It was a busy week, including the last full midweek slate of the year. I wrote about that on Wednesday night, and I'm going to continue the format I used then.
The weekend that was...
Orlando City 0, FC Dallas 0: The talk coming out of this one was justifiably about the the non-reviewed apparent handball on Seb Hines in the first half. FCD fans are understandably steamed, since a win would've left them in fifth. The draw keeps them below the playoff line in eighth place.
Oscar Pareja has had to throw some stuff at the wall recently in hopes of finding a magic formula to get this team out of their hellacious slump, and here is the solution he's hit upon: Take away all of Carlos Gruezo's freedom to roam – make sure he's just a pure No. 6 – and slot in Javier Morales as a free, deep-lying distributor.
Morales is one of the great No. 10s in league history, and his job this year was supposed to be filling the gaps as Mauro Diaz worked his way back from injury. That never quite took. But now, with Los Toros Tejanos in desperate need of something to right the ship, here's Javi Mo, controlling the flow of the game:
Green arrows are complete passes, red are incomplete, and yellow are key passes (passes that lead to a shot). Over his decade with RSL I doubt he ever played so deep, and putting him there means that Dallas are now playing more of a 4-4-1-1 with Diaz as the free "1" underneath lone forward Maxi Urruti.
It was good enough for Dallas to take four of six points this week, but they'll need more from Urruti if they're going to get over the hump. As it stands he has one goal in his last 19 hours on the field.
Toronto FC 4, New York Red Bulls 2: One significant note from Toronto FC's point of view: Jozy Altidore making hard, direct, north-south runs is just... man that's tough to stop. I hope he saves some of that for Panama.
For the Red Bulls, whose fans are despondent because of what's now an eight-game, nearly two-month-long winless skid... I don't think things are as bad as they look. New York haven't lost their identity and truth be told, for the vast majority of this game they were putting TFC under a ton of pressure. Daniel Royer looked creative in attack (1g, 1a) and was very effective defensively with his pressure, while Gonzalo Veron was excellent in just his second 90-minute performance of the year, and picked up a goal for the third straight game.
Figuring out that Royer's fit and Veron's translated his super-sub powers into starting capabilities feels like a huge step for this team, and it allowed Jesse Marsch to toy around with a new formation: A diamond midfield with both Veron and Bradley Wright-Phillips up top.
The issue continues to be defense. They scored multiple goals in the third straight game and have taken just one point in that span, and unless Aurelien Collin gets healthy they don't have the horses they need to make a serious run.
But if you're looking for a playoff darkhorse who can ruin somebody's day like what Montreal did to the then-favored Red Bulls last year... this is your team. There is a big advantage to grabbing the No. 2 seed instead of the No. 3 seed in the East this year.
Columbus Crew SC 2, D.C. United 0: Columbus have evolved over the course of this season. They started the year out in their old 4-2-3-1 with one winger wide and the other pinched, and both fullbacks overlapping with abandon. Then they swapped to a 3-4-2-1 that had the effect of righting the ship defensively. And now they're in with a super-narrow 4-2-3-1 with both wingers, Justin Meram and Pedro Santos, diving inside to threaten goal. Santos hasn't been productive yet, but he's been dangerous. Meram, meanwhile, will justifiably get Best XI votes.
By having those two guys so central and threatening, Crew SC can now beat you by stringing together passes in the final third. From 2014 through 2016, they weren't that kind of team – they had to get out on the run and play a wide open game. But their percentage of long-balls per game has dropped from 14.7% in 2015 to 13.2% this year, and their final third passing accuracy has jumped slightly from 73% to 75.5%. They also hit WAAAAY fewer crosses, down from 19.6 per game in 2015 to just over 11 per game in 2017.
That's what the new Crew look like.
Columbus secured a playoff spot and are unbeaten in eight, with an outside shot at grabbing a home game in the Knockout Rounds. Gregg Berhalter's done a nice job over the last few months reinventing his team.
The attacking corps justifiably gets most of the ink, but their defense has been superb over the last two months.
Chicago Fire 1, NYCFC 1: This match was cagier than I expected, given the stakes. NYCFC were playing to hold onto their lead in the race for that ultra-valuable No. 2 seed in the East, and Chicago were, of course, racing to catch them. But really, the Fire got smothered. They just weren't able to string together passes like they need to, and don't have any real sort of ability to grind out games when teams strangle them in midfield.
Still, this was more of a good day than a bad one for the simple fact that Bastian Schweinsteiger returned to the field for the first time in a month. 18-year-old Homgrown Djordje Mihailovic has grown up in Schweinsteiger's absence and might end up holding onto a starting spot anyway, since he can play as sort of a False 10, but Djordje ain't Bastian. The Fire need their star to be their best player to have a chance against the East's top three.
