Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Shaqiri's heating up, Zelarayan looking MVP-like, Vazquez is league's best 9 & more from Week 24

I think we just got finished with the most insane regular-season MLS weekend in league history, maybe?

It certainly felt that way when watching it, and our good friend Opta Jack’s got the numbers: The 57 goals scored on Saturday were 11 more than the previous single-day MLS record. And from 7:08 pm ET, when Yordy Reyna headed Charlotte up 1-0 inside of 30 seconds against Chicago, to 12:34 am ET on Sunday morning when Diego Chara headed his Timbers into a 1-1 draw with visiting Dallas, there were 54 goals. FIFTY. FOUR.

That works out to a goal every six minutes. Blink-and-you’ve-missed-it type stuff for five-and-a-half hours.

And yet none of that was even the highlight of the night because, folks, it took us all of four games to get the Full Chiellini:

Two things to understand here. First is that Chiellini is notorious for moments like this. The man has been the high priest of the defensive dark arts for a decade-and-a-half, so anyone who was shocked at how flagrant this was hadn’t read the scouting report.

Second is that this is correctly given as just a yellow. Giorgio knows the rulebook, folks! A deliberate handball – pretty sure this one crosses that particular threshold – is a yellow card, even if it stops a breakaway. If it had been a DOGSO (which it clearly wasn’t), then it would’ve been red.

Anyway, even with all of that, it was just an utterly hilarious and delightful moment to juuust about cap an insane weekend.

Since I don’t have any idea of how to adequately cover everything in our usual manner, I’m just going to go game by game. Let’s dive in:

Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2-1 Houston Dynamo FC

Should’ve known something was in the water this weekend when the ‘Caps, who were missing about half their starters due to health-and-safety protocols, rallied from 1-0 down with the equalizer in the 88th minute and the winner two minutes into stoppage time for the 2-1 final over visiting Houston.

This felt like a lot of the 2021 Vanni Sartini magic in that Vancouver didn’t play particularly well yet still came away with a “how the hell did they do that?” type of win. The answer, in this instance, is that they entered the #TacticsFree portion of the game and just flooded the box with numbers, which is something the Dynamo have not been able to handle at any point this season. If you have five or six targets in the box every time, including three center forwards… I mean, you’re infinitely more likely to get countered and see it end up 2-0 than you are to win a couple of scrums and all three points.

But sometimes you win those scrums, and win those three points. Doing so on Friday ended Vancouver’s five-game winless skid and kept them within touching distance of the West playoff race (they are three points below the line with a game in hand).

It feels like Houston’s season is done. They’re 1W-6L-1D in their past eight and whatever they intended with the Hector Herrera signing isn’t really working. They’ve taken just three of 15 points and have a -9 goal differential since he entered the lineup.

Atlanta United 2-1 Seattle Sounders FC

I’m going to say something somewhat controversial here: I actually liked Atlanta’s past two windows, including the recently concluded summer transfer window. Part of it is that I rate Thiago Almada (he’ll be better when they get some runners around him) and think that getting JJ Purata on loan this summer was a potential season-saver.

But the other part of it is that they kind of reversed their four-year trend of turning their noses up at proven MLS talent by bringing in guys like Ozzie Alonso and Andrew Gutman. It was just catastrophically bad luck that those two guys – and basically everyone else who’s played a meaningful MLS minute – got injured this spring.

Gutman, who went down on May 21 (Atlanta were 2W-5L-2D since then entering this weekend), was one of the best LBs in the league last year on loan with the Red Bulls. He’s been one of the best again this year when fit. He finally is again, enough for a very memorable nine-minute cameo, which produced a stunning winner:

I know we’ve seen this before with this team (late goals have been kind of a thing for them this season), but I pretty firmly believe that having guys who’ve been there before matters. Gutman’s return to the roster this weekend, and the expected return of right back Brooks Lennon in the coming weeks, bodes well for Atlanta’s playoff push.

