This is pretty cool:
A handful of friends across Europe who previously had zero interest in MLS texting me that they're loving it as late-night TV. Wild world.— Zack Goldman (@ThatDamnYank) March 15, 2015
I generally don't care much about what casual observers from elsewhere have to say about MLS, because international respect and awareness can not be achieved without domestic growth. Worrying about the former (which so, so many MLS fans do – and is why Thierry Henry once said we have "a complex" about the quality of soccer here) before truly addressing the latter is putting the cart before the horse.
But the response from elsewhere over the past two weeks is another data point in the ongoing confirmation of the patently obvious: domestic growth has happened, and the quality of the product on the field and in the stands speaks for itself. Homegrown players are scoring goals, getting assists and posting shutouts. "Aging" European stars are difference-makers, but not exactly surefire MVP candidates.
And the crowds... through two weeks, attendance is over 25,000 per game, and pretty much every one of them feels like an event.
If you're a real fan of soccer/football/futbol/calcio/whatever from "elsewhere" and you stumble upon an MLS game, you'll probably watch a few minutes of it the same way so many of us have always found time for a little bit of J-League, or the English Championship, or the Argentine Primera. It's not a curiosity anymore – just another dose of the beautiful game for late night (or early morning) soccer junkies all over the world.
Those are our people, and we are theirs.
1. Direct for a point
Darlington Nagbe is a bad man. Almost everybody knows this, which is why he's among the league leaders in fouls drawn every season (and please, please, please let's have more persistent infringement yellows).
The one person who doesn't seem to realize this is Nagbe himself. He's notoriously passive in interviews and with fans, and far too often he plays like he just wants to be a piece of the puzzle when he's out there on the field.
He shouldn't be a piece, he should be the piece. Against the LA Galaxy in Sunday night's 2-2 draw, he was:
With Diego Valeri and Will Johnson out injured, Portland head coach Caleb Porter has chosen to make Nagbe (and, to a lesser extent, Fanendo Adi) the focal point of the entire game. Nagbe's usage rate is higher than it has been at any other point in his MLS career, and while he can still fade out of the match too easily, he's at his best where the Timbers are at their best: in transition.
John Strong and Alexi Lalas were right to point out how direct Portland have gone this season as compared to previous seasons. They were down at just under 44 percent possession against LA, an unheard of number from a team that was third the league in that stat back in 2013 and fifth last year. Their distribution map is almost shockingly north-south – like FC Dallas after Mauro Diaz got injured last season.
It would have been a handicap for the Timbers over the last two years, but with the new focus of the team... I'm not going to say that possession doesn't matter. What I will say is that possession is now lower on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for the Timbers, on both side of the ball. They have been among the league's best at getting out into transition early this season, and are built to run. Why not take advantage of it? Porter has a reputation as an aesthete, but he's showing good pragmatism here.
That goal above, by the way? That's the one Nagbe didn't get an assist on. He later did THIS to poor Todd Dunivant on Portland's second goal.
The thing Nagbe needs to understand is that those of us who watch him will always want more:
Just so good from Nagbe...I am critical of him because he should have moments like that 5x a game! #PORvLA— Taylor Twellman (@TaylorTwellman) March 16, 2015
He can be the best player in this league. Portland, if they're going to stay in the race out West – remember, they've already dropped the type of early home points that killed them last year – might need him to be.
2. Direct to the top
While it's a bit of a change to see Portland playing such direct soccer, it really is nothing new for FC Dallas. One of the best indicators of Oscar Pareja's chops as a manager is how he was able to recalibrate his team's style and intent early last year when Diaz went down injured. FCD became arguably the most direct team in the league, often eschewing the midfield build-up play that had been the cornerstone of their hot start in 2014.
It took some time getting used to (Dallas had their annual springtime swoon in 2014), but they eventually figured it out and made it into the playoffs, where they were the only team to go undefeated.
Diaz was back then, and he's back now. And I picked him to win the MVP, because I think he has vision and the ability to do things on the ball...
... that people who aren't magical little unicorns can't. Diaz is a lot of fun to watch, and generally makes Dallas a better team.
And they were the better team in Saturday's 3-1 win over Sporting KC, even if they benefitted from an egregious missed offside and a flubbed PK. Through two weeks Dallas are the only team that's 2-0-0 in MLS, and while that's not the be-all, end-all, it's a pretty useful indicator of what's up. They are the Shield leaders. Even with a small sample size, that means something.
