The homespun conventional wisdom you heard is a myth. The succinct and to-the-point bit of knowledge an elder dropped on you... that's unexamined. The axiom that was promised as revealed truth is nothing but a talking point.
In MLS, "all you need is to get hot a the right time." The "right time" is usually posited as August and September and October, as summer turns to autumn and playoff hopes turn to confirmation. Just take the first five months of the season to sort it all out, and then cruise through the last three.
We've taken a look at this before, and noted teams that get hot at the end of the season actually don't just cruise into the playoffs. In 2015 it was Orlando City who came up short, and in 2014 it was Portland. A year before that, San Jose couldn't make up the ground necessary to peek above the red line – and so on and so forth.
To put a finer point on it: We're about 2/3s of the way through the season, but we're about 80% sure of what we're seeing:
Since 34-game schedule introduced (2011), MLS has seen ~80% of final variation in PPG sorted by 20th game. pic.twitter.com/QLYdSzM29Q— Matt Bernhardt (@bernhardtsoccer) July 31, 2016
You are very much what the numbers say you are at this point in the year. That means I was dead wrong about NYCFC three months ago, and it also means that the teams at or near the red line are in big trouble. It also means that the teams well below it – Chicago and Columbus, Seattle and Houston – are staring at the abyss.
They've been warned. Now, let's look at the 21st week of the 2016 MLS regular season:
And so Jason Kreis walked the sidelines of an MLS match for the first time eight months, and did so sporting the purple of Orlando City SC. And Kreis did what he's often done well over the years: Make smart halftime adjustments to free up his best attacking players, choosing to make the first move in order to dictate the terms of the chess match.
Kreis's OCSC side cantered to at 3-1 home win over New England thanks to a trifecta of second-half goals after Brek Shea was subbed in for ineffective rookie Hadji Barry. The Revs had taken a 1-0 lead into the break, but they kept coming apart in the second 45 thanks to Shea's ability to stretch the field and go direct at goal while playing inverted on the right-hand side.
Shea has gravitational pull, and Kreis used that to good effect. Putting a goal-threat on that sideline pulled the New England defense a step or two in that direction, and that in turn opened up the soft underbelly for Kaka, whose first half passing map:
...was vastly different from his second-half passing map:
More touches in the center of the park was a good thing for the Lions in this one.
This isn't to say it's a single-player fix for a team that is going to need to continually outscore opponents since the defense still looks leaky. Shea's had problems throughout his career trying to find the right fit, and his inability to contribute in possession makes him a complicated add for a coach whose teams have always loved to have the ball. OCSC played a 4-2-3-1 today, and that was fine – but what happens if they go to a 4-4-2 diamond? Or a flat 4-4-2? Or even a 4-1-3-2? He can't be a shuttler, and since he doesn't pinch inside through the midfield build-up he probably won't be much help as a pure wide midfielder.
Thus the essence of the looming problem:
Early goings & goals change nature. ORL's central player's drifted to open space. Shea's penetration may both compete & compliment #ORLvNE.— Nathan Martin (@NMthenoise) August 1, 2016
The "complement" part is obvious. Shea stretches the field and is dynamic in transition, which is when Kaká and Cyle Larin both do their best work. This team, under Adrian Heath and now under Kreis, has to be built upon the attacking strengths of those two guys.
The "compete" part is trickier to explain, but to help please refer back to those two passing maps. Kaká is more of a second forward – or pocket forward, if you prefer – than a traditional, midfield No. 10. He doesn't pull strings from deep, and his greatest strength isn't getting on the ball in traffic and then dictating the game. Instead he's great around the box, and his biggest strength is figuring out where the traffic isn't and then getting on the ball there. In modern soccer, that's probably on the flanks.
But as you see from that second-half passing map, Kaká was deeper as well as more central. Doing so made room for two inverted wingers, which was by design.
"Clearly," Kreis said afterward, "I like when wingers can come inside combine and find strikes so it made sense to me to leave Brek on the right from that aspect as well.”
But it also made Kaká a different player, and clearly there are going to be games where all of the above makes the field too narrow. Kaká needs space, and Larin needs space, and while Shea helped create it this weekend, his weaknesses in possession can help take it away next.
There's the riddle Kreis has to solve. Game 1 was well-managed and clever, and left them tied with the Revs on points and even on PPG. They'll need more of that if they're to climb above the red line and stay there.
Working Man's Blues
I'd been advocating multiple teams trade for Patrick Mullins for the better part of 18 months, since it became obvious that he wasn't going to factor into NYCFC's plans as a starter. D.C. United finally got the deal done two weeks ago, and on Saturday Mullins made his debut as a starter, then rewarded Ben Olsen with a well-taken header in an ultimately disappointing 1-1 draw against the Montreal Impact.
"I thought we were great," Olsen offered in the postgame presser. "It hurts that we only get a point out of playing great but I told the group afterwards…there’s a lot of good here. That was a good performance, the best I’ve seen the team play in quite awhile, front to back…but we missed a lot of chances."
