Week 12 gave us the first nearly full midweek slate, which gave us a Wednesday night packed with home points. Four of the five hosts won, and the other at least drew. I wrote about it HERE.
This is a pattern that will hold as the schedule gets more crowded and teams have to A) travel more, and B) go further down their bench. Three-games-in-eight-days takes a toll on pretty much every team (TFC kiiiinda excepted), and how managers handle it will go a long way toward determining who hoists the Supporters' Shield at the end of the year.
Onto the week that was:
The Gang Gets Invincible
Sartre once said "Life begins on the other side of despair." He also said "Like all dreamers, I mistook disenchantment for truth."
He may very well have been a great soccer fan, because there is actual sporting truth in his words – insight into the demented and hopeless and helpless life of the supporter. Every loss, or even subpar performance is cause for despair. That despair, calcified, becomes disenchantment that feels like truth.
It's hard to see a path to the other side of despair when your team is playing bad soccer. It's hard to believe the truth of the moment isn't an eternally revealed truth.
Now let me introduce you to the Philadelphia Union, who started the season on an eight-game winless streak and are now on a four-game winning streak. They beat Houston 2-0 midweek and followed it up with a 2-1 win over Colorado on the weekend. They were the better team in each game, and the ability to break you down in multiple ways (on the break with the wingers getting loose off of C.J. Sapong is their favorite, but they'll also kill you on set pieces and from out wide) has been a feature of this good run of form.
More important has been their defense, which has conceded once in five games after coughing up multiple goals in six straight. Personnel changes – Raymon Gaddis and Jack Elliott are full-time starters now – have played a part, as has pulling Alejandro Bedoya deeper into more of a No. 8 role.
But Jim Curtin has also curtailed defensive midfielder Haris Medunjanin's license to roam, as evidenced by the following:
- 3/18: 2-1 loss at Orlando City (5 defensive actions, 2 in attacking half)
- 4/1: 2-1 loss at D.C. (11 defensive actions, 4 in attacking half)
- 4/8: 3-1 loss to Portland (7 defensive actions, 3 in attacking half)
- 4/14: 2-0 loss to NYCFC (11 defensive actions, 5 in attacking half)
- 4/22: 3-3 draw vs. Montreal (12 defensive actions, 1 in attacking half)
- 4/29: 0-0 draw at LA (7 defensive actions, 0 in attacking half)
- 5/6: 3-0 win vs. RBNY (8 defensive actions, 1 in attacking half)
- 5/13: 4-0 win at D.C. (19 defensive actions, 4 in attacking half)
- 5/17: 2-0 win vs. Houston (6 defensive actions, 1 in attacking half)
- 5/20: 2-1 win vs. Colorado (4 defensive actions, 1 in attacking half)
It's not that he's being asked to do a ton more work – on balance, his defensive usage rate isn't up all that much. But the question of where he's doing the work has largely been solved: He stays mostly deep, and completely connected to the central defense.
Medunjanin is never going to be prime Ozzie Alonso in terms of his range or prime Kyle Beckerman in terms of his ability to just be a "Thou shalt not pass!" d-mid. He's not that guy. But just having an extra body there, a few yards deeper and more central, has given Philly extra steel in a spot where they were previously getting overrun.
Curtin made some brave personnel choices and a couple of smart adjustments in central midfield, and Philly fans the end of despair. Their disenchantment was not immutable truth.
Of course, now that things are peachy, it's well to remember the opposite is also true.
The Gang Reignites the Rivalry
Orlando City were the only road team to grab a midweek point, taking a 1-1 draw out of Avaya Stadium against the Quakes. Then they returned home on Sunday and got spanked, 3-0, by NYCFC. It's the first loss at their brand new stadium, and after going 6-1-0 to start the year they're now 0-3-2 in their last five. Kaká has come back and has not fit, and Carlos Rivas keeps taking shots he should not take, and Joe Bendik hasn't been quite as magical as he was in March.
I'm seeing two significant problems. First: Kaká is dropping far too deep, which has left him disconnected from the front line. Across 87 minutes this week he completed just one pass to Cyle Larin, and that was near the midfield stripe alongside the left touchline. That's not where those two should be operating, for one, and for two when Kaká does drop that deep it opens up space for Rivas to try to become a pure central playmaker, which...
