The 27th MLS regular season is nearly two-thirds done, and thus far the outstanding aspect of the year is just how crowded the middle of the pack is.

Seventeen teams are scattered between 1.1 and 1.5 points per game, a difference of only nine points in the standings. As Minnesota have shown over the past month, if your best player gets on a heater then nine points is nothing. That kind of gap can close real quick.

Doubly so because we are now entering the land of the six-pointers. This is the part of the year where you’re not only picking up points yourself, but you’re most likely denying points to a team with whom you’re in direct competition for a playoff spot. The standings are tight, but at the same time they are also tighter than they appear. Things change quickly.

There were 10 six-pointers on the schedule this weekend. Next weekend, 13 of the 14 games are six-pointers. And then across all of August, there are only a handful of inter-conference games left.

We are heading into the home stretch. I think for some teams you could even say it started this weekend.

In we go…

Full Measure

Ok, let’s do the caveats first. Here goes:

Charlotte FC are an expansion team, and not a particularly good one* – especially on the road. They entered BMO Field on Saturday evening just 1W-8L-2D away from Bank of America Stadium, and so it should be no surprise that they left it with a 1W-9L-2D road record following a 4-0 thumping at the hands of Toronto FC’s newly embiggened roster.

(*) Nor, to be clear, are they a particularly bad one.

On top of that, Charlotte play a single pivot that asks a lot of d-mid Brandt Bronico, who has to win the ball, protect the backline and patrol the half-spaces all by himself for large chunks of the game. Bronico’s been great this year, but any d-mid in the world can get overrun in that spot if his forwards makes it easy for the opponents to break lines in distribution.

For 45 minutes, during which TFC effectively ended the competitive portion of the evening, that’s exactly how it played out. Charlotte’s attackers got pressure to no one, and Toronto were able to break lines with ease – especially left back Domenico Criscito.

I mean, look at this sequence leading to the (admittedly hilarious) first goal, in which Lorenzo Insigne’s positioning on the touchline combined with Criscito’s distribution completely opened the left half-space:

Armchair Analyst: Toronto spacing Paint

So yeah, it was an opponent and a tactical match-up perfectly designed for Insigne and fellow DP winger Federico Bernardeschi to make their debuts. They looked unstoppable, but of course they looked unstoppable in these circumstances – I didn't even mention that Charlotte were coming off a tank-emptying midweek friendly win over Chelsea – and you’d be foolish to read too much into it.

Ok, now for the… well damn, there’s no antonym for “caveat,” is there? Anyway, here’s the reason to think the performance was representative of what’s to come for Toronto down the stretch here, even if there aren’t going to be tons of 4-0 scorelines:

  1. The Reds now have more attacking talent than anyone in the league.
  2. Bob Bradley’s teams have played – and won – this way before.

I think that the performance has to be scarier than the scoreline if you’re, say, Vancouver on Tuesday night in the Canadian Championship final, or any of the six Eastern Conference teams standing between the Reds and a playoff spot. This game wasn’t just an example of Insigne going supernova and banging home two 30-yarders, or Bernardeschi dribbling half the opposing defense – though there absolutely will be games where either/both of those things happen.

Rather, these goals came of sustained, purposeful build-up in which everybody in red looked like they’d been playing together for years, or off of concerted, organized pressure that allowed the central midfielders to take chances pushing forward and overwhelm Charlotte’s backline.

They cut through the visitors with ease, and neither of TFC’s new DPs was out there playing hero ball, nor was either out there to collect a paycheck. They were tactically disciplined and ruthless, and for 45 minutes it looked quite a bit like Bradley’s 2019 LAFC side that won the Supporters’ Shield and, a year later, made it to the CCL final.

In other words it worked on grass how it was drawn up on paper, and it worked that way literally from the kickoff. I did not expect that!

“Really good start. Everybody was excited,” Bradley said afterward. “And you could see in a short amount of time there's still a good way that players connect on the field. The more guys that connect, the more ideas that are going fast, the better the football gets. So we had moments where, yeah, the football that I talk about all the time where I say, I see it in bits and pieces, yeah, when all of a sudden you have those guys on the field and then others start to play off of them.

“That's fun. That's the start of real football where you can do that more and more and more.”

