Another jam-packed week of MLS action, with every team in the fray (sometimes twice). Let's get to business:
The defending champs have been fantastic the last few weeks — wins over LA, NYCFC, Club America, and Portland. They seem to have fixed a lot of their issues. With that said, I’m holding off for another couple weeks before I trust them. We see this play too often around the league to get swept away by it. Almost every team has put together an explosive four-game stretch, especially when three of them were at home. They were mediocre-at-best as far back as July 21 against D.C. United. You don’t go from panic mode to “2nd best team in the league” in a month. There’s good form, and then there’s being a legitimately good, reliable team. Is Justin Meram really a stud wingback? Does Pity Martinez really want to stretch a defense that often? Is Frank de Boer really okay with ceding control? Maybe — probably! — but we need a couple more weeks to know for sure.
Fire fans, do you find this tweet to be:
Win next Sunday’s Hell is Real derby and your season is a success.
We saw the first signs of tactical flexibility from Conor Casey this week. The Rapids man-marked in both of their games this week (It might have started against San Jose last weekend). It’s not quite as aggressive as what San Jose do; the Rapids start from a more familiar 4-4-2 zone. Colorado definitely leave those zones quickly and often, though. It’s more man-marking in the end than zonal.
Columbus Crew SC
One thing Caleb Porter has always been good at coaching is neutralizing the opposing defensive midfielder. In the 2015 MLS Cup, Diego Valeri constantly blocked the passes lanes to Wil Trapp and forced someone else to get the ball from defenders. In Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Toronto, Pedro Santos followed Michael Bradley and didn’t allow him to get into the game. I’d like to see Porter (and other teams) deploy it more often. Almost every team builds through the defensive midfielder — eliminate that guy, and they don’t have answers. It would be an effective strategy against at least half the teams in the league.
Dallas haven’t won two games in a row since April. They play Houston and Cincinnati at home in the next 14 days. They HAVE TO HAVE TO HAVE TO take six points in those games. Of note, because I’ve been so high on him throughout the year... Paxton Pomykal has struggled the last two weeks. It looks to me like he’s pushing too much, trying to take on more attacking and goal creation responsibility. In the long run, it’s probably a good thing, as that’s the phase of the game that would take him to the next level. In the short term, it’s a growing pain that he and the team need to navigate.
D.C. United are officially on the bubble. Their five-point cushion is measly considering their current form and remaining schedule. They are 3-5-6 in their last 14 games. Four of their final seven games are on the road; six are against current playoff teams. One positive sign: Wayne Rooney gave the fourth official an earful when he got subbed on Saturday night. It’s always looked to me like Rooney is better when he’s yelling at people. Sometimes he tries to play the role of calm and cool captain; when that happens, he tempers the part in him that brings out the most of his ability. He needs that fire at full flame. We gave Wayne Rooney credit last year for how he galvanized the team; he needs to be that guy again.
My answer: Yes. He’s absolutely talented enough, and maybe even in the second tier of strikers in the league (with Mauro Manotas, Raul Ruidiaz, Jozy Altidore, Gustavo Bou and Brian Fernandez, behind Josef Martinez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic). It looks to me like he’s been finding his place in the team’s system. Diomande was at his best when he was the unquestioned star and focal point for Stabaek in Norway. He’s obviously not that guy for LAFC. He plays a functional part in a larger system. It can be tough to navigate that, both tactically and emotionally. How can you be your full self, the self of a talented star, while also accepting your role in a larger scheme? It looks like he’s settled into it more in the last two months.
Early in the season, I wanted to make the takeaway for the Galaxy, “Who would you be more afraid to lose, Zlatan or Sebastien Lletget?” I got too afraid to write it because it seemed too crazy. Here’s where I’ve settled on it, especially after Lletget was so important in the Galaxy’s 2-2 draw (which should have been a 2-1 win while down a man) against Seattle: Lletget is the key piece to the Galaxy playing well; Zlatan is the key piece to the team winning. Winning is more important than playing well, especially the way the Galaxy are set up, so Zlatan is the indispensable player. But Lletget’s willingness to cover ground and make simple passes makes the team function better as a whole.
