We're officially under a month left in the 2017 season, and we're officially two weeks into Atlanta United's month of hell/unleashing hell. They're playing a game every three days from September 10 through October 3 – eight total, seven at home – in what will be, one way or another, a season-defining stretch for one of the league's most exciting teams.
So far they've held up pretty well, winning four of five (with one draw) including a 4-0 destruction of LA on Wednesday, and then a 2-0 win over Montreal on Sunday. They did it the way they've done just about everything this year: By playing out of a 4-2-3-1, peppering the opposing goal with shots from all sorts of angles, keeping the ball on the ground and always, always always making runs that split defenders.
The Five Stripes, as a whole, never make lazy, aimless runs. It's how they've put up such spectacular goalscoring numbers this year.
But left back Greg Garza limped off a game-and-a-half into this stretch with a hamstring injury and hasn't yet returned, and then playmaker Miguel Almiron limped off in the first half against the Impact with what appeared to be a hamstring injury of his own. It hasn't been confirmed that's what it is (though it seems likely), and it hasn't been confirmed how severe it is. Hopefully for Atlanta's sake and Paraguay's, it's not much. But it's hard not to fear the worst after Almiron – who's an iron man for club and country – was crying into his kit as he walked off the field.
EDIT: Yeah, it's pretty bad. Almiron's out for at least three weeks with a Grade 1 hamstring strain. Seems like the best they could hope for is he'll be ready to go at the start of the playoffs.
Which brings us to the point I want to make: Tata Martino has done an exceptional job in his first year as an MLS manager, yet his refusal to rotate the squad during this insane part of the schedule is a mark against him, especially as he even admitted that could have had something to do with Almiron's injury.
It's not that he's starved for options. Julian Gressel, who is now tied for second-all time for assists by a rookie with eight, can fill in at any position of the "3" line in the 4-2-3-1, but he started Sunday's game on the bench and had played fewer than 90 minutes across the previous four. Kevin Kratz, a Bundesliga veteran, has played just 61 minutes during this stretch. Jacob Peterson has played 15 minutes, and Brandon Vazquez just three.
I understand the impulse to ride your best players as far as they'll take you, and there's no question that Almiron flanked by Hector Villalba and Yamil Asad, with Josef Martinez up top, is the best attacking foursome Martino could tap. But lordy is he running them (along with Jeff Larentowicz, Carlos Carmona and Michael Parkhurst) into the ground:
RE: squad rotation - Atlanta's top 9 most-played players have logged ~82% of the team's minutes since August. Next highest is Toronto on 74% pic.twitter.com/MXaQQnDuET— Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus) September 24, 2017
He could have rested one of each of the starters for each of the previous four games and likely been just fine. He also could have – strike that, absolutely should have – pulled these players at the half (or the hour mark) against FC Dallas, New England and LA.
I'm still kind of stunned in particular about the oft-injured Martinez's workload. To put it into context: In the first 189 days of the season he logged 775 minutes. In the subsequent 14, he's logged 425.
Tata's been great at a lot of things in Year 1 of this grand MLS experiment in Atlanta. Managing short-term ideals against long-term possibilities has not been one of them, and there's suddenly a real chance that putting the pedal all the way to the floor now is going to needlessly cost his team at least one essential player when it matters most.
Portland may not be as electric as Atlanta, but they don't need to be because they have Diego Valeri. This week marked a lot of things around MLS – the end of Toronto FC's winning streak, the end of Seattle's unbeaten run, Patrick Mullins returning to his form as God-Emperor of RFK Stadium – and one of them is/was a change at the top of the MVP race. With apologies to David Villa, it's now Valeri's to lose.
He got his 19th and league-leading 20th goals in Portland's 3-0 win over visiting Orlando City. He got his league-leading sixth game-winning goal. He got Jonathan Spector sent off, and he continued his transformation from recessed, playmaking enganche to drifting, ghosting, absolutely lethal second forward.
Valeri isn't really a midfielder anymore. He doesn't pull the strings like he used to, and isn't the team's leading open play chance creator. Instead he plays off the front line in what's more of a 4-4-1-1 than anything else, finding time and space where he sees fit and generally with free rein to get into the box (preferably late and unmarked) to get goals. He lets his brain and the talent around him do the heavy lifting.
Those guys around him have the skill to punish bad turnovers and bad defensive rotations. Watch Diego Chara cut OCSC up here (volume up for analysis):
That said, they don't often pass the eye test as well as they did on Sunday night. They struggled to get any purchase last weekend against RSL, and have looked less-than-overwhelming against the likes of Seattle, Toronto FC and NYCFC in a game they won.
Still, the Timbers aren't about to go away even when they don't play all that well. Valeri simply won't let them.
Where Do We Go From Here?
First, let's get this out of the way: Luke Mulholland won our Face of the Week award on Saturday night:
Second: RSL ended Seattle's unbeaten run at 13 games, and did so in style. Their 2-0 win at Rio Tinto was never particularly in doubt as they were never really threatened until the final 15 minutes, at which point they were nursing the dos-a-cero.
This wasn't a typical home win by any stretch as the Sounders, for as much as they've struggled in attack, have been lights-out defensively. The last time they conceded more than a single goal in a game was waaaay back on July 19, a string of 10 matches that saw them play at home and away, and against the other top contenders in the West.
