Monday Night Football is ruining my flow. Seattle vs. LA will count as Week 20 for fantasy purposes, and Team of the Week, Player of the Week and all that, but this is a Sunday night column, so I'm writing it now. For my purposes, Seattle/LA is Week 21.
Here's some things I saw in a friendly-filled seven days:
1. The End of the Bash Bros.
I am an unabashed admirer of big, bruising target forwards. All you have to do is look at this column for the past couple of weeks to see my praise of Conor Casey, who continues to be the MLS gold standard for drawing defenders in, holding them off and then completing a possession-positive or outright attacking pass.
Target forwards have "gravitational pull," for lack of a better description. They bring defenders with them wherever they go, forcing central defenders out of comfortable zonal schemes and into zone-man hybrids, or dragging a midfielder just a step or two deeper to help out. This in turn opens up space for the other players in the attack, and since space is king in our game...
This is, in large part, how the San Jose Earthquakes won the 2012 Supporters' Shield. Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon had gravitational pull, and that opened up space for Chris Wondolowski to the tune of 27 goals. Add in 23 from Lenny/Gordo, and those Quakes were a juggernaut.
The common narrative says that Quakes team just booted it up top, let one of those guys win it in the air, and everyone else would feast on the knockdowns. And it's true that those teams won a lot of aerial duels:
Fourth in the league is a lot, but it paid off to the tune of second in the league in chances created from open play. More to the point, though: That San Jose team saw the aerial duel as an option, not a necessity. Maybe it was even the best option – we can all remember those late goals and the insanity of Goonie Time. But Lenhart and Gordon were always much better with their feet than people gave them credit for, much more dangerous pulling off the front line to combine with what at the time seemed like an endless array of speedy, north-south wingers.
Over the last two years, things have changed. Launching long ball after long ball up to whichever of the Bash Bros. happened to be in there became the default setting for San Jose, and a sadly repetitive one at that. Here are the aerial duel stats for the year to date:
First place by a good chunk in total aerials, and second to last in chances created from open play. Only Chivas TBD – who are incredibly reactive to the point of being a statistical outlier across a host of metrics – are worse.
Here are Lenhart and Gordon's individual numbers from 2012:
And here's 2014:
At some point in the last two seasons, the best option became the only option, their target forwards became crutches, and the Quakes attack has cratered. Since the start of 2013, there has been no team easier to scout.
Until last Wednesday, when San Jose annihilated the Chicago Fire 5-1 without either Lenhart or Gordon. Wondo was the nominal center forward – and as Wondo always does, he drifted pretty much anywhere in the attacking third, largely avoiding aerial duels – with Yannick Djalo hiding underneath in a 4-4-1-1 that sometimes looked like a 4-2-3-1 and sometimes like a 4-1-3-2.
Robbed of their default attacking setting, the Quakes were forced to play actual soccer. It turns out they did it pretty well, especially when they were able to play through the irrepressible Djalo. Watch the highlights HERE, and you'll see just how much confusion he sowed and danger he created by dropping into the hole to pull the strings.
Once Lenhart and Gordon are both fit again and ready for selection, they'll still have a role for the Quakes. They'll both be back.
But the thoughtless, numbing long-ball attack that's diminished both them and their team? That doesn't have to be.
2. State Of Panic
The New England Revolution lost their eighth straight game this past weekend, when Ethan Finlay caught Darrius Barnes flat (and ball-watching) before rifling past Bobby Shuttleworth at point blank range. That goal made it 2-1, and it ended 2-1, and the below tweet gives you some idea of just how bad the Revs are at the moment:
Revs now on worst MLS losing streak since TFC dropped 9 to start 2012. Post-shootout era record is 10; overall record 12. #SadStats— Dan Dickinson (@GothamistDan) July 27, 2014
That eight-game streak goes back to May, when – remarkably – this same Revs team won five in a row. Forget the fact that they haven't picked up a point since then: They haven't even held a lead since then. Not for a single minute.
