MatchDay 1 of the 20th MLS season is now in the books, and this must be said: It was a hell of a lot better than last year's. Goals per game and pass completion percentages generally lag in March and into mid-April as teams work out the kinks - new faces, new schemes, new coaches and the occasional new stadium – on the way to becoming finely tuned machines.
This weekend was still stuffed with the signs of early season rust, but there were also a few impressive passages of play, a couple of very nice goals, and – as always – plenty of stuff for me to pick apart.
Before we dive in, I just want to make one point: of the seven goals on Sunday, five were scored by guys who've been to the World Cup (Mix Diskerud, Kaka, Clint Dempsey x2, Obafemi Martins), and one more was assisted by a World Cup vet (Benny Feilhaber to Ike Opara). The seventh was Lloyd Sam's bending golazo.
MLS has come a long way. Seattle's five-star performance on Sunday night is a good example of just how far:
1. Middle of nothing
So the New England Revolution came out in that 4-2-3-1 they'd used to such good effect last season. They were without Jermaine Jones and Lee Nguyen, of course, but Seattle were without Ozzie Alonso. Good teams find a way to compensate for injuries and absences, and both of these are good teams.
Seattle, however, compensated a lot better, but did it in a counterintuitive way. Rather than try to overrun the New England back-ups (it's almost not fair to call players the caliber of Diego Fagundez and Andy Dorman back-ups, but there you have it), they made sure to try to move the game almost exclusively to the flanks when in possession.
That strategy from their 3-0 win is illustrated nicely in their network passing graph:
It is very, very rare to see the central midfield for any team – even a 4-4-2 team – that sparse. Compare it to New England's aggregate shape HERE.
These network graphs are a tool used to figure out what's going on rather than a way of telling the whole story, but notice two things: First is the thickness of the lines between the players. That indicates the number of passes connected between the two, and you can just file this under "Gonzalo Pineda remains wildly underrated in three countries." (Remember, folks: Seattle picked him up off the scrap heap. Anybody in Liga MX or MLS could have done the same).
Second is that Lamar Neagle was wider than his supporting fullback, Leo Gonzalez, on the left. This is because Gonzalez can no longer run, while on the right side, Marco Pappa was pinched in slightly to give Tyrone Mears room on the overlap. He used that to good effect.
Pulling Pappa inside is how Seattle create an ad hoc central midfield triumverate when they decide to give a damn about the possession battle. What's noteworthy, though, is how infrequently that happens; rather, it's in transition where Pappa lives up to the number on his back.
Now's a good time to drop this here:
If I wanted to show someone who'd never seen the Sounders play exactly why they won two trophies last year, that's the goal I'd show them. Six passes, everything with an eye toward north-south play, Pappa pinching in and a completely unselfish final ball from Martins. There won't be three better team goals this season.
The Revs will be better next week, and are still a good bet to finish near the top of the East. Playing without Jones and Nguyen was a major handicap.
But keep an eye on that back line. I think everyone is underestimating how much this team – which played on the edge defensively last autumn even as they were racking up points – will miss A.J. Soares. I wrote about it last month, and after Sunday's drubbing, I'm even more certain it'll be an ongoing issue in Foxborough.
2. Return of the Y in Carson
I praised the long ball in my 2015 tactical preview, and then Omar Gonzalez delivered for me on Friday night in LA's commanding 2-0 win over a disorganized Chicago Fire team. The Galaxy's second goal of the game wasn't precisely the type of long-ball I'd been referring to in the preview, but it illustrated the value of taking the chance to go long when smart, aggressive movement opens up the defense.
Here's what it looked like:
Ok, so good on Omar for the accurate long-ball, good on Leonardo and Juninho for the patient possession leading up to it, and good on Robbie Keane for the MVP-caliber finish (and celebration, replete with hand gestures that I believe mean "I love and respect you all"). But the key to the play was what I call the Galaxy's "Y" midfield, in which the central midfield duo stacks vertically instead of playing side-by-side in a flat 4-4-2, or an Empty Bucket if you just can't get enough of that descriptor.
By this point in the game, it was Baggio Husidic – a much more attack-minded midfielder than starter Kenney Walker – stacked on top of Juninho. When target forward Alan Gordon dropped deep off the front line to provide an easy passing outlet for Gonzalez, Husidic took his chance to bust forward into the attacking third.
This screenshot tells most of the story. Gordon's check into space takes Eric Gehrig out of the middle, rookie Matt Polster recognizes the threat too late, and Husidic is waving his arms frantically to let Omar know exactly where he's going:
There's nothing but green acres ahead for Husidic, which is the place to be.
