Too much happened this weekend to keep it to a blurb. Here’s my full column on how they cope with losing Josef Martinez.
Glass Half Full: Somehow, the Fire still have a shot. New England have three (very) difficult games left; it’s possible that the Revs take zero points. If the Fire take six points from their last two games, they will own the tie-breaker advantages over the Revs. A data point in their favor: since the Fire switched to and have stuck with a standard 4-2-3-1, they have secured five shutouts in their last nine games.
Glass Half Empty: If you want to be a Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoff team, you need to score a goal on the team in last place.
It’s great to see Greg Garza getting a run of games again. He is FC Cincy’s top-player-relative-to-league-position-average. He is one of the top five left backs in the league (if not the best). The only question about Garza’s place in the hierarchy is his health. For what it's worth, I have a healthy Garza second on my USMNT depth chart, depending on the game, behind only Sergiño Dest.
Where does Lalas Abubakar rank in MLS center backs right now? Here’s my list of guys who have been better than him this year:
That might be it. Abubakar has been one of the 10 best central defenders this year. He’s a no-nonsense, focused, committed defender. A lot of factors contributed to Colorado's turnaround this year, but one of them is signing a center back who doesn't commit mistakes and can make key tackles. Abubakar is only on loan right now from Columbus, and the first task on Colorado’s offseason list might be lengthening Abubakar’s stay.
It feels like we could be seeing the end of the Wil Trapp era in Columbus. He’s lost his starting spot lately, and his toolbox doesn’t seem to fit with what Caleb Porter wants in that defensive midfield spot. I’d be surprised to see Trapp with the Crew next season.
An interesting dynamic has come up between Dallas' three young midfielders Jesus Ferreira, Paxton Pomykal, and Brandon Servania. Ferreira and Pomykal were the star attackers at the youth level, but Servania, the deeper midfielder, might be the best goalscoring option. Watching Servania feels similar to seeing Dallas academy product Weston McKennie play for Schalke; both players hold the title of box-to-box or defensive midfielder, but they have their best moments busting forward toward the box. Conversely, Pomykal and Ferreira have become more important to Dallas' possession and chance creation. It will be interesting to see how Luchi Gonzalez uses them in their final two games.
After everything D.C. have been through this year, they could be peaking at the right time. They put together a complete performance in Sunday’s win over Seattle. It was a blend of recent 2019 and the best of 2018. They started in a tight mid block, just like they did in the recent wins against Montreal and Portland; but they didn’t just wait to counter. They kept the ball on the floor, interchanged positions, and combined off Wayne Rooney.
10:03pm EST: text to friend saying, “Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis regressing might be the story that bums me out the most.”
10:07pm EST: Elis scores
10:12pm EST: Manotas gets an assist
Friend responds, “What a 10 mins from Manotas & Elis, eh?”
If that 10-minute stretch doesn’t describe the 2019 Houston Dynamo, I don’t know what does.
It occurred to me that the Galaxy still have Romain Alessandrini and Favio Alvarez returning from injury and both could be ready for the playoffs.
Also, one slight wrinkle I'd like to see from the Galaxy. I'm not sure why they have Dave Romney play as an attacking left back overlapping Cristian Pavon. It seems to me that Pavon-Romney could have the Thierry Henry-Eric Abidal relationship. Romney stays back as a third center back, giving Pavon both the space to do what he wants. It gives the Galaxy defense an extra player to protect against counterattackers, and the attacker gets the mental freedom that they can take risks because they are covered.
It looks like the season might come down the outside backs. Matt Doyle talked about their increased defensive responsibilities here:
Has the rest of MLS figured out LAFC? Should the league leaders adjust?
I’ll have more on their increased role in the offense, how it came about, and how they need to evolve tomorrow.
