- Almiron...Nooo!!!! I was legitimately sad to see him leave the field injured in the first half. He’s a joy to watch and lifts the entire league and I hope he’s healthy for the playoffs.
- 16-year-old George Bello started, scored, and played very well.George Bello is the fourth choice left back and only beat out the fifth-choice option to start. When people try to tell me young players need to “earn” their minutes before getting on the field, I’m going to point to George Bello. I’m not saying young players shouldn't have to bust their butts for minutes, but they shouldn’t always have to beat out multiple players to get on the field. By the time they are good enough to do that, they will be past their optimal years of development.
Bello got a little lucky this weekend, and he will be better for it. His ceiling is higher because he got those minutes as a 16-year-old. Even if he didn’t “fight for his life,” he -- and Atlanta -- are better off for it.
There’s one simple way to turn a bad team into a good team: Get the mercurial, talented attackers playing at their best. Chicago has talented attackers — Aleksandar Katai is near dominant on his best days, Raheem Edwards has the tools to become dominant, Djordje Mihailovic has shown glimpse of being very good, and even Yura Movsisyan has some crazy ability locked up inside of him.
There’s a well-balanced, dangerous attack there. The problem (among many this year) has been that you’d never want to make a bet that any of those four, let alone all of them, play well on a given day. Is it possible to change mercurial attackers into level-leaded, consistent contributors? Unclear. But I’d certainly tune in for 2019 if Chicago can figure it out.
It’s now seven straight Ls for Colorado, but I’ll provide a positive spin: They are three players away from being good. They have a bunch of solid MLS contributors, but they need three high-level players to lift them. Give them a decent center back, a pass-master in midfield, and a DP striker ... plus some time to work on their decision making in possession and they could be a playoff team.
Three players is very doable in an offseason. The line I’ll use to the day I die? “If you try and pass and you’re not really good at it, you are going to lose.” It doesn’t mean you are bad, it just means you aren’t quite good enough yet. That could flip with the right off-season signings.
Columbus Crew SC
Crew SC are last in the Eastern Conference in goals scored in 2018, and second-to-last in the league overall. During the last four months, they rank No. 16 in expected goals per 90 minutes … and have been shut out in seven of their 16 games. Matt thinks it’s about personnel:
I think it’s more about approach – Columbus don’t change rhythm in possession. They always move the ball at the same two-touch pace; they rarely make one-touch passes that quicken the pace. As a result, they aren’t pulling defenses out of position. If you’re a possession team that doesn’t pull defenses out of position, you’ll struggle to score.
One of the best parts of my job is disagreeing with Doyle, and we’ve disagreed all year on Dallas. He thinks they need a creative playmaker to be at their best. He suggests that their optimal performances would come with a Mauro Diaz-type player in the No. 10 role. I’d argue they’re better off playing someone like Maxi Urruti — hardworking, energetic, fit, and fast — than a more traditional playmaker. It’s not pretty, but it solidifies their identity.
Dallas have the best chance of winning in the playoffs if they stick to "Grind-and-Fly". They probably won’t out-beautiful soccer teams, so don’t try. Don’t overplay through the midfield, don’t get too cute around the box — make it hard for the opponent to score, win the ball, go down the field as fast as possible, throw a bunch of people toward goal, repeat. It might not create the best version of the team, but it creates the team most suited to winning in the playoffs.
Okay, so we can agree Atlanta and the Red Bulls are the favorites in the East. But who’s the third-best team right now?
Philly’s been hot lately, Columbus is always solid, and NYCFC should get Yangel Herrera and Jesus Medina back soon. Each could make a claim. But the factor I use to decide between seemingly-even teams is “How many ways can they beat you?”
The Union, Crew SC, and NYC can all outplay teams, but if they don’t outplay the opponent, what’s their next dagger? If they aren’t sharp on a given day, I’m worried they would each be out of luck.
D.C., though, have a second “thing” right now: They have been excellent at hunting loose balls. I’ve used the words “pressing” and “counter-pressing” to describe what they do, but it’s a little more broad than both of those. Simply, whenever the ball is bouncing around, on either their own turnovers or random balls through the air, D.C. swarm the area and kick someone until they get it. It’s not quite to the Red Bulls level, but it’s close at times. As a result, D.C. have been pinning teams back, getting more possessions, and getting those possessions in good areas.
They’ve developed into Columbus on offense – tucking the wingers central, sending the outside backs forward, keeping the ball on the ground – but with angrier players more apt to winning duels. Yamil Asad, Ulises Segura, Russell Canouse, and Junior Moreno might be the toughest midfield in the league. If they struggle to pass through teams on a given day, as we saw against Chicago on Saturday, they can find other avenues to score.