Green arrows are completed passes, red incomplete. Rivas has five assists this season, but he's still not a guy who can be a primary playmaker. When asked to fill that role he forces the issue with predictable results.
The second part of OCSC's troubles: They still haven't quite figure out their midfield rotations on the defensive side of the ball. This clip doesn't quite start early enough but you can hear John Strong's call about how Alex Ring gets away from [Antonio] Nocerino:
I'm not only blaming Nocerino entirely, but 1) your d-mid shouldn't get roasted by a throw-in, and 2) nobody on OCSC was rotating over to help cover him. That's why Ring was given an open invite to dribble into the heart of the defense.
A deeper-lying issue is that OCSC's recovery speed in midfield is almost nil. NYCFC ran through and past them, and Gerso did the same last weekend, and Houston definitely did the same the weekend before that. You can win without recovery speed in this league, but the lack thereof reduces the margin for error significantly.
So just as things we're quite as bad as they'd seemed for Philly as of one month ago, they weren't quite as good as they seemed at that point for the Purple Lions following their win at NYCFC. Sartre's eternal truth, as always, lies somewhere in between those two extremes.
A few more things to ponder...
9. I mentioned TFC being the closest there is in the league to fatigue-proof, and in truth they probably should've left Red Bull Arena on Friday with their seventh straight win. But alas, they came away with just a 1-1 draw as Jozy Altidore missed a late, potentially game-winning penalty.
Even with the ultimately disappointing draw, TFC have 12 points from seven road games this year, and have survived Sebastian Giovinco's injury-plagued spring with aplomb.
8. Montreal walked all over 10-man Portland by 4-1 on Saturday morning. The Timbers had that fast, high-scoring 3-0-0 start that stuck in everybody's brain, but are just 2-4-3 with a -5 goal differential in the two months since. There have been injuries and absences and unanswered questions on the backline, but the natives are getting restless.
7. Face of the Week goes to this FC Dallas attendant:
He saw his team drop their first MLS game of the year on Saturday. They went down 1-0 to San Jose courtesy of a magical pass from Marco Ureña and an even more magical touch-and-finish from Jahmir Hyka.
This wasn't a fluke. Dallas have been living on the edge for more than a month, and haven't gotten anything from their winter additions.
6. Seattle scraped out a 1-0 home win over visiting RSL on Saturday. Chad Marshall had a particularly good day distributing the ball – he didn't miss a pass all game – but the Sounders still struggle to build consistent, back-to-front danger. Jordan Morris in particular still has too many moments where he's waiting for the pass to make the run instead of making the run that opens up the lane for a killer pass. He has been reactive.
5. Chicago won both their games this week, home against Colorado (convincingly!) on Wednesday, followed by the rarest of rarities: A road win! They beat D.C. 1-0 at RFK Stadium, and Bill Hamid had to stand on his head to keep it that close.
United are in a bad way. They went 0-3-0 with no goals scored and six conceded on their three-game homestand.
4. Atlanta United opened up a brief, two-game homestand of their own in style on Saturday with a 4-1 win over visiting Houston. Miguel Almiron was spectacular as a midfield playmaker/secondary goal threat (don't let him go left, guys), and 16-year-old Andrew Carleton made his MLS debut.
2. Our Pass of the Week goes to Romain Alessandrini on Gio Dos Santos's heel-flick golazo at Minnesota United in a 2-1 Galaxy win on Sunday (volume up for analysis about how Dos Santos's role has changed recently):
Armchair Analyst: Gio Dos Santos finally has a free role, and the Galaxy are finally winning again. Here's why: pic.twitter.com/ZeQ0v5Ls4U— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 21, 2017
Alessandrini was really, really clever in how he disguised that pass – it really does look like he's gonna lay it back to the top of the box, and you can see how hard Francisco Calvo bites. The French winger has been the best part of a Galaxy season that is only just starting to have some sunshine.
1. And finally, credit Jay Heaps for a great first-half adjustment in New England's 2-1 win over Columbus on Sunday. The Revs' diamond was getting ripped apart by the Crew SC attackers, so he flattened the midfield and went to something between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-1-1 with more lateral field coverage. This led to a turnover on the first goal, and an opportunistic read-and-react on the second New England goal (embedded at the top of this column).
New England are 4-0-2 at home, and 0-4-2 on the road. They can not afford to drop points in Foxborough, and dodged a real bullet in this one.