armchair-aug28-1

Juuuust over a month left in the regular season. I’m starting to collect GIFs for my “What 2022 meant for your club” season-ending magnum opus. The end is nigh.

In we go:

Make You Better

Gio Savarese did something I wasn’t expecting in Friday night’s Cascadia rivalry match at Providence Park in Portland, one absolutely laden with playoff implications. Savarese is perhaps the league’s foremost adherent of the 4-2-3-1 (outside of the Twin Cities), a formation he’s trotted his Timbers out in for about 90% of his side’s matches since taking over in 2018. I’d say 9% of the rest were a 4-3-3, and in big games, most managers tend to roll with their default lineup/formation tactical approach.

But not Savarese; not this weekend, anyway. Instead of a low-block, counterattacking 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, Savarese rummaged around into that final 1% and had his side come out in a 3-4-2-1. What’s more, he had them committed to using the ball and pressing the Sounders.

I was not the only one who wasn’t expecting this, as Seattle looked unready for Savarese’s tactical curveball (which, to be fair, he'd already tossed a couple other times this summer). Yeah, the Sounders did jump out to an early lead, but they were subsequently dominated for the next 80 minutes as the Timbers rolled to a 2-1 win that secured a Cascadia Cup triumph and, honestly, flattered the rave green guests. Portland finished the weekend on 36 points, eighth place in the absolutely brutal West playoff race (though almost everyone around them has at least one game in hand – they needed this win real, real bad).

“You always think about what happened if this doesn’t work or that doesn’t work. How am I going to change? I thought that today, the guys made everything work,” Savarese said about his team’s new approach, which saw the Timbers outshoot Seattle 17-9, dominate xG and hover around 60% possession until the final 15 minutes of the game, when they went into a shell (there’s no breaking them of that habit, I don’t think).

“The back three were strong in matching up everything that we had to manage with those long balls. So overall I thought that what we put in place, the guys executed and as a coach, you always want to see that."

While going to a back three helped, the real differentiator was in central midfield. Because of the shape change the Timbers had enough numbers to cut off Seattle’s access to the most profitable spots on the pitch, and to force turnovers if/when the Sounders forced the issue.

Look at the 30 seconds leading up to the game-winning goal, which came via a Portland set piece:

Armchair Analyst: Timbers win central midfield vs. Sounders

Seattle are desperately trying to get the ball to Albert Rusnak, Danny Leyva or Nico Lodeiro, but the Timbers have blocked off all central midfield access. And then when there’s a turnover, Portland counterpress their way into the decisive free kick.

This is not how they usually go about things. Part of that, I think, is due to injuries – it makes little sense for them to be a front-foot, possession-heavy team if Eryk Williamson and Sebastian Blanco aren’t healthy, and both of those guys have been on the mend, to one degree or another, for the better part of a year.

But Friday provided another glimpse of how, with those two guys good to go down the stretch, we might have to toss out everything we’ve learned about the Timbers through the season’s first 27 games. They’re different now, and can hurt you in different ways.

Obviously the Sounders found that out to their detriment, and it’s truly beginning to feel like they’ve run out of answers. The shape change of their own – they went to a 3-5-2 last week at LA, remember, and brought it back again this week – seemed so promising, but it left them vulnerable in midfield and unable to compensate by creating wide overloads. They were, for the most part, kind of helpless.

One CCL title. Thirteen straight playoff appearances. Four points below the playoff line. Just seven games left.

It’s got to start happening now, or for the first time in Seattle’s MLS history, the season’s going to get away from them.

This is Why We Fight

CF Montréal went to Soldier Field on Saturday and just about finished off Chicago’s hopes for the year, putting together a thoroughly professional 2-0 win behind goals from Ismael Kone and Romell Quioto in the first half, and an airtight defensive performance in the second half following Kone’s red card just before the break.

Let me talk real quick about Wilfried Nancy’s tactical smarts and flexibility.

