Armchair Analyst: West madness, academic in the East & more from Week 28

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LISTEN: Your US Open Cup final preview is here. Which team has more at stake? Plus, Atlanta's setting records and playing some of the most entertaining soccer in MLS. Andrew was among the 70,000-plus on hand to see Orlando batter for a 3-3 draw, and the guys wade in on all the action in the East, where the top six seem set. Meanwhile, the West may not be best, but it sure is fun now that the playoff race is a full-on free-for-all. Subscribe now and "Like" our Facebook page so you never miss a show! Download this episode!

There is a better-than-good chance that, at this point next week, you will be reading a column about Toronto FC wrapping up the 2017 Supporters' Shield, about how they'll have done so earlier than any team in MLS history and with a greater goal differential than any team in MLS history. It will be about how they've done it despite having their best player (Sebastian Giovinco) playing the worst of his three seasons in the league so far, and how they've gotten contributions not just up-and-down the lineup, but up-and-down nearly the entirety of the 30-man roster.

It will be about using DP slots to their utmost, and using TAM to get a DP-caliber playmaker, and about creating international-caliber talents from within. It will be about 13 teams passing on Marky Delgado in the Chivas RIP dispersal draft, and about finding high-level contributors from the SuperDraft every season while other, lesser front offices are deciding to pass, and it will be about targeting the right players on the free agent market (19 other teams had an equal chance at the perpetually underrated Drew Moor, remember).

Thus I'm asking you to prepare yourselves. Some of you are going to complain that we've covered TFC too damn much this year, and I just want to make sure you're prepared for yet more coverage, because it's coming. And it should be coming, because nobody's ever dominated MLS the way the Reds have this year.

I'm going to wax poetic about TFC because they have subverted the very thing this league is built upon. They have made a mockery of the concept of "parity."

They entered this weekend with 59 points and a magic number of 10. The magic number isn't just points for TFC to collect, but a combination of that and points denied to NYCFC, the only team with any theoretically possible (but not plausible) path to catching the Reds.

They exited this weekend with 62 points and a magic number of five. Dominique Badji's low, hard drive to the back post stole two points from visiting NYCFC, giving the Rapids a 1-1 home draw, while the Reds went onto the road, at LA, and won 4-0.

It was never close, it was entirely dominant, and it came from a Reds team playing without four starters. One was Giovinco, who's arguably the best player in the league; one was Jozy Altidore, who was easily the best player in last year's playoffs; one was Steven Beitashour, a World Cup veteran right wingback; and one was Nick Hagglund, who was the team's best defender for the first half of this record-breaking season. Moor and Tosaint Ricketts and Nicolas Hasler and Jonathan Osorio and... it almost doesn't matter. Greg Vanney could, at this point, just chuck a rock at his bench, blindfolded, and whoever it hits is going to go into the game and deliver.

With the win Toronto FC became the first team in league history to:

  • Post six consecutive multi-goal wins
  • Have two separate six-game winning streaks in a single season
  • Have a Shield lead of greater than 10 points at any point in any season

They're also on an 11-game unbeaten streak overall, which isn't the longest in the league – Seattle ran theirs to 13 this weekend thanks to a scoreless draw at FC Dallas. But to contextualize the difference in the two streaks: The Sounders have picked up 25 of a possible 39 points, and fought to a 1-1 draw at home against the Galaxy last weekend. The Reds have picked up 27 of a possible 33 points, and spiked the Galaxy into the planet's core on Saturday night.

So they exited the weekend with a magic number of five. They play twice thus coming week, home against sliding Montreal and on the road at New England, while NYCFC host desperate Houston.

Who wants to bet against TFC clinching within the next seven days?


The Bridge

In MLS history there are only two players who've averaged better than 1 goal per 90 minutes over the course of an entire season (minimum: 1000 minutes played): Stern John (1.08) and Wolde Harris (1.03), both way back in 1998 – the highest-scoring season in league history.

Josef Martinez went over 1000 minutes this week, and is now at 1035 minutes played on the year. He scored a hat-trick in a 7-0 mauling of the Revs midweek, and then scored another hat-trick in Saturday's 3-3 home draw against Orlando City in front of a single-game, league-record attendance of 70,425.

Martinez now has 16 goals on the season. Martinez now averages 1.39 goals per 90 minutes. There has never been a season like this in MLS history – he's played half as many minutes as Golden Boot leader David Villa, but has a very real chance of catching Villa and claiming the title.

