We're inching ever closer to the "You are what your record says you are" column. Injuries? Bad luck? Missed calls? Fatigue?
Doesn't matter – the only thing that does is the table. This goes as much for Shield holders as it does for teams with wings. Trophies aren't won when you're at your healthiest and best; they're won with depth and rigorous application of a system over the course of anywhere from 90 minutes to nine months.
Bear that in mind as you watch this weekend's games. In the meantime, here are a few things to keep an eye on this weekend:
1. Big Ideas
Bruce Arena is, rightly or wrongly, known as a straight-up 4-4-2 kinda coach. This ignores the fact that his D.C. United dynasty pioneered the 4-4-2 diamond in MLS, and that the lone knockout-round win in USMNT history came when Arena's USMNT were playing a 3-5-2 (Dos a cero!).
I don't know why the "4-4-2 Only!" narrative has persisted, but it has, and Bruce is not the type of guy to give a single damn about puncturing that particular balloon, and I'm not really here to do it for him. Instead I'll just point out that the First Commandment in the Big Book of Being a Good Soccer Coach is "play your best players in their best spots, and build the team from there." For LA since 2011, that's meant – for the majority of the time – a 4-4-2 built around the talents of a certain Robbie Keane.
Keane, by his own admission, doesn't look like he'll be available this weekend.
With or without Keane, however, don't expect to see any tiki-taco out of this year's Galaxy. Bidding adieu to Landon Donovan and Marcelo Sarvas means they lost too much creativity and industry from the midfield, and have become something of a direct-to-goal attacking team.
While it's had an obvious impact on their goal-scoring numbers, it's also played hell with their ability to dampen or quicken tempo in the central midfield, and so far this season they've struggled to both build through pressure and track runners from central overloads.
Arena could very well take that into consideration on Sunday against the Red Bulls (5 pm ET; ESPN2), a club that have feasted in the central midfield this year by overwhelming teams with their pressure. With or without Keane it might be the right idea for the Galaxy to go with a 4-2-3-1 (which they've tinkered with already this year) to simply slow RBNY down.
I'll also be watching... Felipe's tether. We've focused on Sacha Kljestan this week, but the little Brazilian has been just as important to New York's early success. His ability to push high and recover the ball is particularly notable, though he's also shown a penchant for getting just a bit dislocated when asked to defend out wide. The Galaxy will try to move him sideline-to-sideline.
2. You Can't Hide
Things are not going well for Toronto FC right now, though as Greg Vanney pointed out earlier this week, they are perhaps due an exemption from the "You are what your record says you are" rule. The Reds are on a seven-game road trip to start the season, the last four of which they've lost, and their prospects appear to be bleak.
However, this is what Sporting KC did on their season-opening road trip back in 2011 as they waited for Sporting Park construction to finish:
That Sporting team went on to win the Eastern Conference.
Everybody in T-Dot needs to just cool out. The season's not close to done and having a backlog of home games when temperatures get hot and the playoff races get hotter has proved to be a huge advantage. Read that Vanney story linked above and you'll see what I mean.
Of more immediate concern is the backline, and in particular the rotation of orange cones at right back. I've liked both Mark Bloom and Warren Creavalle at various points in their MLS careers, and I think Nick Hagglund will be in the league for a long time – though as a central defender, not a fullback. This past week he deserved "Best Supporting Actor" nod for his part in Fabian Castillo's Player of the Week award.
Vanney eventually moved Hagglund to central defense and swapped Justin Morrow (onen of the league's better left backs) to right back. It slowed Castillo down, but it's a stopgap solution at this point.
I'll also be watching... How the Reds partner Michael Bradley in central midfield. Last week they went with Collen Warner as a pure, Kyle Beckerman-esque d-mid and Bradley as more of a box-to-box No. 8. I love this approach, and hope to see more of it.
3. Yr City is a Sucker
If you live "elsewhere" you're probably tired of the self-satisfied "this is the best rivalry in MLS, showing everyone else how it's done" sentiment wafting from Cascadia way any time the Sounders and Timbers cross swords, as they'll do this Sunday (9:30 pm ET; Fox Sports 1).
I'm sorry to say that you're going to have to keep enduring. Seattle and Portland get dap for having the league's best rivalry because, meeting after meeting, they produce a spectacle in the stands, on the sideline, and – of course – on the field.
This is still my favorite MLS tifo of all time, even if it came before the Timbers were even in MLS:
And I feel compelled to point out that THIS was the best game of 2014. And that Sigi Schmid threw some shade at the Timbers Army:
Sigi Schmid fires the first shots of Sounders-Timbers week. On Portland fans: 'They try to be creative and they can continue to try'— Matt Pentz (@mattpentz) April 22, 2015
I honestly don't even care about the tactics with this one. I'm just here for the spectacle.
One more thing:
Happy Earth Day (week). Make sure you get outside and look around every now and then.