There were 17 games that made up Week 9 of the MLS regular season. There was a lot to digest, so let's dive right in to takeaways from every team.
Yes, I see the body language. Yes, I noticed Pity Martinez’s face when he got subbed.
Yet I remain with the minority opinion that Atlanta are very much fine and moving in the right direction. There are two phases to becoming an effective possession team: learning how to keep the ball, and learning how to turn the controlled possession into goalscoring opportunities.
It’s pretty clear that Atlanta have nailed the first one — they lead the league with an average of 61% possession per game. It’s the second part that’s been brutal; the possession has mostly been slow and stagnant. But it’s been less slow and boring the last two weeks. And if the big question is whether Pity, Josef Martinez, Tito Villalba, Julian Gressel, et al can figure out how to create opportunities, I’m gonna put my chip on the ‘Yes’ square. The only question I’m worried about is whether Frank de Boer can keep everyone bought in until it happens.
Bastian Schweinsteiger started Sunday’s game at center back, but the game was screaming for the German at center mid. It’s the second time in three weeks this has happened to the Fire. In both the 1-1 draw with Vancouver and Sunday’s 1-0 loss to Montreal, Chicago came up against opponents who sat in compact blocks behind midfield.
Schweinsteiger was left at midfield giving the ball to someone else to move the ball forward. I understand the logic of Schweinsteiger playing center back. But you can’t let the best possession passer in the league go to waste in certain situations. When you see the other team intends to sit and counter, find a new way to use your most expensive player. It might be something wacky like moving Schweinsteiger to right back or Dax McCarty to center back, but either of those is less wacky than paying for Schweinsteiger and having him making five yard passes from the center circle.
No, man. That approach in the 1-0 loss to Red Bulls...that wasn’t it. Atlanta United, with Miguel Almiron, Darlington Nagbe, Eric Remedi, and about six other potential All-Stars in 2018 decided they couldn’t pass out of the back against Red Bulls. Why did you think you could? I know the Red Bulls haven’t quite been the Red Bulls this year, but you had to know they were going to revert back to an extra-angry style after their slow start. Trying to pass through them made no sense. FC Cincy need to do some soul searching on who they are.
Anthony Hudson had the weird quote of the weekend. "There are teams with a lot more quality than us. And that’s what we’re competing against. And no one talks about it.”
First of all, literally everyone talks about it. The increasing amount of investment from a few of the teams — and the stars that have come with it — dominates about 75% of the MLS conversation (plus another 5% from the nerds who write about how to beat those teams). Second, what did Hudson hope to accomplish with those quotes? I can’t imagine his players liked hearing how their coach thinks they are inferior. Players logically know that a team like Atlanta has more talent, but no professional player actually feels lesser, and you certainly don’t want to hear it from your coach. Weird times in Colorado.
Columbus Crew SC
A random observation about Wil Trapp: he must attempt the fewest amount of one-touch passes of any center midfielder in the league. He always takes two touches. I don’t know what to make of it. One one hand, it’s a testament to his ability to find good spots to get the ball, his body shape when receiving the ball, and his composure under pressure. But Columbus’ possession has a tendency to get slow at times.
I thought Dallas would be the perfect team to show the blueprint to beat the resurrected, properly-functioning San Jose team. The best way to attack the Quakes man-marking is to use third player movements off the ball. Dallas have some of the most coordinated off-the-ball rotations in the league (probably with LAFC and Sporting Kansas City). They have been great at playing through pressure because they always know where their teammates will be. In Saturday’s 0-0 stalemate, though, Dallas almost never got into the multi-pass combinations that allow dangerous movement off the ball. It’s the first time that they have looked frazzled this year.
One of the most compelling questions in the league at the moment is whether D.C. United should give Lucho Acosta a huge raise to get him to sign an extension, or sell him. Acosta has two goals and two assists in 2019, and only one goal and one assist in the last eight games. There are multiple external factors that could impact the dip in form — contract limbo will mess with any player, plus teams have started to adjust to the Wayne Rooney and Acosta combo, plus D.C. have played six games in a month — but there’s a real question for United to acknowledge: How much do you trust Acosta, who has really only had one excellent 20-game stretch in his three seasons, to consistently play like an MVP candidate?
One of my favorite storylines this year has been Boniek Garcia playing like it’s 2013. The Honduran has been fantastic, and he’s exactly what Houston need from the midfield position. He covers a ton of ground and is great in both defensive and attacking transitions. I, like everyone, find Juan David Cabezas to be extremely important to Houston’s success. But the Dynamo have been fine without him, including Saturday’s 2-0 win over Columbus, because Garcia has been playing so well.
It’s more of the same from the Galaxy: Points without playing that well. When Columbus started the season 4-1-1 and topped the East despite some mediocre performances, my natural inclination was to think, “Look at all the points they’ve taken without playing well! Imagine how good they will be when they start to click!” It makes me wary of my interpretation of the Galaxy at the moment. Are they a team that can grind out results...or are they a team with some real issues that a couple late Zlatan winners has masked? It seems to me that the Galaxy are losing a lot of the soccer, but winning most of the moments. Is that a sustainable path? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.
They did almost everything right. They remained patient while up a player; they got to their ideal areas on the field; they had the right players in the right spots; they created a ton of chances. They just didn’t finish them at the same James Bond rate they had been over the first nine games. It was starting to get ridiculous how efficient LAFC had been. The law of averages came back to get them on Sunday.
Here’s my one soccer thought from the game:
More, I’m happy for the Minnesota United fans. You guys showed up and stayed engaged through a couple bleak years. It felt great to see you celebrating a good team in a gorgeous stadium.