Martinez has managed this because he is an impeccably great finisher, and because his off-the-ball work is direct, relentless, decisive and lightning-fast. No forward in league history hits the "A gap" between opposing central defenders as quickly.

But Martinez's movement doesn't exist in a vacuum. Everybody in Tata Martino's attack has to understand how to hit gaps at pace, and when guys do that...

Good luck keeping your mark, folks!

That little reversed ball from Hector Villalba to Julian Gressel is going down as our Pass of the Week, and Martinez is as mortal a lock to win the league's Player of the Week award as there's ever been.

Hat-tip, though, to Orlando City for hanging in this one even against waves of Five Stripes pressure. They were able to use the ball to do some fun stuff with possession and Dillon Powers was particularly good in his 70 minutes as a regista-style defensive midfielder, allowing Yoshi Yotun to push forward into useful spots:

OCSC fans haven't had much to cheer about since April, but the way they've played the last two weeks will be of at least some comfort. The personnel that's made the 4-4-2 diamond effective are a bunch of in-their-prime veterans who can be a bridge to next season. It finally feels like there's a structure to build upon going forward.


Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum

A month ago, following a 3-0 loss at Houston, I said that San Jose's season was, basically, over. Their remaining schedule was too tough; they had no idea how to win away from Avaya Stadium; the Dynamo had too much of a lead; FC Dallas wouldn't continue what was then just a modest, three-game winless skid.

Houston have picked up just one point since that game, and Dallas's skid has turned into a full-fledged death spiral, so on Saturday when the Quakes beat the visiting Dynamo 1-0 thanks to a lovely goal from Danny Hoesen, San Jose jumped up to fifth place in the West. That dropped both Texas teams below the playoff line and made the West officially a wild-ass free for all.

What's been fun and refreshing about San Jose is how they've gone about climbing the ladder: They love using the ball, they love playing between the lines, and they trust their own skill to get the job done. And at the forefront in this must-win, do-or-die weekend, was 20-year-old rookie central midfielder Jackson Yueill, the sixth pick in this year's SuperDraft. Watch the whole video:

Not every touch is perfect, but that highlight reel gives you an idea of how quickly and efficiently he's been able to eliminate defenders when played as a No. 8, and how his ability to spread the field accurately has put the rest of the Quakes into spots where they can get at the opposition.

"You start him in an MLS match with everything on the line," is what Quakes head coach Chris Leitch said afterward. "Words can't describe it. It's more of the action. He has a huge responsibility right there."

The hidden aspect of the above? Yueill managed to play that role A) with an in-his-prime Bundesliga veteran, Florian Jungwirth, largely deferring to him as the main distributive option, and B) while playing in an honest-to-god 4-2-4 formation.

I don't think I've ever seen any MLS team use a 4-2-4 for more than a few, desperate minutes at the end of a game. Yet the Quakes...

Did this. They were so confident in Yueill and Jungwirth that they just said "meh, just get forward" to the likes of Hoesen, Chris Wondolowski et al.

This hubris has proved to be foolhardy on the road – they got crushed 4-0 at Toronto last weekend, and 4-0 at RSL two weeks before that, and two weeks before that was the 3-0 loss at Houston, all in more conservative formations. But at home they're now 4-0-1 since Leitch took over, and with three home games left they more or less control their own destiny in spite of my doubts from a month ago.

They have a short memory, as big losses clearly don't get them down. They also have a bright, fun future that could include a playoff appearance sooner than anyone expected.


The Other Side

While the Western Conference playoff race was coming alive, the East was dying a listless death. New England got memorably stuffed 7-0 midweek at Atlanta, which I wrote a bit about, and then lost 3-1 at Sporting KC thanks to a brainless and petulant Krisztian Nemeth red card. The Revs were probably cooked before this week, but now 538's got their chances of making the playoffs at just 4 percent. That feels right.

To my surprise, they are joined on that number by the Impact, who went on a four-game winning streak in August that's been followed by a four-game losing streak in September. Their latest, a 3-2 home loss to Minnesota United, had a "final nail in the coffin" type of feel to it.

Structurally there was nothing remarkable about this latest Impact loss – it was very much of a piece with the games they've lost over the last few years. They didn't defend well on set pieces; they struggled, at times, when they couldn't get behind the opposing defense; and they lost too many individual battles in their own defensive third (volume up for analysis):

Impact owner Joey Saputo put out a statement afterward, saying that the overall performance fell short of his and the fans' expectations. Head coach Mauro Biello was succinct, saying "We cannot perform like this at home" and "We did not defend well."

