Week 22 and part two of Heineken Rivalry Week is in the books, and August with it. We’re officially into the stretch run of the 2021 MLS season.
And in we go:
I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop with Nashville SC all season long. The story, you see, is that they are obviously quite good in a couple of ways, though maybe not quite as good as their place in the standings, and not quite as good as the underlying numbers — which love them — say they are.
The reason for that is twofold:
- They spent most of the first half of the season playing at home, and
- They spent many of those games playing from behind, desperately throwing the kitchen sink forward in search of a result.
Play 20 games playing like that and you can maybe make the numbers lie a little. So while I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve seen from Nashville (the change to a back five; getting more out of the more creative players in the squad; Gary Smith’s willingness to rotate), I felt like it was probably more prudent to wait and see how they handled themselves at least a few games into their road-heavy back nine.
They’re now well into that back nine and it’s been a mixed bag, one that’s contained a lot of draws. On Saturday in Atlanta, they finally stuck their hands into that bag and pulled out the full three points, courtesy of a 2-0 win over the previously hot Five Stripes.
“It goes without saying, an incredibly good result here,” Smith said after the game and, well, yeah. But how they did it, the way they stayed patient, used the ball, and eventually carved Atlanta up exactly where they were asking to be carved up, is what was most impressive.
Nashville had previously been very poor, when on the road, at managing that type of performance. True to form, Atlanta were the better team for about the first 40 minutes. But in the process of being the better team, they got more and more ragged, lost a ton of their discipline while trying to pin Nashville back and allowed more and more space between the lines.
So Nashville capitalized, and all you really need to see are two clips. In the 43rd minute watch how Hany Mukhtar drops super deep into the massive gap between the lines of Atlanta’s midfield and defense, and nobody goes with him. And then two minutes later, Nashville produced this long, lovely sequence that was capped by a Daniel Rios goal:
This time that gap is on the other side of the field, and Daniel Lovitz, playing as an inverted right back, is the one who finds it. In both instances, Nashville were patient about getting there and precise once they were where they wanted to be.
Also, your eyes are not deceiving you: that is an obscene amount of space between the Atlanta midfield and defensive lines, and some clear confusion in the backline about who’s supposed to step. As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, the average gap between their backline and midfield in organized defense hovered around 17 yards, which is … it’s a whole lot. Nashville, for example, averaged about 12.5 yards of space in this game – still a lot, but a whole lot less than Atlanta conceded.
So Nashville punished them for it, completing 25 progressive passes between the lines. That’s the most the Five Stripes have conceded in a game this year, and then because of the space Atlanta allowed, you guessed it: guys like Mukhtar and Lovitz had a ton of time and space when they received those progressive passes. About 5.8 meters of space to be exact, which is the 97th percentile of all games this season.
They were just begging to get torn up. Nashville obliged.
Thus was the story of a no good, very bad sideline debut for Gonzalo Pineda. While Atlanta still showed the attacking spirit they’d developed under interim Rob Valentino, it was almost like the players were too amped to impress the new manager, and in the process they lost all sense of tactical discipline and simple defensive spacing.
“I’m happy with the effort from the players,” Pineda said afterward. “I’m happy with them trying to score many goals, trying to cross from different areas, trying to create more chances [and] trying to just do everything to win. It was disappointing, because I felt like the team tried, and the team played well. But, obviously, we need to work on a couple more things in order to get better results.”
That is very, very obviously the case. The good news for Atlanta fans is that it seems highly unlikely this becomes a long-term issue. Pineda was a huge part of Seattle’s recent success, and the Sounders are one of the most reliably compact defensive teams in the league. It’s a good bet Pineda will spend the next week of practice drilling that particular facet of the game — just peruse that above quote again and read between the lines. Scan for what’s not there when he lists what he’s happy with. (Hint: it starts with “d” and ends with “fence”).
As for Nashville, I think it’s a good bet they’re nearly as good as their record indicates, though they’re going to have to keep proving it: six of their next eight are on the road, and their only home games are against NYCFC and Orlando City. They are about to head into the toughest part of the schedule, and it’s far from guaranteed they come out the other side looking as sure a bet as they currently do.
But the pieces are there, and Smith’s proved to be something of a problem-solver in how he uses them. Last year it felt brand new when Nashville defied expectations to make the playoffs and then make a run. This year they're playing that same song all over again, and it's time to give it a listen.
"We haven't gotten our asses kicked like that in about three years. We got what we deserved."
Jim Curtin doesn’t usually work blue, and he usually doesn’t have to given how good his Philadelphia Union side have been for the bulk of the past half-decade. But that quote, more than the final 3-1 scoreline, should give you a feel for just how completely torn apart the Union were by D.C. United on Saturday night in D.C.
