18 games in Week 17, so plenty to chew over among the 24 teams. Let's get started right away:
It felt really good to see Justin Meram bang home the brace, didn’t it? It’s been a difficult 18 months for the Iraqi international, and he wore those struggles all over his face and body language. He used to love being on a soccer field and ooze confidence, and he appeared to lose that joy sometime during his time in Orlando. It’s always a wonderful feeling when you see a player shed that weight and start to enjoy his soccer again. MLS is better when Justin Meram is ballin’ out.
Also, in terms of interesting Atlanta United news:
The Fire are sick and played really well for the majority of the game, except... it’s so, so wild that they gave up a goal, and probably the game with it, by trying to pass out of the back at Red Bull Arena. When the Red Bulls visited Chicago in March, the Fire launched the ball long, avoided the Red Bulls’ press and played in Red Bulls’ half...and won 1-0. The Red Bulls had no answers to Bastian Schweinsteiger’s pinpoint direct balls from the back. But then the Fire go on the road against the same team and try to build through the press? It was mind-blowing to watch. They even had a warning sign two minutes before the goal when Kenneth Kronholm passed the ball to Danny Royer. I have no problem with any team trying to pass out of the back, especially a team with Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty, and Nico Gaitan, but it’s the constant fluctuation of styles that’s baffling. The Fire have tried to be so many things this year — direct, possession, counterattacking — and I don’t think you can decouple those constant adjustments from the fact that the Fire continuously shoot themselves in the foot.
Some games are better left forgotten.
What a performance from the Rapids in their 1-0 win over LAFC (special shoutout to Sam Vines, who neutralized Carlos Vela to the point that the Mexican star moved away from the right side of the field halfway through the first half). This wasn’t a “survive and hope for a goal” game, either. Colorado played even with LAFC (granted, LAFC were missing four starters). A stat to keep an eye on, because it’s the Rapids’ biggest weapon right now and it doesn’t seem like anyone is getting close to having an answer for it: Six of the Rapids’ last 12 goals, and five of the last six, have come via corner kicks.
Columbus Crew SC
It looks like there will be some dominoes falling in Columbus soon. When asked after the game about rumors suggesting Atlanta United striker Romario Williams could be on his way to Columbus, Caleb Porter said, “Can’t comment but I’m sure there will be some updates in the next several days.” Sounds like a “We are just trying to decide what locker he will be using” comment to me. Does that mean Patrick Mullins is on his way out? Porter remained relatively quiet during his first transfer window in charge of the Crew. I suspect the Williams move is a small precursor for larger moves to come in the next window, specifically in an effort to get more physical and mobile.
UPDATE: The deal is done and the locker room spot is apparently decided.
FCD were on the verge of stealing all of the headlines this weekend. Look at this expected goals map from their visit to Providence Park:
That’s right, Dallas played even, or perhaps outperformed, Portland in Portland. If Dallas had finished a couple of those chances, it would have been an all-around dominant performance. Whether the Dallas brass feel encouraged or distraught about that, I’m not sure. It’s clear that Dallas can soccer with anyone. The inability to finish chances may have gone beyond a critical mass, though.
Coming off the 1-0 win midweek over Orlando, I felt better about D.C. than I had in awhile. Russell Canouse looked dominant again and the center backs were proactive again and the team found a way to control the game by controlling the middle of the field again. Then Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Toronto zapped that optimism. They looked lackluster... again. I wonder if the late penalty to tie the game was the worst possible thing for D.C. I wonder if they would have been better off eating the really bad home loss to a largely rotated Toronto team. Losing that type of game could have shocked some life back into them.
The Dynamo’s season is a great example about the power of sample sizes. Observed in small doses, it’s been a roller-coaster season, starting with six wins in the first eight games, followed by just one win in the next eight games. Looking at the full picture, though, it’s been a pretty status-quo season. They have won their home games and lost their road games. It just so happens that the home games and away games came in chunks, so the emotions got compounded. The Dynamo weren’t as good as their early-season record suggested and they aren’t as bad as their most recent results. They will continue to win their home games and struggle on the road and float right around the playoff line. One positive sign: Romell Quioto played his best game of the year in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to New England.