What doesn’t is the form of Josef Martinez, and I think we’re now sadly past the point where we can ever expect Josef to be his old self again. As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data he’s second-to-last among starting center forwards in total distance covered/90 in attacking transition, which is supposed to be this team’s bread and butter, and he basically doesn’t rate at all as a defensive presence (his pressing numbers are particularly grim). And let’s be gentle and say that his top-end speed is no longer what it was, either.

It might be hard for Gonzalo Pineda to get Josef to buy into a super-sub role, but you know that final 10 minutes of this game when everybody on Atlanta was flying around, emptying the tank and getting after it? You can actually play that way from the opening whistle. You just can’t do it if this year’s version of Josef is the guy who’s leading the line.

So when I say “get some runners around Almada,” I mean “get Ronaldo Cisneros up top as the No. 9, get Caleb Wiley on the wing and actually create some off-ball penetration instead of letting everything be static.” It’s a painful decision, but it’s got to be made.

As for the Sounders, I’m not actually worried yet. All but two of their remaining games are six-pointers, and with Raul Ruidiaz getting healthy, I’ll go ahead and bet that they start turning these one-goal losses into draws and wins.

Charlotte FC 2-3 Chicago Fire FC

Our Pass of the Week goes to Xherdan Shaqiri, who’s started looking like a real No. 10 over the past few weeks, and absolutely ripped the Crown apart on Saturday:

Shaqiri picked up two more assists in this game – if you watch the clip you know he could easily have had three – which gives him 10 on the year and puts him just a bit behind the league leaders (Luciano Acosta has 13 and Carles Gil has 12). The underlying numbers are starting to agree that he’s figured out the speed of play and the rhythm of the game in MLS, as TruMedia has him 14th overall in expected assists, fractionally behind the likes of Nicolas Lodeiro and Lucas Zelarayan, and fractionally ahead of the likes of Almada and Djordje Mihailovic. Over the first few months of the season, that was not the company he was keeping.

While Shaqiri’s own improvement has been part of this surge, both in his play and in the Fire’s (they’re 6W-3L-1D in 10 games since the June international date), personnel has probably played a bigger issue. Chris Mueller, Jairo Torres and Brian Gutierrez have formed a very good wing trio, while Kacper Przybylko and Jhon Duran have both woken up in recent weeks. It’s finally all working like it was supposed to and, for the first time in what feels like a million years, Chicago’s above the line heading into the stretch run.

Give credit to head coach Ezra Hendrickson, who’s stuck with a no-frills and functional mid-block 4-2-3-1 throughout the year. “Let’s not overcomplicate things” is a good bullet-point to have for most managers.

I’m going to go ahead and agree with almost every word of Ezra’s answer to the first question in his postgame presser:

“Well, the thing with us, all year, I thought we were playing really, really good football*, but there's a bit of naivety in some of the games where we didn't close some games out, some games we were getting opportunities but we just weren't taking them, so we are a lot more effective, a lot more efficient in the final third.”

(*) Yes, that’s the part I don’t necessarily agree with.

“We are still not, you know, putting away as many chances as we should, but we are doing it enough to win, because we play very good defensively as a team,” he continued. “Even though tonight we gave up a couple of soft goals, we were able to on the road score three goals to win this game and that's not easy to do, especially in a place like this with those type of fans and that type of atmosphere.

“It's just a matter of us now not shooting ourselves in the foot, so to speak, and continuing to be consistent and take our chances when we get them.”

Charlotte, who have one of the league’s toughest remaining schedules, are coming back down to earth. Hard. They don’t really have the firepower to go out there and win high-scoring contests like this one, and really only have themselves to blame as DP Kamil Jozwiak has yet to produce a goal or assist in nearly 600 minutes, while TAM attacking midfielder Jordy Alcivar has made a habit of making decisions like this one:

Their next two games are at LAFC and at NYCFC. Things might get worse before they get better.