  1. In last week’s 4-0 win over New England, in which the Revs played a super-compact 4-3-2-1 designed to cut off Montréal’s access to/ability to operate in the half-spaces, Nancy had his side out in a 3-5-2 with Victor Wanyama at the base of a the three-man central midfield, and the other two central midfielders very wide in order to create overloads that could suck the Revs’ defenders out (it worked).

Here’s the pass map from that game, and some stats:

montreal pass map v new england

Three of CFM’s four goals in that game started out wide. They pulled New England from side to side and ripped ‘em apart.

  1. This week, against Chicago’s more traditional 4-2-3-1, Wanyama was again a single pivot but the other two central midfielders, Kone and Djordje Mihailovic, actually stayed much more central. They were constantly able to pop up in between the lines (at least until just before halftime when Kone was sent off) both on and off the ball, and completely ran the Fire ragged in the first half.
montreal pass map v chicago

Both of Montréal’s goals in this one were generated off their re-press, which they were able to do so effectively because Mihailovic and Kone were so tight. They always had numbers around the ball in that first half, so Chicago just were not able to consistently play out.

Then they went out for the second 45 minutes and squeezed the life out of both the game and the Fire’s playoff hopes.

“The guys gave everything they had. Once again, they had to face unforeseen adversity that wasn’t expected, but they focused on the task to go and get this win, and on top of it they did it without conceding,” Nancy said afterward. “We had to be brave, and we had to be confident. Every game is hard, especially in this time of year. The group was strong mentally today, and that’s why we were able to get the win.”

You rarely see pure, linear growth in this game, but Montréal’s doing it. They are, in most ways, the same team they were last year, but sharper in possession and more flexible in the final third. All the stuff you could see in spurts in 2021 we’re getting to see more or less on a weekly basis, for 90 minutes at a clip, in 2022.

They’re a really, really good team, and just five points behind the Union in the East playoff race with a game in hand. That comes on Wednesday when they host the Red Bulls.

The Fire, who had to sub both Xherdan Shaqiri (first half) and Rafa Czichos (second half) off with injuries, are six points below the line with seven games left. They head to New England on Wednesday then Columbus next weekend, and it’s hard to imagine a path for them if they take less than four points from those two games.

A few more things to ponder…

12. Austin have been dunking on the skeptics, yours truly very much included, all season long, but had mostly managed to do it without a signature win. There were great moments, of course – goals, comebacks, great saves from Brad Stuver – but there was no single, no-doubt-about-it dominant performance against one of the league’s better sides for anyone in green to hang their hats upon.

And now, behold:

Armchair Analyst: Austin crush LAFC

I don’t believe anyone who said they saw the 4-1 hiding of LAFC coming, especially after last weekend’s fairly limp loss at Minnesota. But honestly, toss out the tactics – they mattered, but what really mattered was that the Verde were up for it in a way the visitors were not, and so a curb stomping ensued.

“There's a mentality,” Austin head coach Josh Wolff said postgame. “You want to come into it with a physicality, and you’ve got to invest emotionally as well. And these guys could feel it in the warm-up that this wasn't an ordinary game. [LAFC] are the best team in the league for a reason, they have quality, they have power, they have speed, they have depth. So from the starting point, in these types of games, you’ve got to answer the physicality and the emotion of it and you’ve got to have some level of control as well. And then the footballing takes over.”

The footballing never took over for LAFC, who may have quality, power, speed and depth, but who very much lacked chemistry and intensity. While I’ll argue that said lack of intensity was the main issue, that chemistry bit sure ends up looking like a big worry given that none of their starting front three – Gareth Bale, Chicho Arango and Carlos Vela left-to-right – ever threatened the space in behind Austin’s backline when LAFC were in possession.

That changed when Kwadwo Opoku came on for Bale at the hour mark (I actually thought the Black & Gold were pretty good over the final 30 minutes), which points a pretty big arrow at a looming tactical question: Can Vela and Bale function at a high level together? We’ve been conceptualizing it as an issue of both guys preferring the same position – inverted right winger – but the real bottleneck on Friday was that neither guy ever kept Austin honest with the threat of hard, off-ball runs in behind unless it was a pure transition moment.

