An abbreviated schedule means an abbreviated lede. It's good to be back, now let's dive in:
Everything Right is Wrong Again
Chicago went into the Gold Cup break as the hottest team in the league, sitting atop the table and unbeaten in 11 games. They've exited in a pure tailspin, winning just once in seven and struggling mightily to figure out how, exactly, they're going to get pressure to the ball.
The real issue, though, is that Chicago's success in the first half of the season was based upon two things: Clinical finishing from Nemanja Nikolic, and the ability to dictate the game via possession. Nikolic has dried up – he's not registered a goal or an assist since July 1, and nobody else is picking up the slack.
The possession thing is a bigger issue. Teams have scouted Chicago now (everybody's got months worth of tape on everybody else), and what was a strength has recently been turned into a weakness:
Montreal killed the Fire 3-0 a few weeks ago by winning those midfield duels and turning every loose ball into a break-out that the makeshift Chicago backline was unable to stop. If the same happens on Saturday (7 pm ET; MLS LIVE in the US | TVAS in Canada), the Impact will exit the weekend just two points back of the Fire and possessed of both momentum and a game in hand.
Don't be shocked if Veljko Paunovic decides to shake things up in this one. A 5-4-1 formation designed to funnel Montreal wingers Ignacio Piatti and Dominic Oduro toward the corners help would seem to be a useful dart to throw.
I'll also be watching: Montreal's central defense without Laurent Ciman. They're generally disorganized without the Belgian, which could be exactly what Nikolic needs to break out of his two-month slump.
FC Dallas are arguably in worse shape than Chicago. They're winless in six, have dropped below the playoff line (on the "wins" tiebreaker – they're still above it in points per game) and have mostly cashed out their games in hand.
There are a number of issues circling around FCD right now. Team chemistry has taken a hit as offers for various players have come in and been rejected (or at least delayed); moves haven't been made; newcomers have vastly under-delivered; Matt Hedges hasn't been the same since coming back from the Gold Cup; and without Mauro Diaz, there's no straw to stir the drink, no one to conjure magical, match-winning plays out of the blue.
Diaz came back from his torn Achilles on May 28 and played 291 minutes over the subsequent six games, chipping in three assists. Since then he's logged just 118 minutes – recently he's been unused due to a reported hamstring injury – and hasn't gotten into the boxscore.
FCD have in the past played credible soccer without Diaz, as he missed big chunks of time in 2013, 2014 and 2015 but they managed to stay afloat. They did so by becoming an absorb-and-counter team that were murder up the flanks, driving relentlessly into the box off the dribble. They didn't settle for hopeful crosses, and even when Diaz was sidelined they played a more-than-league-average number of through balls to their attackers.
That's gone away in 2017:
|Year||Games||Open Play Crosses||Open Play Crosses/Game||Through-balls||Cross/Through-ball Ratio|
Hernan Grana – who's not a great crosser – has been particularly guilty of just putting his head down and swinging a ball hopefully toward the spot. He's already hit 117 open play crosses this year, which is 1) 24 more than anybody else in MLS, and 2) twice the number of the previous single-season high in Dallas under Oscar Pareja (Michel hit 68 open play crosses in 2014). There are nine games left!
Grana connects on just 18.8 percent of his crossing attempts, which puts him in the bottom 30 percent in terms of crossing accuracy. Michael Barrios has been even worse. He's just 8-for-59 this year, which puts him bottom five in the entire league. Their accuracy has been poor, and the runs of the attackers in the box have been flaccid and predictable.
And that is a big chunk of the how and why Dallas have fallen to where they are. It's also a big chunk of what they need to fix, starting on Saturday (9 pm ET; UniMas | Facebook.com) when the Red Bulls come to town.
I'll also be watching: New York's wingbacks. They were more focused on combination play last weekend against NYCFC than raw verticality, and at times RBNY missed that.
Elsewhere, Under the Playoff Line:
• The Revs and Orlando City are on similar trajectories, both racing more determinedly toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference than toward the playoff line. New England head into Saturday evening's show (7 pm ET; MLS LIVE) in 10th place, having lost two in a row and seven of their last 10. OCSC are clinging to ninth, but have been the league's worst team since the end of April, having gone just 2-10-7 in their last 19 regular season games.
• Will the kids play? That's about the biggest story for LA's game against Colorado (11 pm ET; MLS LIVE) late on Saturday night. Both of these teams need to be thinking more about 2018 than 2017 at this point, which should mean some controlled experiments.
One more thing to ponder:
Happy weekending, everybody.