Armchair Analyst: Time to start mashing the panic button in New York and other Week 16 thoughts

I was really proud of myself last year for finishing one game over .500 in our Pick 'Em series. Partially that's because it's a pleasure to beat Jason Saghini (he pipped me by one game in 2012), and partially because I took some pride in the fact that I had "figured out" the league.

I've been watching MLS since Day 1, and will watch - front-to-back - something around 180 games this year. I will watch the condensed, 20-minute MLS Live version of the 143 others. I spend my entire weekend doing this (happily).

And I know nothing. I have now picked three of the last 21 MLS regular season results correctly. I am dangerously close to "three-sided coin territory." Last year I was D.C. United in 2012; this year I am D.C. United in 2013.

This is miserable.

Here's what happened in what we'll call Week 16:

1. The Union are quietly climbing up the table

Ok, I've got a horse in this race since one of my predictions for the season - stop laughing - is that the Union would compete for the top of the Eastern Conference. I really, really like the talent and balance on this roster, and even if there are some toughness questions, I almost always choose to go with the team that has the pieces to outplay you.

So the Union won this weekend, pretty thoroughly beating New England 3-1 on the rug at Gillette. They're now 3-2-1 in their last six league games, and 5-2-1 in their last eight overall (that includes two US Open Cup wins in which they weren't very impressive, but a win is a win).

Jim Curtin, who took over for John Hackworth just under three weeks ago, has made two big changes.

First, he's pulled Sebastien Le Toux a little bit inside, and made him "more of a forward" in Le Toux's words. That's put him both closer to goal and - maybe more importantly - closer to target man Conor Casey, who continues to drag defenders around but is still capable of making plays like this:

Casey's feet and vision are so good. That's often lost to the casual fan when they look at him - he looks the part of a hard man, not a cultured, creative forward. But as Philly have started playing through him, they've discovered their 2014 form.

The second big change has been swapping roles for Maurice Edu and Amobi Okugo, with the veteran moving to central defender and Okugo stepping up into his preferred central midfield role. It's not perfect, and it remains to be seen if Edu - who came to the Union saying he didn't want to be a defender - will be content playing there for the long term.

If he is, however, you'll see the Union in November. And given how bad the East is right now, maybe even beyond.

2. D.C. United's evolving midfield non-diamond

I watched all of D.C.'s 1-0 loss to Seattle on Saturday (you want another prediction? Nobody's catching the Sounders in the Supporters' Shield race), and tried to figure out their midfield rotations. I'm not really there yet, and I think that's probably ok.

Nominally, they line up in a diamond with Perry Kitchen at the back point and Lewis Neal higher up the pitch. And more often than not during the run of play you'll see those two guys in that stacked position - Neal plays higher, harrying while Kitchen protects the backline. Then if Kitchen pops out of his position to try to trap play on the sidelines or simply turn back an offering, Neal does a good job of tracking back to cover for his d-mid.

As a result, they actually get a lot of their touches in the same spots:

This is good and bad. The good is that it shows a solid understanding of shared defensive responsibilities, and a willingness to track from front to back and side to side. This was missing last year in D.C. (and if you want to see what it looks like in 2014, just watch highlights of the Houston loss to Montreal. Woof).

The bad is that without Neal staying higher, United are without what should be their main option in the center of the pitch. When he drops, the defensive can step higher and harder through the middle and close down lanes. There's never an easy way out for D.C.

I think - I don't know, but I think - the eventual solution may be asking the right or left midfielder to tuck in and maybe even playing the more attack-oriented Collin Martin in Neal's role. This will be especially crucial as D.C. figure out how to generate offense despite Fabian Espindola's absence.

3. Mashing the panic button in New York

The Red Bulls are still solidly in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference - they sit fifth, even with the sixth-place Crew on points but ahead on goals scored, and one point ahead of the Union with a game in hand. They're also just six points out of first place, and have a relatively acceptable goal differential of zero.

But this team just doesn't feel right. Look at their string on the Results Map:

What you have is one very nice four-game stretch, and then a lot of yuck. And it all comes back to the same problem they've had since the first game of the season: They can not stop anybody through midfield. It's insane how many run-outs they concede.

Here's New York in Game 1, a 4-1 loss to Vancouver:

Zero midfield pressure and a ragged backline that can't track runners through space.

Here's Jermain Defoe's goal in Friday's 2-2 draw between the Red Bulls and Toronto FC:

Zero midfield pressure and a ragged backline that can't track runners through space.

This is going to get glossed over because Tim Cahill played the role of super hero for a minute at the end there, but South Warders have to be worried because the book on New York is the same as it was back in March. They're ok-ish for now because Luis Robles has been brilliant and the attack can put up numbers, but the lack of improvement is a dead giveaway that something's wrong with the defending Shield champs.

Even in the East, simply outscoring teams probably isn't going to be enough.

A few more points to make...

7. This was a weak matchday for my Pass of the Week. I considered an outside-of-the-foot job from Robbie Keane that put Robbie Rogers into space on the overlap, and Thierry Henry's clever slip-pass that was a secondary assist on Peguy Luyindula's opening goal, but... those were just real nice passes. Nothing that special.

Instead, let's go with the fundamentals: You can't hit a cross better than Tony Lochhead did, and you can't finish better than Cubo Torres did:

Service from the flanks has come back into vogue during this World Cup, so it's only fitting to see it carry over into MLS. Nice bend on that one, Mr. Lochhead. And a nice 1-0 win for Chivas TBA over an RSL team that's really, really missing their internationals.

6. Portland invested in a DP defender this past week, splashing out for 29-year-old Englishman Liam Ridgewell. Know why?

Because they have two shutouts in their last 23 games across all competitions. And those were against Chivas TBA and the Orlando City U-23s. That streak continued with a very disappointing 1-0 loss to Sporting KC on Friday.

Portland are now just 1-2-7 at home on the season.

5. No idea what to make of the Vancouver Whitecaps, who looked absolutely helpless over 180 scoreless minutes this week. The scoreless home draw vs. Montreal was probably worse than the 2-0 loss at Colorado, but neither is good from a team that was making a charge before the World Cup break

4. Face of the Week belongs to Marco Di Vaio, who pulled off a nice "Get a load of this guy" mug after Jack McInerney plunged a knife into the Dynamo in Montreal's 3-0 win on Sunday:

Click on the image to see the McInerney golazo that provoked Di Vaio's incredulity.

3. Nothing says "Goonie Time is dead" more than a fairly boring Cali Clasico that ended in a 1-0 LA Galaxy win. San Jose's target forwards - Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon - just aren't the same guys they were in 2012.

2. Tommy Meyer and Kofi Opare continue to look good in the center of the defense for the Galaxy. I'm not saying that Omar Gonzalez is suddenly expendable, but folks in Carson probably wouldn't be too unhappy if he had a few more big games like his performance against Germany, and a subsequent offer from a European side.

1. And finally, thoughts, prayers and best wishes go out to Lt. Stu Tudor and the entire Columbus Crew family.


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