The Loons have only given up more than one goal twice in the last 12 games in all competitions. Those two games… you guessed it! Ike Opara didn’t play. Opara (who gave up a penalty this week but was still stellar) has moved to the top of the MLS Defender of the Year running. A braver man would say he’s even moved into Landon Donovan MLS MVP finalist contention.
For what it's worth, though, Minnesota have a remaining schedule that will put them through a blender. Eight games left — all against Western conference teams — five on the road. The Loons will probably be the underdog in at least six of the final eight matches.
Matt Doyle has been off for the last seven days and he’s been itching so he sent me a Montreal blurb:
Ok, here’s the upside:
has been electric – a literal match-winner in
one of his three starts. The Impact finally have someone who can answer a few attacking questions and get them points when
But the defensive questions appear to be fatal. Teams that make the playoffs don’t give up three goals at home, and they certainly don’t give up 3-0 leads at home. Teams that make the playoffs don’t go 1-6-1 through the heart of the summer. Teams that make the playoffs don’t go back to the drawing board with the same center backs they’d previously decided weren’t good enough (with ample evidence to support that decision, it must be said).
Lappalainen shouldn’t have to bag four goals a week to be a match-winner; his brace should've been enough. But it looks like that’s where the Impact are at. Montreal have passed “nose dive” and are well into “tail spin” mode. If they lose this Saturday at Toronto, I’m officially labeling it a “death spiral.”
New England Revolution
I don’t know what to make of their last three games. They played poorly in all three, yet they walked away from both CenturyLink Field and Red Bull Arena with a point. They have been in the “gritty or lucky, depends on how generous you’re feeling” territory. Moving forward, the Revs might be the first of the East bubble teams with a definitive answer. Three of their next four games are all against teams below the playoff line. It sets them up for three six-point games in the next month, against the three teams right below them in the standings.
I’m interested to see what direction Dome Torrent goes with James Sands, who left the game with a broken collarbone, out for the foreseeable future. Does Torrent do a straight swap with Ben Sweat as one of the three center backs? In the 3-4-3, Torrent has to keep at least one of his talented attackers — Valentin Castellanos, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi (when healthy), Jesus Medina, or Gary Mackay-Steven — off the field. Does he decide to commit to the 4-3-3 to get as many of his best players into the XI at the same time? NYCFC are better defensively and tougher to beat in the 3-4-3 formation. They are more dynamic and perhaps better functioning overall in the 4-3-3.
New York Red Bulls
Almost all of their games in the last few months have had major momentum swings. The Red Bulls overwhelm the opponent, force turnovers and dominate the game; then the opponent adjusts, usually by hitting long balls to bypass the pressure, and Red Bulls lose control. RBNY games have the most prominent swings in the league. Two thoughts stem from it.
- RBNY have to finish their chances when they are in control. Soccer is always a game of efficiency, so it’s a clichéd observation. But it’s more important for Red Bulls than anyone else. You can very much feel when it’s their turn in the game; they get a few big chances in a row. As a player, you can get a little complacent because it feels like you are going to keep getting chances. It’s clear that’s not the case for the Red Bulls. They have to come out of that increment with at least a goal advantage.
- Chris Armas needs to find a reliable option to change the game in the second half. For me, it needs to be pure speed. When the Red Bulls get pushed back, they don’t have anyone who can stretch the game. We saw a couple instances on Saturday when Bradley Wright-Phillips and Daniel Royer got caught from behind in open space. It might be important to sacrifice some skill or tactical understanding to get pace on the field.
Orlando’s best performances have a very Liga MX feel to them — half the team attacks and half the team defends (Orlando usually attack with four and defend with six). The four attackers get the freedom to run at players and try things while the six defenders stay behind the ball and protect against the counter. They take the probability that their four dribblers will score compared to the chance that the opposition will be able to break down six defenders in set position. James O’Connor definitely wants a more sophisticated system, especially when Ruan is on the field to fly down the right, but their big results have generally come from a very basic setup.
