We're officially done wth MatchDay 1 of the 2014 MLS season, and each of the three teams I pegged as the favorites (LA, Sporting, Portland) looked various shades of impotent in dropping points. I don't know if John Hackworth made some sort of Faustian bargain to get his team all on the same page so quickly, or if Chad Barrett is the Cascadian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
But I do know that I saw some interesting tactical wrinkles from around the league. And that's what we're here for.
Here are three big points, and a few smaller ones:
1. Pipa's changing role in Columbus
Five minutes into the Crew's annihilation of D.C. United, Greg Lalas mentioned to me that Columbus playmaker Federico Higuain was playing deeper than what had become his usual spot in his previous two seasons in the league.
Higuain is often referred to, in fan parlance, as a "central attacking midfielder." But the reality is that he's a classic second forward, an advanced playmaker who drifts off the front line and into space between the central midfield and central defense. And if space closes up there, he's most likely to flare out wide to the left and try to find a pocket while the defense reshapes.
Where he doesn't go -- or didn't -- is central midfield. That's where the modern game chews playmakers up and spits them out, so the best playmakers operate around the spots that Valderrama used to occupy instead of in them.
And yet, there Higuain was on Saturday. He dropped deep and central. He was much more of a playmaking midfielder than a second forward, and acted as something of a tempo-setter in addition to his chance creation duties. The biggest pay-off, of course, came on the final goal of the night, which Higuain scored on a flashing third run from, yes, central midfield. He buzzed right by Perry Kitchen and Conor Doyle, a pure midfielder's run and a pure striker's finish. (For more on that, check out this breakdown: The Modern Attacking Midfielder in Full Flight)
I don't know whether this was 100 percent by design, or a way of capitalizing on the disorganized D.C. midfield. We might see something different next week.
Regardless, one of the concerns with Higuain operating that deep has to be stranding Jairo Arrieta. Any time you run a 4-2-3-1 your center forward is in danger of getting lonely.
Gregg Berhalter's ingenious way of compensating was to push right back Josh Williams as high as possible, so that the 4-2-3-1 was actually much more of a 3-5-2 in attack. Williams was, for the first quarter of the game, basically an attacker.
Look at his touch map from the first 20 minutes:
Six final third touches, including one of the night's best passes (his one-time cross to Arrieta for the goal) would do Dani Alves proud. It's not quite "Total Football," but it's a very aggressive stance that D.C. couldn't deal with until they were down 2-0 and the Crew slipped it into third gear.
Columbus' habits on the overlap bear watching, especially since Costa Rican Waylon Francis looks equally capable of getting up and down the left side.
2. New York can't pressure 'Caps in transition
Everybody on the Red Bulls shares the blame in this one, since a team that brought back nine of 11 starters should be better equipped to deal with a numerical disadvantage in central midfield.
That's what happens when a flat-4 midfield (two central midfielders) lines up against a team playing the 4-2-3-1, or variations thereof -- as Vancouver did. The compensation needs to come either from one of the wide midfielders pinching in, or one of the forwards dropping deep and making it a 3-v-3 duel in the center of the park.
It was a minor worry in attack for New York. But it was instantly a major concern defensively, and that's something of a shock given how significant an advantage "chemistry" has been throughout MLS history. This was the exact kind of performance a stable offseason for the Red Bulls was supposed to prevent.
But... man, the 'Caps had all sorts of time in transition. Nobody on New York was able to even bother the Vancouver build-up, and by the time Pedro Morales came on (and yes, he laid down a significant marker in the "Newcomer of the Year" race), the home team was rampant:
That's bad from the Red Bulls. Transition defense is going to be the first and most important film session of the week in Jersey.
3. Wide left Landon
One of the reasons I think LA is going to be so good this year is that they added two true center forwards in Samuel and Rob Friend. That's going to take defenders away from Keane, that's going to make them tougher on set pieces on both sides of the ball, and that's going to force central defenders to break their zones instead of playing passing lanes -- which was the blueprint for bottling up the Galaxy when Keane and Landon Donovan were front-runners.
Yet the biggest reason I like adding a center forward to LA's mix is that it allows Donovan to operate as a wide left attacker, where he is world class. Playing there he's not quite a midfielder and not quite a forward, more of just a free-roaming attacking force multiplier, able to understand where the play is going to happen and still possessed of the athleticism (and skill, of course) to make it so more often than not.
Get used to stuff like this:
Tony Beltran, RSL's right fullback, knows that he can't leave Nat Borchers on an island against Keane. He also knows, and Keane knows, and Donovan knows what play is coming next.
It is one of those beautiful moments in soccer where you realize that there are at least five brains (I'm including Borchers and Nick Rimando) seeing the same thing, and all of them are making snap decisions to try to weight the odds a percentage or two in their favor.
Twenty-four hours later, I'm still not sure if Beltran should have done anything differently. Keane and Donovan put you into the torture chamber like that when they have space, and force you to rely upon the 'keeper to make a special play.
A few more points to make
8. Nick Rimando is a boss: Nine saves, including that late Keane penalty, and a shutout on the road vs. a rival on opening day. That's his 109th shutout, putting him within three of Kevin Hartman atop the all-time list.
7. Tommy McNamara's Rookie of the Year campaign is off to a good start: The goal was just good solid fundamentals, which is a good way for any youngster to get into the lineup. He still needs to tighten up his work in possession, but my hat's off to anybody whose first MLS touch is a no-look pass.
6. Portland's worries on set pieces: RSL took Portland to school on restarts in last year's biggest games up in Rose City, and that problem is not yet fixed. Norberto Paparatto's got to do better on Maurice Edu on Philly's goal.
5. Benny Feilhaber, working deep: Maybe Peter Vermes wanted to do Benny's USMNT hopes a solid. I imagine the strong two-way play in more of a box-to-box role vs. Seattle was interesting viewing for Jurgen Klinsmann, in a "Can you play Benny and Michael Bradley in the same central midfield?" sort of way. At this time on Friday I'd have said "absolutely not," but now I want to see it vs. Mexico next month. (I wrote more about the Seattle vs. Sporting game HERE)
4. No-touch PKs: Michael Parkhurst went down easy, as did Mauro Diaz. The league office's mandate -- cut down on clutching and grabbing in the 18 -- was obviously heard by the replacement refs. Given how nobody on Chicago came anywhere near Bobby Burling's run-up on the Chivas game-winner, it looks like the Fire were afraid of conceding a grabby penalty of their own.
3. Justin Mapp's acceleration: Mapp remains one of the all-time "coulda been" guys from a US fan's perspective. Watch his close control and acceleration, then perfectly chipped back-post cross on the Montreal opener HERE. If it was a 19-year-old doing that instead of a 29-year-old, we'd be legally required to add "Cap him now!" to every article.
2. Fabian Castillo's patience: Am I wrong in thinking that this chance would have ended up in Row 12 last year?
1. Will Bruin, my player of the week: Bruin has a Wondolowski-esque ability to find great chances. Last year he led the league with 23 "big chances" by Opta's reckoning, but buried only six. He looked like a man determined to put that behind him, crushing two of his three good looks and adding one of the best assists of the weekend as well. Houston's 4-0 win over the Revs was a definite "Don't sleep on us" performance.