I still have my doubts that this is going to work out perfectly. Even with Insigne and Bernardeschi in town (ok – in large part because Insigne and Bernardeschi are in town), I don’t think this TFC side is going to be anywhere near as effective a pressing team as that 2019 LAFC side. And the press, more even than Carlos Vela, was that team’s greatest weapon.

Beyond that – literally beyond the front line – I have my reservations about TFC’s ball-winning ability in midfield. I think any team able to turn it into a knife fight has a chance to just blow them up, and then it’s probably best not to even mention the backline this year.

So, concerns remain. But even with all the caveats and all the questions, the worries and the concerns, it’s hard not to be significantly more bullish on the Reds after this performance. They didn’t just add overwhelming talent; they added overwhelming talent and somehow also immediately added chemistry, cohesion and jogo bonito.

The stretch run is here. Toronto are, I think, ready for it.

Crazy Handful of Nothin’

Four days from arguably the biggest game in club history – they host the Red Bulls in the US Open Cup semifinals on Wednesday night – and the natives have gotten restless in Orlando. Fans saw their Lions put together another fairly punchless outing in a 1-0 loss to the visiting Union, and some took to social media to call for changes on the sideline.

For the record: I think it’s crazy to call for Oscar Pareja’s job. He is, in a lot of ways, the best thing to ever happen to this club.

However, I do think it’s fair to look at one of the issues that has plagued this team all season. And to that end the harsh truth is Orlando have scored more than one goal just seven times in 22 games, and more than two goals just once (an insane 5-3 loss to D.C. United back on July 4). They are not among the worst attacking teams in the league, but they are heading in that direction by both the eye test and the underlying numbers, and neither this recent slide nor the season overall is a product of especially shoddy finishing. Orlando have 26 goals on what most models reckon to be somewhere from 25 to 28 xG generated.

What’s at issue – what is usually at issue in these situations – is they don’t really seem to have a coherent way to build chances in the first place. As per TruMedia via StatsPerform (who have Orlando on 26.33 xG through this weekend in case you were wondering), the Lions are near the bottom of the league in key passes following a successful 1v1 – really, really bizarre for a team that plays with true wingers – and have hit the second-fewest successful switches in the league. Which is also bizarre for a team that plays with true wingers.

They also don’t hit many through-balls, which was one of their strengths the past two years, and they have the second-lowest successful cross percentage in MLS. Nor have they become the type of team to mitigate their on-ball creativity deficit by becoming a particularly good pressing side.

With that context it’s not surprising that they’ve gotten only middling productivity from their DPs. Giant center forward Ercan Kara’s managed just seven goals in a touch over 1300 minutes, and first-year winger Facundo Torres is on 4g/6a in about 1650. Veteran playmaker Mauricio Pereyra fares better in the boxscore with his nine assists, but that’s a bit misleading – he’s 21st in the league in expected assists, behind basically every other pure playmaker in terms of actual chance creation.

Each of those individual players deserve some blame. DPs exist in part to elevate the play of everyone around them, and Orlando’s are not doing it. But the following sequence is pretty damning, and suggests that structural issues play as big a role in the Lions’ collective malaise as any sort of individual underperformance:

Armchair Analyst: Orlando no ideas v Philly

It actually starts well! They win the second ball, then rather than hoof it, Joao Moutinho starts building through the back. They pull the Union up and eliminate the first line of defense, and are able to get on the ball and get into the attacking third at a sprint.

And then it all just dies. There’s no combination play into central midfield, nor is there a through-ball to one of the multiple runners, nor is there an early cross in behind the defense. Obviously there’s no switch of play, either, even though the way to shatter a diamond is by pulling it side to side.

Ruan just dribbles up to the 18, then essentially hands it off to Torres for a hopeless cross to the back post against a set defense.

Moutinho does well to win the clearance, but rather than get into some sort of final third kill pattern, they end up just settling for another cross – this one to absolutely nobody.

This was a promising attack. It turned into a whole lot of nothing.

“We did not have the creativity to break them up,” Pareja said afterward, and Moutinho echoed that assessment.

“They're a very organized team and the spaces in between their lines are really hard to find because they’re very cohesive,” Moutinho explained. “Even though that’s the case, I think we did a good job finding the spaces. It was just that final third, that final pass that was missing tonight.”

