Armchair Analyst: The Quiet Man, Sacha's brain and more from Week 17

New York is red, Cascadia is rose, and MLS Heineken Rivalry Week has officially wrapped.

Let's take a look at the games:


1. The Quiet Man

Here's a list of stuff that Darlington Nagbe leads MLS in:

Player Passing Accuracy, ending in Final 1/3 Chances Created from Open Play Fouls Won
Nagbe, Darlington 84.54 39 52
Piatti, Ignacio 76.97 23 32
Kaká 75.76 22 25
Morales, Javier 74.68 24 21
Nguyen, Lee 72.82 20 30
Bradley, Michael 70.87 23 13
Kljestan, Sacha 70.69 26 29
Pappa, Marco 70.14 22 32
Higuaín, Federico 69.47 28 21
Shipp, Harry 69.06 21 14
Giovinco, Sebastian 68.34 21 42

*minimum 20 open play chances created

I understand the frustration with Nagbe, who can often become invisible – as happened in Wednesday's 5-0 thrashing at LA. Then he has a game like Sunday's 4-1 dismantling of Seattle in what was really kind of a gut-check performance, and the above numbers start to make sense. Pay particular attention to the first column, by the way, because Nagbe remains an unreal talent. 

Portland's glitchy finishing (in which he's played a role) and occasionally hilarious set-piece defending have kind of overshadowed the season he's putting together, and the way he's broken through his own block in terms of attempting to play the killer pass. To put it into perspective: Two years ago, he only created 44 chances from open play, while last year it was 56.

We're now 18 games into the season, and Nagbe just keeps improving as a playmaker. Landon Donovan's 84 chances created from open play in 2014 is the highest single-season total we've had since Opta started tracking the league back in 2010, and while I don't think Nagbe will hit that mark, he will be within shouting distance.

He should score more. No doubt about it: He should score more. But even without the goals, he's been an absolute force out there, melding chance creation and on-the-ball efficiency in a way that nobody in this league has ever quite managed.


2. Brain Games

The last time the New York Red Bulls played NYCFC, they got rich by going at rookie right back R.J. Allen. On Sunday, in what turned into a 3-1 win, they attempted to do so again. RBNY launched 13 crosses from the left flank in the first 45 minutes, which is … well, it's a lot.

As I said in the above video, the problem with this wasn't so much the idea (fullback has been the weak spot for NYCFC all season, so please have at it) as that picking so relentlessly at one scab is not without opportunity cost. Diversifying the attack enough to become unpredictable is a Good ThingTM in and of itself, but it didn't seem to register at all until after what was presumably a colorful halftime speech from Jesse Marsch.

I mentioned the runs of Bradley Wright-Phillips and Anatole Abang in that video, but as with everything else in our game, events happen for a cascade of reasons. In this instance, one of the driving forces for RBNY's change in shape and attitude came from the change in Sacha Kljestan's positional responsibilities.

Here are his first-half passes, as measured by Opta and available in each game's Opta Chalkboard in the matchcenter:

All but four of them were either on the left flank, or passes to the left flank.

Here's how he operated in the second half:

Much more balance, much less predictable. I know how to prepare for whoever that guy was in the first half; in the second? I'm all ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Kljestan's movement has always been his biggest strength, and in this case it was the catalyst for NYCFC's midfield kind of falling apart. He is just incredibly hard to track when given a free role.

"Credit to [Kljestan]: He found so many dangerous spots in the second half," said RBNY captain Dax McCarty afterward. "… Sacha's just rounding into form, and we need him. We need him to be our brain. We need him to make plays for us, because that's what we brought him in for, so he's been steadily getting better every game, and hopefully this is a game where his confidence just goes through the roof."

RBNY still have the pieces to be really, really good, but they won't hit those heights unless they remain as unpredictable as they were in the second half of this one.

On another note, it also helps to have Matt Miazga back. These numbers are from before Sunday's win (they include Wednesday's 1-0 win over RSL), and I don't think they're a coincidence:


3. No. 9 Redux

A few weeks back, I wrote a bit in this space about some concerns of mine regarding center-forward play in MLS. Since then, Kei Kamara has stretched his lead in the Golden Boot race, C.J. Sapong has at least partially revived the Philadelphia Union's season, and Abang seems to have carved a prominent role for himself into RBNY's game-day lineup.

I am happy about this, because I just enjoy watching good, smart center-forward play. But also because I think having guys like Kamara, Sapong and Abang succeed will reopen the discussion about "technique."

Right now, for too many people, "technique" only means stepovers or juggling or dancing on the ball (to be clear: I do enjoy watching THIS). I've heard this called "tekkers," a word that does a disservice to both sport and language.

Lost in the torrent of GIF-able moments has been an appreciation for stuff like Sapong's lay-off into the run of Eric Ayuk in Philadelphia's 2-2 draw with Montreal on Saturday. Here are some words from Johan Cruyff about what technique really means:

Technique is not being able to juggle a ball 1,000 times. Anyone can do that by practicing. Then you can work in the circus. Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your teammate.