Columbus Crew 3-2 New York City FC

Columbus are 3W-1L-2D in their past six games, and on Saturday night they beat a team above the playoff line – in NYCFC’s case, well above the playoff line – for the first time all year. Let me explain, in one picture, what has changed:

zelarayan and cucho

Cucho Hernandez and Lucas Zelarayan do indeed seem to have that old Josef & Miggy chemistry. Cucho’s got five goals in his six appearances, and Zelarayan has assisted on four of them. Zelarayan himself has six total assists in those six games to go with four goals of his own, and is maybe working his way into the MVP discussion at least a little bit?

Whether he is or not, the combination has changed the Crew. For the first four months of the season you could rightly accuse them of being kind of plodding and, at times, passive. If you got numbers behind the ball against them, you were fine.

That’s not really the case anymore.

“They never stopped attacking, and that was a real key today,” Columbus head coach Caleb Porter said afterward. “A real point of emphasis over the past couple of days was we need to be an attacking team. We need the ball more and we can’t be a team that sits back, we need to highlight the talent that we have. And how you do that is by pressing high, and by having the ball and attacking.”

I will say that this isn’t entirely apparent in the underlying numbers yet, from either this game or from the past month in total. Even in this one they flirted with the kind of late-game meltdown that’s repeatedly crushed them this year, as they lost the xG battle and failed to generate a single shot after going up 3-2 in the 75th minute.

But this time they held on, and are now three points clear of the line with a game in hand. There’s real reason for optimism.

I’m going to beat the same “there’s reason for pessimism” drum that I’ve been beating about NYCFC for the past two months or so. This team isn’t remotely as effective since Ronny Deila left and Nick Cushing took over, and once again struggled to get pressure to the ball in their own defensive third.

Worse is that, with Taty Castellanos gone and no like-for-like replacement, they’re down to Heber as the only true center forward and, beyond that, free rein for Cushing to do mix-and-match false 9 Frankenstein stuff. That’s the choice he made for the final half-hour in Ohio, and obviously it didn’t work.

D.C. United 0-0 New York Red Bulls

D.C.'s shape under Wayne Rooney is unusual. Nominally it's a 4-3-3, but none of the three central midfielders get forward – at least not yet. Maybe that'll come with more familiarity. What happens is the fullbacks push up and the wingers pinch in, and the wider central midfielders (Ravel Morrison and Chris Durkin) sort of slide toward the flanks to protect the fullbacks.

We've seen something like this at times from the USMNT, though I can't really think of an MLS team that's done it like this.

A note here on D.C.'s personnel: Kimarni Smith, who was drafted in the top five a few years back as an attacker, played LB in this one, and I thought he looked quite promising! We've seen the winger-to-fullback shift so many times in MLS (Andy Najar says hello from the other flank), and it looks like we might be seeing it again.

Anyway, it’s more interesting to talk about all that than to talk about this game, which was… not great. Yeesh.

The Red Bulls now have just one win in five. Everybody else in the East is cannibalizing each other's points so they're safely above the line for the time being, but they've got to find their legs and work through this very, very rough patch or the season's going to go completely sideways.

FC Cincinnati 3-1 Philadelphia Union

Cincy have been the feel-good story of the year in MLS, going from perennial laughing stock to legitimate playoff contenders. Even over the past two months, as they’d won just once in 11 games, the vibes remained good and the playoffs remained within reach.

But one win in 11 games doesn’t get you there. Cincy needed to start turning some of those good performances into wins, and since mid-May, that had been beyond their reach.

And then on Saturday they uncorked the best performance in team history, one that gave them the best result in team history to go with it. After a fairly even first half, the Lions came out and just pummeled the East’s best team, as DP d-mid Obinna Nwobodo, Junior Moreno and Lucho put on a clinic in spreading Philly’s 4-4-2 diamond apart and then ripping it up. This is textbook:

The Union had conceded just 15 goals all season in large part because they don’t get spread out like that, and because they are so good at protecting entry into the half-spaces. Cincy’s central midfield, aided by left wingback Alvaro Barreal (who was AWESOME) and a good game from right wingback Alvas Powell, sliced through them like a hot knife through butter. It has been years since I’ve seen Philly look so helpless.