What they aren't is complete. For the second week in a row FCD looked better playing fast, direct soccer, and – for one week, anyway – Diaz was subbed off for tactical reasons.
Here are the words of Charlie Boehm:
I agree, pretty much word for word. Diaz has created three chances through two games, which is only OK, and has just 100 touches, which is kind of concerning. He's on the ball 25 percent less often than guys like Federico Higuain, Benny Feilhaber and Pedro Morales, who are three of the other No. 10s in the league that are legitimately Diaz's peers in terms of talent and function.
The good news for Pareja is that he doesn't have to figure all of this out right away since Dallas are so good when playing direct. They have multiple clubs in the bag, which is the kind of thing the happens when you build your roster methodically, draft well and promote Homegrown talent.
3. Give and take
Jason Kreis is very honest about the game, and one of the things he will tell you is that no matter what formation or style you play, you're going to choose what you want to give up and what you want to take away. And for him, during his RSL days, he was always willing to give up service from wide areas. Let the other team bend crosses in all day – as long as Zone 14 is protected, all's good.
That was a better strategy when his center backs were in-their-prime Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers than it is now, when his central defense consists of Jason Hernandez and Chris Wingert. Both of those guys are smart as hell – positionally astute and superior when the game's on the ground – but even in what became a commanding 2-0 NYCFC win over New England (and congrats to all involved in the franchise's first victory), there were some alarm bells.
The Revs were the most cross-averse team in the league last season, but could have had three goals started from wide in the first 45, including this one:
The Revs rifled off 19 crosses in the first half, but just four in the second. Part of this was Kreis getting better defense out of his wide midfielders (by changing the midfield shape, and also probably thanks to a bit of the halftime hairdryer treatment), but part was New England going away from what had so nearly worked on the day and toward what they feel is more of their long-term identity.
Here is where I'll note that almost everyone else in the Eastern Conference loves to cross the ball, and most design their attack to do so selectively, as we saw in Week 1 from Toronto FC and Week 2 from Columbus, to pick two goals not really at random.
In the short term, Hernandez & Wingert in the center have made a lot of sense, and NYCFC have the good fortune of another very winnable game on the schedule next week. But I suspect that, sometime fairly soon, Kreis will have to do the math and get a more aerially dominant central defender onto the field.
A few more points to make...
5. I wrote about both Toronto FC and Columbus a bit on Saturday after the home team's 2-0 win. One thing that I didn't mention but should have: Mohammed Saeid was very effective as Wil Trapp's partner in central midfield in place of the suspended Tony Tchani.
Evans was going to have a clunker at some point, so Sounders fans need to settle down. In the long run it makes sense for this team to have a ball-playing central defender paired with Chad Marshall, and that is what Evans will eventually become.
On the flip side, the Quakes showed exactly where Seattle's weak spot has always been: get behind their wingers and make them pay in transition. Evans has taken a lot of deserved blame on THIS GOAL, but notice that Marco Pappa never gets back into the play.
First win in 16 games for San Jose, by the way. In the first two weeks they've gone toe-to-toe at Dallas and Seattle and haven't, for a minute, looked overwhelmed.
Forget the refs for a second, though, and try to focus on the disconnect between Philly's central defense and central midfield. Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira are playing as a double pivot, which ended up leaving way, way too much space between the lines and forced a ton of emergency defense.
The above is just the network passing graph in attack and possession, but... what am I looking at?
I'm not sure this is a fatal flaw for a team that's otherwise played good soccer for the last 135 minutes, but it definitely is a flaw – especially when the opposing center forward drops off the line. Alvaro Saborio was incredibly influential for the hosts, and Philly never really addressed that.
And he was subbed out. And he was not happy. And he kept the captain's armband:
It's just a piece of cloth, folks.
1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to the Chicago Fire, because this team has to win something at some point:
I love this play, which came from Chicago's 1-0 loss to Vancouver, because it features intelligent, patient movement from Michael Stephens and aggressive, but not hurried movement from Harry Shipp. And it also features a one-touch nutmeg directly into a chance. (I was tempted to give Pass of the Week to Shaun Maloney for this corner kick from a U-8 game, but I am not that cruel).
Chicago's got a lot to work on, including and especially team shape. The first thing I would do if I was Frank Yallop is figure out how to get more of Shipp & Stephens working together, and go from there.