He also offered this:
The chances D.C. missed were myriad and sundry, and spread throughout the lineup. Mullins can put his hand up on one of those, as can Patrick Nyarko (who was great) and Lucho Acosta (who was fun) and just about everybody else.
I think Mullins will make good more often than not, even if he never becomes a dominant, 20-goal-a-season threat. More important, though, is that he offers an in-his-prime target forward's work ethic and willingness to use whatever means necessary to open up the game for the guys around him:
That was my favorite play of his on the evening, because it showed how well he understood the position of his teammates and of the Montreal defense. He didn't need to touch the ball, he just needed Victor Cabrera to bite on his check. He just needed to do the sort of work that scouts and coaches questioned whether he was capable of putting in over the last two years, and even going back to his college days when he was winning back-to-back Hermann Awards.
The above sequence deserved a better finish, as did so many other attacks D.C. launched. There's so much frustration in that.
But there's also repeatability and a better understanding of who this team is and how they're going to create the types of chances that playoff squads thrive upon. They might not make it this year (I'd be shocked), but there's a little more personality out there now and, with Mullins and Acosta, two attacking fulcrums just entering their respective primes who are willing to do the work.
Sing Me Back Home
FC Dallas stayed unbeaten at home on Sunday, leaving little doubt who the best team in the league is with a comfortable 2-0 win over Vancouver. Michael Barrios – the best player in MLS that you don't pay any attention to – had another influential game on the wing. Mauro Diaz was very good, and had another assist from central midfield. Maxi Urruti got behind the defense a bunch, and finished one off.
This, however, is all we're paying attention to:
"Regarding Fabian [Castillo], I know there has been a lot of speculation," is how Oscar Pareja put it in the postgame interview. "There is a lot of news and tweets and pictures, and a lot of stuff, which is not rare. It's normal with a player with that capacity, and a player that is feeling wanted around the world. So, I don't find that rare. At the same time, I want you to know that there has not been an agreement between the clubs, and I expect to have Fabian back and into our training. That's what we want. He's very welcomed and very loved here in this community and this team. We always want the best for Fabian, always the best for him. You know that I love him like my son, and I will do everything that's possible to keep helping him to be the player that he wants to be."
I think Dallas are the league's best either way. I also think they are much, much better with Castillo on the field.
A few more things to ponder...
7. As I said near the top, I was dead wrong about NYCFC not making the playoffs this year. They demolished Colorado 5-1 on Saturday behind a hat trick from Frank Lampard, whose movement in and around the box remains genius-level.
That result basically spells the end of the Rapids' run at the league record for fewest goals conceded in a season. They're at 19 now, with 13 games left. RSL set the record by conceding just 20 in the 2010 season (albeit in 30 games, as opposed to the current, 34-game season).
6. Jacob Peterson continues to be the answer for Sporting KC. They are much better when he's on the field, and he solidified that point with the game-winner in SKC's 1-0 victory over visiting Portland on Sunday.
Ha! I just saw this. After Endoh's goa. Giovinco pretends like he's going to smack him for getting in the way. pic.twitter.com/Gqt8sYzh7Y— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) August 1, 2016
You have to see the goal to get the interaction there, but suffice it to say that when your multi-multi-million-dollar DP is joking around like that with a relatively unheralded rookie, things are probably good in the locker room. And since Jozy Altidore returned with both a goal and a Pass of the Week contender, and Jay Chapman continues to evolve into a legitimately top-tier playmaking threat, it's safe to say TFC are adding strength to strength ahead of their home-heavy stretch run.
4. I dove into new Sounders No. 10 Nicolas Lodeiro in the video embedded at the top of the page, and he more than lived up to his billing in Seattle's 1-1 draw with LA. After 90 minutes he looks like a franchise-changer.
The Galaxy, meanwhile, don't need any changing (I guess). Once again they were outshot by nearly a 2-1 margin, and once again they came away with a totally acceptable result.
3. The New York Red Bulls are very reliant upon Dax McCarty, who's rebounded from a slow March and early April to play some wonderful soccer over the last three months:
That makes his injury in RBNY's 2-2 draw at Chicago one of the under-the-radar stories that could define the rest of the season. New York have good depth in central midfield, but nobody who gets play from Point A to B quicker and more efficiently than their captain.
2. Through the season's first three months the Philadelphia Union gave up just more than a goal per game. Through the last two months, they've conceded just under three goals per game.
Sunday's 2-1 loss to RSL was not an outlier. The Union have been defending deeper and more desperately, and it's largely because good teams have been tearing through an unbalanced midfield. RSL have been struggling, but they're still mostly a good team, and punished a Philly side that's at sea.
1. And finally, Pass of the Week goes to Quincy Amarikwa:
That is an absurd, Beckham-esque way to use the width of the field. Amarikwa and the Quakes took a 1-1 draw out of Houston, and once again owe a debt of gratitude to 'keeper David Bingham. San Jose have a way of just bludgeoning results out of teams, a tactic that wouldn't work if they didn't have one of the league's best 'keepers backstopping things.