This was a night of reckoning across MLS. And in two of the three games, it was the guys wearing the No. 10 kit who laid down the law.
That's as it should be. It's one of Bruce Arena's most endearing qualities that, when he's asked why his team won X, Y or Z trophy, he almost always comes back to, "Our best players went out there and were our best players. You don't win anything if your best guys aren't leading the way."
I'm paraphrasing, but you get the gist. The most decorated coach in leauge and US national team history has a recipe that's not so secret and isn't afraid to be simple and straight-forward about one of the main reasons his team wins like it does.
In that sense, everybody's trying to catch up to Bruce and the Galaxy.
Let's start in Toronto, where they have a "best player" who rivals - or perhaps surpasses - anything Arena's ever had to work with:
Have you seen the goal Sebastian Giovinco scored against the New York Red Bulls in Wednesday's 2-1 win yet? Yes? Ok, watch it again anyway:
That is absurd and ridiculous and goes to a point I always try to make about what kind of "athletic" to look for when evaluating young talent. Giovinco isn't particularly fast, and while he's strong for his size, he's not Quincy Amarikwa-level "disproportionately strong." He's also very agile, but not game-breakingly so like, say, Kekuta Manneh.
Where he breaks the game is with his balance. Giovinco is able to keep his rhythm on and off the ball because he's exceptionally balanced. He's able to cut around defenders who end up looking wild and reckless in their challenges, and he can make 1.5 moves to every 1.0 they're able to process. It's elite-level athleticism, and even guys who've played at Champions League and EPL teams like Ronald Zubar are posterized by it.
Giovinco is Toronto's best player, and tonight, in his few minutes, he played like it. He was also Italy's best player on Tuesday, and as long as he's playing like this the Reds have a chance. So do the Azzuri.
While that's the big story, here's one that's just as important: TFC looked to have some things figured out, defensively, against the Red Bulls. They went to a 4-2-3-1 in order to clog up the central midfield and did a mostly wonderful job of keeping Sacha Kljestan out of the half-spaces between the lines.
It was a very, very back-foot type of defensive effort from the Reds, one that lacked in aesthetics until Giovinco came on. But that's OK, because teams that win anything worthwhile are also teams that learn how to win ugly.
Doing so got them into the postseason for the first time in club history. Doing so with their Italian best player running things up top? That'll give them hope that this first trip into November is an extended one.
2. Don't Stop
The other No. 10 to make a splash was FC Dallas's magic little unicorn, Mauro Díaz. He had a goal and an assist and a missed penalty against Vancouver in FCD's 2-0 win, one that tied them with the Red Bulls atop the Supporters' Shield standings and sort of jolted me into recognizing that we could all be converging on Frisco, Texas, come Dec. 6.
When Díaz is healthy, Dallas are the best team in the Western Conference. They do full-field, flowing moves that involve the whole team, like THIS. Or he finds opportunistic little gaps in play where he can punish inattentive defenders, like THIS.
Díaz's real gift, though - the thing that elevates both him and his team - is his ability to receive the ball in traffic, then instantly make the field GIGANTIC. Even if you're compact, you're not safe:
This is the difference between a guy who has a good passing eye and a guy who can actually control the game. Against players like Díaz or Benny Feilhaber or Lee Nguyen, it's not enough to have a defender close. You have to have a defender who's disciplined, who understands that preventing the turn-and-spray is more important than immediately trying to win the ball.
Vancouver, even with three defensive-minded midfielders out there, didn't do enough to cut down Mauro Díaz's lanes. FC Dallas prospered because of it.
They're now second place in the Supporters' Shield standings, behind New York only on goal differential (the second tiebreaker, after total wins). They're 12-5-5 with a +14 goal differential when he starts, 4-5-1 with a -3 when he's injured.
They needed him to be their best player. He was their best player. This is what you pay a No. 10 for.
If Díaz can continue to be the best version of himself, Dallas have a legitimate shot at some kind of silverware.
3. Go Your Own Way
The guy from Portland who, in previous years, would have been in this conversation is Diego Valeri. The Argentine wears No. 8, but he's a No. 10 and has been his team's best player basically since his first day in green.
However, this season has seen a different kind of Valeri. Partially this is because he's still trying to recover from last year's torn ACL, and partially it's because the Timbers are simply a different team than they have been in the past. They're crossing more, they're playing more direct and they're skipping midfield.
Here are Valeri's numbers from 2014, as measured by Opta:
And here's his 2015:
Most of the differences are within the margins, but check out that bottom row. Back in 2014 Valeri was hitting 3.2 crosses for every through-ball; in 2015, that has jumped to 9 crosses for every through ball.
I love a good cross. The Timbers, however, love them a little bit too much.
While Valeri's not as dominant in 2015 as he has been the past two years, he's nonetheless figured out ways to be effective. That's what he was in Wednesday's expect-the-unexpected 1-0 win at Rio Tinto over RSL, as he put together a wonderfully precise and reliable 90 minutes of moving the ball in and through central midfield:
I'm not going to say that Valeri was Portland's best player on the night - that honor goes to Diego Chara, who was disciplined and ruthless in playing as a true No. 6.
But after a season of fits and starts, of surprise wins and dispiriting losses, Wednesday night was a solid data point for Timbers fans and front office personnel alike: Valeri is finding himself in the flow of the game once again.
When he does that, Portland can beat anyone.