For NYCFC, I get the impression that Patrick Vieira is in the final stages of locking in his rotation. Yangel Herrera, Alex Ring and David Villa are all back and fit, and Jack Harrison got a 15-minute breather at the end, and I think it's fair to call Andraz Struna the new starter at right back.
This team's about to become a nightmare to play against again.
Houston Dynamo 2, Minnesota United FC 1: This autumn-of-his-years revival from Vicente Sanchez has come mostly out of the blue. From the start of the season until August 12, he played 211 minutes without a registering a goal or an assist. Since then he's played 204 minutes, registering two goals and four assists.
Houston have needed all of them, and they certainly needed all three points from Minnesota's visit, a win that snapped a six-game winless skid and pushed the Dynamo above the playoff line with a game in hand. They still don't do much besides murder you on set pieces and get around the edge, but it turns out they've got superheroes for that sort of thing:
┈┈╱▏┈┈╱▏— Wakanda Panthers (@HoustonDynamo) October 1, 2017
Of course that's our Face of the Week, and totally worth the yellow card it earned Alberth Elis.
Colorado Rapids 2, Montreal Impact 1: Gordo forever!
The Impact have lost seven of eight, which is pretty remarkable given the talent on this team. There will be, I'm assuming, massive changes this offseason.
Sporting KC 0, Vancouver Whitecaps 1: I still have my doubts about Vancouver, and anybody who saw them win this one would understand why. That's not to take away from Erik Hurtado's brilliant run and finish (I remain a Hurtado stan, and will swear he's going to have a breakout year if he lands with the right club at some point) – he earned that goal, and the 'Caps earned those points.
But they sure did bunker and flop their way into it, which even their own fans didn't hesitate to admit:
Any predictions on amount of injury time from flopping?— Eighty Six Forever (@86forever) October 1, 2017
Caps holding the ball for a minute. I think they doubled their possession numbers!— Eighty Six Forever (@86forever) October 1, 2017
The 'Caps are what they are, and if you're going to beat them you've got to deal with that. Seattle did on Wednesday; SKC utterly failed to on Saturday, and now Vancouver are strong favorites to top the West. Skeptical or not, you've got to give them respect.
LA Galaxy 1, Real Salt Lake 1: Five minutes into stoppage time, after (correctly) playing a man down for 75 minutes, Kyle Beckerman delivered the goal that kept RSL in the playoff race. It was a dramatic moment for a team that came out so flat they probably deserved to lose. It says something about this group's internal strength that they didn't.
RSL are going to have to cope with some things, though. Jefferson Savarino limped off with what looked like a badly sprained ankle and I can't imagine he'll be back this year; Marcelo Silva is suspended for their next match, a must-win at Colorado; Luis Silva hasn't scored since August; Justen Glad, after a week of praise, got roasted by Bradford Jamieson IV. Really, it was RSL's first "bad" game in months, and would've been a devastating result if not for Beckerman's heroics.
For LA, BJIV's development is maybe the one silver lining to this year of misery. This is a wonderful run and a hell of a goal:
LA need him to come good. They've got to get at least one academy success to point at, because in Southern California they're sitting on one of North America's biggest talent gold mines. The fact that they're not up there with RSL, New York, FC Dallas and Toronto in terms of getting meaningful minutes to Homegrowns is a crime.
San Jose Earthquakes 2, Portland Timbers 1: "Where was this on Wednesday?" is what Quakes fans are assuredly asking after an entertaining and fairly convincing win over the Timbers.
San Jose are still playing out of what is, more or less, a 4-2-4. They were able to overwhelm Portland on the flanks, even when it was guys who we're not usually used to seeing on the flanks...
Wondo v TomThom Hype Train: Who did it better? pic.twitter.com/V8dJxyUMmH— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) October 1, 2017
Notice how far out of the middle they've dragged Timbers center back Liam Ridgewell there? That's the Quakes' goal – they want you to try to send help to your fullback (or wingback), and thus leave the middle a man short. That's how Jahmir Hyka and Valeri Qazaishvili were able to create constant danger. The risk, of course, is that you're often playing a man down in the middle of the pitch, which is some valuable real estate.
Portland have lost two of three and Diego Valeri's record-setting nine-game goalscoring streak came to an end, but they're fine. They still sit tied for third in the West on PPG and are close to a mortal lock to host a Knockout Round game.
Philadelphia Union 2, Seattle Sounders 0: Young defenders doing young defender things, man:
The Sounders still sit fourth and can realistically finish anywhere from 2-through-4 in the standings, which means they'll either start with a home Knockout Round game or a bye. So they're fine. But they do need to go to the tapes and figure out what went right on Wednesday against the 'Caps, and why it went wrong on Sunday in Chester.