16 games in Week 28, plenty of takeaways to draw from the week that was. Let's jump in:
I bet if we could give Frank de Boer truth serum, he would be okay with the 3-1 loss at home to Columbus. The Dutch manager prefers a more cautionary way of attacking because it prevents against getting counterattacked. The only way Columbus, or about 20 of the teams in the league, win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium is through counterattacks. Tata Martino essentially acknowledged as much, too, in the playoffs last year. De Boer probably went too far with it early in the season, though, and has since loosened his grip on it. Since the All-Star Game, the Five Stripes have been flying.
I imagine, though, that the possibility of this type of loss had to be in the back of de Boer’s mind the entire time. The more adventurous Atlanta become, the more they exposed themselves defensively. De Boer started the team too far in one direction, then they have swung too far to the other. It’s good that this loss happened in Week 28 rather than the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. It was a humbling experience, and I’d be surprised if it happens again.
The Fire did a great job in Saturday’s win over Dallas of bouncing back and forth between a pressing setup and a low block. Pressing has all of its advantages, but too often teams don’t have a plan for when the press gets broken. Chicago didn’t have that issue. They looked comfortable stepping high into Dallas’ half and then dropping into their own half when Dallas steadied into possession.
Also, it’s genuinely wild to watch Bastian Schweinsteiger play deep-deep lying playmaker from center back. When’s the last time a team let its center back have the most freedom in passing selection?
You can tell a lot about the team by looking at their midfield shape. Specifically, does it make sense? Do the players seem to have a purpose for their spacing, angles, and movements? The midfield is the most complicated part of the field, and if your center midfielders seem to have some understanding, it’s a good sign for the rest of the field. It looked like FCC’s midfield made sense in Saturday’s win over Montreal. They took up good positions early and moved for the ball at smart moments. It wasn’t perfect, but it showed signs of progression, and that’s a data point that should make Cincinnati fans feel good right now.
Columbus Crew SC
Caleb Porter drew up the perfect game plan for playing against Atlanta right now: As soon as you win the ball, hit the channels on the outside of the wingbacks. All three goals came from nearly identical patterns, with Columbus winning possession and finding Luis Diaz down the right side. You could see the Crew players pick up their heads when they got on the ball and look for that right side, and Diaz almost never did anything except put his head down and take off. (To be fair, this approach is probably the right choice against most good, dominant teams around the world right now.)
Most of the focus this year in Dallas has been on young stars Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira, and Reggie Cannon (with some recent nods to Zdenek Ondrasek). This is the part of the season, though, when Matt Hedges and Reto Ziegler need to be the unmistakable stars. They are the players who have experienced this before; they are the players who have played in these types of games. In Saturday’s loss to Chicago, they weren’t good enough. They should have handled three of the Fire’s four goals. If Dallas hope to make the playoffs, their stud center backs need to have four monster games.
I’m very into Paul Arriola playing center mid. His skillset can have a larger impact in the middle of the field than out wide. He’s a good soccer player who does a lot of things well, but he’s not particularly dangerous or clinical going forward. He’s in the Darlington Nagbe category — he’s at his least comfortable and effective when he needs to shoot. Use his energy, selflessness, and willingness to connect simple passes as an engine in the middle of the field.
I’m stuck in between “HOLY CRAP THIS TEAM WOKE UP NOBODY CAN STOP THEM THEY MIGHT SCORE 50 GOALS IN THE NEXT 8 GAMES IT'S GOING TO BE WILD WHEN THEY BEAT LAFC IN THE WEST FINAL" and “Nah, I’m not falling for this again.”
The Galaxy have four impressive wins since the end of May:
- @ Sporting KC — then lost the next one.
- vs. Toronto — then lost the next one.
- vs. LAFC — then lost the next three.
- vs. Dallas — then didn’t win any of the next four.
The reason to believe this time might be different? (I’m a predictable man… it’s the midfield.)
It’s now four games without a win for LAFC, and I’m interested to see how Bob Bradley responds next game. Does he take the, “Let’s not overthink anything that happened while Carlos Vela recovers from his tight hamstring” approach, or does he see something larger taking place? If it’s something larger, does he take the risk of making changes this late in the season? Brian Rodriguez for Adama Diomande would be the obvious switch. He has Lee Nguyen on the bench as a wild card, too. I also wouldn’t be shocked if he tried something with his outside backs.
