Armchair Analyst: On the road to 50 goals & more from Week 10

Entering the 2017 season there were exactly 50 players in league history with 50 or more career regular season goals. In the first quarter of the season we've seen two more added to that number, as Fredy Montero grabbed four early goals for Vancouver (he now has 51 total) and Javier Morales snuck a goal home for FC Dallas (he has 50).

There's a raft of players who could join them as the year chugs on:

My guess is six of that group get there. Juan Agudelo (38) and Cyle Larin (37) are lurking with outside shots as well, and while I don't expect either to finish the season on the right side of 50, I wouldn't be entirely stunned if either got there.

So we could end up seeing a herd of guys join a club that had been, through the league's first 21 seasons, rather exclusive. And it's impossible to miss that the vast majority of the guys above are in or entering their prime, with only Morales and Villa clearly at the tail-end of their great careers.

Expansion, DP slots and the rising salary budget in general have a lot to do with the fact that these guys have had (relatively) lengthy MLS stays. In the past, high-scoring youngsters like Larin would've been sold ASAP, a la Stern John or Damani Ralph, and in the past high-scoring DPs like Giovinco, Higuain and Valeri wouldn't have entered the league in their late 20s. They'd have come in their early to mid 30s, with more miles on their legs and less tread on their tires. Guillermo Barros Schelotto topped out at 33 goals, and Peter Nowak only got to 26, after all.

Adding teams over the last decade has meant adding the chance to win starting jobs for Nguyen and Sapong, and the chance to first resurrect a career and then improve for the likes of Adi, Altidore and Agudelo. Raising the cap and adding TAM has allowed MLS teams to reward those guys for their productivity. MLS teams are generally doing a better job than they used to of identifying the guys they want, building functional squads around them, and then keeping those guys wearing the colors.

There's no other, overaching point here. Just a trend to notice and attempt to contextualize.

Onto the week that was:

Dig Your Own Hole

Back in the winter the consensus opinion about Minnesota United was somewhere between "worst team in the league" and "worst team of all-time." After two weeks they had two losses and 11 goals conceded. After four weeks they had one point, three losses and 18 shipped goals. Things were bad.

I disagreed with the consensus that things would stay bad, though, because of two main things:

  • Adrian Heath is underrated as a head coach
  • Domestic-produced talent is underrated by fans, pundits and many MLS front offices

In the six weeks since bottoming out with a 5-2 loss at the Revs Minnesota's gone 3-1-2 with seven goals conceded, including Sunday's impressive 2-0 win over Sporting KC.

Step one in pulling themselves off the mat was handing more of the responsibility for the team to the locals, and they've responded. Miguel Ibarra, who was a star with the NASL Loons, grabbed two assists today, and has been an instrumental two-way presence on the wing. Christian Ramirez, who was an even bigger star with the NASL Loons, bagged his sixth goal of the season – one off the Golden Boot pace set by Sapong and Erick Torres – against Sporting, and there is no reason to think he'll stop finding the net any time soon. No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick Abu Danladi out of UCLA picked up a goal and an assist in his first professional start on Sunday after slowly growing into a larger role. Brent Kallmann, also of the NASL Loons, continued to solidify the backline, and cut-price trade pick-up Sam Cronin continued to solidify the midfield, and cut-price trade pick-up Bobby Shuttleworth put in a Team of the Week-worthy performance in goal.

In this league of Villas and Giovincos and Kakás, it is indeed possible to fashion a season-changing solution out of players like Ibarra, Ramirez, Cronin et al. This isn't because Villa or Giovinco are worse than we think, but because guys like Ibarra and Ramirez are better than we realize. Please marinate in that truth a little bit.

Step two goes back to Heath, and his decision to simplify the game. Minnesota came out back in March with a pretty idealistic 4-2-3-1/4-3-3, aiming to play from the back, dominate possession and launch both fullbacks forward. In the last six weeks, however, MNUFC have mostly conceded the possession battle, pulled their fullbacks deeper (their average touch is five yards deeper than it was in March), and installed a no-frills central midfield ethos based around a back-as-hell 4-4-2:

That's a network passing graph pulled from Opta data. Each circle represents the corresponding player, and the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes they exchange. The new-look Loons attack with four guys, and if that's not enough? Oh well. They defend with 10, though that can sometimes be nine-and-a-half if Kevin Molino isn't really in the mood.

When they need something creative to happen, Ibarra will duck inside then spin out to the flanks, as so:

There's never more than four Loons in the picture there, and they undressed Sporting with simple, functional play.

Their other gambit is to have Molino and the second forward – Danladi against Sporting, Johan Venegas previously – swap spots on the fly. It's not tiki-taka, and it's a departure from the intricate possession play that Heath had his Orlando City teams playing around Kaká's indisputable genius, but it works well enough. The Loons beat one of the league's best teams on Sunday, and it wasn't a mistake.

Minnesota will not, this year, climb to the ranks of the league's elite (though they may hang around in the hunt for a playoff spot). This tactical iteration will get scouted, and will suffer injuries or cold spells, and will go on road trips, and will get snakebit in front of goal. The way they've saved their season doesn't mean they couldn't use a Giovinco-level player – because of course they could. Who can't use that? There is much that needs improving.

But the way they've built their team means they can be more targeted and prudent when they do go after a player of or near that stature. And that, in turn, means their ceiling is higher than most seem to realize.

The Loons learned hard lessons this winter and found good solutions this spring. They were mocked for the first, and should have earned an equal measure of praise for the latter. I just want observers of the league to understand where those solutions came from.

The Golden Path

Go back up to that lede about guys approaching 50 goals and you'll see Federico Higuain's name mentioned. He was relentlessly great for Columbus this past weekend in their 2-0 win over New England, and had three or four different touches that could've been our Pass of the Week.

