Armchair Analyst: The CCL hangover is real and more from Week 3

The biggest winners from this week were Toronto FC, Chivas de Guadalajara, New York Red Bulls and Club America.

Nothing that happens in Week 3 of the very long MLS regular season or Week 12 of the not-so-long-but-still-ongoing Liga MX Clausura can or does compare to winning one's way into the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League. TFC and RBNY needed it for the obvious reasons, while Chivas needed something to hang their hats on in the midst of one of the club's worst runs in its history.

Las Aguilas don't need much. They're the clear favorites at this point, but if they'd lost to Tauro FC it would've been considered A) a major upset, and B) a major embarrassment. That didn't happen, so they are neither upset or embarrassed.

The other big winners this week were the teams that faced those CCL participants, as well as said CCL participants' vanquished foes. If you participated in midweek CCL action, several days later you participated in 90 minutes of futility and sadness:

This happens almost every year, though I can't remember the results being so pronounced (Bobby Warshaw – who was part of that FC Dallas team that won a game down in Mexico in 2011 – will have more on this on Monday). Perhaps that's an effect of MLS narrowing the gap on Liga MX; both sides are now expending more energy to get the desired results. It is a weird and not fully interpretable data point, but I'm comfortable enough hammering it into my lede.

Which is to say: If you're RSL, Dallas or Montreal, don't go popping any champagne just yet. Enjoy your wins, to be sure – they were all well-earned – but beware of false positives.


Retreat to Move Forward

Let's start in Quebec, though, because the Impact were really fun and good in their 1-0 win over the visiting Reds. They came out in what they identified after the game as a 5-3-2, but what acted more like a 3-4-3 because both forwards – Jeisson Vargas and the superb Ignacio Piatti – played as sort of drifting, false 9s/pseudo trequartistas.

Nobody was ever where the TFC defense thought they'd be. Piatti would turn up on the wing one minute, then set up in pockets of space off Michael Bradley's back shoulder. Vargas ran at gaps or dropped deep into midfield to help in possession. It was a lovely mess, Toronto never seemed quite sure of how to keep track of the Impact attack, and because of that every time the ball turned over it was an adventure.

Here's how the decisive adventure unfolded:

All of the above was a smart and measured curve-ball from Montreal head coach Remi Garde. You can see that when the Impact won the ball, there was nobody stretching the Toronto defense. Nobody was even occupying a defender. Instead it was both Piatti and Vargas sitting between the lines, and the Reds already in a retreat, and when you give skilled players enough chances to run the ball down your throat, eventually they figure out how to put it in the net.

The question I have coming out of this one is "Was that a look or a gimmick?" Tactically what the Impact did was so unusual that it has value just because of the "man, we haven't seen that one before" effect. But Greg Vanney did eventually solve it by dropping a center back for another deep-lying midfielder, adding an attacking threat who could move through the lines off the ball, and flipping out of the 3-5-2 and into a 4-4-2 diamond at the hour mark – thus keeping Bradley tighter to the center backs and, in the form of Marky Delgado, giving him more defensive help tracking runners.

Those moves didn't result in a goal, but they did result in a final half-hour that the Reds controlled. They had 70 percent possession and fired off 11 shots, five from inside the box. They actually ended up out-performing the Impact on expected goals. On a sharper, hangover-free day, I think they get one.

But on this day, they didn't. The first Canadian Classique of the year goes to the Impact, and deservedly so.


The Problem Solvers

Up the Loons! Minnesota United have earned their current two-game winning streak, the first of which happened last weekend on the road at Orlando City and the second of which happened at home against a short-handed, struggling and very vulnerable Chicago Fire team in Minneapolis on Saturday. The hosts won 2-1, and while it took a little bit of doing and a few nervy moments, that wasn't the wrong result.

So here's MNUFC's issue: They have a million wingers, and they have no central playmaker. But head coach Adrian Heath has always loved playing in a 4-2-3-1 with a central playmaker, and so he's often sort of jury rigged talented wingers into playmaking roles.

Through two weeks of the 2018 season, that was working a charm because Kevin Molino had been playing great as an ad hoc 10. Then he got hurt and it was a whole dose of "back to the drawing board."

What the drawing board came up with was "put the guy who wears No. 10 at the No. 10 spot." Miguel Ibarra is indeed a winger, but against the Fire he was a playmaker, and the man delivered. He picked up a secondary assist, should've had at least one primary as well, and led everyone on the field with three chances created.

The fun part about it is that he did the above by at least partially embracing his winger instincts and flaring wide more than he stayed central. Here's the chalkboard of his completed passes (green arrows) and chances created (yellow):

And here's his heat map, also courtesy of Opta:

Notice where he's not?

There's no rule that a playmaker – or a "CAM" as it's called in videogame parlance – has to actually be "central," and in fact when you have two high-usage deeper-lying midfielders, as MNUFC do, it makes a lot of sense to have those guys hold possession, draw the defense up, then spray diagonals to overloaded flanks. You just have to hope that your No. 10 is smart enough to recognize those moments and precise enough to pick the right pass once overloads occur.

On Saturday Ibarra was. It's an unusual way of fixing what had been a persistent problem, and Heath says we'll see more of it.

