We've just hit the 20-percent mark of the season, and this past weekend felt a lot like the first slate of games played with no quarter asked or given. Obviously, the goals helped quite a bit in that regard – this season's been bone so far, but it felt like the dam finally burst.
Beyond the obvious, though, was just a whiff of desperation from the strugglers, mingled with a bit of killer instinct from the teams that almost everyone expects to be good. This is what we call "progressing toward the mean," as a growing sample size flattens out some of the bumps we've seen along the way.
Let's start with one of those teams that everybody knew would be good:
1. The Wheel
Of the 13 Rave Greeners who suited up in this latest Cascadia clash, just one (left back Dylan Remick, who's 23) was under the age of 25. Only two other players in the gameday 18 are under 25, and neither has played an MLS minute.
They are old. This is the team logo for 2015:
Usually this is fatal. In Seattle's case, it's mostly going to be OK, and Remick is emblematic of the reason why.
He was a lightly regarded pro prospect when he entered the draft three years ago and has been brought along slowly, eating into World Cup vet Leo Gonzalez's minutes here and there. Over the course of the last 28 months, thanks to patience and smart development, Remick has turned into a relatively mistake-free contributor. He's not the type to win the game but is hardly the type to give it away.
Seattle have started to try and stockpile those kinds of assets over the past couple of years, a process that looks to have been super-charged with the addition of the S2 USL team and GM Garth Lagerwey this offeason. Cristian Roldan, their top draft pick from the 2015 SuperDraft, will be an "every week" kind of player when he's not on international duty (he'll be on international duty a lot, by the way, because he's really freaking good); Victor Mansaray, the Homegrown striker, looks like he'll be the same; Aaron Kovar and Darwin Jones can maybe make similar arguments.
I wouldn't be shocked if two of those guys were starting at this point next season, or even next month, and that's before mentioning the enigmatic Jordan Morris. It remains to be seen where he fits into this scheme, especially after he said "Thanks no thanks" to what was reportedly a wheelbarrow full of cash, but he certainly seems to have "immediate impact" potential.
The two central defenders Seattle drafted in 2014 – Damion Lowe and Jimmy Ockford – are probably much further down this list, but that's why S2 exists. They'll each get 20-odd games this year to either sink or swim and hopefully progress that much further toward first-team minutes.
This is the way the system is supposed to work. DeAndre Yedlin, another Sounders Academy product, is proof of that: They sold him for a number with lots of zeroes in it not because they lack interest in youth development but because they've shown to be ahead of the curve on that very thing. Seattle have a coherent and logical roadmap that runs straight from the academy to the EPL, if the player in question is good enough.
They've done it all at pace. Think of it this way: If Yedlin was still around, he'd be the third-youngest right back in MLS; that he's not means the Seattle braintrust had a tidy sum to reinvest into the academy and reserve team pipeline, while picking up a veteran replacement (Tyrone Mears) to hold down the fort until the next Yedlin shows up.
So, sorry folks, but Seattle are going to be old and good in 2015. And they'll still be good in 2017, but they'll actually probably be younger. And maybe younger still in 2018 and 2019.
They're not the only team doing this, but it's exciting to see the synthesis of smart shopping (Clint Dempsey got the goal, Obafemi Martins remains an MVP candidate) combined with actual, factual youth development.
2. For Those Who Think Young
Yedlin wasn't the only Homegrown defender sold this past year. Toronto FC bid Doneil Henry farewell in the offseason (though the deal was completed last spring) and would probably love to have him back right now. They've struggled with injury and absence, both in central defense and at right back, but like Seattle, they've done a good job of building depth through the draft, the academy system and the launch of TFCII.
Nonetheless, the Reds badly needed Sunday's 2-0 win over Orlando City to stop the bleeding brought about by poor defending and a seven-game road trip to start the season. Even in the best of times, MLS is a grind, but spending that much time away from home can often feel like a death sentence.
This is TFC's network passing graph from their trip to Florida:
The thickness of the lines connecting the players is an indication of how much interplay there was. As you can see, TFC were very, very direct – not an uncommon strategy from a team determined to get at least a point on the road.
You can also see that the fullbacks, Justin Morrow (#2) and Ashtone Morgan (#5) played deeper than we've seen from this team so far in 2015. For most of the last two months, TFC were getting almost all of their attacking width strictly on the overlap, but in this one they both held their ground and let Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and the wingers try to create all the danger. It worked, as Jozy got two goals and OCSC's Seb Hines got two nightmares.