If you're a connoisseur of defensive midfielders – and, while I have this chance... you are bad person if you aren't – then the Loons have been an interesting case study this year. Would Jan Gregus, who signed from FC Copenhagen for a reported fee of a couple million bucks, be above or below MLS level? Did Ozzie Alonso still have enough in his legs at age 33 to dominate? How would they play together? Would they be more of a destruction or possession pairing? It turns out that are very good at the first and pretty good at the second. Overall, they are one of the best pairings in the league -- which is a good sign this time of the year. Here's my list for best midfield pairings heading into the playoffs:
- Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye
- Jonathan dos Santos and Sebastien Lletget
- Alex Ring and Keaton Parks
- Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus
- Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya
- Eric Remedi and Darlington Nagbe
It was almost the perfect bounce-back week for the Impact after their loss to Cincinnati last week. They pulled out a 1-0 win against Toronto on Wednesday in Leg 1 of the Canadian Championship final, then they put the Galaxy under real stress for 90 minutes. I was surprised to see Wilmer Cabrera rest players ahead of Leg 2 of the Canadian Championship – playing the Galaxy is still a very winnable game, despite what the optics suggest – but I can’t say it was the wrong decision. Beating Toronto to win a trophy and securing the spot in Concacaf Champions League that comes with it would be huge.
New England Revolution
For the last three games, it's gotta be Teal Bunbury up top with Gustavo Bou and Carles Gil roaming behind him, then three hard working midfielders behind them. It's too late in the season to come up with anything complicated. Stay compact through the back seven, make sure nobody plays through the middle, then let Bou and Gil ball. Those two are good enough to create chances on their own.
New York City FC
NYCFC’sdraw with Dallas involved a cool chess match between the coaches. David Gass was in Frisco for the game and here’s his breakdown:
NYCFC came out with ultra-aggressive approach on the road. When they were pressing, they would push Maxi Moralez up alongside the two strikers, and go 3-v-3 with Dallas’ center backs and defensive mid. Dallas love to build through those three players, so they struggled to cope. And Moralez, Valentin Castellanos, and Alexandru Mitrita deserve a ton of credit because they worked their butts off. Even when they got bypassed, they tracked back and helped force turnovers.
In response, Dallas did two things. They started having goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez clip balls to the second layer and bypass that press. And they shifted left back Ryan Hollingshead central to assume the center midfield responsibilities. Once Dallas solved the problems, they gained confidence and took over the game. At that point, it turned into an open, fun game.
It should be noted that it hurt NYCFC when Anton Tinnerholm went off. His energy and aggressiveness mean a lot to Dome Torrent’s plans.
TBD on whether Tinnerholm, one of NYCFC’s most important players (if not the key player), will be back for Wednesday’s game with Atlanta.
New York Red Bulls
It’s possible to boil everything the Red Bulls do down to the performances of their center backs. If their center backs are playing well and winning duels and eating up space, they will control games. If they aren’t and don’t, it makes everything else very difficult. Aaron Long and Tim Parker put in their performance as a pair of the year in the 2-0 win over Philadelphia. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine the Red Bulls winning a playoff game with Long and Parker being monsters.
Orlando City SC
It was a depressing way to have their season end. Orlando have been one of the more disciplined, tactically smart teams this year… and their playoff hopes disintegrated with two soft goals straight up their gut. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but the Lions lost their defensive bite at the wrong time, as they’ve given up 10 goals in their last four games.
The Union’s postseason success might come down to remembering this point: They are not a possession team that also works hard; they are a bruising team that can also pass. The Union can outpass almost everyone in the league, but they can’t prioritize it in their own minds. Passing comes naturally to this team; winning second balls does not. They lose games when they lose the intensity battle. They need to walk into a game with the unquestioned priority of outworking the other team, and let the pretty soccer come as a natural side effect.