That is indeed true. Montreal defend so deep that they invite difference-makers forward, and those difference-makers can be murderous. So it goes on a weekly basis, and so it went for their season.

The Impact finished the weekend six points behind the sixth-placed Red Bulls, and New England are seven back. Neither have any more games in hand, and East playoff race has been run.


A few more things to ponder...

7. The Red Bulls will be kicking themselves for leaving two points on the table in Sunday's scoreless home draw against Philly, courtesy of some Andre Blake heroics. Jesse Marsch rested Sacha Kljestan, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kemar Lawrence, Aaron Long and Tyler Adams ahead of Wednesday's US Open Cup final in Kansas City, but even with a B team out there, New York had enough of the play to have gotten the full three points.

The simple fact is that they've been nowhere near as dynamic in attack since Daniel Royer was injured. They need him back both for Wednesday's final and for the stretch run, because as it stands, BWP is their only reliable finisher.

6. I am still not convinced that Diego Rubio is a consistent finisher, but he did pick up two more goals for Sporting in that 3-1 win over the Revs on Saturday. He now has four goals in six starts over the last two-and-a-half months, and should get the nod on Wednesday.

Sporting remain unbeaten at home this year. They should be regarded as prohibitive favorites to win their fourth US Open Cup title.

5. Tommy McNamara's golazo was the big highlight of NYCFC's 1-1 draw at Colorado. The Cityzens, when they're fully fit and clicking, are arguably as good as anybody in the league (including Toronto). But they don't have the same kind of depth that the Reds do, so without Alex Ring, Yangel Herrera and Maxime Chanot, they lose their edge.

The good news in the Bronx is that Villa returned to action with an 18-minute cameo. Getting the presumptive MVP back should help them lock down the No. 2 slot in the East.

4. When the Chicago Fire get their fullbacks forward, they are a devastating attacking team:

Following their 3-0 win over D.C. United they've taken seven points from their last three games, have solidified their hold on third place in the East, and can probably make plans for at least one home playoff game in Bridgeview. They still don't look as good as they did in the spring, but at least there's no more panic.

3. There is plenty of panic in Dallas as the winless skid hit nine following a rhythm-less scoreless home draw against visiting Seattle. As mentioned above, FCD are down to eighth place in the West and right now they look like a guy trying to open his front door with his car keys. Everything is fumbling confusion.

To tell the truth, Seattle don't look that much better. Yes, they have that 13-game unbeaten streak, but in the past month they've scored exactly one goal from open play, and that came in desperation time last week after pushing Roman Torres up as an ad hoc attacker.

Because they're a lock-down defensive bunch at the moment, the Sounders aren't just going to disappear. But they don't look like contenders.

2. I'm not quite convinced that Vancouver look like contenders, either. Yes, their B team beat MNUFC down by 3-0 midweek, but at the weekend they needed some last-second heroics from Tony Tchani to scrape out a 2-2 home draw against Columbus. Ola Kamara gave us our Face of the Week in that one:

The 'Caps have ridden to the top of the West since mid-August during a segment of the schedule in which they're playing six-of-seven at home. The final game in that stretch, against Colorado, comes next weekend, and then they finish the season with four-of-five on the road.

I've talked myself into Vancouver being a dangerous team. I just haven't been able to talk myself into them being West favorites despite their current perch.

1. Does that leave Portland as the West favorites? They didn't look like it in their 2-1 loss at RSL on Saturday, a night during which MVP candidate Diego Valeri broke the league record by scoring in his eighth straight game, and they're still fourth in the West on PPG despite Valeri's great run.

By the eye test, both on Saturday night and over the past six weeks or so, nobody out West is playing better ball than the Claret-and-Cobalt. The weekend's results bumped them up over the playoff line into sixth place in the West based upon total wins, which is the first tiebreaker. They're on 38 points, as are both Houston and Dallas, but both Texas teams have two games in hand on RSL (and one on San Jose).

That means it really is a mess out there:

I really don't know what's going to happen. I thought San Jose were dead, but they're not; I thought Dallas were too good to completely implode, but they're not; I thought RSL were a year away... maybe they're not?

So keep an eye out. Toronto FC may have made the Supporters' Shield race academic, but there will be parity-spilled blood on the playoff line by the time things are done out west.

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