"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes." -- Marcel Proust
The 21st season of MLS is two-thirds over, and it's still not clear who will win the Supporters' Shield. It's not clear who will win MLS Cup.
It's, in fact, not clear what's happening anywhere during any given week. To that point, this now-concluded Week 24 was kind of mind-bending, as Columbus won their first road game of the year, Houston won their first road game in a year, and Chicago won their first road game in two years.
You can't plan for that, and you really can't predict it all that well. MLS remains inscrutable. I say this despite writing what is essentially the same column multiple times per week, and having done so for just about three years at this point. Proust's advice at the top is wise: We all have to step away from what we expect to see from time to time and look upon the games -- and the game itself -- with new eyes.
It's not always easy, but it's how coaches solve problems and how players find an edge. It's how great teams stay great and avoid going stale.
Let's look with new eyes upon MLS at the two-thirds mark of the season, just before the stretch run kicks in for real:
The San Jose Earthquakes should have come out on the other side of this weekend with a playoff spot in hand. They'd entered just a point behind the Portland Timbers and with the last-place Houston Dynamo visiting, and they'd lost just once at Avaya Stadium all season.
They were mostly healthy. They've added summer reinforcements, and they've fought and scrapped and hung in there long enough — through injuries and international duty and age and suspensions and the long, hot summer — so that Friday night should have been the case of a team rewarding itself for months and months of a grimy and gutty and unglamorous job well done.
So naturally they lost 2-1 to that Dynamo side which, as I mentioned above, hadn't won in an entire year.
"It's an opportunity missed, and it's a big one," said Quakes head coach Dom Kinnear, who's made a living in this league by having his team ready regularly winning these exact types of games. "Even though they're at the bottom of our conference, they're still a tough team to beat. They're organized and they have closed lines where they try to sit deep and defend and catch you on the break."
Kinnear went on to say "opportunity missed" three more times in the postgame. He knows what these games should be.
And it seems his old team has learned how to grind out these exact sorts of games, and are doing so in a predictable but reliable way: Pull the midfielders in tighter and force opposition play wide in order to coax more crosses. So it's not just "sitting deep," it's "sitting deep and structured."
I don’t usually like “analysis by snapshot,” but this is instructive. Here is Houston’s shape after one of their central midfielders (Alex, who’s bottom-right, recovering back into the play) had closed down Quakes ‘keeper David Bingham and was subsequently out of position.
Notice that left winger Cristian Maidana (No. 8) has pulled centrally, keeping Houston with numbers up through the middle. Also notice that Houston d-mid Collen Warner is closing down the lane Alberto Quintero and Houston center mid Ricardo Clark is shadowing San Jose’s Anibal Godoy.
These guys are daring Chris Wondolowski to hit a pass through them. Wondo daren’t — he plays backwards:
This is classic “force them around you, not through you.” The Quakes were too often too eager to take that bait, and — oh my freaking god — they ended up crossing the ball 45 times.
I love a good cross. I also understand how hard it is to build through the middle. But you can only try to drink from the Well of Diminishing Returns so often before you die of thirst, and the Quakes were absolutely parched on Friday night.
San Jose have more skillful players than maybe even they themselves realize. There’s no reason for Godoy to be hiding on that build-up, and a harder, faster check from Quincy Amarikwa could force Warner to make a choice between him and Quintero, instead of just camping the lane. They seem, in a lot of ways, to have already given up the fight for that spot of the field before the ball is kicked, and even if they’re not completely comfortable in possession, there’s no time like the present to start to acquire some mastery of that particular art. They can at least incorporate some element of it into how they play.
Teams will watch film of what Houston did and will learn from it. That is a warning — the Quakes need to discover something magic in the central channel over the next two months or their playoff hopes will slip away for the fourth straight season.
In Search of Lost Time
For the first time since Nicolas Lodeiro arrived, his presence wasn’t the focal point of the 90 minutes Seattle were on the field. Instead, it was the guys Lodeiro and the rest of his team were going at that told the tale.
Simply put: The Sounders’ 3-1 win over Portland on Sunday night was the story of a team finding an exploit and attacking it over and over and over again until they broke down the door, stole all the money and burned the building to ash.
Said exploit was the left side of the Timbers defense. It took Seattle about 30 seconds to figure it out, but eventually they really, really did.
First half on the left, second half on the right:
Brian Schmetzer has made his share of good moves since taking over for Sigi Schmid last month, and this one spoke to his ability to identify an in-game weakness and go at it.
- For the first 25 minutes he had the Sounders running at Portland right back Alvas Powell (a very good emergency defender) with impunity because Portland left winger Lucas Melano was slow to check back and help out
- After Caleb Porter had Melano switch sides with the more defensively stout Darlington Nagbe, Schmetzer had his team flip their attacking intent and start going at the Timbers' left back, Vytautas Andriuskevicius
Vytas is fun going forward, but he can be exposed badly in 1v1 defense. Powell could scratch and claw his way to a stalemate, but Vytas couldn't, and with Liam Ridgewell a step slow to help out and/or too readily beaten by the pace of Jordan Morris, there were simply no other moves left for the Timbers to play. Sometimes you run out of pieces on the chess board even if you've made the right adjustments (and Porter's were correct).