“Based on our home form and our opponent, I don't think I would have expected us to create as many chances against a very good defensive team as we did. I was really pleased with that,” Cincy head coach Pat Noonan said, mastering understatement in the process.

But since this is All-Star week, let’s move past Cincy’s dominant midfield to one of the most recently named All-Stars, the guy finishing that sequence off. When I tweet that “Vazquez is the best 9 in the league” I do, in fact, mean it’s because he scores classic No. 9 goals like the one above. But I also mean it’s because he’s also one of the few No. 9s who can move the chains against a backline like Philly’s, who he was able to either post up or blow past with relative ease for a huge chunk of time (I even made a Twitter thread of clips as I was watching).

As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, Vazquez:

  • Leads the league in hold-ups per game (2.6) by a mile among center forwards.
  • Plays forward or square to open the field off his hold-ups more often than any center forward in the league, save for Miami’s Leo Campana and D.C.’s Miguel Berry.
  • Is 12th among center forwards in frequency receiving the ball between the lines, and…
  • Is 3rd, behind only Brian White and Kei Kamara, in how closely center backs track him when he receives there.
  • When between the lines he completes 86% of his passes, good for 7th in the league among No. 9s.

Ok, so just a traditional target striker, right? Well…

  • 40 percent of Vazquez’s attacking runs break the opposing backline, which is the highest rate among high-volume off-ball runners in the league. Of any position, not just 9s. So he functions as both a hold-up man and a line-runner, and those aren’t decoy runs because…
  • 51 percent of Vazquez’s runs that challenge the backline are targeted by a pass, which is the highest rate in the league among No. 9s now that Taty’s moved on. That’s good for 9.9 times per game, which is second in the league overall behind only Hany Mukhtar (10.0).

Ok whew, that’s a lot. But really, how good is he with the ball once he’s on it? Well, as per TruMedia via StatsPerform, Vazquez is:

  • Leading the league in non-penalty xG (he also leads the league in non-penalty goals).
  • Fifth among No. 9s (really fourth with Taty gone) in xA.
  • Sixth overall in xGSeq – which I’ll explain in a second – and first among center forwards (again: now that Taty is gone).

xGSeq is – and I’m quoting here – “The sum of xG for any sequence in which the player was involved. So if six players touched the ball in a sequence that ended with a 0.4 xG shot, each of those six players gets 0.4xGSeq.” In other words, it measures via events data the frequency with which you’re a part of valuable build-ups that lead to shots.

You can get most of the way there, for most attackers, by just adding up npxG + xA, and given that Vazquez leads the league in npxG and is fourth among center forwards in xA, you’d think that there wouldn’t be much else to his xGSeq number… but of course, you’d be wrong. A quick look at the numbers shows that Vazquez is behind only Taty and Gonzalo Higuain among No. 9s in the other xGSeq stuff, the type of pass-before-the-pass stuff that turns a center forward into more than just a donkey, but an actual attacking hub.

Put it all together and you’ve got a guy who, by the underlying numbers, is registering the best season by any domestic attacker since Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, respectively, back in 2014. And I’m not talking pure volume here (though he’s doing that as well), I’m talking on a per-90 basis.

On top of all that he is fourth among center forwards, behind only Jesus Ferreira, Maxi Urruti and Jeremy Ebobisse, in high presses per 90, so it’s not like he’s conserving energy out there when Cincy don’t have the ball.

Anyway, 14 goals is a lot. I thought, entering this season, he could maybe end up with a dozen or so. And the charming thing is that even he’s a little shocked at, I guess, how good he’s been.

“I'm ecstatic with 14,” Vazquez said after the game. “If somebody would have told me I would have scored 14 goals a season before the season started you know, I'd be bouncing off the walls.”

Cincy fans are right there with him.

CF Montréal 2-2 Inter Miami CF

A little bit of frustration at Stade Saputo as James Pantemis – who’d been very good until this weekend – lost his mind and subsequently lost his side the lead late in this one, which they arguably should’ve put away earlier on.