To be perfectly fair, Philly are exactly as cohesive and as good as Moutinho said. They are really well-drilled defensively, even when scrambling, and while the diamond has weaknesses, one of its strengths is that the shuttlers are naturally positioned to deny entry into the half-spaces. You have to work both smart and hard to get into the gaps against them and pull them apart, and then you have to beat Andre Blake. It’s proving to be a historically tall task:

But, of course, the same is mostly true of the Red Bulls. RBNY may play a different formation than the Union and their overall talent isn’t quite so good, but they operate under a lot of the same principles, and Orlando had no key for those locks on Saturday. And of course they were even worse back in the spring when RBNY came to Florida and just pumped ‘em, winning 3-0. The Lions spent the whole game at an almost complete loss.

If it happens again, the natives will grow even more restless. And while I still wouldn’t agree, well, at the very least I would understand.

A few more things to ponder…

12. It turns out I jumped the gun a bit in writing last weekend’s farewell to NYCFC’s Taty Castellanos, who had one more appearance, 60 minutes and a Bronx curtain call left in him before he departs for Spain. He earned every bit of that ovation.

Taty was good in the Pigeons’ 2-0 win over the visiting Herons, but the good news for the hosts was that Heber was even better. He even paid tribute to Taty by scoring a quintessential Taty goal, then doing the Golden Boot presented by Audi winner (and current leader!)’s celebration for the crowd:

Armchair Analyst: Heber goal v Miami

That looping run to clear out the halfspace, then the combination of patience to let the play unfold and hunger to crash the back post and stick a foot in even when it looks like nothing’s going to come off the build-up… Taty didn’t score many golazos, but he finished dozens of sequences like this. It’s the lifeblood of NYCFC’s attack, and it’s good to see Heber – who kept Castellanos on the wing back in 2019 and the start of 2020 – doing the types of things that made him so good upon his arrival in MLS.

There are still concerns for NYCFC, though. Once again they were weirdly passive defensively (as I highlighted in last week’s column, they have dropped from the top of the pressing charts under Ronny Deila to nearly the bottom under Nick Cushing), and Miami just lacked the punch to turn their second-half possession into high-quality chances.

But anyway, for as similar as the Pigeons look to the team that was so good under Deila, that inability/unwillingness to get pressure to the ball makes them very different. Maybe in the end it’s nothing, but I’m seeing a giant red flag.

11. Nashville’s trip to FC Cincinnati finished as a 1-1 draw, a result that kept both teams above the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line for another week. Both goals came off of set pieces, as Teal Bunbury half-biked home a loose ball off of one corner kick, while Brandon Vazquez Wondo’d home a mishit Alvaro Barreal volley for the other.

Cincy have drawn six of their past eight outings, and have won just once in their past 10. The good news is they survived Luciano Acosta’s three-game suspension, and should now have him fresh for the entirety of the stretch run.

Nashville were borderline thrilled with the point, which they managed to pick up without the services of MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar (who was rested due to what was reportedly minor groin tightness).

“We did that tonight,” head coach Gary Smith said when asked about being difficult to play against. “We’ve ticked the box. We haven’t ticked every box, but we’ve ticked that box again tonight."

10. No surprise that New England’s trip to Columbus ended in a draw, as the Crew are now tied for the league lead with nine, and the Revs are one back on eight.

What was surprising is that it was a scoreless draw. The Revs just did a great job of never really getting stretched at the back – not an easy feat these days against the Crew’s front three. They were able to slow down the Crew’s distribution out of central midfield, so that Andrew Farrell, Henry Kessler et al never really had to turn and run at Djordje Petrovic’s goal.

I think I agree with every word of Bruce Arena’s postgame assessment:

“We played a good, hard game. We certainly didn't play a perfect game, but we played a game that was tactically correct,” Arena explained. “If we played like this in many games this year, we'd have 10 more points and would probably be closer to the first place than where we are now, so all in all a good point on the road and we did what we had to do to close out the game and get a point.”

New England, even with Giacomo Vrioni’s arrival, played out of a 4-2-3-1. It’s their best formation – they’re prone to getting overwhelmed in midfield if they lose the numbers game there – but I don’t know how you get Vrioni and Gustavo Bou on the field together in it. I’m not sure you do.