With the playoffs all but mathematically out of reach, the Dynamo’s main focus will be prepping for 2019, and specifically Concacaf Champions League. I’ll be keeping an eye on how they use Tomas Martinez, a skilled-but-not-quick attacking midfielder who was supposed to bring a new element to Houston this year. In 2017, they made the playoffs as a quick-countering beast; in 2018, they hoped to be more than that.
Martinez gave them the option to slow the game down and create chances through the middle, but the Dynamo regressed in 2018. What happened? Was the plan inherently bad? Do the Dynamo still want to evolve, or will they double down on their 2017 plan? Can Martinez play on a counter-attacking team? I suspect how Houston use Tomas Martinez in the next four games will provide a glimpse into the Dynamo’s plans moving forward.
Dom Kinnear has done a great job of re-centering LA’s route since he took over – the team looks re-energized and better organized – but I think he made a key mistake late in Saturday’s game. In the 74th minute, right back Sheanon Williams took a knock and needed replacing, and Kinnear opted for Jorgen Skjelvik. Skjelvik stepped in at left center back, his natural position, and pushed Dave Romney, the starting center back, to right defender. Nine minutes later, SKC’s Johnny Russell scored from LA’s left side. He cut inward and took an open shot from eight yards.
Kinnear should have kept his centerback pairing of Daniel Steres and Romney and inserted Skjelvik at right back. Skjelvik would have been out of position (a left-footed player on the right side), but it would have allowed the defense’s chemistry to remain intact. Steres and Romney had been nearly perfect in their previous two games together. I couldn’t guarantee that the Romney-Ashley Cole connection on the left side of defense would have stopped Russell’s goal, but it would have given LA a better chance.
The expansion club are cruising lately, going 5-2-1 in their last eight, but Bob Bradley has some tough decisions on his hands. What’s LAFC’s best lineup moving forward? They have three major decision points:
- Who starts at striker?Adama Diomande, Christian Ramirez, and Marco Urena all offer excellent, but different options. Diomande is the best all-around player, but he scored on the Saturday for the first time in 13 MLS matches.
- Who starts in midfield? In Saturday’s win over the Rapids, Bradley opted for Benny Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen as his double pivot. "Feilhaber", "Nguyen", and "double pivot" will never not be fun for me to put together in a sentence. But will it get the job done in the playoffs? Does Bradley need the more reliable and sturdy Eduard Atuesta in the triangle?
- Where does Carlos Vela play? He’s spent time on the right wing, as a second forward, and at the top of a midfield triangle. There isn’t a big difference in his or the team’s numbers when he changes spots, but I think the team’s much better when he plays as an attacking midfielder. The spacing is better when they are in possession – for reasons I’m not entirely sure how to explain – and being central puts him in a better spot to lead counters. But if Vela plays central, it means Feilhaber, Nguyen or Atuesta have to sit.
Minnesota United FC
Last week, Minnesota CEO Chris Wright told MLSsoccer.com that the Loons have “8-to-10 really, really, really good pieces” to build on. While watching Philly destroy them on Saturday, I asked myself a very simple question: How many of Minnesota’s players would start for Philly? I came up with one guaranteed starter – Darwin Quintero – and one probable starter – Francisco Calvo (at left back). That’s it. I appreciate the CEO’s optimism and would fully expect his answer as a Loons player, given that the only thing worse than saying his players are good enough is saying that his players aren’t good enough.
Tell me who wants to play Montreal right now. They’ve now smashed Columbus, Philly, RBNY and NYCFC in the last couple months. Yeah, they laid an egg against D.C. and another vs. Toronto; the Impact are definitely capable of embarrassing performances. But in do-or-(nearly-)die games, they’ve now run the other team off the field in four of six. And if the Most Valuable Player award actually went to the player most valuable to his team – if we could somehow measure it in a soccer version of Wins Above Replacement – it’d be Nacho Piatti on the podium.
New England Revolution
It’s tough to read the situation in New England right now. On on hand, they probably accomplished their biggest goal for 2018: It’s undoubtedly Brad Friedel’s team. He’s made tough, unpopular decisions that have made it very clear it’s his way or the highway. He can now mold the squad into what he wants. Yet Saturday’s emblematic performance was ugly, even if the score didn’t show it. The team looked disorganized on defense, switching between some strange 6-3-1 to a 4-3-3, and meandering on offense. I trust Friedel is building toward something – I just wish I could tell what it is.
Yes. Because I think (choose to believe) the first fixes the second.
New NYC boss Dome Torrent has been tinkering a ton. He’s tried pretty much every formation imaginable so far this year. But I think that largely has to do with Herrera’s absence. If you look at Torrent’s recent history, with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Bayern Munich, the teams have used two box-to-box center mids in front of a single pivot. Without Herrera, City hasn’t had a suitable second box-to-box option.
