16 games in Week 11, so plenty to pick over around MLS from the week that was. Let's dig in.
Ezequiel Barco had been Atlanta’s best attacker through the first nine weeks. In the two games since Barco has left for the Under-20 World Cup, though, Atlanta have looked more dangerous in attack. Tito Villalba is a better fit with the players around him.
- Villalba provides the transition ability that the team had been lacking and Barco doesn’t provide.
- His direct movement toward goal creates more space for Pity Martinez.
- His direct movement allows Josef Martinez to drop into midfield more, which appears to be a key part of Frank de Boer’s plan.
Atlanta didn’t exactly play well against Orlando, and maybe that comes full circle with what Barco offers overall, but they were more dynamic with Villalba on the field.
Two games this week, two decisive wins. Since Francisco Calvo arrived, they’ve been using a 3-5-2/4-3-3 hybrid. It’s a 3-5-2 in the defensive phase, with Johan Kappelhof, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Calvo at center back. Against New England on Wednesday, Przemysław Frankowski played right wing back, and then Aleksandar Katai took over the duties against Minnesota — though, needless to say, neither one played it in traditional wingback fashion. Then when the team wins the ball, Kappelhof moves to right back, Katai/Frankowski move up to the wing, and Calvo/Schweinsteiger split the field. It might be the coolest tactical tweak taking place around the league.
Cincinnati were fantastic to watch this weekend — maybe the single best team to observe as a neutral. I couldn’t take it in without a bit of concern, though. I worry that the gorgeous win over Montreal was fool’s gold. FCC passed their way through the Impact. It’s important to remember, though, that everyone connects a ton of passes against the Impact. I’m not sure that FCC have the roster to be a possession team, week in and week out (mostly because they don’t have any center backs who have proven they can pass). The Orange and Blue could be a fun and entertaining team, but I’m not sure it would translate to consistent wins. Fingers crossed I’m wrong, because Saturday’s game was fun.
The Rapids are going through a patch similar to what the Dynamo experienced last year. You probably only remember Houston’s 2018 as the Open Cup run and a failed regular season. There was a point around the middle of the summer, though, that the Dynamo were in the playoff picture. Then they hit a series of tough referee decisions, the type that might go a different way with a different ref, dropped points, and couldn’t recover. The same thing has happened to Colorado the last two weeks. Last Friday, it was the red card to Diego Rubio on a hands to face. This week, it was a red card to Justen Glad that was overturned on Video Review. The Rapids went on to lose by a goal both times. That’s a potential six points, which could put them just a win from the playoff line, plus the momentum. It’s not to say that the Rapids are a playoff team, but they’ve always had a touch of misfortune go against them.
Columbus Crew SC
Caleb Porter opted to test something new this weekend. He played David Guzman, traditionally a defensive midfielder, in Federico Higuain’s attacking midfield spot. It was, presumably, to give Higuain a reprieve and to play more defensive against LAFC. Both points make sense. It was actually the tactical tweak that came with it that hurt the Crew. Columbus usually defend in a 4-4-2 with Higuain moving next to Gyasi Zardes. With Guzman in the lineup, the Crew defended in a 4-4-1-1. I’m not sure if it was intentional or Guzman getting confused in his duties. Either way, it messed with the team’s spacing and Wil Trapp and Artur looked uncomfortable and confused behind him. If it’s a card the Crew want to play in the future — and I understand the logic in it — they need some more rehearsal time.
The loss to a rotated Red Bulls side on Saturday team makes it two frustrating losses in a row for Dallas. It’s tempting to write about what they’ve been doing wrong. But, scorelines aside, it’s been a largely productive couple weeks for them. They took on two good teams and found that their method of playing can dominate games. They should feel like they can play anyone and create enough chances to win. One piece that’s helped the last two weeks: Pablo Aranguiz is starting to grow in confidence. He’s still not close to Mauro Diaz levels, but he’s been getting more active each game. He will be Dallas’ key player with Paxton Pomykal off at the U-20 World Cup.
Watching D.C. right now feels a little bit like watching Columbus in 2018. They are clearly a good team, but they look like they are in 2nd gear. They are doing enough to get results, though not much more than that. And in getting consistent results, they don’t have much urgency to kick it into a higher level. I can’t blame them for that — coming into the season, my big concern was that they would be too good and too dynamic and Wayne Rooney would wear himself out. They are handling business in a consistent, intelligent way, even if I’d like them to be the D.C. that’s wonderful to watch at their best.