After the 1-0 loss at Colorado, Bob Bradley told reporters, “Look tonight, it’s on us to still try to make more football. It becomes, you know, we just didn’t do enough with responsibility in that game to make that football, it’s on us.” It comes off as one of those vague things that coaches say when they don’t have anything else to say, but Bob Bradley (it’s an incredibly Bob Bradley-quote, isn’t it?) is being very intentional and precise with his words here. This is the idea that will define LAFC’s quest for history. When you have a team as dominant as LAFC, it generally turns into the dominant team acting as the aggressor and the opposition trying to throw them off their game. The inferior team — and seems pretty clear that everyone is inferior to LAFC at the moment — tries to make the game as ugly and physical as possible. The ability of inferior teams to level the playing field is one of the best aspects of the sport. LAFC will now need to readjust parts of their style to work in the type of games that teams are forcing them to play.
It looked to me like the Galaxy made an adjustment specific to playing San Jose. LA split their center backs extra wide, all the way to the sidelines at times, in possession. In theory, it makes sense — San Jose don’t use “help” defenders, so if you can make them cover more distance before getting to the ball, you might be able to able to exploit the time and space. It didn’t work, though. The Galaxy’s defenders weren’t comfortable enough on the ball to find the open player as they got closed down. San Jose forced turnover after turnover in LA’s half. The two teams meet again in 11 days; is it a plan that Schelotto will try again?
The six-goal win could just be a nice confidence booster, or it could end up meaning everything later in the season. Goal differential is the second tie-breaker for playoff position (after wins). It’s going to be a wild race for those final spots in the West. I wouldn’t be surprised if three or four teams finish at 48 points and 14 wins. Minnesota hold the goal differential tiebreaker on all of them right now. The Loons' win over FC Cincy garnered a lot of jokes, but their ruthlessness to keep racking up goals was absolutely right and needed.
What’s Montreal’s default formation? This was the third straight game that Remi Garde opted to use three center backs. They have used three center backs in six of the last 10 games. The constant fluctuation is more jarring, and potentially more concerning, about Montreal than it would be for any other team in the league. Montreal’s competitive advantage comes from their attention to detail and how well drilled they are. They had become very proficient in the 4-5-1. Can they get to that level at two different sets?
New England Revolution
Bruce Arena trotted out a 4-4-2 diamond, and it made me very nostalgic. The last time Arena used a diamond (as far as I could find): his original D.C. United team. Raul Diaz Arce and Jaime Moreno at striker, Marco Etcheverry as the tip of the diamond, Richie Williams at the base of the diamond, with John Harkes and John Maessner as the shuttlers. Yeah, you remember those days, don’t you? That’s still my favorite MLS team of all time. The Revs instantly moved up my ESPN+ rankings just so I can mentally compare Juan Agudelo to Harkes.
I find Keaton Parks to be one of the more fascinating players in the league right now. He’s a sort of symbol for so much of what’s taking place in the dialogue about American soccer. There’s a big, and legitimate, question about the need to get young but unproven players into the US national team. If it were three years ago, Keaton Parks would 100% be on that list (and many were clamoring for Parks three years ago). He was on the books for Benfica. The minutes at a first team level were so sparse, though, that it was tough to tell if he was actually good. The conversation was on spec. I have generally remained on the side of, “please don’t tell me a player is good until he actually shows something at the first-team level.” Well, Parks is getting his chance. He’s getting minutes. He was very good in NYCFC’sOpen Cup win over D.C., and then just okay in Saturday’s win over Philly. A single person doesn’t set a paradigm, but I’ll acknowledge that I’m paying extra attention to Parks at the moment.
New York Red Bulls
First... it’s another win for Red Bulls against a team that tried to pass against them. By my count, it makes them 7-1-3 against teams that try to pass -- and 1-1-5 against teams that do not. Second… Brian White has an incredible knack for finding the soccer ball. It’s an underappreciated skill - it’s not recognized as much as first touch, pace, finishing -- but it can sometimes be more important. If you have a more precise sense of where a ball will bounce, you have an advantage. And Brian White has that. He has an unquantifiable sense of the game and where the ball will end up. The goal he scored this weekend showed it on multiple occasions:
What a giant, giant win for Orlando at Columbus. They take three points (basically a six-pointer) on the road while missing key players against a direct competitor for one of the last Eastern Conference playoff spots. The Lions might be the best team in the league at putting in professional, grab-the-points-and-get-out results. They are tactically and emotionally disciplined (for the first time in their franchise history?) and make opponents work for everything.