Torrent had the choice to wedge an ill-suited player into the spot, or keep moving the pieces until he found something that worked. I’d be extremely surprised if Torrent didn’t default back to the 4-3-3 when Herrera returns. Will NYCFC have the time to jell enough to beat Atlanta or the Red Bulls at this point? I’m not sure, but I definitely expect them to be better.
New York Red Bulls
I keep a list of random questions I have about MLS. The ever-present for 2018 has been:
- Is Alex Muyl good?
You know what I’m talking about. He provides invaluable work rate and selflessness, but he also tends to dribble the ball out-of-bounds a little too often. He felt like the potential weak-link member of a championship-caliber team in a weak-link sport. Well, Alex Muyl has been fantastic the last two weeks. He’s added intelligent runs and composed decision-making around goal to his relentless work rate. In doing so, he’s rounded out the Red Bulls attack, giving them a seriously scary front four. Muyl could be New York's – and the East’s – most important player moving forward.
Orlando City SC
New head coach James O’Connor is - or at least should be! - trying do a total cultural rebuild. Culture starts on the training field and in the locker room. The performances on the weekends aren’t nearly as important as the daily habits Monday through Friday.
Why does 34-year-old Will Johnson keep starting for an eliminated team? Maybe it’s because he works the hardest in training, and O’Connor feels that the best route to long-term success is creating a culture that rewards good training habits (I have no idea if that’s true, it just seems to be the only logical possibility). So while it’s been bleak the last few months for Lions fans, O’Connor demonstrated at Louisville that he knows how to build a club.
We used to say “If only this team could score their chances.” Well, finally got a glimpse of what that could look like. Also, Mark McKenzie is Philadelphia’s best center back right now – he’s the Union's most composed possession passer out of the back, and he's reading the game a little better than either Auston Trusty or Jack Elliott. It’s a boost for the team to have McKenzie back ahead of the playoffs.
Portland are the easiest team in the league to explain. When they play Diego Chara as a center defensive midfielder in front of two center backs, defend deep, and get Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco on the break, they are very, very good. When they try to do something other than that, they aren’t very good.
I don’t blame head coach Gio Savarese for trying to expand their horizons – he tinkered with a diamond midfield to attempt to hold more possession – but I think he has enough of a sample size to know what works and what doesn’t. When they resorted back to their trusted pillars, they won again.
Real Salt Lake
RSL fans let me know that they think we should have given their team more pub. Well, this weekend showed, yet again, that they are the most enigmatic team in the league. RSL smashed the Galaxy, then tied Minnesota. They earned a result against Sporting on the road, then were annihilated by Portland at home. As soon as I think I can pinpoint what they're good at, RSL seemingly forget how to do it the next week; as soon as I plan to write about what they can improve, they play a near flawless game. If anyone has any idea why that happens, I’d love to hear it.
San Jose Earthquakes
Almeyda brings a great resume and trophy-winning experience. His presence marks a major statement of ambition for the Quakes. At the very least, Almeyda will be fun. From a “give me all the storylines” possible angle, I’m down for this.
I don’t have much to say about the Sounders. I’ve been working so hard to analyze them and parse their strengths and weaknesses that I’ve failed to enjoy their resurgence. They aren’t a systematic team that you can dissect, and that’s what they want. They find a different way to play and a different way to win every week. I still distrust that, but I’m going to put that concern aside until the end of the season. I’m going to enjoy them and do a deep dive into why I was right or wrong after it’s all done.
On Friday, I told Matt this:
I think SKC is the best team in the West, and the 3rd-best in the league. The way they move the ball, the way they create chances, their ability to lock down defensively (when they're focused) – they are one of a few teams in the league that consistently control games. But they've been dropping points, specifically against playoff teams. They play well, they look like the better team, then they end up tying or losing. And I don't know how to explain it, or whether they will stop doing it.
Saturday’s game against the Galaxy didn’t do anything to change that opinion. SKC are a very good team, but they have a penchant for dropping results. Come playoff time, I’m not sure the second point isn’t more important than the first.
Toronto’s season has been bad. They’ve officially been eliminated from playoff contention. In some ways, it feels merciful. But here’s the thing – their fourth game from now is in the 2019 CCL. Even though they’ve been one of the worst teams in MLS this year, they will enter CCL as a favorite. (Soccer, man, it’s a crazy beast.) They need to find a balance between making a statement around the club that this year has been totally unacceptable, while maintaining a vibe that they can still win a major trophy in a few months.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
This Russell Teibert goal from the weekend shows the main concern of the Carl Robinson era:
The club brought in guys who can ball – and, more importantly, who seemingly want to ball – but didn’t let them do it. Vancouver’s core group of attackers – Yordy Reyna, Cristian Techera, Nicolas Mezquida, and Brek Shea – are all guys who want to keep the ball on the floor; and they are all pretty good at it. It never made sense to me why Robinson wanted them to play a gritty style.