The Dynamo didn’t win on Saturday night against the Sounders, but Houston were probably the better team. They rattled the Sounders like we haven’t seen since Raul Ruidiaz arrived. I generally hate when the Dynamo press, but it did the trick on Saturday. One little detail that I found interesting: Why didn’t Houston start Boniek Garcia? He’s been great this season, and he’s better suited to a pressing scheme than Darwin Ceren. Is it because Houston play Portland on Wednesday, and the Dynamo are more concerned with competing for a playoff seed with the likes of Portland than Seattle?
Matt Doyle led his Sunday night column with his thoughts on LAFC. He perfectly encapsulated how great LAFC have been. I don’t have anything to add, so head over to see what he wrote.
My only pondering: When Caleb Porter called LAFC the “Manchester City of MLS”... Did Porter mean it as a compliment (“look at how good they are!”), or a dig (“well, obviously they are good, look at how much money they get to spend!”)?
Okay, I’ve said this before and it’s been true basically every game that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has played for the Galaxy so I try not to write it every week even though it’s really the only thing relevant to the Galaxy, but Taylor Twellman said it on the ESPN broadcast so I have cover to say it again: The Galaxy rely on Zlatan too much. Every time they get the ball, they try to find him. You could say, “Well that’s not Zlatan’s fault.” Except that every time Zlatan doesn’t get the ball, he gives the person a dirty look. What would you do? I know Zlatan is Zlatan and he’s probably the most talented player in the league, if not league history, but the team has looked cumbersome more often than not with him on the field. It’s a really awkward, scary, not-entirely-sensical conversation the Galaxy need to have with themselves… and everything else is moot until they do.
I’m torn on the direction the Loons are going in right now. On one hand, Angelo Rodriguez was extremely effective in April. He caused all sorts of problems that not many strikers in the league can create. On the other hand, he definitely changes the way Minnesota play… and it might not be for the better. There’s a giant gap between Angelo and the rest of the midfield — Rodriguez likes to go straight to the center backs and post them up — and the Loons have struggled with possession. He certainly provides something unique to the group, but he also takes something. I’m not sure which of those two things is more important, or which Minnesota should prioritize.
It seems that this is who Montreal are. They win a game, they lose a game. They beat someone you wouldn’t expect them to beat, then they lose to someone they shouldn’t lose to. Just when you think you have them figured out, they pull a result that changes the thought process. The best thing to say about Montreal at the moment might be this: They survived the stretch without Ignacio Piatti. They weren’t concerned about progress or building toward anything; they were trying to keep their heads above water. Mission accomplished. It sounds like Piatti should be back soon.
New England Revolution
The Revs started on Saturday with the attacking midfield quartet of Cristian Penilla, Diego Fagundez, Carles Gil, and Juan Agudelo. There’s some sauce there. It was the first time the four had started together this season.
New York City FC
They definitely stopped being bad. Are they good? I’m not quite there yet. They haven’t shown any coherent attacking ideas, other than drive the ball wide to the onrushing outside backs. I acknowledge, however, that I might be stuck in history and associate NYCFC with a possession team. I keep waiting for them to be a team that slices through opponents, when really they are a team that defends well in the 5-4-1 and transitions well with talented players.
New York Red Bulls
What a stupid week. Lose at home against Montreal on Wednesday with most of your first team and then win on the road at Dallas on Saturday with almost none of your first team. What are we supposed to do with that? Here’s a trend we’ve seen: RBNY do better against better teams. Their best games have been against Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas, and the LA Galaxy. It makes sense, too. Good teams tend to pass, and the Red Bulls’ system prefers to play against passing teams.
It was… not what I expected from Orlando’s visit to Atlanta. Orlando, a defensive team that prides itself on solid shape vs. Atlanta, the most possession-minded team in the league. This one should have an obvious script, right? Wrong. It was an open game. Orlando pressed Atlanta in Atlanta’s half. And you would think that Atlanta would benefit from an open game, but Orlando looked much more comfortable throughout the 90 minutes. Had Orlando finished their chances, they probably would have walked out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium with three points.
The biggest under-the-radar signing of the year has been Jamiro Monteiro. He’s been fantastic. He’s the exact blend that, to paraphrase "The Big Lebowski," Philadelphia need to tie the room (or in this case, the squad) together — he’s calm on the ball and covers ground like a cheetah. Specifically, he’s amazing at counter pressing and getting pressure to the ball as soon as Philly lose it.