I completely understand why Adrian Heath has taken a hard line with Darwin Quintero, but my goodness is Quintero good when he’s on. When he’s at his best, he’s unstoppable. If you’re an opponent, all you can do is hope that Quintero happens to be off that day; if he’s feeling it, there’s nothing you can do. It got me thinking about other players on that list. (This isn’t a statement of who is the “best” player, but rather who can single-handedly win a game with a few unstoppable moments.)
- Carlos Vela
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic
- Darwin Quintero
- Ignacio Piatti
- Cristian Pavon
- Alberth Elis
- Sebastian Blanco
- Alexandru Mitrita
- Jefferson Savarino
- Johnny Russell
This was as must-win as it gets for a team in a playoff dogfight: a home match against the last-place team in the league. Instead, the Impact lost, conceded an early goal, then failed to score and generated only one shot on target against what is arguably the worst defense in MLS history. Montreal are still in the playoff hunt, but if they miss out, this is the result they’ll rue more than all the others.
New England Revolution
From 7-0-4 through the early summer to 1-2-4 since the start of August. The Revs have not put together a solid 90 minutes since the start of July. Two potential reasons:
- Nobody sleeps on the Revs anymore. They became a legit playoff contender — if not MLS Cup contender — and nobody expects it to be an easy game.
- The tinkering caught up to them. We saw something similar last year with NYCFC — Dome Torrent got to New York and tried multiple new formations and started 5-1-0, but then it crumbled pretty quickly. Since Bruce Arena has taken over in New England, he’s deployed a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-2 diamond, a 3-5-2, and a 4-4-2 with an inverted right midfielder. It was fun and cool, and maybe a little too much. As the games have gotten tougher and tighter, the Revs don’t have anything to settle into.
It was a really interesting tactical week for NYCFC. Dome Torrent used a 3-4-3 with Alex Ring at center back against Toronto on Wednesday. Against San Jose on Saturday, NYCFC played in a 4-3-3. Even though the Cityzens have used a 4-3-3 this season, this was a different look. Alexandru Mitrita moved central to partner Ring. At first glance, the front five of Ring, Mitrita, Valentin Castellanos, and Gary Mackay-Steven felt like an attacking gamble from Torrent; in the end, though, it was their defensive abilities that made a bigger difference. They flew around the field, made it tough for San Jose to build their possession, and won second balls.
For USMNT fans, Keaton Parks played at the base of the midfield triangle against San Jose. My guess would be that it’s the spot where he has the highest potential. He has super, unique-in-the-player-pool soft feet and a great soccer brain, but he’s not someone who buzzes around the field; he probably can’t quite get around quick enough to play as a box-to-box player. He definitely has something, though, that you’d like to get on the field. With questions around the defensive midfield position for the US, he’s a name to keep in mind.
Orlando City SC
The point against New England on Saturday might have suited the Lions more than it did the Revs. Yes, the Revs have a four-point edge and a game in hand...but they also have a much more difficult schedule. Orlando could take nine points from their last three games (Houston, Cincinnati, Chicago), while the Revs will be the underdogs in all four of their final games.
On April 22, 2017, the Union gave up a three-goal lead to Montreal and fell to 0-4-4 in their opening eight games of the season. After the game, Alejandro Bedoya told the media that he was at a loss for words. David Gass and I were doing our old Extratime Live show on Facebook that weekend and I said that I didn’t love Bedoya’s demeanor as the captain. Postgame press conferences aren’t a time for coaches and players to shed honest feelings; they are a chance to send a message, and Bedoya’s body language and words weren’t sending the right message. It didn’t look like he was using his responsibility as a captain to own the moment.
I say that as a preamble to this — Bedoya has been one of the best club captains in Major League Soccer over the last two seasons. He’s been everything you want from a leader: He works his butt off on every play; he’s selfless on the field; he holds teammates accountable; he mentors younger players; and he provides a front-facing persona for the club. The Union’s success this year would be almost unimaginable without both Bedoya’s play and his leadership.