In a lot of ways, this was a big surprise: the Union have been very good for a long while! In other ways, it was less of one: D.C. are much better than their record indicates and are probably the league’s foremost practitioners of what used to be considered energy drink soccer a couple hours up I-95. The telling stat is that United are second in the league in expected goals created via high pressure, as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data.
And in this particular game they put on a clinic. Time and again they smothered the Union’s attempts to build out, and time and again they turned that pressure into chances.
“I don’t think there’s any team in this league who play [at] the level we played in the first half, especially the first 20 minutes,” United head coach Hernan Losada said afterward. “We were a team from another league ... It was beautiful.”
Let the man stunt. Losada has changed everything about the way D.C. play soccer in less than a year, and the spreadsheet maximalists are beginning to use their math, citing things like expected goal differential and Goals Added (g+) to make nascent Coach of the Year arguments:
There is a delta between D.C.’s performance and their current results. For as dominant as they were this weekend, and as genuinely good as they’ve looked since mid-May, the result snapped a three-game losing streak and they’re clinging to seventh in the East. They have found ways to lose games they shouldn’t have.
Still, in addition to the g+ graphic above, what D.C. are doing in 2021 represents the best year-over-year expected goal differential change in AmericanSoccerAnalysis's data, which goes back a decade. That may not mean much to you, but the reason nerds dig into underlying numbers and try to sequence the soccer genome is because “Scoreboard!!!” is often an insufficient predictor of future results. There are, in other words, better ways to tell if a team is playing well than just looking at W/L/D.
That said, if underlying numbers aren’t for you, then how about this: their goal differential last year was -16 and this year it’s +3, which is the biggest turnaround in the league. They collected just .91 PPG last year, and this year are up to 1.36 ppg, which is the third-best year-over-year improvement from 2020 to 2021.
Losada’s managed this with precisely zero big-name signings and while managing an injury list that’s been packed since before the season kicked off. For a while, they were staying afloat because of Ola Kamara finally getting healthy and riding a heater -- but now he’s not the only one scoring goals. Yordy Reyna and Ramon Abila and even long-injured DP Edison Flores are all getting into the act. There is not just tactical clarity in how they want to play, but actual weapons in the attack.
I would not bet against D.C. United right now. I’m not sure I believe Losada’s take that nobody in MLS is at the level D.C. displayed on Saturday, but I do believe that they’ve been playing like a playoff team all season long and are still pointed upwards despite their three-game losing streak the win over the Union snapped.
You can see from the graphic above, as well as the eye test and the scoreboard that the Union have headed in the other direction since last year. On Saturday they were once again reduced to cross after cross – 24 in all – which speaks to both how dominant D.C. were (it’s not that Philly had no other ideas; it’s that D.C. smothered them so hard they didn’t let Philly have any other ideas), but also how turgid and predictable the Union are in attack right now (yeah j/k, the Union really didn’t have any other ideas).
All three strikers are workmanlike rather than game-breaking. The No. 10s seem to make each other less, rather than more efficient; Jamiro Monteiro has not been himself for months (no goals or assists since mid-June) and doesn’t look entirely happy out there, while Daniel Gazdag has been ineffective, ineffectual and invisible. There are promising kids, but kids are still kids. You can compete with them, but it’s hard to win trophies with them unless you have kids who are literally Best XI-caliber and on the verge of moving to a Champions League team.
Philly have grinded through the year by being resolute defensively and winning the game’s biggest moments when they push forward, as well as having one of the very best goalkeepers in the Americas in Andre Blake. But playing that way — never controlling games, always having to smash-and-grab — has taken a toll, and when D.C. took over the game from the second the ball was kicked this weekend, the Union didn’t really have an answer.
Curtin knows he has to find one, both for the second leg of the CCL semifinals (coming up soon!) and for his side to have any chance of getting another postseason home date.
“We have to improve the amount of chances we’re creating in a game,” Curtin said last week to Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s not a situation where we’re going to just completely change all of our attacking and the way we attack, but we do have to find little ways to create a little bit more.”
11. CF Montréal haven’t made quite as large a year-over-year jump as D.C., but they’re in the neighborhood. Wilfried Nancy has his side playing soccer that ranges from “well-drilled and competent” to “actually quite good” week after week, and so when Toronto FC’s Noble Okello was (correctly) sent off with an early red, Friday night’s result became a foregone conclusion. Maybe the only surprise was that the Reds got on the board in what was a 3-1 final.
Nancy has helped turn Djordje Mihailovic into one of the league’s best space interpreters. The kid is Valeri-esque in both his attacking third movement and his ability to make complex passes look simple as hell. Any time you give him space he will cut you up, and Toronto gave him plenty of space, so they bled.
