There are certain attributes that every manager needs, and certain ways he or she will be tested in various leagues around the world. The ability to handle big egos in the EPL, to choose an example not entirely at random, is arguably more important than the ability to ace tactical gameplans. Do you know how to handle the media? You'll be a star man in Liga MX, then. Any good at backroom politicking? Off to Serie A with you!
And in MLS? In MLS you need to be committed to not just signing great players, but to molding functional ones. "Patience in the name of individual improvement within a team scheme" is the outstanding attribute of the best managers this league has seen in the last two decades.
This is a feature -- not a bug -- of the salary cap. Once you have a player, you're probably not going to be able to sell him if you don't want him, or if you bury him on the bench. So you'd better mold him into something useful, because points are on the line.
A guy like Sebastian Lletget doesn't get the chance to develop in England. Cyle Larin would've been eaten alive by the press in Mexico after the Gold Cup miss. And Anatole Abang? There aren't many non-hyped kids who get promoted through the ranks so quickly and deliver so spectacularly.
I mention those three guys in particular because they are the league leaders in goals per 90. Abang (.95) fractionally edges out Larin (.95), with Lletget close behind (.84).
They are aged 19, 20 and 22, respectively.
Play your kids.
Onto the games:
1. Every day Is Like Sunday
I hope everybody watched Chicago's 2-0 win over FC Dallas on Sunday, because it produced a commanding performance from my second-favorite rookie in this year's class, Fire d-mid Matt Polster. D-mid. Defensive midfielder. Please please please stop playing him at right back.
Polster bossed his Dallas counterparts, Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa, and did a job on Mauro Diaz for about 80 minutes until it was time to hang on for dear life after Matt Watson's red card. He was, with all due respect to David Accam and Sean Johnson, the best player on the field, and a guy who provided answers for a Chicago team that's had only questions for a couple of months now.
There have been a number of big issues with the Fire. One of them was that you could press them straight up the gut, and get them into cycles of booted-out clearances, or bad turnovers in their own end.
Dallas tried to do as much on this play early on. Watch Polster's patience on the ball, followed by the way he A) gets into space at speed, and then B) directs the guys around him:
It's "Solving a Problem Before It's a Problem 101," and it's the type of stuff we're used to seeing from veterans like Kyle Beckerman or Dax McCarty. So when a young kid like Polster or Wil Trapp does the same, it's noteworthy.
The big difference between Polster and Trapp, however, is that while Trapp was ticketed for stardom from the time he was 12, Polster largely flew under the radar. He was a surprise pick at the No. 7 spot, a pure risk who needed to be given time to develop.
Frank Yallop's given him plenty. And the reward was a near-flawless performance against what had been the league's best team.
Polster now looks like a cornerstone of the franchise. And between him, Accam, Harry Shipp, Joevin Jones and -- coming next week -- Gilberto, the Fire suddenly have a young core to build around through the end of the decade. Add in what was a good run-out from veterans Jeff Larentowicz and Eric Gehrig in central defense, and there's reason for some optimism in Bridgeview.
They are still far from contenders this season, and have several roster adjustments they have to make if they're going to be major players in the new MLS on a week-to-week basis. Depth is obviously a big issue, since it's easy to look good for one game but incredibly difficult to do so repeatedly over the course of a season. And finding the right DPs (maybe Gilberto helps?) -- something we'll charitably term an "ongoing issue" -- is crucial.
Regardless, the point is this: If you are good at identifying domestic talent, and then prudent and methodical in how you develop it, you will give yourself the chance to win games in this league.
The best teams have always done that. The Fire are, at least a little bit, starting to catch up.
2. Our Frank
At the other end of the scale are NYCFC, who already had the oldest roster in the league even before Andrea Pirlo or Frank Lampard made their debuts. Lampard took his bow in Saturday's 3-2 loss to the Montreal Impact, coming on for the last 21 minutes.
I'll talk about that in a minute, but first I want to focus on the big, honking problem staring at Jason Kreis right now:
Anyone reasonable who was asked about NYCFC's roster construction said "I just don't know how they're going to protect the back line because Pirlo can't run." Then we were shouted down by Twitter hordes saying "running is not important, skill is!"
And while they're correct that skill is important, they neglect to note that "running" is actually a valuable, quantifiable skill, and that Pirlo doesn't do it fast enough to close down space for any team that will have less than 65 percent of the ball. All that skill everybody loves? Other teams -- including the Impact, who on Saturday won only their second road game in the last two years -- will use it to spin Pirlo like a top, pull him out of position, and then exploit space.
Juventus could counteract all of the above because he was surrounded by Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba -- creatures from another planet, pretty much -- but I'm not stretching things if I say NYCFC don't have that kind of midfield at the moment. They need to hold onto the ball.
Or... they need to get rid of it quickly. Lampard doesn't solve the "running" issue, but when he came into the game he lined up next to his Italian friend and pinged long balls at the front line:
It's ugly, but it's actually not a bad idea. Long balls from Pirlo and Lampard are going to be more accurate than MLS defenses are generally used to dealing with, and they don't all need to be completed in order to be effective. The Revs, for example, play a ton of long balls from the back, and subsequently win a lot of second balls deep in the attack. Lee Nguyen is particularly good at upfield recoveries.