Whoever plays striker needs to do less. Just stand in front of the goal. Philly’s midfield is really good and doesn’t need help creating chances. They need a clear, trustworthy target to hit in front of the goal. BWP and Wondo are the gold standard for this. They let the chances come to them. Don’t drag yourself away from the goal; stay within the width of the posts and always be the first one to arrive around the six-yard box.
They missed Larrys Mabiala in Sunday’s loss against Atlanta. The Timbers are 1-3-2 without him this year; the lone win came at home against Vancouver. Portland left too many gaps in transition; every time Atlanta won the ball, it looked like the Five Stripes might score on the break. Mabiala can deal with open space, both proactively and putting out fires, better than Bill Tuiloma or Julio Cascante. If Mabiala is set for a layoff, I’d like to see the Timbers use Jorge Moreira as an inverted right back in the attack, bringing him inside to play as a defensive midfielder next to Diego Chara. Moreira and Chara would be able to destroy transition moments before the center backs have to deal with it.
Real Salt Lake
Another from Doyle:
In the 2019 regular season RSL are 11-3-3, +19 goal differential when Justen Glad plays. When he doesn’t they’re 1-7-1, -15 GD.
It comes down to two things: His passing and his mobility. Glad isn’t a great passer (I’d file him under “pretty good with potential for more”), per se, but he’s miles better in terms of both ball progression and accuracy than the other guys on the RSL depth chart. So when he’s out there, RSL can build more comfortably and more quickly, which helps their raft of tricky attackers get the ball earlier and in better spots.
If turnovers do happen, Glad’s mobility plays its role. If Glad’s on the field RSL simply don’t give up transition goals because he has elite range and speed for a CB, and generally reads plays very early. So when Glad’s on the field they can take more risks, which helps their attack, but those risks have a much lower chance of blowing up in their face, which helps their defense.
In his 17 games this season they’ve conceded just once on the break. Against LAFC this weekend, with Glad on the bench, they got destroyed on the break even when up a man. It’s been that way all season long.
San Jose Earthquakes
The Quakes might have learned an important lesson in the 2-1 loss at Sporting Kansas City. They started with their line of confrontation at the top of SKC’s box; San Jose positioned their two highest players all the way at Tim Melia and Sporting’s center backs. In response, Tim Melia did this:
Melia's passing map vs. San Jose.
Many, many long balls. SKC almost never tried to pass out of the back. It was actually surprising to see Sporting hit long ball after long ball; it was a major compliment to San Jose. It’s similar to what we’ve seen teams do against the Red Bulls this year. Nobody wants the Red Bulls to play in transition against them; San Jose have joined a similar category. More teams will play against against San Jose down the stretch. Against Sporting, San Jose didn’t adjust. They weren’t prepared to change their line of confrontation or pressing scheme midgame. I suspect they will be more prepared next time.
After the Sounders beat Atlanta in July, I wrote that Seattle had won by adjusting their framework — they defeated Atlanta by outworking and outcompeting them. I posed the question: Is that who the Sounders should become now? Is becoming a combative, against-the-ball team their best chance of maximizing their ability? Sounders fans didn’t like it. After watching the Sounders struggle to do much of anything with the ball against 10-man Galaxy, should we revisit it?
Sporting Kansas City
Saturday’s win over San Jose felt like a vintage Sporting performance. They didn’t prioritize possession; they focused on winning duels and being solid defensively (they’ve started from a much more compact 4-5-1 than usual in the last four games). Warning: the last two times SKC put together impressive performances and it felt like they might just have life in them, they lost two in a row. They have two home games coming up to finish out the month. They could give themselves a real shot at making a final sprint for the playoff line.
I was going to annihilate Toronto for another lackluster, never-got-out-of-second-gear performance but they saved themselves with the late goal. With that said, I have the paragraph written and am saving it for next week, because I’m not at all confident they will break out of their slumber given it’s been more than a year and a half now.
In the last three weeks, Vancouver went from “maybe if I don’t write anything people won’t notice” to “there are some interesting things going on here.”
- Inbeom Hwang is really interesting as a defensive midfielder — it’s tough to come up with an international comparison for it. Joao Moutinho with Monaco feels like it could be the closest example.
- Theo Bair has become one of the brightest domestic prospects in the league
- Yordy Reyna might be a starting-caliber striker?