9. D.C. spotted CF Montréal a 2-0 lead, coughing up two very simple goals – one turnover at the back and one long-ball up the gut, both scored by Romell Quioto – in what eventually became a 2-1 loss for the Black-and-Red.

United’s structure – which I assume is the work of new-head-coach-but-not-on-the-sidelines-yet Wayne Rooney, was interesting. They nominally lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Chris Durkin and Sofiane Djeffal as a double pivot, but Durkin actually flared wide left as a sort of inverted elbow back while actual left back Gaoussou Samake pushed into the attacking third. You can see it via Second Spectrum’s passing combinations map:

D.C. passing combos v Montreal

I’m curious to see how much of this was intentional. I hope some of it is, because I thought D.C. played fairly well outside of the, you know, catastrophic defensive errors that cost them the game.

Montréal, even with Djordje Mihailovic back, aren’t playing quite so well these days, but they got a second straight nice performance in goal from James Pantemis. I imagine he’ll be keeping the job for a good long while.

8. The most dispiriting loss of the weekend probably belongs to Houston, who dropped a 2-1 home result to visiting Minnesota United.

Under normal circumstances… ok, bad losses happen. But Minnesota were without their entire starting central midfield, as Wil Trapp, Kervin Arriaga and MVP candidate Emanuel Reynoso all missed the game via one shade of injury or another. That’s on top of the fact that starting right back Romain Metanire remains out, and starting center forward Luis Amarilla came off after 33 minutes with an injury of his own.

This was a bad, bad loss. Head coach Paulo Nagamura, who has had to tinker with the lineup since the arrival of Hector Herrera (Darwin Quintero has been starting as something of a false 9, with both Houston wingers acting more as wide forwards rather than true wingers), was not pleased.

“Very common in our games that we commit mistakes and teams capitalize on our mistakes,” Nagamura said in the postgame presser. “That’s what has been happening, especially in our home games and when you are chasing the game you have to commit more numbers forward and you leave yourself a little bit more exposed. It plays right into Minnesota’s game, that it’s a transition game.

“We are not good with the ball, again even though having 75 percent [possession] we were giving away unnecessary passes making the wrong decisions on the ball, forcing it through the middle where they had three guys. It’s a combination of issues that we need to fix.”

Minnesota are the hottest team in the league, having climbed up to third in the West with five wins and a draw in their past six.

7. Our Face of the Week goes to a very happy Gareth Bale:

Armchair Analyst: Bale Face of the Week v Sporting

As I’ve mentioned previously in this space, LAFC are much more content with being a counterattacking team this season, and they certainly showed it on Saturday. They had just 40.1% possession and created the bulk of their best chances on the break.

Also, with another goal and assist, Chicho Arango is now up to 9g/3a in 1373 minutes this season. I can not imagine that they’ll actually trade him this season.

6. FC Dallas went to Sandy with a pretty clear script: press RSL into early mistakes, grab an early goal, and then try like hell to sit on it for the rest of the game.

And so it went, as Jesus Ferreira’s 14th-minute finish, his 12th of the season, stood up.

Not that RSL went quietly, as they unleashed wave after wave of attack on Maarten Paes’s goal. The hosts took 25 shots in all, but managed to put just five on goal as they lacked that little bit of extra quality that a healthy Damir Kreilach or, presumably, a DP striker could bring.

I have to admit some surprise that there’s been no DP signing, at striker or anywhere else, during this window. They’ve now won just twice in their past eight and have faded back to the Western Conference pack, as they’re just three points above the line.

5. Portland, who beat San Jose for the millionth time in a row in Portland, are heading in the other direction. They’re now unbeaten in seven – they haven’t lost since May – following their come-from-behind 2-1 win on Saturday night.

I think it is entirely fair to draw a straight line between that run of form and Eryk Williamson’s return to full health. In his eight starts this year Portland are 4W-2L-2D and with a +6 goal differential. In their other 14 games this year they’re 3W-4L-7D and -2.

Williamson usually does his work from deeper, but he actually played as more of a free 8 or even a No. 10 in this one, filling in for the suspended Sebastian Blanco.

Of course, Williamson is not the only reason for Portland kicking it into high gear since coming out of the international break. Diego Chara is, as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, covering more ground and sprinting more, and nobody in league history shrinks the field like he does. And then there’s the play of Aljaz Ivacic:

Armchair Analyst: Ivacic save

He’s been outstanding all year, but has hit a particularly good patch over the past month.

