The 94th game of the 2017 MLS regular season will mark the quarter pole of this year's circuit of 374 games. As such, next week's content plan includes looks at some of our early-season award winners like MVP, Coach of the Year, Young Player of the Year, etc.
So keep that in mind as you watch this weekend's games. Also keep in mind that, historically speaking, teams that are over the red line by mid-May have about a 90 percent success rate when it comes to staying in playoff position. That's not a guarantee – everyone remembers what the Seattle Sounders and, to a lesser extent, D.C. United did last season.
Still, it's something to be aware of. There's a nasty habit of writing off early-season struggles and assuming a correction can be made come summer. But more often than not those corrections don't actually fix teams that have, for one reason or another, looked broken.
On to the weekend ahead...
Call the Police
It's fitting that the game wrapping up the season's first quarter is the rematch of the one that capped last season, the 2016 MLS Cup final between Seattle and Toronto FC. This time it'll be Seattle hosting, and Saturday's contest (3 pm ET; ESPN & ESPN Deportes in US | CTV & TSN2 in Canada) gives us a chance to take the measure of the champs.
Attack-wise, they're as they were last year, only more so because 1) Clint Dempsey is back and healthy and playing good soccer, and 2) Joevin Jones is even more comfortable with his role as an overlapping, attacking left back. There are a lot of reasons why the Sounders attack is so scary and so effective, and lots of those come down to the mastery of Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro, or the threat of Jordan Morris, or the cleverness of center forward Will Bruin or midfielder Harry Shipp (two guys that GM Garth Lagerwey picked up this winter for a song), or the platform provided by this team's rock solid central midfield duo.
None of that should overshadow Jones, who is not just necessary but essential:
Nico Lodeiro and Joevin Jones are the top two players in the league in final third passes per game— Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus) May 2, 2017
When the Sounders attack up that left flank they're damn near unstoppable. Jones doesn't just add an extra body: He adds an extra playmaker (five assists already this year), and that forces the opposing defense to either come all the way out to the touchline to meet him, or to track him all the way to the endline. While he's doing that, Lodeiro has become expert at ghosting around into odd little pockets of space that no other attack in the league is quite multi-faceted enough to open up.
It doesn't always come off, obviously, but it's quite a bit of fun to watch. The fact that they're getting robbed by the woodwork at a record-shattering pace isn't an indication that they're cursed, rather that they're creating the type of looks that eventually start to fall:
Washingtonians are having less fun watching the Seattle backline, which has been crippled by injury all year. Chad Marshall is still out, and it doesn't seem like Brad Evans is all that close to returning. That's left the Sounders in a situation where Tony Alfaro is getting decisive minutes maybe a little earlier than they've wanted, and where Gustav Svensson, a deep midfielder at heart, has spent more time in the heart of the defense and at right back than anyone would've expected.
Now, teams have started to figure out they can bully Svensson in the box itself. Juan Agudelo dunked on him last week, and Jozy Altidore is even more of a physical presence than his younger countryman.
The good news for Seattle is that Roman Torres is healthy and will probably be playing in the backline on Saturday (he played as a striker in his return to the lineup as a late-game toss-of-the-dice against the Revs, and it worked). He and Alfaro should start together, and Svensson should either get a break, or get shuffled back out to right back.
I'll also be watching: TFC are coming off a hard-fought, fast-paced midweek home win over Orlando City. So they're traveling cross-country on short rest to play a non-conference road game during a month in which they've got eight games scheduled (including Canadian Championship work).
There's going to be some squad rotation here. Maybe even a lot of squad rotation.
Back in preseason, several of the local Minnesota United media types (I'm talking about Wes and Jeff, mainly) repeatedly took me and the rest of the ExtraTime Radio gang to task for failing to mention Christian Ramirez as a legitimate contender for "Top Scoring Domestic Player." We went through the whole list – Dempsey, Jozy, Morris, Agudelo, Dom Dwyer and Cyle Larin (Canadians count as domestics, too!), and maybe one or two others.
Nobody mentioned Ramirez, and none of us really thought he needed to be mentioned. We all knew Adrian Heath's track record working with young attackers, but we also saw a preseason where Ramirez wasn't clearly the first-choice No. 9, which compounded the usual "expansion team" questions as well as the jump up a level.
Two months in, and it's clear we're dummies. We should've mentioned Ramirez, who is even with Altidore and Dwyer with five goals, one behind Larin and Agudelo. I'm convinced his goalscoring is sustainable because his movement in and around the 18 is so good, and there's no better clip to illustrate that than a goal he didn't score:
As soon as the ball is played wide, Ramirez is setting up his defender with little fakes before he starts his run. Watch his head when he's playing, and it's on a swivel like a midfielder's. He knows when he's drawing two defenders, in which case he goes to the near post to try to drag them away and open up space underneath. When he's isolated, though, he'll throw in two dummy runs before he makes his actual move.
That off-the-ball work just doesn't disappear even when opposing 'keepers are throwing Save of the Week performances out there. Ramirez is going to keep doing what he does, and that's going to lead to goals and maybe – eventually, though we'll see – a US national team call-up.
The biggest test for Minnesota comes on Sunday when Sporting KC and their record-settingly stingy defense come to town (1:30 pm ET; FS1 & Fox Deportes in the US | MLS Live in Canada).
I'll also be watching: How deep will Sporting hold the ball? The always generate a lot of possession, but less and less of it is front-foot possession – they're much more willing, now, to hold the ball deeper and try to suck the opposing backline and deeper-lying midfielders up the field, then play Dwyer or another runner in behind.
That's a good strategy against a Loons side that's been stingy lately, but still struggles to prevent breakaways when they come out to play.
Possession is the rock upon which the church of NYCFC are built, and that’s something head coach Patrick Vieira has said is in his blood, and will thus never change. And that means long sequences with the ball, starting out of the back, which often results in series of play with the fullbacks pushed way up, regista Andrea Pirlo dropped deep to provide the main outlet, and runners heading forward from touchline to touchline. I think it is the most aesthetically pleasing soccer in the league to watch, and my platonic ideal of how to play soccer dovetails nicely with NYCFC’s platonic ideal of how to play soccer.
So they attempt and complete more passes in their defensive half than any other team in the league, by miles, and did last year as well. They average more passes per possession than anyone else, and even when they win the ball high, they're likely to string a half-dozen or more passes together before getting the chance they're really looking for:
That team's in no hurry. They play the same way whether they're building from a midfield turnover or from goalkeeper Sean Johnson's feet.
This ethos comes with a drawback: deep, destructive turnovers in their own defensive third. We've seen this repeatedly from NYCFC, including last week's win over Crew SC.
Atlanta United's idea on how to play the game is somewhat close to the polar opposite, in that they care little about possession (even though they generate a ton of it) and aim primarily to win moments of transition. When the ball is recovered, their players swarm forward in numbers, and most of their opponents this season have struggled to keep up.
It'll be NYCFC's turn to get put through the wringer on Sunday (4 pm ET; Univision & Facebook.com).
I'll also be watching: Atlanta's front-foot stance is spearheaded by their No. 9. Kenwyne Jones, at this stage of his career, is not that kind of No. 9, so it wouldn't shock me if he comes off the bench in The Bronx.
One more thing:
Happy weekending everybody.