Remi Garde has to be the frontrunner for Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year, doesn’t he? I realize that other teams have been better, but the award should be about performance compared to expectations. Nobody thought Montreal would be near the top of the East, and definitely not without Ignacio Piatti. (For what it's worth, at one point last year I said that Veljko Paunovic should be considered for Coach of the Year; so maybe don’t put it in ink yet.)
New England Revolution
The biggest variable player in the 2019 SuperDraft was Tajon Buchanan. Almost everyone around the draft felt he had the highest potential. “If someone ends up as a full international from this draft, it’ll be Buchanan,” one scout told me. But his inconsistency (and bust potential) scared teams away, so he dropped down to the 9th pick. He got his first MLS start on Saturday and validated Brad Friedel’s belief in him. His pace and ability to drive toward goal gave Sporting problems all game.
New York Red Bulls
There’s another world in which Connor Lade would have been a bulldog defensive midfielder. He’s fantastic at moving side to side in 10-yard areas, his balance and center of gravity are great, and he’s fairly tidy on the ball in tight spaces. We will probably never to see the full version of the alternate world, but we are getting a glimpse with the Red Bulls’ 3-3-3-1 system. In the 3-3-3-1, the weak-sided player in the middle three - Lade and Alex Muyl in the 1-0 win over FC Cincy - needs pinch central to help in the middle. As his heat map shows, Lade spent a fair amount of time in defensive midfielder zones.
If NYCFC are going to make the playoffs, they are going to need Anton Tinnerholm to put up massive numbers. He’s their main outlet into space, and their main threat from a wide area. He was really the only one causing Orlando problems on Saturday. Tinnerholm is always fairly clean and dangerous when he gets the ball in the final third, but NYCFC are going to need him to be next-level if they want their attack to really click. For reference, the most assists in a season from an outside back since 2012 was Ashley Cole in 2018 with 10. It feels to me like Tinnerholm might need 12 or 13 this year.
Three weeks ago, in the loss to Real Salt Lake, Orlando tried to start their pressure farther up the field and they got pulled apart -- the defenders got separated from the rest of the group. When they started Saturday’s game against NYCFC with a similarly high line, I was worried for them. But it’s clearly something they discussed in training and improved. Whenever NYCFC made a pass forward, Orlando had someone to close the space quickly. The Lions only had 35% of the ball in Saturday’s draw with NYCFC, but they were the team in control of the game. Maxi Moralez and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi struggled to find attacking space and NYCFC were left to hit long balls into the wide channels. Orlando continue to impress.
One of the keys to soccer, like life, is understanding when doing fine is actually doing great. In the 1-1 draw with Vancouver, the Union didn’t look like the top-seed contender they had in the five previous weeks. Philly struggled to get pressure on the ball in the middle third and their possession never really manipulated Vancouver. But given the circumstances -- three players getting their first starts in MLS on a cross-country road trip -- it was a great result. Top teams understand when fine is great, and when to target fine rather than great. The Union haven’t been great at that in the last couple years.
Just remember, it’s hard for all us to accept who we are.
Real Salt Lake
Sam Johnson completely changes the way the team attacks. He’s the first striker Mike Petke has had who stretches the field. RSL’s former strikers - Luis Silva, Alfredo Ortuno and Damir Kreilach - all checked back and the wingers would run behind. It made theoretical sense because all of the wingers have the pace to run behind. But, in reality, all of the wingers, especially Jefferson Savarino, prefer to play underneath and connect through the middle. It’s no coincidence that all of the attackers have looked better with Johnson in the team.
The Cristian Roldan red card was a blessing in disguise for Seattle. The weakest part of the Sounders’ game has been their ability to defend in a middle or deep block; they had been allowing passes through their lines too easily. Going down a man to LAFC forced them to overcompensate and overprotect defensively, which actually just properly aligned them. They had a 75-minute training session on their big deficiency. They now have a sense of the spacing and focus needed when they are forced back. They might not have taken three points, but it will be a huge gain in the long run.
San Jose Earthquakes
The nightmare assignment in MLS at the moment: The outside back who has to go opposite Shea Salinas. Reggie Cannon looked like he wanted to keel over by the 75th minute of Sunday's 0-0 draw. Salinas has two goals and three assists in the last five games and has been as dangerous as any winger in the league.
Sporting Kansas City
There are a few worthwhile talking points about Sporting, all of which Matt Doyle nailed in his Sunday column. The only thought I keep coming back to:
Damn, can a season turn quick. In February, it looked like Sporting might be one of the best MLS teams ever and destined to participate in one of the best Western Conference races in league history. Now, they are giving up four goals to a last-place team. Sporting haven’t even done anything wrong along the way. It’s just that things can come at you quick in this game.
It’s pretty clear that Toronto FC are a different team with and without Jozy Altidore on the field. What I find interesting is that they try to play the same with and without him on the field. They sub someone new in to perform roughly the same tasks in generally the same system. It’s an impossible task for both that person and the team. Attacking systems are finely tuned machines; if you put a new piece into the same system, especially if the new piece is not of the same gold quality, it won’t work as well. With Altidore set to miss a couple more weeks, I’ll be interested to see if Greg Vanney comes up with a separate plan.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
At halftime, with Vancouver leading 1-0, Marc Dos Santos was asked what his team needed to do to secure the win. Dos Santos said that Vancouver had been the better side in the first half and they needed to keep the same focus for the full 90 minutes. The “stay focused” line is true in any soccer game, and one coaches tell players just about every week -- it became apparent why on Saturday afternoon. The ‘Caps had been great for 65 minutes, but one lapse in focus and one poor pass from Ali Adnan cost the Whitecaps the full three points. It was actually painful to watch all of the Whitecaps' solid play go up in flames in a matter of seconds.