Armchair Analyst: A heel turn, burning rage and more from Week 16

There's no perfect overlap yet, but this weekend gave us a glimpse of why I think teams that invest in academies and set up their own, full USL reserve teams will start to separate themselves from the pack over the next three or four years.

First it was Kianz Froese coming off the bench for the Whitecaps and getting what would turn out to be the game-winning goal against the Red Bulls, and then it was RBNY forward Anatole Abang getting a consolation goal five minutes later. Next it was Robbie Rogers locking down the left flank for LA, playing a spot – left back – he'd learned in earnest for Los Dos last year, and after that Taylor Peay got the first four minutes of his MLS career for Portland.

It wasn't long enough to get a perfect read on Peay's overall quality, but it followed on the heels of a steady US Open Cup performance. And the point isn't for me to have a clear read on how good Peay is, it's for Caleb Porter and the Timbers staff to have that read. And what do you know? Peay, who already has about two-dozen USL games under his belt, didn't look out of place. He looked like a pro.

So, obviously, did Froese, Abang, Rogers or a number of other USL veterans scattered throughout the league.

And that's the point of this whole developmental system: Teams that invest in playing time for their kids and flexibility for their veterans are the ones that will have the most answers over the course of a season, the ones that will have the ability to go down their bench and find a guy they trust to get the job done. In Froese the 'Caps have created a solid central midfielder who can slot in for 1000 minutes a season at "above replacement player" level, and in Rogers the Galaxy have created one of the best starting left backs in the league.

That doesn't happen without the full-on reserve teams giving these guys minutes. The fact that we're just scratching the surface – we're still clearly in the trial & error phase of this whole #Path2Pros thing - but already seeing such positive results is beyond encouraging.

As I was typing the above, this email hit my inbox:

Great – Vancouver won 3-2. But you know who really won? Fans of both franchises, who will see a bunch of the players involved in that game play meaningful MLS minutes in the coming years. There are more Froeses and Peays coming.

A tangential point: a deeper pool of blooded and bloodied reserves is partially responsible for the strong showing by MLS teams in this year's US Open Cup. Fourteen MLS teams made it into this year's Round of 16, which is a record. Back in 2012, only nine made it that far. There are correlation/causality and sample size issues with most of that statement, but I've decided to die on this hill.

Onto the games:


1. The Best Player You Don't Love

D.C. United have an on-again, off-again relationship with watchability, and much of it comes down to the presence of Fabian Espindola. On the field he presents as a burning ball of hair and fury, trickery and self flagellation. He alternates between rage at his opponents, the officials, and himself. He is always in his own crosshairs, the Caliban of MLS.  

It's easy to fall into the habit of focusing only on the dramatic parts of Espindola's on-field personality (especially when it results in a six-game ban, as was the case following last year's playoff exit) at the expense of appreciating him as a soccer player. But don't do that. Espindola is too good not to appreciate:

Obviously this entire sequence should have been handled better by the Revs in United's 2-1 win on Sunday afternoon. Chris Tierney needs to close Nick DeLeon down two steps quicker; Jose Goncalves needs to prevent Espindola's service; and Kevin Alston is going to want that missed header back. Giving Chris Rolfe an open look isn't a great idea.

However, they're not the first team to fall prey to this kind of creativity from D.C.'s attack, and they won't be the last:

Espindola now has five assists in 491 minutes, which is far and away the best rate in the league. He's a star who makes the whole play so much more engrossing, elevating everybody around him. Hopefully he takes a moment to enjoy his own one-man show.


2. Heel Turn

RSL's 2-1 win over Sporting KC was the most compelling game of the weekend for any number of reasons. First off, it was – as Jeff Cassar said – probably the best game of the season for the hosts. They played as if a weight had been lifted from their shoulders, they kicked Benny Feilhaber out of the game over the final 30 minutes, and they were fully deserving of the winner.

What is absolutely amazing to see, however, is just how much RSL look like old-school Sporting. The KC teams from 2011 through 2013 were often recklessly physical, which created just a smidge of animosity around the league (and especially in Sandy). RSL were the team that prided themselves on playing "the right way," and that meant keeping the ball, trying to make the game pretty, and avoiding the kind of open-field games that other MLS teams thrived on.

Obviously that's now changed. RSL have aped Sporting's system, shifting to the 4-3-3 from the diamond, and they've embraced some of the attitude as well. Their high pressure was stifling at times, and just like the good-old-days version of KC, that meant tons of turnovers, tons of fouls, and tons of physicality.

It should also mean tons of crosses, but that hasn't always been the case for RSL this year. They've been reluctant to hit an early ball in despite playing a style and formation designed for it.

And then they weren't:

Thirty-three crosses is an insane number, and perhaps speaks to a page being well and truly turned.