4. Chicago have also been particularly good over the past month, as their 3-1 win in Vancouvertheir first win in Cascadia, ever! – makes them 5W-3L-0D in their past eight games, and has them just two points below the line in the East.

I’ll point out again that while the personnel has changed a bit (youngsters like Jhon Duran and Brian Gutierrez are playing a bigger role), the Fire aren’t doing anything drastically different than what they’d been doing over the first four months of the season. They’re just stepping on fewer rakes at the back and seem to have better, more cohesive talent up top.

As for the ‘Caps, head coach Vanni Sartini had words.

“Tonight was our worst performance, I think, of the season,” Sartini said. “We take full ownership of the performance. The distance between lines was too big, always too easy for them to play. It’s a pity because we were able to put it to 1-1, we also had the chance to get 2-1, but we didn’t deserve to win."

Sartini’s not wrong, especially about the space between the lines. Chicago put it to good use, collecting 61% possession and completing 89.3% of their passes overall. They’re usually at 49.3% possession and complete just 78.4% of their passes, which is 24th in the league. Worse – from Vancouver’s point of view, anyway – is that all of the above turned into plenty of reps for Chicago’s Xherdan Shaqiri, who had probably his best game of the season with a goal, an assist and four key passes.

It was bad all around for Vancouver, and definitely not the way they wanted to go into Tuesday’s Canadian Championship final against Toronto.

3. Seattle made it hard on themselves, conceding an early goal in the first half and taking an early red card in the second, but they finally walked away from Lumen Field with all three points on Saturday night, beating the Rapids 2-1 to snap a three-game losing streak.

Even with the handicap they set for themselves this was a commanding performance from the CCL champs, one that included our Pass of the Week:

Armchair Analyst: Rusnak pass of the week

Just as noteworthy is that after spending the vast majority of 2022 on the wing, Cristian Roldan was moved back into central midfield in this one, partnering Rusnak in a double pivot. That, of course, is the position Roldan’s played most throughout his career – including both MLS Cup wins.

I think Roldan’s better on the wing, but it makes perfect sense to move him back to central midfield given the injuries to Joao Paulo and Obed Vargas and Seattle’s depth on the wing.

2. I’m just going to use bullet points for RBNY’s wild 4-3 win down at Austin on Sunday night:

  • Austin really, really missed Brad Stuver.
  • I wish Dru Yearwood could get a move to a team that uses the ball a little bit more.
  • Sebastian Driussi is probably the MVP front-runner at this point.
  • It remains a fool’s errand to try to possess straight through RBNY’s press.
  • It remains a fool’s errand to try to press straight through a summer full of 90-degree days.

Verde were incredibly lucky not to get blown the hell out and the Red Bulls were incredibly lucky not to entirely melt down over the final half hour. Credit, I guess, to both coaches for having the courage of their convictions.

1. And finally, the Galaxy broke their three-game losing streak and got just their third win since May 8 by getting a Kevin Cabral goal early – yes, an actual goal from Kevin Cabral! – and another Dejan Joveljic goal very, very late for a 2-0 win over visiting Atlanta United on Sunday night.

The addition of Gaston Brugman to the central midfield mix worked for the Galaxy, as he and Mark Delgado mostly sat deeper as a double pivot while Rayan Raveloson pushed up as more of a box-arriving attacking midfielder in Greg Vanney’s 4-2-3-1 formation.

But still, I’m gonna say the thing: playing the 4-2-3-1 puts the Galaxy in a situation where they’ve only got one guy on the field who can reliably put the ball in the back of the net (and truth be told, I’m not even sure Chicharito qualifies as that anymore). Yes, Cabral finally got his first goal of the season – he stabbed home a rebound from literally less than a yard out – but the Galaxy spent the game’s final 35 minutes holding on for dear life because of this:

Armchair Analyst: Incredible Cabral miss

At some point, Joveljic has got to be the full-time starter.

Atlanta, of course, are in an even worse mess than the Galaxy, who leapfrogged Portland to jump into seventh in the West. The Five Stripes finished the weekend at 12th in the East, and even with a selection of their walking wounded slowly returning to more prominent roles, there is little to suggest this team is destined to find a strong finishing kick.