Understand that this is not an attacking midfielder's run (you won't see it from Federico Higuain), but rather smart movement from a No. 8. It is also a run the more conservative Walker would not have made. He had one final third touch in his 63 minutes, a cross that did not find its target. Husidic, in his 27 minutes, had four final third touches. All of them were completed passes, three set up shots, and one was the beautifully knocked-down header for Keane's goal.
In other words, this was a 23-minute Marcelo Sarvas impersonation from Husidic. Combined with Jose Villarreal's strong two-way performance on the left wing, and, well, the champs still look like the champs. The names are different, but for one night the functionality and results were exactly what MLS has come to expect from the Galaxy.
3. Turn and face the strange
Sporting KC are a team in flux. Peter Vermes has, for the time being, dropped the 4-3-3 for what started off as a 4-5-1, then moved to a 4-4-2, and eventually became a 4-4-1 after Matt Besler's sending off in Sunday's 1-1 draw vs. RBNY.
Sporting still generated good chances – lots of them, to the extent that Dom Dwyer offered a mea culpa – but they gave up a ton of good chances as well. This isn't the same, smothering defensive team they were from mid-2011 until mid-2014, and there's a couple of reasons for that...
Never mind injuries/fatigue…the sale of Uri Rosell was the downfall of the 2014 season. #SportingKC— Andy Edwards (@AndyEdMLS) March 8, 2015
Ok, yeah. Losing Rosell has pretty much defined Sporting since then, and the gap between the central defense and central midfield is where teams now go to feast:
Sporting ran a double pivot against New York, with Roger Espinoza and Benny Feilhaber sharing box-to-box duties. Espinoza is an all-action destroyer, while Feilhaber is an attacker by instinct, and together they weren't really able to get the balance right between attack and defense. It's supposed to be a work in progress at this point in the season, but for SKC it feels more like the continuation of a worrying trend.
One silver lining is that the change in formation and tactics seems to have shined light on a new skill for the ever-improving Dwyer: chance creation. In all of 2014, he created 18. Against the Red Bulls he created six.
It's conceivable that Sporting will be this year's version of last year's Sounders, conceding a bunch of goals but getting more than their fair share of them back. Expect this team to pump out some numbers.
A few more points to make...
8. Diskerud literally fixed his hair a second before scoring the first goal in NYCFC history:
Their 1-1 draw at Orlando City was predictably sloppy, but still highly entertaining.
7. Jim Curtin made the wrong call in bringing the Union out in a 4-4-2 against Colorado on Saturday, and then a good halftime switch to go to a 4-2-3-1. They didn't get the goal they deserved and the game finished scoreless because Clint Irwin is the man.
Two things to watch going forward are Philly's willingness to get into transition (for some reason they were slow) and Colorado's central midfield (Marcelo Sarvas and Lucas Pittinari might have been that reason).
6. There were two goalkeepers this past weekend who were even better than Irwin. One was Nick Rimando, who continues to be the mayor of Portland and got to see Javier Morales hit our Pass of the Week:
5. The other goalkeeper who was a big fat freaking star was Houston Dynamo Homegrown Tyler Deric, who pulled off a series of highlight-reel saves to keep his team in it long enough for Giles Barnes to find the decider in a 1-0 win over Columbus.
4. Deric won't win Player of the Week, even though he should. It'll likely go to Dempsey, or the weekend's other two-goal scorer, TFC's Jozy Altidore. I wrote about how impressive TFC were in Saturday's 3-1 win at Vancouver HERE.
If Jozy doesn't win Player of the Week, he can console himself with the fact that he's won 2015's first Face of the Week (image courtesy of 'Caps fan Duncan Nicol):
Looks like Bingham just bowled over Bernardez – the one player I'd bet the house on to win that aerial ball – en route to that FCD goal.— Nicholas Rosano (@nicholasrosano) March 8, 2015
2. Evan Bush joined Bingham on the wall of shame thanks to his failed attempt at sweeper-keeper'ing in the Impact's 1-0 loss at D.C. United. Here's to a speedy recovery for Montreal's Justin Mapp, who left that game early after gruesomely dislocating his elbow in a collision with Bill Hamid (I'm not going to link to the replay, and if you're at all squeamish, do yourself a favor and don't watch it. Ever.).
1. And finally, it was a good weekend for "Klinsmann Positional Projects." Brek Shea continues to show lots of promise at left back, which should please fans of both OCSC and the USMNT; Brad Evans was mostly solid as a central defender for Seattle; and Diskerud had his moments playing as a deep-lying midfielder (even if he was, by no means, used as a No. 6).
Klinsmann playing guys out of position to take them out of their comfort zone = "if you can catch a wrench, you can catch a dodgeball."— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) February 13, 2015
Patches O'Houlihan would approve.