It's not high-percentage stuff, and the stats bear that out. Last season, RSL completed 68.75 percent of their passes in the final third. This year they're down around 62 percent, and against Sporting were at 59 percent. Through it all they are still dead last in the league in chance creation from open play, generating fewer than six looks per 90 after clocking in at just over nine in 2014.

But Sporting showed for years that the old-fashioned conventional wisdom of "just put it into the mixer" can pay, especially when everybody on the field is buying in. RSL may once have hated it, but it looks like they've now become it.

And if it keeps getting them points, they'll be absolutely fine with that.


3. Doop'ed Into a Sprint

The Philadelphia Union had won three of their last five, and heading into LA on Saturday night looked quite a bit like a team that had figured some things out. Mo Edu and Richie Marquez had solidified central defense, and Fabinho (!!!) had become a lock-down left back, while Vincent Nogueira's return to central midfield simply made everyone better on both sides of the ball.

Even so, I didn't expect them to win in Carson. Not with Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes back from international duty, and not with options like Jose Villarreal, Alan Gordon and Sebastian Lletget coming off the bench. Bruce Arena is suddenly spoiled for riches, and Steven Gerrard hasn't even arrived yet. I thought Philly would lose.

They didn't just lose, though. They suffered a Keter-class containment breach around the 20-minute mark, and LA ran them to death for the rest of the night. The 5-1 scoreline wasn't as close as it looked, and it didn't look close at all.

“It’s a big field," said Union midfielder Brian Carroll. "They like to open up the field and they create some good counter attacks."

That ethos is at the root of how Arena has always coached. Even at the height of last season's tiki-taco extravaganza, LA were still the league's most vicious counterattacking team.

In this instance it somehow caught the back triangle of Edu, Marquez & Nogueira completely off guard. With those three scrambling to chase rather than working together to contain, it resulted in not just a ton of shots, but a ton of shots from inside the 18:

Give your opponent twice as many looks from inside the area as you yourself are generating, and you won't win many games.

The good news here is that Philly still managed to be effective pushing forward, and generated some real chances (including C.J. Sapong's well-taken goal). There is talent in Chester, and Jim Curtin has to avoid the temptation to blow up the current plan after such a dismal effort. Saturday night was bad, but the process over the last six-to-eight weeks has been good.

For Philly, that has to be considered a step forward.


A few more things to ponder...

7. We know that mid-season attacking additions don't always work out, and only rarely work immediately. But HasDoyleOrSolignacScoredYet.com is just about ready to go live as fans of the Colorado Rapids wring their hands. Kevin Doyle and Luis Solignac have no goals and 1 assist in 605 minutes between the two of them, and have put only four of their 15 total shots on target.

Colorado picked up their league-leading ninth draw of the season in Friday's 1-1 slugfest with FC Dallas. Neither newcomer was much of a factor for the hosts.

6. I wrote a bit about Matias Perez Garcia and the San Jose Earthquakes following Saturday's 2-0 win in Seattle. That game produced our Face of the Week:

5. The Vancouver Whitecaps lived dangerously but survived to tell the tale following Saturday's 2-1 win over the 10-man Red Bulls in New Jersey. Cristian Techera's pass to unlock the defense on Kekuta Manneh's opener was brilliant... but not quite brilliant enough to win our Pass of the Week.

Meanwhile, ignominy for Bradley Wright-Phililps, who became the first player in MLS history to fail to convert two PKs in one game. Even down to 10 for 80 minutes, RBNY had their chances to take points out of this one.

4. NYCFC have followed up an 11-game winless skid by winning three in a row, because MLS. Saturday's 2-0 blanking of Toronto FC at BMO Field was the definition of a trap game for the Reds, who couldn't break down a compact and physical Blues defense (do we call them the Blues? The Light Blues? Pirlo & Friends?).

Jason Kreis had a great gameplan: He pulled his wings in to flood central midfield, and made sure if anybody from the hosts beat his team it would have to be ad hoc right back Justin Morrow. Morrow's been good playing out of place all season, but his right foot is still mostly just for standing on. The few times he got into dangerous spots, he couldn't make it matter.

And obviously a tip of the hat should go to Josh Saunders. He looked the part of an MLS Cup-winnning goalkeeper.

3. I'm not ready to call Laurent Ciman the best center back in MLS quite yet, but he's in the top tier. The Belgian international was brilliant in leading his team to another home shutout, this one to the tune of 2-0 over visiting Orlando City. The Lions saw their five-game unbeaten run come to an end thanks to Montreal's usual formula of set pieces and counterattacks.

2. Only team in the league with a longer winning streak than NYCFC are Portland, who've now posted four straight with only a single goal conceded. Their 2-0 win over Houston on Saturday night was comprehensive, and Jorge Villafana continues to be one of the league's most underappreciated fullbacks.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week might very well be the Pass of the Year. This is an inside-out, one-time, 45-yard switch into space from Juninho:

And he did it with a defender in his face, closing him down. That does not slip.

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