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
And so that's how you open a new stadium, and how you knock an opponent into their eighth without a win, and how you kick off a home slate that could or maybe should end up with Atlanta enjoying a bye through the knockout rounds of the playoffs. That's how you let the rest of the league know you're a contender.
Dallas fans will hope that Oscar Pareja & Co. took note.
Vancouver have an identity: They will be attacking up the flanks until you cry for mercy. That's what they did on Saturday night in a larger-than-most-seem-to-realize 3-2 win over visiting RSL, who were game and competitive but ultimately overmatched.
It's the "where" of the "overmatched" that's so surprising. On paper rookie right back Jake Nerwinski vs. veteran DP attacker Joao Plata looks all Claret-and-Cobalt, but Nerwinski went out there and killed Plata all night. He was just relentless in pushing forward, and has developed the ability to play the final ball (volume up for analysis):
The goal is to pull opposing midfielders out of the central channel and stretch teams out laterally, making them chase. This makes sense because if you bottle Vancouver up and force them to break you down with possession, they can't do it. But if you get into a track meet, or you give them turnovers to feast upon… whether it's Nerwinski on the overlap, or Yordy Reyna, Fredy Montero and Cristian Techera buzzing off of turnovers, or Brek Shea getting into the open field, feast they will.
Vancouver can still be had, of course. They were out-shot and out-possessed(*) and David Ousted had to make some outstanding saves, both out of build-up play and set pieces. They rarely outright control things, and not once all year have I come away from a game thinking "wow, that team is amazing." It's all very bend-don't-break, and they're finding ways to win.
(*) To put it into context, the 'Caps are dead last in MLS at 42.1% possession, with D.C. United second-to-last at 44.5%. So losing the possession battle against pretty much anyone/everyone is fine by their reckoning, a la last year's Rapids. But Vancouver don't have last year's Rapids defense, so while I'm gonna shine a light on how effective they've been, I'm also going to maintain a healthy skepticism about their ability to do it into October and November.
You've Got to Earn It
I understand why Wilmer Cabrera has adjusted his lineup so much, and kept his rotation of players up so much. It is a long, hot, international date-filled summer, and fresh legs are a must during the grind of the MLS season.
But at some point you've got to pick your best horses and play them. You have to trust guys who are getting paid to get the job done to actually go out there and get the job done, because if you don't you leave yourself open to bad turnovers and smash-and-grab 1-0 losses, which (volume up for analysis)…
Houston are now just 4-6-7 since the middle of May, and if you're losing games at home to Colorado then you are vulnerable. You are in bad shape. Full stop.
Houston's big problem now is the same problem they've faced all year: They really only reliably create good chances when getting out on the break. If they're forced to build with the ball they lack the cutting edge required to crack teams open and carve out a goal unless they are truly throwing caution to the wind and pushing an insane amount of players forward. As Saturday's game showed, that can and will leave them vulnerable.
This coming weekend at San Jose, then, could be just what the doctor ordered. But if it's not, then the Dynamo are suddenly looking up at the Quakes. They'll be wondering how what had looked like a dream season after three months has turned into a potentially crushing year of disappointment.
A few more things to ponder...
8. Chicago and RBNY have both been moving sideways, and the honest take is that both teams were probably okay with Saturday's 1-1 draw. The Fire got that result without Bastian Schweinsteiger or Joao Meira, while the Red Bulls got it at the end of a 28-day stretch that saw them play seven games, including five on the road, while missing Daniel Royer and Aurelien Collin.
For both teams, their ceiling is/will be defined by how quickly they're able to get those four guys healthy, and if they can keep them (and everybody else) healthy. If they have their first-choice guys, they can battle with the best. If they don't, they won't.
7. I mentioned TFC at the top, and on Saturday I wrote about how they've made the Supporters' Shield race a foregone conclusion. Their 4-0 win over San Jose was resounding:
They're going to break a lot of records this year. And just anecdotally, I'll say that they're one of the three best teams I've ever seen in MLS, along with 1998 D.C. United and 2014 LA.
6. Has Diego Valeri begun to reel in David Villa a little bit? Valeri tied an MLS record by scoring in his seventh straight game, Saturday's 1-0 win at a Villa-less NYCFC, has propelled Portland to the top of the Western Conference, and is now at 17g/9a on the season, while Villa (who missed both NYCFC games this week) is on 19g/9a.
The Cityzens badly missed Villa on Saturday, but managed Wednesday's 1-0 win over Sporting KC in promising fashion. I was surprised at that, and even more surprised that Patrick Vieira went with Jack Harrison as a false 9 against Portland rather than giving Sean Okoli another run out as a true target forward.
5. Sporting KC's other game this week was a 1-1 draw at Columbus on Sunday morning. They took advantage of a Jonathan Mensah gift, then returned the favor by providing Ola Kamara an open lane to hammer at the near post.
Pass of the Week here from Federico Higuain:
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."