The only team to just play a full-strength Toronto FC off the pitch this year was FC Dallas, just over two months ago in a 3-1 win at Frisco. The Reds are in the discussion for Greatest MLS Team of All Time at this point, and are on an unholy roll – they're steamrolling all comers. But two months ago in north Texas, Dallas eviscerated them.
That's how high FCD's ceiling is. Even when Mauro Diaz was hurt, they were a top five team in MLS. Even when offseason DP signing Anibal Chala was sent back to Ecuador, they were able to push Pachuca to the 180th minute in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. Even when Cristian Colman couldn't find the back of the net with a map, Dallas were still able to claw their way to the top of the Western Conference and looked very much like they belonged there.
So what's happened in the last eight weeks is simply stunning. FCD have gone 0-5-3 since the end of July, scoring just seven goals and conceding 19 in that stretch. They are down to sixth in the West, just barely above the playoff line and with no signs that they're going to stay there.
In the 21 years I've been watching MLS, I have never seen a team this good suddenly look so bad. The 2013 Sounders, who went 0-4-3 and needed a draw on the last day of the season just to make the playoffs, probably come closest. But this feels like a deeper, more pronounced and, judging by the body language, more indifferent stretch. It is a tailspin that has all the hallmarks of a death spiral, and I'm not sure I can put words, over the last eight games, to exactly how or exactly why.
That said, I can explain the how and why of their 3-0 loss at Atlanta United on Sunday just fine: They turned the ball over in bad spots, and if you do that against the Five Stripes you die quick:
This is a miscommunication between Walker Zimmerman and Hernan Grana – Zimmerman has dribbled himself into a position where he needs an outlet, but Grana has left a supporting position to push up because he thinks a long-ball is coming. Atlanta feast off of those miscommunication moments, turning them into goals better, faster and more reliably than anybody in the league(*).
(*) When Josef Martinez is healthy.
For the hosts, that's only half the equation. The other half has been their growing ability to structurally eliminate opposing playmakers. Against Dallas that didn't mean denying service to Diaz, who actually had a pretty decent game. Instead it meant cutting out his passing lanes and not letting him dictate the geometry of the game – you can let Diaz have a "decent" game, you just can't let him have an "influential" game.
Tata: Team had to limit Dallas playmakers. Did a good job limiting them tonight.— Dirty South Soccer (@DirtySouthSoc) September 10, 2017
It seems likely that Pipa is in his final days with Crew SC. A few more moments like this one would be a lovely going away present for the supporters he's entertained for five seasons.
4. Jack Elliott and Abu Danladi will be in Philadelphia and Minnesota, respectively, for quite a while yet. The two rookies helped their teams battle to a 1-1 draw, and at this point I'd probably give Elliott the Rookie of the Year edge, with a shout for Julian Gressel as well.
All three players are good, and should be good for a long while. But this is, overall, a tepid rookie class, and a strong argument to go to a "Best Young Player" format instead of – or at least in addition to – Rookie of the Year.
With that in mind, keep an eye peeled for 24 Under 24 later this month.
3. Lee Nguyen is having arguably his best season. He got the game's only goal in New England's 1-0 win over visiting Montreal, a result that probably ends the Impact's playoff hopes.
Nguyen has been neither as central nor as magical as he was in 2014, when he was a finalist for the MVP award, but playing a slightly more peripheral role has allowed him to avoid the "first page, above the fold, bold type" treatment on opposing scouting reports. He's now getting the ball deeper and with more room to run, and when that happens he is just a breathtaking creator. His numbers – 9g/14a – are Best XI caliber, and I still think it's a shame the USMNT has never figured out how to put him on the field.
2. Orlando City ended their eight-game losing streak by going into RFK Stadium and taking a 2-1 win from D.C. United.
The Sounders are now unbeaten in 12, but there's still plenty to be concerned about here. One issue is obviously Jordan Morris's hamstring (it didn't look good), and another is that Seattle remain way too slow to transition from defense to attack, or even from possession to attack. Everybody takes an extra touch, an extra look, an extra split-second, which allows the defense to set itself or read a pass or close down a lane.
Nothing really seems instinctive for the Sounders going forward, and they've scored multiple goals just once in their last five games. That includes three straight draws – the last two, including Sunday's, at home – which now have to be categorized as "squandered opportunity to open up a lead at the top of the West."