Morgan is – like Henry – a TFC Homegrown Player. He was playing next to Nick Hagglund (#6), a 2014 SuperDraft pick. The two of them combined to hold the fort against an OCSC team that completed more than 100 passes in the final third but could never really pull the visitors out of shape. It was a "bend but don't break" effort from the Toronto defense, which was particularly good at denying Kaká incisive passing lanes to his wingers.
Toronto don't have the same "Old Team" issues Seattle do, but they're already building for the future.
3. Six Month Leave
Let's make it a trio of 4-4-2 teams on the examination table this week, as it's time to dissect D.C. United just a little bit. A month or so ago, I questioned whether they'd even be a playoff team without Bill Hamid, given how reliant they'd been upon their Homegrown 'keeper.
Then on Saturday night, they went to Vancouver and beat what's arguably the best team in the league 2-1, and did so convincingly. D.C. were dynamic on and off the ball in a way they really hadn't been all year, and they have this guy to thank for it:
These were Fabián Espíndola's first MLS minutes in nearly six months. Hopefully, for D.C.'s sake, he's done shoving refs.
Espíndola is one of the league's great runners, an absolutely selfless off-the-ball demon who's then inventive and fearless once he's on it. Teams that play a semi-traditional 4-4-2 (Seattle, this year's version of LA, and Sunday's version of Toronto) have to get a ton of their creativity from the forward line, and with Fabi in the brig, that's exactly what United had been missing. Credit to them for earning results without him, but let's all pay attention to the difference between a result that's been earned and one that's been bludgeoned out of a worthy foe thanks to ruthless and opportunistic attacking play. We should also pay attention to their increased flexibility – they played a 4-1-3-2 with Michael Farfan as the No. 8, instead of their usual 4-4-2 in this one – which can both cause and solve match-up issues.
United are back, and they're legit. You don't cross three time zones and beat a team as good as the 'Caps if you're not.
A few more things to ponder...
6. Sunday's opener was the 1-1 draw between the New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy, two other teams in good "building-for-the-future" shape. LA's goal came courtesy of their latest Homegrown Player – we're going to heed Bruce Arena's warning against adjectives after a classic Arena performance – while RBNY's came courtesy of Felipe's face.
That makes it a big week for New York mugs, since Felipe's boss wins our Face of the Week:
I feel like he was trying for that.
5. Peter Vermes needed to blow off a little steam after Sporting KC went down to Houston and played the Dynamo to a 4-4 draw. I'm not sure what to make of either team at this point, though I will say this: There hasn't been a better midfielder in MLS than Benny Feilhaber this season. He's put together dominant performances on both sides of the ball and basically willed Sporting back into that game.
He is currently among the league leaders in both chances created from open play and recoveries, a testament to how much of a difference-maker he's been on both sides of the ball.
4. Feilhaber is also pretty excellent on social media:
Tierney's goal – the opener in New England's 4-0 evisceration of RSL on Saturday – was great for a couple of reasons. First was Juan Agudelo's control and inventive pass, and second was Tierney himself recognizing how much his left was (justifiably) being overplayed.
Also, this is pure Revs:
They attempted three times as many passes in the attacking half as they did in their defensive half, while holding RSL close to a 50/50 split.
Got to be prepared for that in Foxborough.
3. I wrote a bit about how Columbus punked the Union to the tune of 4-1 on Saturday evening. Right now, I think Crew SC are the best team in the league, but Philly's decision to sit deep played right into their hands. Columbus – especially without Wil Trapp – should be pressed. That's how the Revs undid them in last year's playoffs, and how the Red Bulls beat them back in March.
Dallas still have that red-card problem, though. Blas Pérez has to be smarter than THIS.
1. Our Pass of the Week goes to Harry Shipp, courtesy of this bit of magic early in Friday night's 1-0 win over NYCFC:
This is so good. The ball itself is obviously excellent, but even more impressive was the bit of Aikido he used to find a pocket of space – an early understanding of how and where the momentum of the recovering NYCFC defenders would open gaps. Add in David Accam's patience before launching his run (and then blinding speed once he hit full sprint), and you have a nearly perfect attacking sequence.
Chicago are really, really fun to watch right now. I'm not sure how long it will last, but for them, it seems "progressing toward the mean" has consisted of playing more intricate, attacking soccer by the week. If they keep doing that, the goals will eventually follow.