There are 83 games left in the 2014 Major League Soccer season. We've seen two big records (all-time goalscoring; all-time shutous) fall, and two more (all-time assists; single-season goals) within touching distance.
We've got one team (Seattle) making an honest effort at becoming the first since 2005 to average 2 points per game, and the first of the post-shootout era to win 20 games (they need 5 wins from their last 9). We've got one player (Landon Donovan) playing arguably the best soccer of his life as he's on the verge of retirement.
We've got a defensive juggernaut (Sporting KC) hemmoraging goals left and right, and we've got last year's worst team (D.C. United) starting to run away with the Eastern Conference crown.
And now, finallly, we have our second coaching carnage of the year. Let's start there:
1. The Hunt for Red November
The bell tolled for Ryan Nelsen at BMO Field on Sunday afternoon. I wrote a bit about the struggles his team's had after Saturday's 3-0 drubbing by the Revs - you can find my extended take on TFC's issues HERE.
I'll give the tl;dr take here for those of you who don't want to click through: TFC's problems were tactics-based, not personnel-based. Their midfield was pretty consistantly disorganized, they had more trouble than the should've making up for the absence of Steven Caldwell, and they never quite figured out how to replace Bright Dike.
Combine it with a lack of effort -- readily apparent in the New England game -- and, well, this is how the sausage gets made.
So this is where we are now:
One way or another, the term “playoffs or bust” has never been more accurate than it is in regards to TFC right now.— Daniel Squizzato (@DanielSquizzato) September 1, 2014
Thanks to some kind results in the East Toronto's still above the red line, sitting on fourth place with 33 points and at least one game in hand on everybody else in the race. They are in a good enough spot -- even if they sell Jermain Defoe.
With or without their English DP the job now falls to Greg Vanney, who's saying all the right things. He told reporters at Sunday's press conference that he'll stick with the 4-4-2 (good, as long as he drops Collen Warner into more of a No. 6 role), and that he doesn't think the team needs new/major acquisitions (also good - on raw talent, TFC should be at or near the top of the East).
He also - and this is the big part - sees eye-to-eye with general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. Multiple reports say, quite plainly, that Nelsen didn't, and when there's that kind of friction in the front office, it often trickles down and spreads throughout the organization. Toronto have been down that road before, with Aron Winter and Paul Mariner.
A road Toronto haven't been down before is one that leads to a happy November. The Reds need a playoff appearance in the worst way, and it's Vanney's job to deliver it.
"The time for jelling is over" is what Bezbatchenko said to reporters a few days back, and his actions this weekend show he really, really means it.
2. A False 9 and Simple Decisions
While the rebuilding project up in Ontario has captured most of the headlines (it's a bloody big deal), the one in D.C. is proving to be a runaway success. United are something of a cross between Moneyball (they have one of the smaller payrolls in the league) and MLS 1.0, as they regularly feature a starting XI comprised entirely of Americans -- most of them cast-offs. That just doesn't happen much in a league that's progressively taken on a more worldly flavor over the past decade.
Of course, with Fabian Espindola back and fit there's at least one non-American whose name is written in ink in the starting lineup. Espindola's been Best XI-caliber this year.
The other forward spot, however, is where the intrigue is. Eddie Johnson's indifferent goal-scoring form (he's done other stuff well) has opened the door for Luis Silva, who's responded with eight goals and four assists.
Silva does it a little differently. He's a False 9, and not a particularly mobile one. He just beats you with his brain, and his touch, and his ability to find little pockets of space that defenders don't see until it's too late:
Notice where he begins that play? Silva is between the Colorado lines, and nobody's quite sure who's supposed to pick him up. And then when a defender comes into his neighborhood, he does the simplest thing: go to the space the defender just vacated.
Against New York in this weekend's 2-0 win for United, Silva did a lot of the "play where they ain't" stuff that's made him so good this year. The thing about a False 9, though, is that you occasionally have to do the back-to-goal, run-the-channels stuff that keeps defenses honest.
Silva does that, too:
In the lead-up to Wednesday's game at LA - United lost 4-1 - Donovan was asked what makes D.C. so good this year:
"They don’t do anything super special, but they’ve got really good players all over the field," Donovan told reporters. "They don’t dazzle or wow you with a lot of things, but they’re very good players. ... They’ve got a really good formula for success right now, and it’s absolutely no accident why they are where they are."
