The Gold Cup break is over, and MLS is back in session. Let's get to surveying all 24 teams.
Random thought bouncing around my head lately… is Ezequiel Barco the most important player to the league hierarchy in the second half of the season? Do his performances hold the most variance for how the standings will look come October? Atlanta have cultivated the best defensive record in the league, but they have struggled to score. If they figure out how to turn the possession into goals, they will vault back into the top echelon, right next to LAFC. If Barco turns into the $25 million player Atlanta project, then Atlanta probably win the East. If he doesn’t, then they probably continue to slumber along. A recent injury definitely doesn't help matters.
The choice to start Mo Adams at center mid and Brandt Bronico at right back was weird. Almost every part of their skillsets suggests that Adams would be the better choice at right back (I expect Adams to end up as an outside back, a la Tony Beltran, in the next two years). I could understand the urge to play Adams in the middle against a superior team on the road — Adams has proven to be an excellent destroyer — but they were playing at home against a team they should be expected to beat. Why not play Bronico, the better passer, in the middle to control possession?
Interim coach Yoann Damet should feel really good about his team’s response to giving up two early goals. After going down, Cincinnati dominated the game. They controlled possession and created chances. The team did everything they could to get back into the game for their sell-out crowd, which was once again fantastic. There’s definitely still fight in the group. Saturday might have been a loss, but it felt like a step forward.
Also, this from Matchday Central:
Columbus Crew SC
Sunday should have been -- was almost! -- a step in the right direction for the Crew. They pressed well and created chances in transition and you could see their path forward back into the playoff hunt. But by the end of the 90 minutes, it turned into their worst case scenario, which is saying something for a team that’s been playing through nearly worst case scenarios for two months. Losing David Accam to the hamstring injury and Harrison Afful to a red card takes their two most important players out for at least another game. On a positive note, Hector Jimenez looked great back into his natural wing spot.
Bressan looked like a stud in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Toronto. It was his first truly positive performance in MLS. I’m curious to see what he can become in the league. He played over 100 games in Brazil’s top league for Gremio, plus another dozen in Copa Libertadores (many of which came alongside Everton Soares, who started and scored for Brazil in the Copa America on Saturday). The Brazilian was a bit of an afterthought this offseason because of the Luchi Gonzalez hiring and Dallas already have two lockdown center backs, but Bressan was a low-key impressive signing.
We had a lot of discussion around our office about the team that needed the Gold Cup reprieve the most, and my vote went to D.C. United. They have had a sluggish couple months. Specifically, they haven't been as organized or committed defensively as they were in the start of the year. Without a strong defensive base, they haven't been able to win the ball in good spots or give themselves easy opportunities. They've had to work for everything, and it seems to be wearing on them. The week off at the beginning of the month should have afforded them the opportunity to have a few focused, hard defensive sessions.
We will ignore this weekend’s 4-0 drubbing by Portland, given Houston played without Mauro Manotas, Alberth Elis, Memo Rodriguez, Maynor Figueroa and Romell Quioto. Looking ahead, the Dynamo have a blender of a schedule coming up: five of the next seven games are on the road, with three midweek games wedged into the stretch, and LAFC and the Red Bulls as the two home games. They gave themselves a lot of wiggle room at the beginning of the year, and they are still third in the West on points per game, but they are now 2-4-2 in all competitions in their last eight games and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get easier. On a positive note, they will get Elis, Figueroa and Quioto back sooner than expected, given Honduras crashed out of the Gold Cup.
In Thursday’s Open Cup matchup, San Jose provided a little window into one of the ways to give yourself a chance against LAFC: Pound transitional passes into the channels, specifically to Jordan Harvey’s side. You can’t try to pass through LAFC, especially in transition. LAFC are the best team in league history at counter-pressing. If you try to play the first pass through the middle, Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye, and Eduard Atuesta will eat you like a drunk college kid destroys a burrito at 2:00 am. But you don’t need to pass through the middle against LAFC; trust your patterns. You know that LAFC use their outside backs in the attack, so you know there will be space behind them in transition. Win the ball, hit the ball into that space. Don’t look, just hit it, knowing your winger will be running onto it. Cristian Espinoza and Vako got five or six excellent chances from it.