This is the part where I say Kwadwo Poku has to become a fulltime starter, and that the best way to use him is as a hybrid attacking midfielder/second forward in the way Sevilla, Real Madrid and Roma used to use Julio Baptista. Poku, like Baptista, can physically boss almost anyone, and with him occupying the defense's attention it would allow David Villa and Tommy McNamara to buzz around picking up recoveries and attacking at angles.
It's not, I think, how Jason Kreis would choose to play. But results often depend more upon pragmatism than anything else.
Understanding that is also a skill.
3. That's How People Grow Up
So it turned out that getting most of their lineup back together didn't solve everything for the Seattle Sounders, who were bludgeoned 3-0 by Vancouver at CenturyLink on Saturday night. Obviously this result is significant for a number of reasons -- one being these teams now get to do it all over again on Wednesday night in the CONCACAF Champions League. Another is that Ozzie Alonso limped off injured, and a third being the Sounders still get no offensive output from their midfield, with or without Ozzie.
Yet the big signpost for me is how good the Whitecaps are on the road. They're now 7-4-2 with a +5 goal differential, both marks that are easily the best in the league. The way they've embraced their identity en toto (counterattacks & set pieces) is a part of it -- they did kill Seattle on three restarts, after all.
But the more granular aspects of the way the team is built are impressive. Gershon Koffie was in and out of the lineup earlier in the season, more "trade bait" than actual, factual soccer player. Over the last two months he's evolved into the sort of well-rounded, game-changing No. 8 that teams lust after. His movement and his ability to spread the field are ideal complements to Matias Laba's game-destroying ways as a classic No. 6, and has made central midfield a no-fly zone against the 'Caps.
That's a network passing graph using Opta data. The location of the numbers is the aggregate position of where the given player played his passes, and the thickness of the lines between two players indicates how many passes were played back and forth.
You can see how central Koffie (No. 28) is, which gave Laba (No. 15) license to push out to the left and stymie that side of Seattle's attack -- which includes overlapping fullback Tyrone Mears, who is pretty much the sole reliable chance creation valve in Rave Green at the moment.
A partnership that flexible and functional is how you survive the grueling regular-season schedule in MLS, which takes you through all kinds of climates, altitudes, weather conditions and surfaces.
It's a good balance for the 'Caps, and a good lesson for Seattle, for whom panic has nearly set in.
A few more things to ponder...
7. Are we buying the Red Bulls as Supporters' Shield contenders following Saturday's 3-1 win at PPL Park over the Union? RBNY are the only other team with a positive road goal differential, and in Shaun Wright-Phillips they might have added a difference-maker who doesn't dramatically change the shape, chemistry or intent of the team they already have. They'll simply keep doing what they've been doing all year, except now with more depth and talent.
Given that, and their favorable schedule (14 games left, eight of them at home)... well, this is setting up to be one hell of a rebuilding year in Harrison.
6. Of course, it looks a lot like RBNY will have to keep winning at a pretty good clip in order to catch current Shield front-runners D.C. United (on points, not PPG -- that's still FC Dallas.). Ben olsen's team suddenly have all sorts of answers in attack. I've got nothing to say about their 6-4 win over Real Salt Lake that the HIGHLIGHTS can't say 1000 times better.
5. Ok, Ben Olsen's face says a lot, too. Clear Face of the Week winner:
No team in MLS history had come back from consecutive 2-0 deficits to win. But there's D.C., with six more points than they had back when I was bleating on about how much they'd miss Bill Hamid.
4. Larin got two more goals and Orlando City got well with a 5-2 win over Columbus at the Citrus Bowl.
Gregg Berhalter says changes are coming for the Crew. They are needed.
3. Following Saturday's 3-1 win over Toronto FC, the Revs have now taken seven points from their last nine, and have a pillowy-soft schedule the rest of the way. Add in Jermaine Jones's return and Nguyen's uptick in form, and we could be in for a reprise of last season's late-summer push.
I still think they need to fix stuff in their defense, though.
Zusi comes in for a lot of criticism on social media thanks to his often inelegant touches, but he remains an effective player in MLS (and was last summer at the World Cup, let's not forget) because he has a constant will to drive his team forward. He is relentless, and even if he's not always precise, the way he is always pushing still puts a ton of pressure on opposing defenses.
They're not, though. Seven of the 10 field players who started in Saturday's 3-1 win at Colorado were under 30, as was one of Bruce Arena's two subs. Add in Jose Villarreal, Baggio Husidic and Bradford Jamieson IV, all of whom have been regulars and all of whom were missing due to injury, and it's clear that even without the superstars (and Alan Gordon) LA have a group to build around into the next decade.
On the other side of the field, it's tough to suss out where Colorado are going. That exciting young core Oscar Pareja took to the playoffs in 2013 has mostly been dispersed, replaced by veterans who haven't reallly been getting it done. Six of the 10 starters were over 30, and early in the second half when down a goal, Pablo Mastroeni took off his best chance creator (Dillon Powers) for Nick LaBrocca, who has five goals and six assists in the last four years. It didn't work out.
The Rapids aren't good right now, and it doesn't look like they're suffering to build for the long term.