So that means in the past two months, New England have been constantly chasing a result that's already gotten away from them, which they're simply not built to do. The Revs still struggle badly at turning possession into attack, which is a must when playing from behind (or playing for the win when tied). MLS teams determined to protect a result – and hell, most teams outside of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City – tend to drop their line of confrontation deep and invite you forward, with the idea being that as the attacking team commits more numbers, they become an order of magnitude more susceptible to the counterattack.
This is New England's entire world right now. They are the perfect example of a "game states" team – one that is deadly when being attacked, but not so dangerous when forced to carry the game themselves. They can't use possession to create danger, and then can't scramble back defensively with anything resembling cohesion.
Apropos of everything, here's Finlay's dagger:
There's a lot more stuff going on here than just game states and Barnes counting butterflies – a lack of midfield pressure, a lack of connection between the midfield and defense, and a backline that doesn't know if it's playing the trap or not are three really fun ones – but at the heart of it is the fact that the Revs were pushed way, way up in search of a game-winner. And in so doing, they left the door open.
3. The Problem with Igor
If you can think way back to March, you'll remember the CCL. And you'll probably remember that most people figured Sporting KC had as good a chance as any of the MLS entrants to get through their Mexican counterparts, because they're #SportingFit and play high pressure and a whole host of other descriptions that all sound very nice.
Then Cruz Azul took them out behind the woodshed to the tune of 5-1. And several weeks after that, the two starting fullbacks from that series – Josh Gardner and Mechack Jerome – were waived.
You can look at it as a message from Peter Vermes about team performance, and responsibility, and a bunch of other things. But here's what it really is: You have to be really smart to play both sides of the ball as a modern fullback. You have to understand that the high press is all about working in units and maintaining connections. You have to understand that your role is in a state of constant flux, and that if you break down the whole thing breaks down.
It's not easy, which is why Sporting's really the only team in MLS to play that way:
Sporting Kansas City's press is a big outlier in MLS. So effective, but no real imitators. pic.twitter.com/OyEuZMQIe2— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) July 23, 2014
Unfortunately for them – even after a very fortunate 2-1 win at Toronto FC – they're back to blooding fullbacks on the fly now. Seth Sinovic seemed to pop a hamstring at TFC (no word on how long he's out for) and had to be subbed, while Chance Myers has been on the sideline for two months after tearing his Achilles' tendon.
His replacement, young Brazilian Igor Julião, is both an attacking force and a defensive liability. He puts his team into emergency defensive situations multiple times per game, and that high pressure is springing leaks.
Here is Julião reacting too slowly to a very simple and direct TFC attack;
And here's the end result:
I still think Sporting are one of the four best teams in MLS, and they absolutely have the talent and firepower to just outscore you these days. But they're giving up goals they never would have with a fit Myers, and that's the kind of weakness good teams – like Cruz Azul – will exploit.
A few more things to ponder...
6. Gabriel Torres, for one week, looked like a Designated Player. The Panamanian striker was excellent for Colorado in their 3-0 demolition of a Chivas team that's regressing to the mean after their unlikely four-game winning streak.
This goal is a peach:
5. Pass of the Week goes to Vancouver's Gershon Koffie, whose one-time through-ball narrowly edged Dominic Oduro's assist on the GIF above, and Darlington Nagbe's assist on Maxi Urruti's goal vs. Montreal HERE.
Vancouver should have done better than the 2-2 draw against FC Dallas, a result that probably had every other team in the West clinking glasses. It's time to start thinking playoffs, and points dropped now are the ones that will kill you come October.
4. I mentioned Nagbe above. He still hasn't scored in league play this season, but he was phenomenal against the Impact in Portland's 3-2 win on Sunday.
3. The Impact were as bad this week as Nagbe was good. Before the home loss to Portland, they were outclassed 3-1 by RSL on Thursday. They've now dropped five straight.
2. Lots of folks had issues with the ref in Sporting's win over Toronto. Gilberto was one of them, and he gets our Face of the Week:
1. Best thing to come out of this week's friendlies? Here ya go:
Can confirm that Akpan and Akpom traded jerseys. #RBNY— Dan Dickinson (@GothamistDan) July 26, 2014