10. G+ and everything else under the sun has told us all year long that NYCFC have been playing glorious soccer, and the results are starting to line up with that. Other than a sloppy opening 10 minutes — Adam Buksa will want those two chances back — the Cityzens battered the Supporters’ Shield-leading Revs, winning by 2-0 courtesy of two goals and the type of all-around performance from Taty Castellanos that makes you think the recent rumored Feyenoord interest is coming from far too small a club.
This is damn near the full Taty experience: find space, clever one-time pass, cleverer run for a big chance:
The only thing missing was a rabona and a dive. And the fact that he hit the target was also slightly off-brand.
Whether Taty is banging ‘em home or missing sitters, I have spent a lot of time writing about NYCFC this year because they have been one of the best and most entertaining teams in the league. For the most part over the past few months it’s come out of Ronny Deila’s preferred 4-2-3-1, but there was a wrinkle in this game as Deila had Keaton Parks push up higher in possession as sort of a free 8, while James Sands operated as something close to an actual regista. It played a lot more like a 4-3-3.
I wonder if that was a one-time thing Deila cooked up just for the Revs, or if it’s foreshadowing what’s to come. Regardless, it worked a charm and Revs coach Bruce Arena was unsparing in criticizing both himself and his side.
“Yeah, [New York City FC] outplayed us, no question about that. They outplayed us on the night and deserved to win. If you look at 11 matchups on the field, they probably won all of them – let's say 10 field players,” Arena said. “They outplayed us all over the field. They outcoached us as well. Don't just put this on the players. They outcoached us also.”
Reports have Carles Gil returning to the US this week, though there is still no official word from the Revs on the nature of his injury, or when they expect to have him healthy again.
9. Columbus ended their tragic, six-game losing streak courtesy of some late heroics from second-year center forward Miguel Berry via two gifts from FC Cincinnati ‘keeper Kenneth Vermeer. Berry’s late brace, with the first coming in the 81st minute and the second 75 seconds later, turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 Hell is Real derby win.
Cincy are now 11 without a win. It’s no surprise to see squandered late results start mounting given the short bench Jaap Stam has preferred all year long, though I don’t think it’s entirely fair to pin this one on tired legs.
8. Inter Miami continued their respectable run of form with a scoreless draw at Orlando City on Friday night. It was a fortunate result — they were badly out-possessed, barely threatened and survived thanks to a Tesho Akindele penalty miss — but they’re much more difficult to break down than they were a couple of months back.
Orlando City have been tough to break down all year, and are inching back toward full health. Both their first-choice fullbacks are now starting, Daryl Dike got back in the lineup for a second-half cameo, and Nani did the same. There are still missing pieces, but it feels like Oscar Pareja is being patient and strategic about how he's managing his team's minutes here, and my guess is he's aiming to have them in tip-top shape by early November.
This was despite a 10-day layoff since their last outing. DP forward Patryk Klimala had a game to forget, as did pretty much everyone for the hosts.
Chicago’s DP forward, Robert Beric, got a gift of a goal — maybe the type he’s needed in order to snap out of a season-long funk? — after RBNY failed to clear a Carlos Teran throw-in. It’s the second-straight game in which a Teran long-throw has led to a goal vs. the Red Bulls.
“I think on the goal it is again something you saw when we played there away,” RBNY head coach Gerhard Struber said afterward, referencing that previous goal. “It’s a set piece moment where we’re not ready and are maybe caught by surprise.”
Chicago jumped up to 10th place with the win while RBNY dropped to 12th, but time is running out for both.
6. Ok, let's go back to the numbers once again to try to illustrate just how open and wild FC Dallas' 5-3 win at Austin was on Sunday night:
Jesus Ferreira, who has been resurrected as a playmaking second forward over the past two months, had himself a brace and is now up to 4g/4a in 2021 after going for just 1g/1a in 2020. 18-year-old Ricardo Pepi also had a brace and is now up to 11 goals on the year. The single-season record for a teenager of 13 was set by Diego Fagundez eight years ago. He happened to be on the field and got a goal of his own as well.
There were goalkeeper errors, backline catastrophes, precision build-ups and clinical headers. I think any honest assessment of this game has to start with those errors and catastrophes, but on a macro level it's impossible to watch Austin and not be struck by their flagrant lack of team speed. Every transition moment was panic-inducing because every transition moment was a chance for Austin to lose 10 footraces. It happened time and time and time again.
Dallas are 4-2-2 in their past eight and pushed up to 10th place in the West with the win. Their next two outings — at RSL and home vs. the Quakes — stand a decent chance of defining their season.