The Timbers are a team dependent on their big players creating moments of magic to make things happen, so when six starters are missing, I don’t have a takeaway. Except, I guess, that fact that they are a team dependent on big players creating moments of magic is even more evident when they don’t have those players on the field.
New York Red Bulls
Premise A: Playing as favorites in the playoffs doesn’t help the Red Bulls. Three years as Supporters’ Shield winners, three years without making it to MLS Cup. The elements of what make the Red Bulls good — overwhelming opponents and winning the ensuing chaos — do not work as well when you’re the favorites. Teams mentally prepare for that type of game. By my estimation, they should feel better about going into a playoff game as the No. 6 or 7 seed than as the No. 1 or 2 seed.
Premise B: They can still execute those fundamental principles. In every game over the last few months, they have had some stretch that showed they can still totally flood opponents.
That’s all to say, the Red Bulls shouldn’t be stressed right now. Or, maybe they should be stressed, but they shouldn’t feel panicked. This script is playing out in a way that favors them. If they can stay confident and arrogant, they are still in a good position. To use my dad’s old saying, “They got them right where they want them.”
Real Salt Lake
An observation more from Wednesday’s win over San Jose than Sunday’s loss to Minnesota: Real Salt Lake have the best defensive line in the league. It’s a really nice line. The “line” doesn’t refer to their talent or level of dominance — those a little more up for interpretation — I’m talking specifically about the shape of the line that the four defenders hold. There are very specific mechanics about how those four players should operate: the horizontal distances between the four players, the vertical distance to the midfielders, when they drop, when someone steps out of the line, how they cover for that person. When you watch a game, notice how often that line of four defenders gets separated from the rest of the team or has a player a step ahead of or behind the others. Those are the tiny lapses that lead to goals. RSL’s line does a really nice job with all of those details.
San Jose Earthquakes
It was a frustrating two losses for San Jose this week — two tough road games, they played well enough to win both of them, yet return back to California with zero points. There’s a clear pattern that opponents are taking against Quakes at the moment, devised by LAFC and now copied by RSL and NYCFC.
In the buildout, use a single pivot with two attacking midfielders high and central, and the wingers high and wide. In doing so, you are getting the Quakes to leave the center of the field as empty as possible (remember, the thing about the Quakes man-marking system is that you get to decide where the pieces start). With the middle of the field empty, you have someone dart into the space to receive the ball. The attacker gets to start running first so he gains a couple yards of cushion and receives the ball with plenty of space around him. LAFC used the higher center midfielders as the first option; NYCFC used the wingers as the first option; RSL used the long ball to the strikers. It’s not these buildout patterns alone win the game, but they keep San Jose from getting their chokehold on the game like they were in the middle of the season.
Every MLS Cup winner since 2007 has had an elite center back and an at-least very good defensive midfielder. You could have nine of the best 11 players on the field, but if you don’t have those two spots locked down, you’re not a real contender. The Sounders never had to worry about it because they had Chad Marshall and Ozzie Alonso for the last decade. This was the first year that it was an open question.
This weekend’s win over the Red Bulls was the first time this year in which it looked like Seattle could check both of those boxes. Kim Kee-hee and Xavier Arreaga put together their best performance as a pairing, and Gustav Svensson has become one of the best defensive mids in the league.
Sporting Kansas City
The right side of Toronto’s attack has become a pretty cool machine to watch. As I’ve said multiple times in this column (and will continue to say) Jozy Altidore isn’t a stand-alone center striker; he’s a complete player who should be given the freedom to do more than play around the box — he needs to have someone next to him. Enter Tsubasa Endoh, who started at right wing but essentially played second striker and helped occupy the center backs so Jozy could roam. With Endoh darting to the middle, Alejandro Pozuelo and Marky Delgado could float to the right side. Pozuelo and Delgado aren’t players who are going to fly down the line, though, so enter Richie Laryea. The attacker-turned-right back would fly down the right to provide the width and direct option. All of this worked together to create the goal of the weekend:
One big picture win that has come out of the ashes of Vancouver’s season: the combo of Canadians Doneil Henry and Derek Cornelius as a legit center back pairing. Whitecaps fans: at the start of the year, if some could have offered you the option between ‘Caps could making the playoffs or the team helping to fill the national team’s biggest hole heading into Concacaf Nations League, what would you have taken?