Everything just kept happening in front of Austin’s defenders, which changed when Opoku came on, and is how the only LAFC goal was generated.

This was Bale’s first start and he looked nowhere near fit, so maybe I’m jumping the gun here. But Vela at his best has always been balanced by a winger who’s constantly threatening in behind the backline, and Bale’s not really a guy who does that anymore.

I’m still picking them to win the Supporters’ Shield and I still think they’ll win most games on pure talent, but they look more vulnerable than they did a month ago.

11. Minnesota just barely took care of business on Saturday afternoon against visiting Houston, rallying for a late and costly 2-1 home win over the Dynamo.

The Loons are now 9W-1L-2D in a dozen games over the past two months, which is the best PPG in the league over that span. The issue, though, is that this one was a Pyrrhic victory as starting center back Bakaye Dibassy went down with what’s reported to be a season-ending injury inside of 10 minutes.

Dibassy doesn’t get a lot of pub but his mobility and field coverage from the backline for the Loons is significant, and back-up Brent Kallman is not remotely a like-for-like replacement. This is a big loss for a team that’s been building real momentum and should have real hopes for a sustained postseason run.

Houston’s hope for the same have long since been extinguished, and they’re now just 1W-8L-2D since June 29.

10. I wrote a ton about the Union last week, and thus will write less this week in the wake of yet another 6-0 win, this one over the visiting Rapids. Here you go:

  • Philly finished the weekend with a +37 goal differential. Only two teams (1998 Galaxy, +41 and 2019 LAFC, +48) have ever gone +40 or better.
  • Their 20 goals allowed in 28 games has them on track to post the second-best defensive season in league history.
  • They’ve scored 57 goals against that 20 allowed. Only a bare handful of teams (including, fwiw, the 2020 Union) have ever scored twice as many goals as they’ve allowed over the course of a full season. This year’s Union are on the verge of going 3x, which nobody’s ever come anywhere close to.

This stat, though, is mind-breaking:

That’s not “the most six-goal wins in one year in MLS history.” That’s the most six-goal wins in MLS history. What the Union have been doing over the past two months is just wild.

Colorado’s season isn’t mathematically over but between last weekend’s late meltdown vs. Houston and this weekend’s humiliation in Chester, they don’t look much like a team that’s going to make any kind of run. The gap left by the sales of Sam Vines, Kellyn Acosta and Cole Bassett, injuries to Jack Price and Danny Wilson, and regression from guys like Lalas Abubakar, Michael Barrios, Jonathan Lewis and especially William Yarbrough… it’s all proving to be too much at once, and the moment Robin Fraser gets one thing shored up something else seems to fall apart.

9. Toronto went down to Charlotte and kept hope alive, coming away with a 2-0 win over the Crown with one goal from Lorenzo Insigne and one from Federico Bernardeschi, both of whom have been worth the money.

That was especially apparent in this game, one in which the Reds did not play particularly well. But trotting out a pair of match-winners in the attack is something they can do and Charlotte can’t, and when that’s the case, you can often just brute force a win.

The Reds finished the weekend three points below the line on 33 points, while the Crown are a point back on 32. Both teams are still alive, but literally everyone they’re chasing has at least a game in hand.

8. Alejandro Pozuelo lost his bearings, and maybe his mind a little bit, in the 29th minute of Inter Miami’s trip to Harrison to face the Red Bulls when he Nigel de Jong’ed poor Andre Reyes right in the chest.

It cost Pozuelo a red card (I think it was inadvertent but it was such a dangerous foul I wouldn’t be shocked if he got an extra game tacked onto the mandatory one-game suspension) and his side any grip on the game, which at that point was 1-0 and comfortably in Miami’s control.