Ema Boateng fits into a bucket of players: Talented but low on confidence. He has all of the tools, but he’s looked hesitant as long as he’s been in a Galaxy uniform. A player like him — quick and direct — needs to be okay with making mistakes. And he’s the type of player the Galaxy need; he can stretch an opponent horizontally or vertically. His goal in the 2-0 win over Cincinnati made that clear — a quick run behind the defense to attack the space created by Zlatan Ibrahimovic dropping into midfield. The Galaxy need more of that decisive moment; they looked stagnant once again despite getting three points.
Sometimes moments in seasons come along at just the right time. The situation in Minnesota felt… combustible. Darwin Quintero had been struggling and the team had lost three straight. Then they faced Houston in the Open Cup when Houston rotated their entire backline and goalkeeper, and Quintero bagged two nice goals and the Loons found a nice win. Next up: Cincinnati at home. That is, to use a bad but applicable cliche, exactly what the doctored ordered right when Minnesota needed it.
Also, this goal from Quintero must have made Adrian Heath’s heart sing:
When we talk about successful teams, we generally reference money spent on players plus coaching. One of the other key variables to a club’s long-term success is the organization structure of the front office -- how they assign roles and who assumes those roles. Behind LAFC’s successful South American signings (Diego Rossi, Eduard Atuesta, and Eddie Segura), for example, is an intelligent scouting and recruitment structure established by the club. There’s a reason they hit on those players. Montreal took a step in the right direction last week, announcing a reorganization to their technical side. It’s an under-the-radar announcement that could/should pay dividends in the future.
New England Revolution
This line from Bruce Arena, when he was asked about the Revs' potential activity in the upcoming transfer window, stood out to me: “We’ve seen some players that are perhaps a little bit better than we anticipated, and that’s a positive.” It’s funny, because I can mentally hear Arena saying, “We thought they were bad and they turned out to be okay so that’s nice.” But it’s also one of those moments that Arena makes sound ambivalent about something - similar to when he talks about stats — in which he’s actually a master. Arena has always been good at maximizing the middle of his MLS roster, getting the most from players who others might not.
This move had been swirling around the rumor mill for a while, yet I’m still surprised to see it happen. Does NYCFC need another winger/attacking midfielder? Their fifth-choice option prior to the Mackay-Steven signing was Jesus Medina… that feels sufficient to me. Does this move precede someone’s exit? The Cityzens still only have one natural center striker on the roster, and Heber might need a layoff after going out injured from the midweek Open Cup game. Why not address that need before adding a sixth winger? NYCFC and City Football Group have been really smart and efficient about their international signings so they deserve the benefit of the doubt, but this feels like a strange move to me.
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls may have the most open positional battles of any team heading into the second half of the season. Chris Armas has choices to make at striker (Brian White or Tom Barlow… or Bradley Wright-Phillips?), winger (Danny Royer, Alex Muyl, Omir Fernandez, Derrick Etienne Jr., Andreas Ivan… or maybe Kaku?), center midfield (Marc Rzatowski or Cristian Casseres Jr.), and center back. This doesn’t account for the possibility of switching to the 3-3-3-1 in order to keep Amro Tarek on the field once Aaron Long returns.
Also, for a deep analytical dive into the adjustments Armas has made this year, read this from Cheuk Hei Ho.
It’s about to be a bonkers month for the Lions. They have four straight weeks with a midweek game, including six games against Eastern Conference teams and a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal. Orlando have some interesting names on their depth chart — Dillon Powers, Sacha Klejstan, Santiago Patino, Carlos Ascues, Benji Michel — so it’ll be fun to see who steps up.
I don’t have a strong opinion on Andrew Wooten as a player. I’m not going to lie to you: I don’t watch a lot of 2. Bundesliga. My main reference points: Alex Ring, Damir Kreilach, Luis Robles and Kacper Pryzbylko came from 2. Bundesliga.
I’m not sure the Union were looking for a talent upgrade, though. I’d be surprised if Wooten is given a spot rather that given a chance to compete for a spot. It feels more like a statement of intent. It’s similar to what takes place in baseball. Sometimes teams make a trade-deadline move as a rallying cry. Specific to the Union, it seems like a statement to the locker room. If I were to try to read Erst Tanner and Jim Curtin’s brains, I’d guess the internal dialogue sounds something like: “We aren’t going to act like we are happy to be here; we are in first place, and we are still going to go out and look for potential starters. If you don’t have that mentality, we will leave you behind.”