A thing I’ve been thinking about but don’t know for sure because the player doesn’t do much to catch the eye on the field: Cristhian Paredes is really good. He doesn’t glide in the same way Diego Chara or Tyler Adams do, and he doesn’t look quite as graceful on the ball as a Michael Bradley or Wil Trapp, but he’s almost always influential. He covers ground, wins duels, and connects passes. Most of all, he’s positionally disciplined, and smart with his positioning. He has a knack for reading passing lanes and understanding dangerous moments. The one piece I’d like to see more: He needs to be more willing to take the ball in tough spots if Portland want to be a better possession team.
Real Salt Lake
Saucedo in action for RSL | USA Today Images
Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT system requires true wingers, players who can beat defenders off the dribble. Who are the best 1-v-1 dribblers in the player pool right now? Christian Pulisic. Timothy Weah. After that? It’s a bunch of fast, industrious players. Why can’t the true winger on the team be Bofo Saucedo? He might be the best 1-v-1 USA-eligible player in MLS right now. He has ridiculous swerve and balance. The reason it hasn’t happened is that he hasn’t rounded out his game. But in Saturday’s 3-2 win over Colorado, he gave another glimpse of how devastating he can be 1-v-1. If he can get a little bit more determination on the defensive side of the ball, he could jump onto Berhalter’s radar.
San Jose Earthquakes
We got some insight into the “Are teams taking the Quakes seriously now?” question in Saturday’s game with the Revs. The Revs were the first team not to press the Quakes. Every other team had started with a high line of confrontation — why wouldn’t you? Pressing is fun and bad teams tend to struggle playing out of the back. But the pressure rarely rattled San Jose. The Quakes would spread the field and be strangely comfortable dealing with the pressure. Seattle, Sporting KC, and Cincinnati learned that the hard way. The Revs, however, defended from a middle block and played on the counter. They waited for San Jose to make a stray pass and punished them. (Okay, it was the Revs who have larger problems than worrying about the opponent so maybe it wasn’t exactly about the Quakes.) San Jose had 73% of the ball, but not many chances. It’s a nice compliment for San Jose that someone didn’t think they could steamroll them, but it also means Matias Almeyda needs to move into his next phase of coaching.
Someone finally spotted the weak spot in Seattle’s game. In their buildout, the Sounders don’t use coordinated movements. Specifically, their center midfielders players get stretched and isolated. Stretching the field can be good, as it creates more space on the ball, but you have to do it in a rehearsed way. If your attack gets stretched and you don’t know where your teammates are located, then you’re isolated without options. When a team presses you, as Houston did to Seattle, and the game is moving fast, you don’t have time to look up and survey options; you need to have the picture already painted in your brain. It wasn’t a problem for Seattle in the past because Ozzie Alonso could beat players off the dribble when he got isolated. None of the Sounders midfielders can do that this year. The Sounders escaped with a win over Houston, but I’d bet other teams in the West highlighted this item in their notes.
Sporting Kansas City
Tim Melia had an excellent game in Sporting's 1-0 loss at D.C. Melia making big saves isn’t usually news, but he hasn’t made a ton of them in 2019. He hasn’t been poor, but he hasn’t performed at the astronomical heights he’s been at in recent years. And Sporting’s poor run hasn’t been Melia’s fault, but he also hasn’t saved them points, which he has a fair amount in the past. If SKC hope to salvage points while both starting center backs are out, they will need more performances from Melia like the one he put in on Sunday.
Alejandro Pozuelo lit up the league when he entered. Since then, teams have started taking a more physical approach to him. Lots of people don’t like to hear this, but it’s exactly what teams should do when a player like Pozuelo is crushing it. You never want to hurt a player — I reiterate, you never get physical with someone with the intention of causing injury — but you need to get close enough to throw the player off his game. It happens all across the world; it’s part of the sport. And it’s worked. Now, as Greg Vanney said, it’s up to Pozuelo and Toronto to “let the aggressiveness of the opposition sometimes work against them because the ball moves faster than they do sometimes.”
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Doneil Henry, Erik Godoy, and Jake Nerwinski were fantastic in Friday night’s 1-0 win over Portland. Marc Dos Santos and the structure he’s implemented have dominated most of the conversation and received most of the credit for Vancouver’s recent success, but the ‘Caps wouldn’t be in the playoff hunt without the individual performances of their defenders. Regardless of how well organized a team is, the players always need to track runners, defend 1-v-1, and win headers. If they don’t win those moments, the structure doesn’t matter. Portland found ways to create chances, but Henry, Godoy, and Nerwinski always stepped up when needed.