RSL got at Seattle by using Brooks Lennon as something of a False 9, part of a gambit to open up the sweet spot in front of goal for darting runs from the likes of Mulholland, Jefferson Savarino, Joao Plata and Albert Rusnak. The idea is that nobody's beaten the Sounders center backs by going right at 'em, so why not drag 'em away and make someone else deal with the penalty area?
Lennon, who is hyper-mobile but doesn't quite have the finishing touch required to be a fulltime forward (yet – he's just 19 and could improve, mind you)
"I just looked at it as [Roman] Torres and [Gustav] Swenson as center backs, Brooks with his pace, Brooks with his youthfulness and energy, I thought that could occupy them," is how Mike Petke put it, and sometimes soccer is just that simple.
Also, a note that we can look back at later and try to figure out if it revealed an underlying truth or just showed some statistical noise: RSL are 8-4-3 +14 goal differential when Justen Glad plays, 4-10-2 -22 GD when he's not available.
I don't think there's been a better center back in MLS over the second half of the season. Glad has been superb.
A few more things to ponder...
9. Oh no Tyler Deric, where are you going?
That was about the only glaring defensive mistake anybody on the Dynamo made in Saturday's 1-1 draw in Connecticut against NYCFC. The result makes it six winless for Houston, but with four of their final five at BBVA Compass Stadium, this team really should find their way into the postseason.
I do worry, though, that Wilmer Cabrera is too far the polar opposite of Martino. If Tata's issue is that he's riding his best group to death, Cabrera's has been that he's so committed to wholesale squad rotation that it's not entirely clear what his best group actually is. That's not a thing you expect to say about a playoff team at this point in the season.
8. Yes, Montreal took it on the chin in Atlanta on Sunday, but they came out of this week with three more points than I'd expected of them thanks to a 5-3 midweek result at BMO Field over the previously rolling Reds – a very MLS-y result, at that.
The Impact really did use up all their fortunate breaks in that game, because they had enough moments of danger on the weekend that they could've justified walking away with a point.
7. Toronto's other game this week was yet another loss, 2-1 at New England. Lee Nguyen came off the bench and cracked the short-handed Reds – who were missing four of their five center backs, and both Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore – open with a goal and an assist.
TFC have three games left: vs. RBNY, vs. Montreal and at Atlanta, to claim a spot amongst the league's all-time best.
6. It's safe to say that TFC will play a part in who makes the Eastern Conference playoffs, since RBNY are in a full-on stall following Saturday's 3-2 loss at Columbus Crew SC. The hosts went up top twice, killing New York on set pieces, and are very quietly unbeaten in seven games.
This isn't the wide-open Crew SC team of Gregg Berhalter's first three years in charge, but they're probably better off for it. The fullbacks don't get quite as high and they're much more committed to counterattacking from deep with forward Ola Kamara and the wingers (especially Justin Meram, who had another banger this weekend).
It hasn't been as fun to watch as years past. No one can say it's not effective, though.
5. Mullins was finally very effective in front of net, with a bit of help from San Jose's too-passive defense:
San Jose lost 4-0. Since Chris Leitch took over mid-summer they've played eight road games and have conceded at least three goals in seven of them. Meanwhile they've been a very respectable 4-0-1 at home, having conceded just four times in those five games.
Even by MLS standards, this is a bizarre home/away split. For San Jose's purposes it'll do, though, as they finish the season with three-of-four at Avaya Stadium. If they take care of business as they have done under Leitch thus far, they will most likely make a playoff appearance.
4. Far beyond "likely" to make a playoff appearance are Vancouver, who finished their run of six-of-seven at home with a 2-1 win over Colorado on Saturday night.
The 'Caps currently top the West on both points and points per game, but finish with four-of-five on the road, all against playoff teams. And their one home game is against a sure-to-be-desperate Quakes bunch.
If they end up topping the West I'll be surprised, but I'm also surprised that they've lost just once in the past two months. Vancouver have defied quite a few expectations this year.
3. Sporting KC had a very nice week, picking up another trophy on Wednesday and then another three points on Sunday with a 2-1 win over LA.
The Galaxy have some stuff they're working on at the moment...
MNUFC are 3-1-1 in their last five, and 4-4-2 in their last 10 MLS games. They've done a lot of it without the aid of Sam Cronin and March Burch, who rescued their season from the "all-time worst" trash heap back in April, and they've gotten good production out of Abu Danladi, Christian Ramirez and especially the revitalized Ethan Finlay.
It will be fun to watch them do some more wheeling-and-dealing in the winter. One of the questions I assume they're trying to answer between now and then is "Is Kevin Molino a No. 10, or rather a playmaking winger?" He's been better in the latter spot this year, but given the glut of wide players on the roster has been used mostly as a central playmaker for the last couple of months.
1. And finally our Pass of the Week goes to a guy who's definitely not a No. 10, but whose passing defined Philly's 3-1 win over visiting Chicago:
Alejandro Bedoya is very good at little plays like that, and I still maintain that if he were in a situation where he could conduct rather than outright create, he'd get his due as one of the best No. 8s in MLS.
The Fire are now just 3-7-1 since the Gold Cup break, having fallen from first to fourth in the Eastern Conference. It's not panic time – they're going to make the playoffs – but the magic they had somehow bottled up from March through June really is gone, and they haven't figured out any other way to win games in its absence.