There are lots of stories to look at from this past weekend in MLS, some of which we'll get to (and some of which we won't, because I need to keep something back or at this rate I'll have nothing to talk about by July).
But the biggest one – by far – was Toronto FC ending their season-opening, seven-game road trip on a high point. They took nine points from the seven games, sport the best road goal differential in the East, have one of the league's best attacks and are gradually figuring out a bunch of the spacing and overlapping issues that plagued them during early spring's four-game losing streak.
I wrote a bit about the Reds following their 1-0 win at Philadelphia on Saturday, which you can read HERE. But this is it, folks: the longest-running punchline in MLS is about to be put to rest. The Reds have 17 of their final 27 games at home, and (spoiler alert) they're going to win most of them.
Here's what happened elsewhere:
1. The Strategy
Here's what I wrote about D.C. United one month ago:
As Taylor Twellman pointed out on Sunday's ESPN2 broadcast, D.C. looked almost entirely reliant upon Hamid in the season's early days. That followed the Costa Rican bloodbath, when – with Andrew Dykstra in net – United shipped five goals and generally looked like a group of guys who'd never met each other before.
I honestly didn't think they were going to be good again in 2015. I thought Hamid would keep them in games, I thought they'd get some opportunistic goals and I thought they'd eventually sink to the bottom half of the Eastern Conference, somewhere between fifth and eighth place.
Now, after clubbing Columbus by 2-0 on Saturday night, United are 5-1-2, have the highest PPG in the league and are off to the best start in team history. I was so, so wrong. Perry Kitchen has, in the last four weeks, outplayed Dax McCarty, Ricardo Clark, Matías Laba and Tony Tchani. Dykstra filled in for Hamid for two straight weeks, and D.C. had almost no drop-off, picking up four points in those two games.
I'm still not exactly sure how D.C. are doing it. I refuse to call it luck, but, well, some people have and Ben Olsen has noticed:
Ben Olsen on #DCU's strong start: "We're lucky — haven't you read anything about us? That's all I read. It's just luck."— Thomas Floyd (@thomasfloyd10) May 3, 2015
This is a Landon Donovan play (and in my lexicon, there are few higher compliments to give when it comes to setting up goals). Castillo recognizes the transition opportunity early and plays the one-touch pass into the stride of his teammate rather than to feet. He understands there is open field beckoning for Ryan Hollingshead.
The next part is even more important: Castillo explodes into space as soon as he's taken the touch. He doesn't wait to see if the pass is complete or how the defense is aligning itself. He puts the pedal down and forces them to react to him. Too many young wingers don't understand the importance of that part of the game (and if you want to know why Jurgen Klinsmann loves Miguel Ibarra … well, this kind of play is Ibarra's bread and butter).
Anyway, since Castillo's basically Usain Bolt, every Houston defender takes at least one step closer to him than they should, and that opens the field up. Again: this is a Landon Donovan play.
Castillo's aggressive, instantaneous decision-making in transition drags Houston right back Kofi Sarkodie into his orbit, and by the time Sarkodie realizes that Hollingshead is going straight to goal, it's too late. There's no chance to close him down, and poor Tyler Deric gets smoked.
Castillo got an assist on that play and another later, and he added a cheeky-as-hell goal for good measure. He has four goals and five assists in nine games, and they're not all coming because he runs faster. A lot of them are now coming because he thinks faster.
It's something new for his suitcase. And for defenders around the league, it's terrifying.
3. The Color Blue
Home has not been a particularly happy place for Sporting KC this year, as they'd dropped points in three of their four stops at Sporting Park heading into Sunday's 1-0 win vs. the Chicago Fire. The lone goal in that one came off a pretty-as-a-picture, 12-pass build-up in which nine different Sporting field players touched the ball, ending with goal-scorer Paulo Nagamura:
Soni Mustivar had a supporting role in that sequence, and will be cast as such throughout the rest of the rest of Sporting's season unless I badly miss my guess. Mustivar played as a true No. 6, connecting simple passes and finding little pockets of space to either receive the ball or act as an outlet when his side were in possession – the type of unnoticed things that guys like Kyle Beckerman or Juninho do so well. Just look at Sporting's balance on their network passing graph:
Mustivar is No. 93 above. He is the platform from which almost all Sporting possessions are launched.
This kind of restrained, cerebral d-mid play is a godsend for a KC team that just hasn't been the same since Uri Rosell left. On Sunday, Mustivar allowed Benny Feilhaber (that's Benny making the most crucial pass in the sequence, even if he didn't earn an assist) and Nagamura to range forward without fear of leaving the backline exposed, which is the essential difference between a "protector" and a "destroyer." Mustivar will win his share of 50-50 balls and make his share of tackles, destroying a bunch of opposing attacks, but for the most part his biggest strength is that he'll just allow everybody else to be better.
Or so it seems, anyway. It's too early in Mustivar's MLS career to say what he is for certain. But my guess is that Peter Vermes wants him to do what Rosell did so well in 2013 and early 2014, which will in turn allow guys like Feilhaber, Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi – three World Cup vets, and three guys with "Best XI" talent – to shine.
Sporting have the pieces to be contenders, but they've been missing a linchpin. That is, perhaps, no longer the case.
A few more things to ponder...
6. White bullets, green rectangles and ugly goals. San Jose's 1-1 draw at RSL on #MLSSAP night was not a pretty game, and the hosts didn't even manage to put a single shot on target. This is partially a function of the Quakes being pretty solid defensively, but also a function of RSL being disjointed in attack.
5. I didn't mention this above because I don't want it to color my praise of D.C. But it feels like the off-the-ball and behind-the-play fouling in MLS has escalated this year. Watch Davy Arnaud ride Ethan Finlay – whose runs to the corner are crucial to the Crew's attack – straight into the ground here:
United are hardly the only team that do this sort of thing, and MLS is hardly the only league in which it happens (Club América made it an art form in the CCL final). But it is to detriment of the attacking, inventive soccer we all want to watch.
4. The last of the unbeatens has bitten the dust. The New York Red Bulls were vanquished in Foxborough, going down 2-1 to a Revs team that are as hot as any in the league, and keep scoring goals like THIS. Of note is that every single Revs player who got a touch in that sequence is American. Remember that the next time someone talks about the lack of skill or flair in this league.
3. New York also suffered a disappointing result on Wednesday when they drew 1-1 at home against the Rapids. This was the first in a four-day, two-game road trip that also saw Colorado take a point out of the StubHub Center against the Galaxy on Saturday night with another 1-1 result.
That Saturday night affair featured both another stellar 90 minutes from Dillon Powers, and our Face of the Week from the inimitable Bruce Arena:
2. Dallas fans are going to be upset that I didn't give Pass of the Week to Castillo for his above heroics, but Clint Dempsey did Fabián one better in Seattle's 3-1 win at Yankee Stadium on Sunday night. The fact that it comes at the tail end of an 18-pass scoring sequence – longest in the league this year – means it gets bonus points:
Seattle's shot discipline is off the charts this year. I haven't run the numbers yet, but I'd wager they're leading the league in percentage of shots inside the 18 as well as expected goals per shot. Look at what they did against NYCFC.
1. The best part about Portland's scoreless draw against Vancouver on Saturday was the healthy return of Diego Valeri. The league is more fun to watch when he's on the field.
Valeri set to come on and crowd going bananas. Special moment for the Argentine. Terrific player to watch.— Marc Weber (@ProvinceWeber) May 3, 2015