There is nothing new, really, to report on their shape or their overall tactical approach, though I do think they’ve lost some of their dynamism by replacing Ismael Kone (two starts in the past five) with Samuel Piette in the XI. I understand the philosophy behind it, as 1) Kone has visibly worn down a bit over the course of the season, and 2) Piette is ultra-responsible defensively, which lets both Victor Wanyama and the recently-returned-but-still-not-himself Djordje Mihailovic takes more chances, but those burst-out-of-midfield runs from Kone had a way of unbalancing opponents and generating tap-ins.

Of course, Montréal should’ve won without that. But credit to Miami, who really do not quit even when the balance of play says they’re getting a paddlin’, and also have the skill and energy to punish you if you slip for just an instant:

A point in this game, against a team as good as Montréal, is gigantic.

Orlando City SC 0-3 New England Revolution

Those burst-out-of-midfield runs from Kone looked a lot like this:

This is a massive, massive risk from Matt Polster, who was playing as a single pivot, true d-mid in what was something of an ad hoc 4-3-3 from the Revs (they’ve mostly been playing out of a 4-2-3-1 in a double pivot since spring). Usually you don’t see lone d-mids pushing into the 18 like that, but Polster’s one of the savviest central midfielders in the league who not only reads the shape of the backline and recognizes that Orlando’s midfield has lost track of him, but he also times his run perfectly to hit that gap just as Justin Rennicks drags Antonio Carlos into no man’s land. Just beautiful soccer on and off the ball.

And a beautiful result for the Revs in a true six-pointer, one that puts them on 30 points along with the Fire, Miami and this same Orlando City side. The fact that they got it despite missing what’s likely to be their entire starting front line (none of Gustavo Bou, Dylan Borrero, Giacomo Vrioni nor Ismael Tajouri-Shradi played) on the road… look, they’ve lost only twice since CCL ended. They’ve retooled the roster to hide some of the weaknesses that killed them in last year’s playoffs and early this season, they’re deeper in midfield and more dynamic on the wings, and they’ve still got a match-winner in goal, since Djordje Petrovic has been every bit as good as Matt Turner (I’m not remotely exaggerating there).

I’m buying Revs stock. And I’m sorry, but I think I’m selling my Orlando stock. I’ve been waiting all year for them to figure it out, but they’ve now lost three straight and won once in their past eight, and Oscar Pareja sounds like he’s a man who’s out of ideas.

“A difficult night for us,” Pareja said afterward. “There aren’t many words, but to just keep the mentality to walk forward with this group. The disappointment is worse to explain as it was a difficult match. We had our chances as always, we saw that, but we couldn’t finalize, but I think it is much more than that because through the game we lost energy. The second half was painful for us and we couldn’t find a rhythm and we stopped being dangerous as well.”

Nashville SC 3-4 Toronto FC

Gary Smith, whose team has also won just once in its past eight and are sitting on a five-game winless skid, sounded more upbeat than Pareja after this one, praising his team’s chance creation and endeavor, and chalking the loss up to facing what he called “a side of immensely talented individuals.”

I won’t argue with that characterization, though I do tend towards center back Walker Zimmerman’s assessment of Nashville’s ills.

“I think some of it is a little bit unfortunate, but some is getting pressure to the ball. A lot of times we're [not quite] getting there, whether it's crosses or the edge of the box. We're somewhat getting there but not really getting there,” Zimmerman said. “It's allowing them time to either shoot or cross. If we can shut that down and close that down one step faster, it's going to help us a lot to get some more blocks in there, clearances to help us prevent some goals and staying tuned in the entire play.

“We've been stout the past two years, and certainly this year has been a little different, a little more frustrating. There are moments where I think we can be more aggressive to prevent the initial action from taking place.”

Zimmerman’s intuition is there in the numbers. As per Second Spectrum

  • In 2020 Nashville got pressure to the ball 3.5 times per opponent possession.
  • In 2021 Nashville got pressure to the ball 3.3 times per opponent possession.
  • In 2022 they’ve dropped to 3.2 times per opponent possession.