It finished 3-1 as RBNY made the extra man count. Not only did they compress the field – as you’d expect of any Red Bull team anywhere in the world – but they actually showed a bit of patience and panache with the ball at times, especially on the build-up to their equalizer. This is not Energy Drink Soccer:

Armchair Analyst: RBNY beautiful build-up

The Red Bulls have stabilized with seven points from their past three games after a stretch in which they’d won just once in six. They haven’t mathematically clinched, but they’re very clearly going to make the playoffs once again this year, equaling Seattle’s mark of 13 straight years in the postseason (which, as mentioned, is in real danger of ending this season).

Miami are still above the line but with four of their next five away from home, they might be in some trouble.

7. Sporting KC picked up their third win in four, riding an early Daniel Salloi goal to a 1-0 win over visiting San Jose on Saturday night in Kansas.

Salloi’s goal was unassisted but was yet another that was essentially created by midfielder Erik Thommy, a summer signing whose on-ball calm and guile have been a massive upgrade for Sporting. He’s not a magician out there, but he’s always making the right run or the right pass with the right weight, and he does not seem to switch off.

The arrival of Thommy and William Agada (who was held scoreless but was, as always, dangerous as hell) came too late to salvage this season – Sporting are eight points back with six games to play – but this team absolutely looks set to break some hearts down the stretch.

6. Chalk up another result for xDAWG as RSL went on the road to Frisco, found themselves down a goal early, then rallied back for a very nice and more-than-deserved 1-1 draw at FC Dallas.

The Claret-and-Cobalt were able to do a thing where I think they softened up Dallas’s defense a bit by just being conscienceless gunners, shooting just about every time they got within 25 yards of goal and had enough of a window to fire one off. My theory is that if you do that enough, you give the center backs the shakes – and make them more susceptible to second- and third-man runs.

Or, in the case of Anderson Julio’s 69th-minute equalizer, you make them susceptible to flooding the box. Make the opposing CBs more worried about what’s happening 30 yards from goal than they should be, and make them track two more runners than they usually have to, and put in a good cross… it’s not the highest-percentage play in the world, but RSL got a road point in the middle of a hot playoff race, and are just four points back of los Toros Tejanos with two games in hand.

It was a big result.

Dallas, as has become typical, were not able to turn their early pitch control and positional dominance into dynamic superiority, and thus weren’t able to push their early 1-0 lead into something sturdier.

5. Dax talked, Nashville listened, and suddenly the ‘Yotes look a hell of a lot like the team we all thought they’d be entering this season: devastating in transition, murderous on set pieces and, in Hany Mukhtar, possessed of one of the very best players in the league. That was the formula for a fairly simple 3-0 win at Vancouver on Saturday night.

They’ve scored seven goals in their past two games, and have a winning streak for just the second time all season. They’re on 39 points – not exactly safely above the line, but certainly the vibes are a hell of a lot better than they were two weeks ago, and they look a lot more likely to make good on their potential.

Vancouver are still in the playoff race on 34 points, but with two wins in their past 10 they’re very much going in the other direction. And what really stood out in this game was how poor they are generating any sort of quality attack from possession; as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, the ‘Caps are 27th of 28 teams in xG generated via organized possession, ahead of only the Red Bulls.

With the Red Bulls it’s understandable as their game model breaks statistical models. But with the ‘Caps, it’s a fatal flaw, especially when they have to chase a game. So as soon as Randall Leal gave Nashville a 1-0 lead in the 19th minute, it felt like Vancouver had a hell of a hill to climb.

4. Tesho Akindele, late on, is a bad, bad man. For the second week in a row he came off the bench in the second half and stole a result for Orlando City, this time with his flicked header of an Ivan Angulo corner kick sneaking past Sean Johnson to give the Lions a 2-1 home win over NYCFC.

It was another very typical Orlando performance in that it was always scattered and not often cohesive, though I will say that they’ve started to find themselves in the final 30 minutes of games – neither of Akindele’s goals, this week or last, came out of nowhere. It was, in fact, entirely deserved as they outshot the Pigeons 10-0 from the hour mark to the final whistle despite fielding a heavily rotated squad.