When the Golden State Warriors hit Steph Curry on a back cut to the basket, they’ve rehearsed that play in practice. When the Los Angeles Chargers hit Keenan Allen for a touchdown, they’ve rehearsed that play in practice. When Liverpool find Roberto Firmino at the penalty spot, they’ve rehearsed it in practice. You don’t need to script up every movement, but you should have some cohesive sense of how you’re going to score. The Timbers don’t right now (to be fair, a lot of teams don’t, but it’s exacerbated for the Timbers because teams are sitting deep against them). Portland have been shut out in their last three home games. I’m going to repeat these three potential ideas that we had in the Week 20 version of 24 Takeaways:
- Start the wingers wider so they can pick up more speed going into 1v1 situations. The extra three yards will allow Jeremy Ebobisse and Sebastian Blanco to get at full speed when approaching defenders, and then it just takes a drop of the shoulder.
- If the wingers cannot/do not start on the touchline, get the outside backs to overlap sooner. Portland are excellent at quickly changing the point of the attack, but they are often slow to get the extra player involved to capitalize on the overload that comes from it.
- When you play early balls into the box, release Cristhian Paredes to push closer to the edge of the 18 to win the second balls. Crosses are ineffective, unless you accept that the second ball creates a better goalscoring opportunity than the first ball.
Real Salt Lake
It was an impressive performance from RSL, getting a point on the road while resting players with six-point game against LA Galaxy coming up. It’s cool to see teams look like themselves even with a different group of players on the field. And Freddy Juarez made the right decision to rotate. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Wednesday’s match. RSL currently sit one point behind the Galaxy for the fourth seed. The winner of Wednesday’s game gets pole position for a Round 1 home game. If the teams meet again in the playoffs, LA vs. RSL is a very, very different game at Rio Tinto Stadium compared to Dignity Health Sports Park.
San Jose Earthquakes
Losing in the last few minutes at Atlanta, while down a man, was nothing short of heartbreaking. San Jose have played really well over their three-game losing streak. The good news: All three losses, and the three before that, all came on the road. The Quakes return to Avaya Stadium for the next two games.
An interesting quirk from Saturday’s game, as a result of San Jose’s system: The Quakes didn’t change their formation after Cristian Espinoza, their right winger, was sent off. Matias Almeyda didn’t make any subs or move players around. They simply played without a right-sided midfielder. Atlanta only had one attacker on that side, so San Jose only needed one defender. The Quakes kept the numbers in the middle of the field to match up with Atlanta’s five central players.
The main lesson from the Seattle Sounders the last three years: You cannot judge them unless they have at least 10 starters playing. Every team changes a little when they are missing players; the Sounders change completely. If Seattle have everyone healthy, they can win MLS Cup. If they are missing more than two players from the first XI, they cannot.
Sporting Kansas City
The line between "We're close to being good!" and "Man, we're bad" for a struggling team is very thin. NYCFC, for example, were in the former category when they started the season winless in their first six games. Same with Toronto, who have recently gone eight unbeaten. Other teams – we don't need to say names – have been in the latter category. I honestly don't know what side Sporting are on. How could you watch the first 60 minutes of the Portland game, or the first 45 minutes of the Galaxy game, or the first 20 minutes (before Matt Besler got sent off) of Saturday's game with Colorado and not think, "This team can play with anyone!"? I wouldn't be shocked if Peter Vermes brought back the whole group to prove a point and say, "Last year was a collection of flukes; we still got it."
A conversation about Michael Bradley in two pictures. The first, Bradley's heat map from August 3 against the Red Bulls, the last time Toronto lost.
The second, from Saturday's 1-1 draw with LAFC.
Bradley played better in the LAFC game than the Red Bulls game. Those very cherry-picked heat maps are to say: When Bradley does less, like we saw in the LAFC game, he does more. When he stays in the middle of the field, sits in front of the defense, connects the game, sprays passes and protects against counters, he's still elite. When he tries to do more, he has a smaller influence on the game. It's not natural for Bradley, who has always wanted to be a do-everything midfielder, to be a stay-at-home defensive midfielder, but Toronto's success largely depends on his willingness to accept the role.
Can we agree those home kits are the best jerseys in MLS? That's at least some solace in a lost season, even after getting a point against Columbus.