The first crowded midweek date of the season gave us a slate of home teams taking their guests to the woodshed. So it often is on short rest and coming off cross-country travel.
Let's take a brief look at what Wednesday evening gave us:
A month ago, it seemed like the Union were quite dead in the water/the streets/a random ditch. They were the last winless team of 2017, had a long losing streak dating back to 2016, and – this was and maybe still is, in its way, the most disconcerting part – none of their core young players seemed to improve year-over-year.
Following Wednesday's commanding, never-in-doubt 2-0 victory over the visiting Dynamo, Philly are unbeaten in five and riding a three-game winning streak. They've posted four straight shutouts, they're getting goals from pretty much everybody they put into the attack, and a couple of personnel switches have changed the season. Here's a list:
- Ray Gaddis beat out Keegan Rosenberry at right back
- Rookie Jack Elliott and veteran Oguchi Onyewu have become the starting center backs
- Alejandro Bedoya was moved from playmaker to a box-to-box role
Those were the three that started the change, which was supercharged by the final two big moves: First, that Fafa Picault – who was not in shape to start the season, and had to work his way into the staff's good graces – finally won a job on the left wing. This is huge because Picault has a legitimate nose for goal (he's got two in his last two games), and if you're going to play the 4-2-3-1, you need to get reliable production from one of the two wings.
Second, that Ilsinho has been moved centrally as a No. 10. It's a counterintuitive move, since he's not a great passer, but it's working out because he's such a danger off the dribble. You can't just send one guy at Ilsinho, because that dude's gonna get beat. You have to pull numbers a little bit tighter to the center of the pitch when he's there, and when you do that, you suddenly give more room to the likes of Picault and Chris Pontius on the wings, as well as Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin deeper.
Let's face it, though: None of this matters if they don't have CJ Sapong playing at a Best XI caliber up top (volume up for analysis):
Armchair Analyst: Fafa Picault got the goal, but once again all that's good w/ the Union started with C.J. Sapong pic.twitter.com/A3RjTtFWKT— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 18, 2017
He battles for every 50-50 ball, along with every inch of space up top, and has both the strength and skill to make any defender who doesn't win those battles pay, and pay, and pay.
Any team that walks into the arena to face down the Union first has to face down Sapong, or they will lose.
Only Way In
The most consequential result of the night was Sporting KC's 3-0 destruction of visiting Seattle thanks to a second-half hat trick by Gerso, their star offseason signing. He now has five goals on the year and has brought much-needed wing danger to the SKC attack, which had been overly reliant upon center forward Dom Dwyer to start the season.
Gerso's first goal came off a scramble after a set piece, the second off of the patented SKC high pressure, and the third on a long, slowly evolving counterattack after a Seattle corner. That kind of multi-threat attack is the hallmark of a very dangerous team, but this performance was not without its flaws from Sporting:
Seattle parked the bus – no question about it. There's also little question that SKC weren't quite sure how to approach that or break it down in the first 45, and were content to mostly hit first- or second-line passes (EXPLANATION). When they tried playing third-line passes, like the one above, they frequently turned into breakaways going in the other direction, and Tim Melia had to have yet another big night.
I don't think this is an out-and-out "worry" for Sporting; it's more of a "let's make a note to keep an eye on that because we sure weren't clean playing through the scrum" type of thing. Either way, they were really good against the Sounders, but should know they can play better.
A few more things to ponder...
3. This still feels like something of a rebuilding year for RSL, but Wednesday's 2-1 win over NYCFC was cause for at least a little bit of celebration. Salt Lake pulled themselves out of a four-game tailspin (that was threatening to turn into a death spiral), and they got a very solid evening of soccer from center backs Aaron Maund and Chris Schuler, as well as the young attacking corps of Albert Rusnak, Jefferson Savarino and Joao Plata.
There will be more losing this year than RSL fans will like, or are used to. But it's very easy to see the light at the end of the tunnel, as well as the path forward from there.
2. Chicago destroyed Colorado 3-0 in Bridgeview. The Rapids were dynamic in their weekend win over San Jose in large part because they threw their fullbacks forward. You can do that against the Quakes because the Quakes lack any sort of speed on the wings, so overlapping fullbacks rarely get caught out.
David Accam should've done more with that play, but it's just one example of how quickly McCarty transitions his team from recovery to the front foot.
As for Colorado, last season's attack was ... "opportunistic." This year, it's become catastrophically punchless.
1. The lone home team to drop points were the San Jose Earthquakes, who could manage only a 1-1 draw against Orlando City. The Quakes have played six at Avaya Stadium thus far. They've won three, and the other three have all ended 1-1, and all required equalizers in the 83rd minute or later.