"Yes, I do," Heath said when asked if Ibarra had earned another chance. "I thought his effort was incredible today. Covered every, if it would have been a grass pitch, he would have covered every blade of it. He’s terrific. His energy levels are good. I thought his combination play at times was good."

It was, and his ability to deliver the final ball showed up on the scoreboard. As with Montreal's gambit I'm not sure if it's something that can last, but I like that we're going to see it again soon.


Believe In the Stars

We're officially two games away from mashing the panic button for Orlando City. They were determined to play out of the back at all costs at NYCFC on Saturday, and as a result played themselves into a pair of turnovers and a 2-0 loss to the Cityzens.

I consulted some smart friends and did some back of the envelope calculations and came to this conclusion: Games at Yankee Stadium have around 10 percent more possessions relative to a typical MLS game (I weighted for NYCFC's propensity for long spells of possession and ability to string passes together – or attempted to, at least).

What this means is that 1) there are more turnovers at Yankee Stadium than at other stadiums, 2) more turnovers lead to more transition opportunities, and 3) because of the size of the field, those transition opportunities have an outsize impact on determining the outcome of any given game.

Apropos of all of that NYCFC went out and got themselves, in Jesus Medina, a guy who does murder in transitions, and then put that into effect even without David Villa:

Through three weeks Medina looks like a star, and through three weeks NYCFC look like they're the best team in the league. They're a good bet to stay up near the top of the table all season once again, and are the odds-on favorite to win themselves a spot in next year's CCL.

As for the Lions... they've got a week to rest, get some guys healthy and figure out what's up on both sides of the ball. Then they have two home games at home, and if it's anything less than four points from those, feel free to freak out.


A few more things to ponder...

6. The kids are all right in Chester. I decided to reserve judgement on Philadelphia's young backline following their Week 1 win over the 9-man Revs, but following that up with a scoreless draw against the visiting Crew SC is a much more convincing data point. Philly weren't great at any point, but they were solid throughout and if that's what you're coaxing out of your young defense, you're going to give yourself a chance to move the game forward and be dangerous.

They're not going to be contenders or anything. But they don't look like they're going to get cracked open on the regular, and it's very nice to see Keegan Rosenberry back to his 2016 form.

5. Also back to his 2016 form, maybe, is Mauro Diaz? He's been FC Dallas's best player through four games (not a high bar or a big sample size, but still) and he dropped some dimes in Dalllas' 3-0 win over the hapless Sounders:

FCD have four straight winnable games coming up, and Oscar Pareja seems to be getting back to his roots by trusting his academy products and draft picks with more playing time. I still think they're too gappy at the back for comfort, but they're going forward with purpose once again.

4. RSL didn't go forward much at all in their 1-0 win over the Red Bulls, but they didn't really have to thanks to an early, entirely unnecessary penalty conceded by Carlos Rivas and a vintage performance between the sticks from Nick Rimando.

There should be at least a little bit of concern that they couldn't play through the RBNY press at all, but truth be told nobody's been able to do that this year save for 45 minutes from a desperate Xolos side in the 2nd leg of the CCL quarters. Even though it was ugly, I suspect RSL will look back on this win with a not insignificant amount of fondness.

3. Controversy in Atlanta after Kendall Waston conceded a penalty of his own – and picked up a red card after Video Review – in what became a 4-1 rout for the Five Stripes:

Yes, that is very much our Face of the Week. I'm not sure I agree with Charlie that Waston was originally smiling because he thought Leandro Gonzalez Pirez had seen red; rather, I thought he was sarcastically clapping the ref for giving the penalty. That then turned to apoplectic rage when red was shown.

Either way... it was expressive!

2. Sporting KC's defensive woes still sort of continued, but is their attack now fun and good? It looked like it in their 3-2 win over visiting San Jose, whose defense was, at times, problematic:

Here's a list of things:

  • That's a banger from Graham Zusi
  • Fantastic goal call – well done Nate Bukaty
  • Awful defense from Quakes LB Shea Salinas, who seemed to think he was passing Zusi off to Anibal Godoy
  • WHAT IS GODOY DOING????????

The Salinas thing was obviously bad, but explicable – he made the incorrect threat assessment (he was dropping off to protect the lane from a slip pass) and didn't realize he wasn't going to be able to pass Zusi off. He never got tight to Zusi, and that's that.

But again... WHAT IS GODOY DOING??????? I have never, in my decades of watching the sport, seen anyone "defend" like that. I am flummoxed.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to D.C. United's Chris Durkin, who – along with Paul Arriola – helped change the game in United's 2-2 draw against visiting Houston. This is pinpoint:

D.C. have not passed the ball well through central midfield, and having Durkin – who is similar to Bradley or Columbus's Wil Trapp in his ability to drop deep and make those kinds of plays – getting more minutes should, in theory, fix part of what's been ailing them.

Head coach Ben Olsen might have no choice, anyway. Russell Canouse is still injured and Junior Moreno, who'd started the first three games of the season, came off with a knock midway through the second half. The 18-year-old Durkin might have become D.C.'s starting d-mid by default.

Series: 
Topics: