12 games in Week 3, and plenty of thoughts. Here's one (give or take) on each team.
What a weird game. They started in a 3-4-3 diamond (that was different than the 3-4-3 that Frank de Boer had picked before), then moved to a 4-4-2, then finished in a 4-3-3. At one point, Michael Parkhurst was playing left back, Tito Villalba was playing right mid and Pity Martinez was playing as a second striker. All of this after they had just beaten Monterrey(!) midweek… using a 5-4-1.
There are a lot of questions about the Fire right now -- What happened to Nemanja Nikolic’s finishing ability? Why do their defenders let the ball roll in front of their goal? Why do they keep playing Bastian Schweinsteiger as a defender? — but all of those questions are from B.G., Before Gaitan. Nico Gaitan should arrive this week or next, and he’s the type of player who makes you rethink your whole approach. Given the Fire have had some really nice moments this year, I’m excited to see them A.G.
Bravo. All of it. The fans before the game, the crowd during the game, the players on the field, the coaches’ gameplan, the people behind the scenes who made such a big event happen without any major issues. It was all spectacular. Congratulations, Cincinnati, and thank you.
Tim Howard looks way more sprightly lately, doesn’t he? He’s moving with an ease that we haven’t seen since he joined Colorado. It’s evident in everything from jogging to grab goal kicks, to playing with his feet, to coming off his line, to shot-stopping. I don’t think it’s inappropriate to say that it feels good to see, and here’s to hoping he stays healthy and finishes his career strong.
Columbus Crew SC
Two goals for Gaston Sauro this season, both from the same corner kick play. Check out the two still pictures from the moment Sauro makes contact with the header:
Columbus corner kick vs. FC Dallas | screenshot from broadcast
Columbus corner kick vs. RBNY | screenshot from broadcast
There are three components that make this play so hard to defend:
- Three players attack the near post as Federico Higuain whips the ball into the near-post area
- If the attackers at the near post can’t get to the first header, they can bump the defenders to ensure there isn’t a clean clearance, creating an opportunity for second balls in the jumble in front of goal
- If the ball gets beyond the near post, the players attacking the front of the goal have dragged defenders away from the middle of the goal; if Higuain over-hits the cross or a Columbus attacker gets a flick, it’s just as good as redirecting a header on goal
It might be time to insert Pablo Aranguiz into the lineup for Santiago Mosquera. Mosquera might be the superior player, but Aranguiz fits the role in the system better. In playing the triple pivot, in which all three center mids can get the ball off the defenders, a gap often develops between the striker and the center mids. It’s the wingers' job to pinch in and become the option between the lines. Aranguiz’s tight control might be better suited for those moments.
Lucho Acosta changes pace better than anyone else in the league. He’s not overly fast, but he’s always changing speeds. When he gets the defender to speed up, Acosta slows down; when the defender gets too tight, Acosta speeds up. He does it on the dribble, with the pass, and on the run, and sometimes all of the above in a single sequence. He’s got excellent control of the ball, vision, and so forth, but his real differentiating factor is his ability to change pace so smoothly, and his recognition of when to do so.
In his 19 MLS games prior to Saturday’s win, Alberth Elis had two goals and three assists. On Saturday, the Honduran recorded a goal and two assists. Beyond the end product, he simply looked more dangerous and confident in 1v1 situations than he had since the middle of last summer.
It’s only a matter of days before my editors ask for a column titled, “Latif Blessing: The Most Versatile Player in MLS?” Blessing spent most of his MLS career as a winger, but played right back in place of Steven Beitashour last week, and started Week 3 at center mid. He’s been a fill-in at all three spots, but he’s made a case in each situation to be the starter.
The Galaxy looked more energetic on Saturday than they had in three years. They pressed high, hunted 50-50s in the middle third and then recovered behind the ball quickly when needed. It was one of those games where it felt like one team had an extra player on the field. There wasn’t anything overly scientific about their dominance on Saturday; they used their mobile, energetic front six to cover ground and smother Minnesota before the Loons could start to build anything. The trick will be to maintain that pace when Zlatan Ibrahimovic returns.
Watching this game felt like that moment in a new relationship we’ve all experienced, when everything’s been going great but then the six-month point hits and you start to see all of the things the person had been hiding or you didn’t notice. I had talked myself into the possibility that they could be perfect and go 34-0-0 but then they got got overrun in midfield and looked overly dependent on Darwin Quintero and now I’m wondering if they will even make the playoffs at all and if I should just protect myself.
It’s hard to know who the Impact are or plan to be. Their first game was against the Quakes, and nothing about those games makes sense. In the second game against Houston, they looked great for stretches and then poor for stretches. And in their most recent game against Orlando, the Lions handed them opportunities early and allowed Montreal to play with the lead. Are the Impact a counterattacking team again? Do they plan to defend in a lower block still? Do they want to keep more possession this year? They have earned an impressive six points, but there hasn’t been a ton to learn about them yet. We should find out more soon, as they will need to be at their best for the gauntlet that’s coming up: at Sporting Kansas City, at NYCFC, and at D.C. United to finish up their six-game road trip.
New England Revolution
Brad Friedel changed his starting formation for, I think, the first time since he arrived with the club. The Revs diverted from the 4-2-3-1 and opened the game in a 4-3-2-1, with Diego Fagundez and Carles Gil as duel central attacking midfielders. It’s not a particularly newsworthy change, except that it’s a formation that probably excludes Cristian Penilla, the Revs' best player in 2018, from the starting group.
New York Red Bulls
RBNY went into halftime down 1-0 and ended up winning 4-1. A minor change in the break that went a long way: Check out the pass map for center backs Tim Parker and Aaron Long from the first half to the second half.
Parker and Long passing maps in first half (left) and second half (right)
They maneuvered the game to the right side of the field, and adjusted their passing approach. Last week in this column, I included Chris Armas’ quote about recognizing when the team can slow down in possession and not force the play. This was a manifestation of that. The center backs didn’t completely change the game on their own, but the adjustment to get the ball to Parker’s side, have Parker drive forward into the space (since the Quakes' man-to-man system can’t account for both opposing center backs), and then connect passes on the ground allowed the Red Bulls to gain control of the game.
What to do with Alex Ring? Ring is one of the best defensive midfielders in the league. He’s potentially so good at defensive midfield that his presence alone could get a team into the playoffs, like Diego Chara or Ozzie Alonso. But he’s also NYCFC’s best box-to-box midfielder. And Dome Torrent’s preferred system values an elite box-to-box midfielder. As a result, Ring has been playing higher on the field this year. It feels similar to what’s happening with N’Golo Kante at Chelsea under Maurizio Sarri. You have a player who’s one of best players in the league at his position, but you move him to a position he can’t do as well but helps the overall system more. I don’t have a normative judgement on it, except that I love and appreciate the complexity of the decision.
Orlando City SC
James O’Connor summed it up in this halftime interview: “If we are going to defend like that and play so shaky in the back like that, it’s going to become impossible to win games… We can’t play frightened like we have and keep gift wrapping goals like we have.” Orlando did some nice things and created some open opportunities, but if you give a breakaway to the opponent on your own kickoff to start the game… yeah, hard to overcome things like that.
One minor adjustment for the Union in this game from the previous two (though, to be honest, I’m not sure if it was planned or something they got pushed into). They played a 4-3-1-2 defensively, with the three defensive midfielders playing zonal. In the first two games, when the opponent had possession, the two shuttling midfielders would start in front of Haris Medunjanin to be closer to the opposing midfielders. Against Atlanta, they started in line with Medunjanin and protected the space before worrying about pressure to the ball.
It’s not as bad as it seems. A snow storm in Colorado, then playing at LAFC and then at FC Cincinnati’s home MLS debut are games that most teams would drop points. The Timbers had the bad luck of getting all three games back to back to back as their first three games of the year.
Real Salt Lake
It was mostly a “forget it even happened” game for RSL. One thought moving forward: the Albert Rusnak-on-the-left experiment makes sense, but less so for tough road games. RSL can be lethal on the break, and generally need to be lethal on the break on the road, and Rusnak isn’t the guy for that. He’s dangerous receiving the ball between the lines, but RSL don’t usually get enough sustained possession on the road for those moments, and he’s not as good on the break as other options at Mike Petke’s disposal.
San Jose Earthquakes
After three straight losses, Matias Almeyda could have flamed his team, but it felt like he picked the right words: “We're going to try to give our current players we have confidence. It's never easy to change a system, it's a whole different system and as time goes, we're going to get out of this one we're in.” The easy, and not incorrect option, would have been to suggest he needs different players to implement his unique style. But that wouldn’t really help anyone except his personal pride. I’m always here for coaches focused on improving the players they have.
Jordan Morris looks so much more composed receiving the ball than he did before the injury. Ignoring the goals he’s scored, which have come from gorgeous weak-side movement and Matt Doyle touched on in his Sunday column, he’s been quicker and cleaner in possession. The ball comes into him and he knows what he’s going to do before he gets it so he can play one-touch. The injury may turn out to be blessing in the long run as it pushed him to get his mind to move as quickly as his legs.
Sporting Kansas City
They played well on Sunday and probably deserved to win, but they haven’t been at the same crazy-impressive pass-Toluca-off-the-field level since Andreu Fontas got hurt. Fontas gives Sporting another calm passer on the field and allows them to execute attacking rotations that his replacement, Botond Barath, doesn’t offer. It was clear that Peter Vermes rated Fontas given the willingness to part with Ike Opara, but I didn’t think Fontas would be such an integral part of the team so quickly.
Jozy Altidore, man. Comes back from injury and scores the winner. Some food for thought: If Jozy puts up 20+ goals and 10+ assists and powers Toronto FC’s resurrection back into the top four in the East — all realistic targets if he stays healthy — does he get into the MVP conversation?
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
It’s been a rough start to the season for ‘Caps fans, but each game has had a specific positive phase of play. In Week 1, Vancouver scored twice on set pieces and showed solid defensive shape. In Week 2, they were sharp on the ball, splitting possession with RSL at Rio Tinto. On Saturday, they looked consistently dangerous in the final third. The 3-4-2-1 in attack formed a nice triangle of Inbeom Hwang, Yordy Reyna, and Fredy Montero. Now Vancouver just need to get multiple components firing at once.