This has become par for the course for NYCFC under interim manager Nick Cushing, as they’ve now got a goal differential of -6 in the final 15 minutes of games since he took over in mid-June. Only Sporting KC have been worse at closing games out over the past two-and-a-half months.

3. Atlanta kept their playoff hopes alive with a very necessary and very ragged come-from-behind, 3-2 home win over visiting D.C. on Sunday afternoon.

The Five Stripes outshot D.C. 25-10, survived two one-goal deficits and – this is probably the best part if you’re an Atlanta fan – really started to turn things around and tilt the field once Josef Martinez check in on the hour mark. He scored two minutes after taking the field when D.C. left him unmarked in the box.

D.C. have, of course, been doing a lot of that no matter who they’ve been playing. Right now they look a solid bet to take home the Wooden Spoon, which would be the club’s fourth, tying them with San Jose for the most in league history.

Back to Atlanta: As mentioned, their hopes are alive. They are, however, facing what's probably the toughest remaining schedule, which starts with a trip to Philly on Wednesday followed by a cross-country flight to face Portland on Sunday.

Josef will have to be Peak 2018-era Josef – and a whole hell of a lot of other stuff will have to go right – for them to come out of the next seven days with legitimate postseason hopes.

2. Make ‘em say uhh!!

I have no idea why Matt Polster chose to let Riqui bring that ball down and control it instead of just absolutely trucking him, but I trust this will be the last time he makes that mistake.

Puig’s through-ball is, as tweeted, our Pass of the Week. It was also the second of two heat-seeking through-balls – Chicharito provided the first and finished the second – that carved the Revs up early in what eventually became a 2-1 Galaxy win in Foxborough.

The Galaxy finally lined up in a 3-5-2 and put together their best half in months (the first half, obviously – they barely showed up in the second). It wasn’t perfect as New England’s wide overloads caused the Galaxy real problems, and both Revs fullbacks could’ve gotten into the boxscore multiple times, but it was good, and “good” isn’t something LA fans have seen a ton of this summer. The win leaves them seventh in the West, a point ahead of Portland and two points behind both Nashville and RSL, but with games in hand on all of them.

Revs fans haven’t seen much good this summer, either, and are staring at do-or-die time from their ditch below the line. The good news is twofold, in that Gustavo Bou finally got back on the field (he was predictably rusty and even more predictably shooting on sight), and that their upcoming schedule is fairly soft.

1. And finally… I’m sorry FC Cincinnati fans, but this is an all-time epic Face of the Week:

Face_of_the_Week

That was from an incredible first-half miss from Brandon Vazquez. Another even better Face of the Week was uploaded and shared, and then deleted by a Cincy fan on Twitter (you can still see it on Reddit) showing an up-close-and-personal view of Steven Moreira’s 96th-minute equalizer in Columbus’s 2-2 Hell is Real draw at Cincy.

This is the fourth time in the past eight games and the sixth time all year the Garys have conceded a late goal (final 80th minute or later) that cost them a result, and given the way this game played out – about 70 minutes of Cincy dominance; a very controversial (but not as controversial as it seemed) first equalizer; the opposing coach celebrating wildly in the face of the home fans; a no holds-barred postgame press conference – it seems like things are starting to bubble over.

And yet the vibes actually still seem very good, don’t they? And it weirdly might be the opposite for the Crew, whose head coach, Caleb Porter, called out both Cincy’s fans and his own teams’ traveling fans after the game.

"Yeah, it's not perfect. It's football. It never is," Porter said in the postgame, as reported by the Columbus Dispatch’s Jacob Myers. "But these guys are fighting their asses off. ... And I think it would be nice if the fans start to talk a little bit better about the fight that this group is showing. I think they deserve that based on what we're doing.

"I get it, high standards are good. I have high standards, I'm pissed every game we don't win. But these guys deserve ... for the supporters to feel good about how they fought today."

Columbus, who’ve lost just once since May 22, finished the weekend in seventh place on 36 points. With a pair of home six-pointers coming up – they host Miami midweek and Chicago next weekend – they can juuuuust about punch their ticket if they take all six points.