He's mostly right. Subtle off-the-ball movements and smart team defense don't make for a lot of highlights.
But they make for wins.
3. The Advent of the Target Winger
Since Kei Kamara's in the news, I figure now's a good time to address a bit of positional drift that's related to the False 9: the Target Winger.
Kamara is the prototype target winger. He's built like a target forward and can/will do most of the hold-up play associated with that role. He attacks the ball in the box, he's absolute murder in the air, and you have to figure out a way to match him physically if you don't want him to turn the game into his own personal playground.
This is a pretty typical target winger's goal, matched up on the far post against a fullback:
(By the way, that was the final bit of a 22-pass goal-scoring sequence, the longest in MLS last year. More on that in a moment)
Fullbacks are, for the most part, smaller than central defenders. Putting a giant like Kamara in isolation, then, is an invitation to attack the back post all game - which Sporting did, as they led the league in run-of-play crosses per game during Kamara's time with the club.
There are other reasons to play a target winger, though. In the words of Devin Pleuler, "It's more about finding a way that 'skipping the midfield' is still effective. You can't skip the midfield like you used to."
In other words, long diagonals from one flank to the other, finding a target winger isolated on a fullback, have become a profitable alternative to Route 1 if your midfield is getting shut down. And since "shut down central midfield" is a default tactic for pretty much every team on the planet, the evolution of a target winger looks like something of a fait accompli.
Teal Bunbury's done the job a bit for New England this year, and Andrew Wenger had a break-out game in that role for Philadelphia two weeks ago. Fanendo Adi can occasionally drift wide to open up the middle for Gaston Fernandez when the two are paired, and that's been a tough look to deal with. And then, as always, there's Kenny Cooper, who remains 100 percent allergic to the central channel.
The Crew, who lost 2-0 to Montreal this weekend and ran out of ideas as the Impact packed it in to deny Justin Meram space to shoot and Ethan Finlay space to run, don't have a player to naturally fit that role. And they're on top of the Allocation Order.
A few more things to ponder...
9. Jermaine Jones got the perfect introduction in that Revs win at BMO: 25 minutes while protecting a 3-0 lead. Jones did everything that should be expected of him, and the Revs are -- finally and again -- for real.
8. Gyasi Zardes is blowing my mind. He was a painfully bad finisher in 2013, but in 2014 is now the highest-scoring American in MLS with 12 goals. As he's come into his own over the last two months, the Galaxy attack has become unstoppable. The latest bloodbath? Try following up that midweek thrashing of D.C. with a 3-0 whitewash of Chivas TBD in the final SuperClasiclol.
LA have now scored multiple goals in four straight games, and seven of eight. They're on course to become the first team since 1998 and only the second ever to finish with a goal differential of +30 or better.
They are a buzzsaw.
7. Robbie Keane gave us the Pass of the Week in that Chivas game, because it's so easy to hit a 40-yard, left-footed through-ball while spinning 180 degrees and falling backwards:
This should also serve as a reminder that, even as Zardes is blowing our minds, he's still a work in progress and isn't yet a clincial finisher.
5. Busch wore that expression after a controversial PK was awarded to RSL in Saturday night's 1-1 draw at Buck Shaw -- a result that pretty much does it for the Quakes' season. It's a two-team race for the fifth spot in the West between Portland and Vancouver.
4. It looked like only one of those two teams knew there was a game taking place this weekend. The Timbers played their best game of the year in Saturday's 3-0 win in BC Place, and climbed above the red line.
The highlight was Darlington Nagbe just crucifying poor Matias Laba on the third goal:
3. FC Dallas finally lost -- their first one since May -- when they went to Chicago and came out on the wrong side of a 1-0 scoreline. It's a blip.
2. The guy just behind Zardes in the "Highest-scoring American" race (can we call it the Lassiter Trophy, please?) is Clint Dempsey, who got the only goal in Seattle's 1-0 win over Colorado. It was a peach -- watch it HERE.
1. And finally, I gave Sporting KC a mulligan last week. Not gonna do it again.
A team can survive sloppy, emergency defending in the build-up. They can survive bad distribution, and occasionally mixing up runners. Everybody gets away with that now and then unless you're Brazil playing Germany.
What no team can survive -- here there or anywhere -- are these kinds of mental breakdowns. Sporting lost their edge sometime over the summer, and the rest of the season is about getting it back.