In their own defensive third – which is crucial for a team that, let’s face it, prefers to bunker-and-counter – that pressure is not only happening less frequently, but it’s been less effective

  • In 2020 their pressure led to a turnover within five seconds 47% of the time
  • In 2021 their pressure led to a turnover within five seconds 48% of the time.
  • In 2022 their pressure’s led to a turnover within five seconds just 43% of the time.

It’s not hard to figure out what’s going wrong. But with Dax McCarty looking like he’s lost a step-and-a-half, and with Anibal Godoy mostly hurt this year, it’s damn hard to fix it.

I’ve written a lot about Toronto recently so I’ll just be quick here: I think they’re going to have to continue to score three or four goals a game if they’re going to push above the playoff line, and it’ll be a hell of a lot of fun watching them try to do it.

Also, I thought this was Jayden Nelson’s best game as a pro. It’s a shame he didn’t end up in the boxscore one way or another.

Sporting Kansas City 4-2 LA Galaxy

Tour de force, legendary, first-ballot Hall of Fame Face of the Week performance from Sporting’s William Agada here:

There hasn’t been much sunshine during this season of endless rain for SKC, but Agada’s smile and performance, along with the performance of fellow newcomer Erik Thommy, broke through the clouds for at least a bit on Saturday night. The fans let him know it, giving him a standing ovation when he came off, which Agada then paid forward to his teammates.

“It’s not about me,” the Nigerian said. “It’s about the team. The guys put me in that situation. A big shout out to Daniel for the assist, Thommy, everyone. Everybody was fighting.”

If there was any fight from the Galaxy they saved it for each other in the locker room afterward. The backline was a complete mess – multiple blown offside traps, not tracking or passing runners, misplaying a simple long-ball and a too-casual backpass to top it off – and the midfield never got any pressure to Sporting at all.

I remain stunned that Greg Vanney hasn’t yet gone to a 3-5-2. It’s not a guarantee that it fixes everything (or anything), but they can’t score when they play in a 4-2-3-1, and they have zero pitch control when they play a 4-4-2, as was the case in this one.

What’s left?

Austin FC 3-3 San Jose Earthquakes

This section could be about how Sebastian Driussi is creating a little bit of separation in the MVP race, or about how Jeremy Ebobisse’s having the as-expected breakout season now that he’s finally playing as a full-time No. 9. It could be about how Austin are a little bit vulnerable if Brad Stuver regresses from his superb first four-and-a-half months, or about how bringing in a new DP winger (Emiliano Rigni) who can beat guys off the dribble has the potential to turbo-charge what is already one of the league’s best attacks.

Maybe it even should be about those things. But instead I’m going to do the fun thing and just drop in a clip of Paul Marie’s thunderbastard:

I used to have a theory that the soccer gods only allow you to strike a ball this pure once in your life, but I’ve seen Jakob Glesnes do it twice since arriving in MLS so I’ve got to update my theological understanding. Nevertheless… good lord, what a hit.

That appears to be Marie’s way of celebrating having won the starting LB spot, which I believe is his by default with Marcos Lopez off to Feyenoord.

I’m not kidding about Verde’s vulnerability if Stuver comes down to earth a bit. And with one win and eight goals conceded in their past four, well…

Colorado Rapids 4-3 Minnesota United FC

So, speaking of goalkeeper regression: From Week 1 until the June international break, Dayne St. Clair saved Minnesota 0.52 goals per game as per American Soccer Analysis’s G+ metric. To put that into context, the single-season record in their database is Matt Turner’s 0.48 from the 2019 season (Turner’s 2020 season is second at 0.42, and nobody else has had a season better than 0.35. There’s a reason I’ve repeatedly called him the best shot-stopper I’ve ever seen in this league).

