only doubts I had about this New York team was whether they could get big results away from Red Bull Arena. So far this season, every win had been in the friendly confines of their own home, and before earning this massive result, they picked up only a single point on their travels. Those doubts have largely disappeared after their hugely impressive 2-1 win against Orlando, who are clearly one of the top teams in the East.
This wasn’t a smash-and-grab win — yes they rode their luck at times, but you almost always have to on the road in MLS. They went toe-to-toe with the hosts, generated a lot of attempts (even though very few were on target) and showed great character to shake off the disappointment of being pegged back, digging deep and still finding a way to win. I’ve said it before, but there are some victories a team captures that can really define and even propel their season. This feels like that kind of win for the Red Bulls.
Those wins always have the same ingredients: they come against a good opponent in a hostile environment, you have to face some adversity and you have to beat the odds. All of those were present at Exploria Stadium. Orlando were unbeaten at home, riding a great wave of form and had only lost once this season, albeit to this same Red Bulls team. But when you factor in the formidable form of Orlando and the abysmal away form of New York, all signs pointed to a home win. That’s what makes this accomplishment for Gerhard Struber's team all the more impressive.
So how did they do it? Well, they had a couple of big players who played some big games, namely Cristian Casseres. The Venezuelan midfielder was good all night, but of course we have to focus on the goal he scored. The finish he applied was even more impressive than it looked because it can be very hard to find the correct mix of power, placement and finesse when you cut inside and try to put the ball in the far corner. He found that mix perfectly, and it was another sign of a player who appears to get better every time he steps on the pitch.
RBNY also used the press to force timely turnovers, and once the ball was won, they weren’t shy about getting numbers into the attack. Most importantly, however, is that once the attack broke down, those same numbers resumed their defensive positions really well and made Orlando have to work hard to break them down.
Now that they’ve shown they can win away from home, and win against a very good opponent, there’s no reason RBNY shouldn’t be thinking as high as the one seed. There’s a lot of season left, and if their home form remains what it is, and they win just enough on the road, they’ll be in the conversation.
Cincinnati, Chicago turning it around?
There was a time when neither of these teams could buy a win, and although they still have a long way to go before they're considered a force to be reckoned with, both can realistically entertain the idea of maybe sneaking into a playoff spot. For Chicago, their goal output in the past two games is making the difference right now — six goals to go alongside four points. Before that, they managed four goals through their first nine games.
Cincy are now unbeaten in three and all have been away from home, which makes it all the more impressive. Alvaro Barreal has scored two in his last three, Luciano Acosta is looking more and more like Acosta, and they’ve only conceded once in the last three — a big change from the chances they used to give up on a weekly basis.
What's wrong with Atlanta?
Winless in six (four draws, two defeats) and badly missing several key players, things look bleak for Gabriel Heinze’s team. Without question, the absences played a big part, but they aren't getting enough from those who are still there. At some point, a decision must be made on whether Ezequiel Barco can ever become the consistently dangerous, creative, attacking force that he was signed to be — and shown promise of being — or whether it’s better to move on from him and invest elsewhere.
On the collective side, their possession and passing are fine, but the lack of quality chances stemming from said possession is a growing concern, as is their lack of goals. Things will probably get worse before they get better — they're set to lose even more players for the Gold Cup — but ultimately it’s not about how you start, but how you finish. The hope has to be that once they're fully healthy, we will see the fruits of Heinze’s ideas — the Argentine coach insisted he won’t be changing or adapting anything philosophically. Anything short of that and the Five Stripes are in for another long season.