The recent Timbers run has been a smack-in-the-face reminder about the power of talent. Jeremy Ebobisse was a fine option at striker; the Timbers made MLS Cup with him there. But Brian Fernandez is awesome, and the Timbers look unbeatable right now. Sometimes I overlook talent because I love the beauty of a well-functioning machine (to be fair to myself, I think everyone else overvalues talent and I take the extreme view on the other side to bring everyone else toward the center), but sometimes talent smacks you straight in the face.
Real Salt Lake
Bobby: “I’m pretty sure Albert Rusnak is a box-to-box midfielder, not a playmaker.”
Friend, an RSL fan: “You’re an idiot.”
Bobby: “He was great in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Chicago when he dropped deep to get the ball!”
Bobby: “He’s better at pulling the strings than creating goals. His technical ability is better suited to the middle of the field than the final third. He has bite and aggression, too. He should be in the engine room. Play Damir Kreilach as a goalscoring No. 10 and Rusnak as a passing No. 8.”
Friend: “I can’t do this right now.”
San Jose Earthquakes
One of the great travesties of Major League Soccer in the last decade is that San Jose didn’t go all-in on the Goonies mantra. They should have made it the identity of the club, and the foundation of every personnel decision they made. The Goonies polarized the league — you either loved them or hated them. The Quakes had what every team is looking for: wins and relevancy. Finally, it feels like San Jose are getting back to that. Matias Almeyda’s style isn’t quite Goonie bash bro, but it’s in that hemisphere. It’s fast, and angry, and more than anything, unique. You will have an opinion about it. My opinion at the moment: They are one of the best teams in the league to watch, and deserved to beat LAFC in the Open Cup Round of 16 game on Thursday.
Speaking of, read this fantastic profile of Steven Lenhart by The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal.
Portland dropped the gauntlet with the Brian Fernandez signing. How will the Sounders, who have an open DP spot, respond? I’d be surprised if they don’t make a big move. Does Garth Lagerwey decide he wants to add another elite winger? Does he upgrade the defensive midfield spot? Does he go for another center back, someone with a proven record to replace Chad Marshall? Seattle have lost momentum in recent weeks, but that will probably change come the transfer window.
Sporting Kansas City
Columbus used a slight tweak in their press that should worry Sporting. Most teams put their two highest attackers, usually the striker and attacking midfielder, directly on Sporting’s center backs. It cuts off the pass to the center backs but leaves room in the middle; Tim Melia has become comfortable hitting passes to the center midfielders, and Sporting have been able to use the opposition’s press against them. The Crew, however, started with their two strikers pinched central, clogging the middle and pushing the play wide. When the ball went to the center backs, Columbus formed effective pockets and trapped the ball near the sideline. If I were an opposing Western Conference coach, I would copy it immediately. Sporting need to run patterns in training this week to improve against it.
Laurent Ciman’s aging process has been weird. When defenders get to the latter stage of their career, they usually become more cautious with their actions. They step into the midfield less, allow themselves to get isolated as seldom as possible, attempt to hit the million-dollar pass only sparingly. Ciman, however, hasn’t really changed his game at all in the last two years. He still tries to make the same plays, but executes them at a much lower rate. I felt confident throughout the early part of the season that Ciman’s poor performances would end once he settled into his aging body — he still has talent; the guy was a final cut for Belgium’s World Cup squad 12 months ago — but my confidence is fading. He probably only has a couple more opportunities to get it right, too, given Omar Gonzalez is set to join after the Gold Cup.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
This comment is a mark for how far the ‘Caps have come this season but also the giant step they have yet to take: The Whitecaps dropped points on Saturday. The Rapids have become a decent team, but if you hope to make the playoffs, you need to win at home against other Western Conference bubble teams. You can’t go down two goals and play catch up all game. At the same time, did you think we would be talking about the potential for “dropped points” for Vancouver this year? It looked for a while that they would be happy to get any points. The ‘Caps have already gone from afterthought to real playoff contender.