5. Gonna make our Face of the Week a double: An ecstatic Sporting KC fan after Johnny Russell’s equalizing free kick in Sporting’s 1-1 home draw vs. Colorado, followed by Rapids midfielder Jack Price’s wide-eyed disbelief after frankly mind-breaking late misses from Russell on one end, then Cole Bassett down the other:
This was a really high-level game in every respect but the finishing. Both these teams are a lot of fun to watch, and Robin Fraser's ability to mix-and-match personnel and formations all year long has been remarkable.
4. DP striker Adrien Hunou finally started finishing for Minnesota United, grabbing himself a brace in a scrappy, come-from-behind 2-1 road win at Houston, which the Loons managed without injured playmaker Emanuel Reynoso.
Newly-signed target man Fanendo Adi came off the bench at the hour mark as the Loons shifted out of their default 4-2-3-1 to more of a 4-4-2 with Hunou as a shadow striker underneath. I don’t think that is going to be a permanent look, but it’s a new and useful club to have in the bag.
Houston are 0-7-8 since May 22, a 15-game winless skid. The league record is 18, held jointly by the Rapids (2014 into the first month of 2015) and RSL (2005).
3. You know it’s a golazo when the color commentator unleashes an involuntary scream as it’s scored. It happened on Rubio Rubin’s bicycle kick earlier this year for RSL, and on Jakob Glesnes’ thunderbolt vs. Atlanta. Now listen to Stu Holden on the call of Brian Rodriguez’s wonder-goal for LAFC in yet another absolutely insane El Trafico on Saturday evening in downtown LA:
That gave LAFC a 2-1 lead. Eight minutes later, though, the Galaxy carved ‘em up and tied it. But two minutes after that Rodriguez got his second of the night, a poacher's goal in semi-transition to make it 3-2.
LAFC were dominant. They would end up outshooting the Galaxy 25-10 on the night, 11-5 in shots on goal. Their young DP was having what sure seemed like a breakout game, and they’d already conceded their mandatory soft goal of the outing (Dejan Joveljic’s opener for the Galaxy was a gift from Jesus Murillo).
Surely — surely! — this would be the season-changing win Bob Bradley et al had been searching for, even with Carlos Vela out injured.
Alas. LA head coach Greg Vanney changed up the Galaxy’s shape, brought on Efra Alvarez to run the show down the stretch and, well, the very predictable thing happened: the Galaxy found a late equalizer. It finished 3-3.
“Really feel for the guys tonight,” Bradley said afterward. “That's a tough game to tie. Feels like a loss.”
That has been the story of LAFC’s season thus far. They are 11th in the West, still within touching distance of a playoff spot, but with time running out. Individual errors have subverted their progress time after time after time.
As for the Galaxy, they’ve won just once in their past five, are facing four of their next five on the road and are really starting to leak goals. Vanney was happier than Bradley at the end of the match, but not by much.
"A guy can't carve through us like we're cones in our box and put the ball top [of the net]," Vanney said. "It just can't happen, it's simple. All of us will be watching that video for the next 20 years on highlight reels and that's not a position that any of us want to be in. I was in one of those when Preki cut us up in 1996 a few times and it's not something you want to keep watching over and over for the rest of your career. But we need to get better on the first defending."
2. The Timbers got a measure of Cascadia Cup revenge, capitalizing on a pair of uncharacteristic Sounders mistakes and some VERY friendly woodwork to come out of Seattle with a 2-0 win, pushing up to sixth in the West.
It was something of a Pyrrhic victory, though, as first Eryk Williamson came off injured for Cristhian Paredes after 12 minutes (it didn't look good, and head coach Gio Savarese said as much at halftime), and then Paredes had to come off midway through the second half himself. Portland aren't precisely threadbare at central midfield — reacquiring George Fochive a couple months back looks like a very smart decision right about now — but they're on the verge of it. And just as they're getting healthy in attack, too.
As for Seattle, I suspect Brian Schmetzer will want to quickly move past this one. Mistakes happen and all that.
But it's worth noting that chance creation against set defenses is becoming something of an Achilles' heel for this team, and it's starting to show on the scoreboard. That 6-2 drubbing of these Timbers a couple weeks back was a pretty clear outlier; in the eight other games since mid-July, Seattle's managed more than a single goal just once, and they've been shut out three times.
There's stuff to work on here.
Both teams were debuting interim coaches. The 'Caps, who were finally unshackled to pass the ball forward from midfield, responded well. RSL, who were missing a number of key pieces, did not.
There's a grand total of three points separating the sixth place team in the West from 11th in the West. Both these teams are in that mix.
The next two months will be wild.