The Union learned a harsh, vital lesson in Saturday’s 4-2 loss at Yankee Stadium that could/should serve them in the future. Philadelphia were the better team for the first 65 minutes. But they needed to shut down the game around the 65th minute and didn’t. You could feel the momentum shift and the game open up. If you’re the Union, you need to remind yourself that you’re on the road against a solid team, and it’s okay to play defensively for a few minutes. Stay tight and play direct for 20 minutes. Make sure NYCFC don’t get any easy chances and hope to steal one as NYCFC look to push forward to get a win at home. It’s not in Philly’s DNA to sit and wait, but there are moments in a game -- and we even see it from Barcelona and Liverpool and Bayern Munich -- when you have to do it. Hopefully this lesson will prepare them as they battle for Eastern Conference points down the stretch.
Tom Bogert discussed the Timbers in his fantastic substitute appearance for Matt Doyle on the Sunday review column.
One note on the Timbers I’m keeping my eye on: How do they manage Diego Chara’s minutes? As wonderful as Brian Fernandez has been, and for as spectacular and proven as Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco are, this is still Diego Chara’s team. He is still their most important player. If we all agree that the Timbers are going to walk into the playoffs, should they then start to limit Chara’s minutes to make sure the 33-year-old peaks in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs?
Real Salt Lake
RSL put together another professional, disciplined performance this weekend. Mike Petke’s group didn’t play great soccer, but they didn’t need to. They scored twice in the first 30 minutes and then handled business. It’s now back-to-back weeks with low-key, no-frazzle results. It’s been somewhat boring, but it feels like boring is what RSL needed. We know they can do the spectacular, but it wasn’t clear they could lock down and do the basics. As they start to pair those together, they will climb up the West. They need to be careful in a potential trap game on Wednesday against Columbus before a huge one against San Jose next weekend.
San Jose Earthquakes
They are good at everything right now. Their set defense is stout, their offensive-marking and counter-pressing is excellent, their attacking transitions are dangerous, and their possession is effective… and they have the quality to create moments of magic (Vako!). It’s tough to find a weakness. My favorite part about them right now: Remember when Matias Almeyda said at the beginning of the year, when it looked like the team might not win until 2023, that he believed in his players? He stuck to it. He worked with them and built their confidence. He has improved or maximized the ability of every player on the team, even the players who were previously written off. Vako, Judson, Marcos Lopez, Guram Kashia, and Wondo all seemed unsuited or unnecessary for Almeyda’s system, yet they were all back in the team this week and played well.
Henry Wingo put together his best MLS performance, and one that should get him more opportunities. He looked quick and decisive in his actions, and his naivete made Vancouver’s defenders uneasy. If you look at the Sounders’ roster, there’s still an open race for the difference-maker off the bench. They don’t have anyone to bring on in the 70th minute who strikes fear in the moment. It might be Joevin Jones, but he hasn’t been particularly sharp for Seattle or Trinidad and Tobago in the last couple months. Handwalla Bwana is in the conversation, too. But if I’m Brian Schmetzer, I would use Wingo as the first option off the bench at NYCFC on Wednesday to keep his confidence rolling.
Sporting are the opposite of Colorado right now. Colorado are average through the middle part of the first and incredible in front of both goals; Sporting are incredible on every inch of the field except the ones closest to the nets. They are struggling to win the duels around Tim Melia; struggling to create high-quality chances; struggling to finish the chances they get. If Sporting want to get back over the playoff line, they have to rebuild Krisztian Nemeth’s confidence. His body language tells a clear story right now, and his finishing ability reflects it.
I suspect Greg Vanney is the happiest coach in the league today. Toronto had a potential nightmare week -- Atlanta and then D.C. United, while missing four key players -- and it seemed like the best he could hope for was damage control on goal differential. The Reds did exponentially better than that, snagging four points. Vanney got excellent performances from Liam Fraser (who stepped up big time at center back on Saturday), Jacob Shaffelburg, Tsubasa Endoh, and Richie Laryea. Shaffelburg, in particular, could be the Reds’ revelation of the year. He offers the pace and wide threat that Toronto have been missing.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
It’s mission accomplished so far for the Whitecaps this season. They survived early-season growing pains, then they weathered the summer absences with a few vital draws, and have kept themselves in reach of a playoff spot. It could all come down to their upcoming stretch. They have LAFC, Sporting KC, San Jose, and Minnesota in July. A good month might put them in pole position for a playoff spot. A bad month could put them in a big hole.