Strong center-forward play of the sort I'm talking about remains incredibly valuable because it occupies multiple defenders. When you do that, you open lanes for passes. If you then have the vision to see those passes and the technique to complete them, you get goals:

As a Yank, I am happy to see Sapong carving a swathe through some of the toughest and smartest defenders in MLS. Watch how Belgian World Cup veteran Laurent Ciman is one of four Impact defenders drawn to the ball on the above goal, or notice how the soft spot in Seattle's defense is exactly where Sapong showed up in last Wednesday's 1-0 win. Yet I remain troubled that it took him until age 26 to be put in a situation to do that full-time, doubly so that "hold-up play" is a thing most of the hyped prospects coming through the ranks don't seem to excel at.

Gyasi Zardes, for example, is not a creative passer in that situation, while Juan Agudelo prefers to operate in and around different spots on the field. The two most promising young target forwards in MLS – Cyle Larin and Abang – aren't Yanks.

I maintain that, in the long term, this is something that US fans should keep an eye on with regard to the developmental process and the national team.


A few more things to ponder …

8. The Rapids dropped two more games this week, losing 2-0 on Wednesday at Orlando City and 2-0 on Saturday at Sporting KC. In a vacuum, those two results are totally understandable and explicable, since road results remain very, very tough to get.

But since last July, Colorado are 3-19-13, and none of the new additions - young or old - have had any appreciable effect on the team's form or philosophy. They are brutal to watch.

7. Toronto FC's four-point week, thanks to a 3-1 win over Montreal on Wednesday and then a scoreless draw on the weekend against D.C. United, has them up to second place in the Eastern Conference on both points per game and goal differential. They are going to make the playoffs, even if they struggle in July with Michael Bradley, Jozy Atlidore, Jonathan Osorio and Ashtone Morgan away on Gold Cup duty.

With them gone, more of the burden will fall to Sebastian Giovinco, and we're certain to see more of this:

D.C. gave Giovinco a couple of good pops right off the bat, including this: 

6. United's other Week 17 game was a 1-0 win at Chicago on Wednesday night, thanks to a Conor Doyle rocket. You get to hit a ball that well only once or twice in your life, and I like to think he screamed "Traore!!!" as it left his foot.

5. Our Face of the Week goes to Houston manager Owen Coyle: 

The Dynamo were pretty soundly handled to the tune of 2-0 by FC Dallas on Friday night. Fabián Castillo was absolutely rampant for the victors who, in a Texas tradition, brought home artillery.

4. United are on top of the Supporters' Shield standings on total points, but it's actually the Vancouver Whitecaps who lead the league in points per game. Their 2-1 win at New England on Saturday was their third straight – all on the road – and second straight without playmaker Pedro Morales.

New arrival Cristian Techera has taken a starting spot in Morales' stead and has given the 'Caps a bit of a different look. They're still primarily a counterattacking team, but the "3" line of their 4-2-3-1 has stayed much higher with Morales out, and in so doing has offered a bit more support for striker Octavio Rivero.

You'll be seeing more of Techera in this week's Instant Replay, by the way. For what it's worth: I thought it was the right call.

3. Nick Rimando may never win Goalkeeper of the Year, but I'll be damned if he goes without a Pass of the Week title:

That was from RSL's 2-2 draw on Saturday against Columbus, in an exceptionally fun game to watch.

2. The same could be said for Crew SC's 2-1 midweek win over New England, which stopped a six-match winless skid. Kamara's game-winner came off of Ethan Finlay's ninth assist of the season, a total tied with Sporting's Benny Feilhaber for the league lead.

1. And I'm going to end this column by once again praising Chris Wondolowski, who has started playing so well as a box-to-box central midfielder that I'm beginning to wonder if that should have been his spot all along. Starting his runs deeper allows for him to sneak into the attack later, which he did with aplomb in San Jose's 3-1 California Clasico win over LA on Saturday night.

But it's also highlighted his always underrated passing ability. This is basically what Phillip Cocu did for 15 years with PSV and Barca:

There are two hilarious parts to this play. First is that, even after everything we've seen over the last six seasons, Wondo still manages to turn up unmarked on the near post. Second is that this sequence and his goal from earlier in the night – and yes, it was his long diagonal that opened the field for Matías Pérez García – brings forth the very realistic possibility that he could win his third Golden Boot playing his third different spot (right wing in 2010; second forward in 2012; central midfield in 2015).

The guy is just born to score goals, but saying, "all he does is score goals" sells him waaaay short.

Dom Kinnear obviously knows that. And he's obviously fixed the midfield balance issue that was plaguing the Quakes earlier in the season. He'll have more work to do as Wondo leaves for the Gold Cup, but it'll be clear what the plan is once Bau Daigh comes back over the hill.

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