What he did best, though, was act as a central hub for Crew SC as they flowed from back to front, pulling the Revs diamond apart (volume up for analysis):

Higuain is 32, and somewhere around mid-March I may have pronounced him "past it" as he was slogging through a one-goal-and-one-assist-in-13-games stretch that extended into last May. He spent half of last year injured and the other half clunking his first touch into oncoming defenders, and it was very fair to wonder why Columbus had trusted this team's closing title window to him for one more season.

Since then he has three goals and four assists in seven games, and makes more of those field-opening passes you'll see in that video above (not an assist, by the way) than any other player in the league. That's why they trusted him.

Higuain's done this because he is still phenomenally intelligent and creative, and what he lacks in physicality he makes up for with that brain of his. Any time Xavier Kouassi vacated his spot at the bottom of the New England diamond, Higuain was the first one to fill the gap, and any time that happened it was a chance waiting to happen for Crew SC. 

A few more things to ponder...

10. Sporting's loss on Sunday took some of the gloss off of their 2-0 midweek win over the visiting Red Bulls, which had them temporarily atop the Western Conference standings. Correlation and causality are hard to marry here, but in the nine games Ike Opara and Graham Zusi have started on the SKC backline, they conceded three goals. In the one game they didn't, they coughed up two.

9. Sapong will almost certainly win Player of the Week for his hat-trick in Philly's 3-0 win over NY. The game was fairly even until Jim Curtin brought in Keegan Rosenberry at right back and Derrick Jones at central midfield midway through the second half, and it was their energy that helped crack open the backline.

That said, there was only one star on the day: Sapong. He was superb.

8. There are six teams with more points since April 1 than the 10 Minnesota have collected. You can probably guess five of them: FC Dallas, NYCFC, Orlando City, Sporting KC and Toronto FC.

The sixth? Vancouver. The 'Caps won 1-0 at Colorado on Friday night and are now 4-2-0 in their last six. They've won two straight after dropping the first of their current four-game road trip, and if they get a result at Houston this coming Friday I feel like folks will start to take notice.

7. Nobody had a better week than Toronto FC, who got a 2-1 home win over Orlando City on Wednesday, then followed it up with a cross-country trip to Seattle and a 1-0 win over the Sounders that I wrote about here.

“I’d argue we’re the deepest team in the history of the league," is what Greg Vanney said afterward. "That’s my opinion … It’s a tribute to scouting, development and these guys working their a—es off every day to be great.”

"Development" is the key word. At this point I don't think anybody's in TFC's league when it comes to using all methods of player acquisition at their disposal to put the team together, and the latest to take a star turn was Homegrown No. 10 Jay Chapman, who will one day lead Canada to World Cup glory (volume up for analysis):

6. Ben Olsen called his team "posers" and "phonies" both during and after Saturday's 1-0 home loss to Montreal. Those aren't the words I'd have chosen, but I get it – United are missing the chip they were carrying on their shoulder last year, which served them so well.

They're also missing the hell out of Patrick Nyarko, who was their best attacker during last year's late-season run to the playoffs. They need him back, badly, and in lieu of a quick return (he's missed the past month with a hamstring strain) Olsen may want to consider starting Sebastien Le Toux inverted on the right wing.

5. Another happy return could be Justen Glad for RSL, who was running last week and was once again missed this weekend in a 3-0 win by FC Dallas in Sandy. After a good start under Mike Petke, things have rapidly spiraled with three straight losses, with three goals conceded in each.

“I am very frustrated right now, I am very angry right now, I am disgusted right now and I am trying to figure out a way, without being cliché to put it on myself," Petke said in the postgame. "Because at the end of the day, I am the coach and it has to fall on me."

4. Orlando City had a really tough week, but Will Johnson did win Face of the Week:

That was from a 4-0 loss at Houston, which came on the heels of that 2-1 loss at TFC. The Dynamo are just fearsome on the break, and Alex has been arguably the best two-way midfielder in the league this year. Dude seriously has a Best XI shout for Monday's look at the league at the 1/4 point of the season.

3. The Quakes absolutely pounded a Valeri- and Darlington Nagbe-less Portland team, 3-0 on Saturday night. It seems like Dom Kinnear has hit on something very good in this new, lopsided 4-3-3 with Chris Wondolowski (2g/1a on Saturday, 4g/5a on the year) operating as a raumdeuter and Danny Hoesen as a sort target winger flipping from side to side. They both run off of a mobile and relentless center forward in Marco Urena.

As good as Wondo was, though, the key was Florian Jungwirth. He's the only player besides Sapong and maaaaybe Higuain with a Player of the Week shout.

2. There are a couple of ways to approach Saturday's 2-2 draw between the Fire and Galaxy at the StubHub Center. First is that Chicago got a 2-0 lead, got complacent, got punished, and got to the end of a three-game road trip with just one disappointing point.

The other way to approach it is that LA played better once veterans Jelle Van Damme (tactical) and Jermaine Jones (injury) were subbed off before halftime, and deserved their point. Giovani Dos Santos in particular seemed far more free to roam around the field and get on the ball in good spots, and teammates were quicker to find him when he did so.

I do think the Galaxy should take a page from Heath's book in simplifying their tactical approach.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to Rodney Wallace for this slick interplay with Villa:

NYCFC punched Atlanta United in the mouth to the tune of 3-1 at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. Villa and Wallace were both excellent, and so too was the central midfield pairing of Yangel Herrera and Alex Ring. That meant a second straight DNP-CD for the great Andrea Pirlo, and it's safe to assume the sun has just about set on his magnificent career.