Armchair Analyst: On the Radar for Week 8 of the 2017 MLS season

Midweek MLS gave us a scoreless draw between the New England Revolution and San Jose Earthquakes in Foxoborough, a result that belied the quality of chances both teams created and highlighted two mid-20s 'keepers who are starting to make the league their own. We've actually seen something of a generational shift in net.

As it stands, 13 of the 22 starting 'keepers in MLS this year are under the age of 30, and just three – Tim Howard, Nick Rimando and Jorge Bava – are age 35 or older. Globally, the MLS 'keeper pool skews young.

This feels like a trend, and has created some interesting battles for the starting job in various spots:

  • Jake Gleeson took advantage of his opportunity in Portland and won the job from the since-departed Adam Kwarasey
  • Gregg Berhalter seemed to make the decision, after last season, that he'd be handing the reins to Zack Steffen instead of sticking with Steve Clark
  • Jesse Gonzalez looks like he's reclaimed the starting job from veteran Chris Seitz in Dallas
  • Cody Cropper won the No. 1 shirt this offseason in New England over a pair of veterans

One of the things I'm curious about is how it will affect the "next generation" of 'keepers because once a 'keeper has locked down a starting job in this league, they tend to keep it for a while. So get used to seeing the above names in their current locations.

Onto the weekend ahead:


Bust Out

Houston's hot start has been one of the stories of the young season. Erick "Cubo" Torres is back to his goalscoring ways now that he's playing for Wilmer Cabrera again, and the Honduran duo of Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto has been consistently dangerous if sporadically productive, and Mauro Manotas has worked his way into the lineup and onto the scoresheet the past few weeks, and a team that many picked to be at the bottom of the Western Conference is fourth in both total points and points per game.

Things feel better in Houston than they have in a long while.

But this has to be noted: Houston are in the midst in a very, very home-heavy first two months of the season. They play five of their first seven at BBVA Compass Stadium, and seven of their first 10 – including Saturday against the Quakes (3:55 pm ET; UniMas | Facebook.com). The points they've taken so far are ones they have to take.

And the points they gave up last week, as they coughed up a 2-0 lead before settling for a 2-2 draw against Minnesota United? Those are ones that hurt in October.

The preferred method for going at the Dynamo, who've now shipped nine goals in their last four games, has been to draw their backline up high and then burst into the open field past them. You can see it in the video embedded at the top of the page, and you can see it from last week's highlights as well:

There's a weird confusion as to how high to play, and how to move as a unit. It's especially troublesome because there also appears to be confusion about how and where to get pressure to opposing midfielders. I mean...

That's a problem. "High backline" and "no midfield pressure" is a perfect recipe for shipping multiple goals, and the Dynamo have to fix it while the schedule's still being kind.

I'll also be watching: San Jose's central defense. Victor Bernardez was good in his return from suspension for midweek's trip to New England, but lacks the speed to keep up with Houston's attackers.

If he's playing from the start again on Saturday, expect the Quakes to sit deep and counter. Doing otherwise invites the type of breakout opportunities upon which the Dynamo have feasted this year.


All Due Respect

I was hesitant to heap too much praise upon Orlando City for their acquisition of Jonathan Spector this offseason largely because I didn't really think he'd be able to be the kind of aerial presence most teams need in central defense in this league. His relative weakness in the air is why he spent most of his career in England at right back, and why he played primarily in that spot for the USMNT in his international days as well.

Early returns say that's not a concern in MLS. Spector's won a respectable 67 percent of his aerial battles, and – arguably more important for a team that's often been defending late leads – he's among the league leaders in headed clearances:

Player Headed Clearances
Waston, Kendall 34
Zimmerman, Walker 25
Machado, Adolfo 21
Spector, Jonathan 20
Parker, Tim 20
Joao Meira 20
Kappelhof, Johan 18
Hedges, Matt 18
Dean, Christian 17
Birnbaum, Steve 17

Is this the strongest part of his game? No. Is this the way Jason Kreis wants to play? Of course not. Spector, at his best, is a reader of the game and backline distributor who helps his team spread the field and control a game. But even the very best center backs in those particular aspects of the position have to be able to do the rugged, physical work of emergency defense.

No one should really expect this to come into play all that much on Sunday's trip to the Bronx to face NYCFC (1:30 pm ET; FS1 in the US | MLS Live in Canada). That said, the hosts did fall in love with the cross a couple of weeks back in a loss to D.C. United, during which Bobby Boswell had to be dominant in the air. So it's not out of the question that Spector will have to rise above once again.

I'll also be watching: NYCFC's formation. With Ronald Matarrita out there's perhaps even more impetus to switch to the 3-4-3 that Patrick Vieira has tinkered with. It would require shifting Rodney Wallace to wingback, which is a role he's played before for both club and country.


Chasing It

Seattle are – understandably, a little bit – kind of sleepwalking through the first two months of this season. They have six points from six games (just two of those at home), have won just once, and are juggling through some injuries in crucial spots and some generally indifferent play in others. With the exceptions of Clint Dempsey and Stefan Frei, nobody's really been bringing it on a week-to-week basis.

This is probably fine. The Sounders know better than anyone that you can scuffle along at or just above a point-per-game pace until mid-summer, flip a switch, and go on to win MLS Cup.

But still, what is the underlying cause for this struggle? Why doesn't this year's team with Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris look as dangerous as last year's team with Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris?

I really do think it comes down to the following numbers:

  • In 2016, Lodeiro hit 13 through-balls in 1170 minutes, and 34 crosses.
  • In 2017, Lodeiro has hit two through-balls in 540 minutes, and 21 crosses.

Seattle aren't spreading the field as well, and Morris is pretty clearly carrying a knock so isn't the same level of threat to run in behind he was as a rookie. Dempsey, meanwhile, is no threat at all – he's almost never been the type to get onto a through-ball, and neither has starting left winger Harry Shipp.

That means if Lodeiro's going to put someone into space, it can only be one guy: Morris. And when that happens, it's usually in one spot: Up the middle. Teams scout, and plan, and instead of just reacting now, they're setting themselves up to prevent the one thing Seattle were best at last year.

This isn't a crisis by any stretch of the imagination. I'll still put money on an attack of Dempsey, Lodeiro, Morris and Shipp figuring out a way to be one of the more prolific groups in the league, and think that Brian Schmetzer's decision to default to a more skillful group is the right one. But there have pretty clearly been growing pains to go with the typical post-MLS Cup malaise that champions endure.

We'll see if they snap out of it on Sunday at LA (4 pm ET; ESPN in the US | MLS Live in Canada).

I'll also be watching: If the Galaxy do let Morris get put into space, they're in trouble:

 

Last time @soundersfc visited #LAGalaxy, this happened. #tbt

A post shared by Major League Soccer (@mls) on

Their defense has to be more organized than it's been thus far in 2017. A third home loss to a Western Conference foe before May rolls in does not bode well for their playoff hopes.


One more thing:

Happy weekending, everybody.

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