So Seattle went to the well time and time and time again once the board was set up as they'd intended, and this is where Schmetzer had a second nice surprise:
Schmetzer took over 4 games ago. In those four games, after dropping Roldan deeper in a 4-2-3-1, he has 2 goals, 2 assists, 2 drawn pennos.— Will Parchman (@WillParchman) August 22, 2016
Will is, of course, correct: Roldan has been playing deeper defensively, and starting sequences when the Sounders are in possession a bit deeper as well. But he's actually pushing forward into the final third more often -- his movement is more dynamic -- because Seattle are so much more secure with the ball now that Lodeiro is pulling the strings. Roldan isn't really a No. 10 and I don't think he's a No. 6, nor is he a No. 8 that sets the tempo of a game.
Instead he's a force magnifier, a guy who finds space other guys have carved out, takes it, and then does something useful but not mind-blowing with the ball. It's less about skill or vision with the ball (though he has a fair helping of both) than it is about understanding where the play is unfolding and then getting there before the defense has adjusted. It's a subtle, off-the-ball skill, and playing Roldan deeper has unlocked this particular trait.
Thus, he wasn't carrying the ball into Portland's third all night. Rather, he was receiving it there as the third or fourth man into the mix, and doing so with enough time and space to draw a PK, or lay-off a nice assist, or turn up for a back post header. It was the best game of Roldan's young career, but given the way he's being deployed it won't be an outlier for long.
What all of the above means for the Western Conference playoff race is simply this: Bloodbath. There's little doubt that the Sounders are in the ascendancy right now while San Jose (two wins in their last 13) and Portland (1-4-0 in their last five) are scuffling along, and there's almost certainly room for just one of those three. I think most people are feeling Rave Green right about now.
However, a word of warning to over-exuberant Seattleites: The Sounders' next game is Wednesday at Houston, which will not be easy. They then travel next Sunday to Portland, and then two weekends after that it's off to San Jose. The moves they made this time may not work so well again in the future, so after 24 rounds it's basically a stalemate, with the final gambits coming up.
A Few More Things to Ponder...
8. I wrote about the greatness of David Villa after NYCFC's 1-0 win over LA on Saturday. Also, the Galaxy have scored 11 goals in their last 12 games. It's probably time to go back to the 4-4-2 even if it hurts one of the DP's feelings.
7. Hurrah for the Chicago Fire! Hurrah for a lineup that had some attacking balance and made sense! Their 3-0 win at Montreal was mostly due to how devastating David Accam is on the break, but this was clearly -- by miles -- Chicago's best all-around game. Let's hope we see more of the 4-2-3-1 they played in the future, though perhaps with more of a presence from right winger John Goossens when in possession.
6. I've written about both Philly and Toronto so much this year that I would've felt bad choosing them again for one of the main blurbs even though TFC's 3-1 win was the best game of the weekend.
So you'll have to settle for this, our Pass of the Week from Jozy Altidore:
Altidore's been the best No. 9 in the league since getting healthy, and the guy who missed that particular chance has started to be the best player in the league again since Jozy's return to the lineup. Those two things are related.
5. Colorado were only able to grab a scoreless draw at home vs. Orlando City, but give Pablo Mastroeni credit for putting out an ultra-aggressive (by Rapids standards) lineup. They played two true forwards, two true wingers, and Dillon Powers deep in his natural No. 8 spot.
The problem in Commerce City is that the big guns really aren't producing, as Kevin Doyle and Shkelzen Gashi have combined for just eight goals and six assists in 3200 minutes. The rest of the league has slowly reeled them in over the last three months, and they're now staring at four of their next five away from home.
4. One of the teams that should have taken advantage of Colorado's finishing problems? FC Dallas. Yes, FCD have leapt above the Rapids on total points, but Colorado still lead in PPG because Dallas have finishing problems of their own. Those were well on display in Saturday's 1-0 loss at RSL.
3. Sporting KC took care of business on restarts against Vancouver on Saturday night, winning 2-0. Of note is that Graham Zusi once again started at right back, which is something both Sporting fans and USMNT fans should keep in mind in the weeks, months and years to come.
2. I focused a bit on RBNY's problems holding onto leads in the video above, and those problems are so real: They've now led in each of their last four road games, and blown leads in each. In three of those games, including Sunday's at D.C., they led by two goals. In all four of those games, they drew 2-2. It's uncanny.
For United, I'm gonna take an "I told you so" and a victory lap about Patrick Mullins' form. That said, six points from a four-game homestand and a road-heavy remaining schedule does not leave D.C. in a great spot re: postseason hopes.
1. Our Face of the Week comes from New England's 2-0 loss to Crew SC:
Face of the Year for Revs fans, to be honest.