Since then, St. Clair’s been at -0.15 per game. And look, G+ isn’t a perfect metric – no such thing exists – but I think it’s excellent at indicating overall team quality, and very good at indicating goalkeeper quality, and if you don’t believe the numbers, then you can go ahead and believe the highlights:

What made Turner so great isn’t that he made such spectacular saves; it’s that he consistently made all the saves a ‘keeper should make, and avoided howlers. That’s why all four of his full years in MLS, he ended up with a G+ of 0.20 or better – four straight years of just never giving up cheapies. That kind of consistency is the most important thing for any ‘keeper.

When St. Clair struggled at the start of last season he lost his job. It might be getting to that point again this season.

Irrespective of that, my wager is that Minnesota will be fine. I know it probably doesn’t feel that way after this one, but it’s their first loss since June 25 and they managed to score three goals despite the fact that they were playing without Emanuel Reynoso. The fact is that since Adrian Heath moved Bongi Hlongwane to right wing to balance Franco Fragapane on the other, Minnesota’s been rampant with or without Reynoso. With even average goalkeeping the past few weeks they’d be sitting on eight straight wins.

Colorado, meanwhile, have won three of four, and have one loss in their past six. While I think you could point to Danny Wilson getting back to full fitness and Gyasi Zardes rounding into form as two obvious reasons for the improvement, I’ll also point at the fact that Robin Fraser’s finally mostly scrapped the back five and gone to a 4-2-3-1 or, in this game, a 4-3-3. The Rapids are just better balanced and exert more control over central midfield when they play out of either of those shapes.

And they’re now just three points below the line. Somehow it’s even tighter in the West than it is in the East.

Portland Timbers 1-1 FC Dallas

I don’t know how to explain this game other than when Marvin Loria converted a penalty six minutes into second-half stoppage to give Portland a 1-0 lead, I turned off the TV, called it a night and got ready for bed.

Twenty minutes later I checked my phone one last time to look at the standings before lights out and… what the hell? I thought Portland were in fifth! Why are they in seventh?

And then I checked the scoreboard. I thought it was a glitch, so I turned ESPN+ back on and watched the end of the game and… yeah, 1-1.

Two points to make here:

  1. This was an incredible road point for Dallas, who’d really earned it, then seemed to squander it with the unfortunate (though correctly given) penalty
  2. Portland, at some point, have to figure out how to defend with the ball a bit.

Any time they get a lead they defend in their ‘keeper’s lap, which leads to tons of set pieces you have to defend, and thus is extremely dangerous. That’s especially true for a Timbers team that’s been leaning as hard on Aljaz Ivacic as Austin’s leaned on Stuver or Minnesota on St. Clair.

Even with a 10-game unbeaten run the margins for this team aren’t great – there’s a reason most of those 10 are draws rather than wins.

Real Salt Lake 1-4 LAFC

Remember 5500 words ago when I showed you that RSL were the first recipients of the Full Chiellini? Well, they also were the first to get the Full Bale:

RSL were already down 3-1 at that point, so they’d pushed their lines up, left room in behind and were taking their chances. But it turns out Gareth Bale, who has scored this goal a hundred times over the past decade, can beat both Justen Glad and xDAWG in a footrace.

LAFC’s going to keep putting teams into these no-win situations as long as they keep playing as they have been. It’s not the methodical death-by-a-thousand-passes-and-oh-yeah-the-press of the Bob Bradley years, though there is some of both of that still in this team’s DNA. It’s more that they are just ridiculously tough to break down through the midfield and don’t get rattled basically anywhere.

But then there’s the Chicho Arango factor. In the past it used to feel like every goal LAFC scored had to be either a system goal – it came directly from the press, or the inverted wingers – or it had to be a work of art. But Arango’s not like that; dude just scraps. He out-xDAWG’d RSL’s backline on both his goals, the first of which was inventive and the second of which was clinical.

I don’t think there’s any question, after the results this weekend and given the gap in the standings, who the best team in the league is. It’s getting to the point that just winning the Supporters’ Shield (which they’re going to do) won’t be enough to make this regular season a success. I think they’ve got to break the single-season points record (73) that New England set last season. I think that’s where the bar is.

Right now, at 2.22 ppg, they’re on track to do it.