Armchair Analyst: The balance of power & more from Week 4

Through four kind of weird weeks of MLS – weird because there's an odd number of teams, and because the schedule has been jimmied a little bit on account of Concacaf Champions League obligations, and because we just half-played through an international date – here is a take that would have been instantly dismissible as recently as two years ago:

The top six teams in the East are all better than any team in the West.

Considering how Houston handled Atlanta way back in Week 1, and how good LAFC have looked, it's maybe a little too spicy. But in general, when I'm looking at MLS games and thinking "hey that's really interesting how that happened" or "hey that's *really* good," I'm watching an Eastern Conference team.

Of course this can change. I actually have a lot of Dynamo stock despite their lead-footed defenders, and I'm not stupid enough to bet against Bob Bradley long-term. Plus the Quakes are fun and feisty, and there are a few other West teams worth thinking about for a bit (hello, Zlatan). But after a half-decade that had been so thoroughly left-sided, the balance of power has truly shifted over the past 18 months.

Let's run through the weekend:


Bushwhacked

This game was defined by the Revs' commitment to pressing high and NYCFC's sometimes insane, but utterly enjoyable dogmatism about passing out of said press. It led to a record from Sean Johnson, the Cityzens 'keeper who played 83 passes – 27 more than the previous MLS record for a 'keeper, going back to 2010.

It also led to all four goals in Saturday's 2-2 draw. Andrew and Calen did a nice job of breaking it all down here:

I've said what I've needed to say about NYCFC in the not-at-all distant past. The tl;dr version is "the fact that they're getting results without David Villa impresses the hell out of me, and stands them in better stead than last year." And if you'll recall, last year they were the second-best regular-season team in the league.

The story of the Revs is what you see in that video: Wilfried Zahibo is the lynchpin for the entire thing, and he's capable of both the sublime and the tragic. He had two assists, but he also had two naps that led to NYCFC goals. He is fast and physical and committed – what you'd want from a d-mid – but his defensive instincts also leave him a step slow at crucial times. 

Perhaps this is just the "new league learning curve," which we've seen from multiple players before. But it cost New England two points yesterday, and it's abundantly clear they don't have the talent or organization in defense to make up for midfield shortcomings. Zahibo is going to have to be better off-the-ball defensively if the Revs are going to stop bleeding goals.

Back to NYCFC for a second. One thing to understand is that when teams are pressed high, they usually don't have 71% possession, attempt 700 passes and complete 82% of them. Those are all very, very large numbers even against a bunker defense; against a press, they break the model.

But here's what it boils down to: They were absolutely committed to playing out of the back at all costs, and had the talent to mostly do it. However without Alex Ring they lacked the ability to move zones and use the ball to rearrange the New England defenders. Thus NYCFC, who usually play about 40% of their passes in the attacking half, spent most of the game down around 25% and almost never created any final third penetration save for their few-and-far-between transition opportunities.


Out of Gas

The thing that defined this game was a gamble – a defensive gamble – that Timbers head coach Gio Savarese took. And that's at least a little bit weird because Savarese's New York Cosmos teams were always so well organized defensively that he rarely had to gamble or look at gimmicks (for lack of a better word).

Not so with the Timbers, who'd bee a disaster through two weeks. And no, I'm not talking about dropping Liam Ridgewell as a gamble (though it's something we did talk about HERE). I'd actually argue that keeping Ridgewell in the lineup despite his lack of effort in Harrison a few weeks ago would've been a bigger gamble, given it could've eroded the team's morale.

No, the gamble I'm talking about is a shift to the little-used 4-3-2-1 "Christmas Tree" formation. This was, in the words of Chris Rifer, a way to "prioritize for now getting the team stuck in and competitive over the long-term process or installing his system." I agree with every word of that, as well as the thought process behind it.

And it worked! Even though Mauro Diaz was sharp for Dallas, the Timbers kept him out of the middle and kept the Dallas attack mostly flaccid in a 1-1 draw:

It was more of the same in the second half. I'd expect Savarese to stick with the 4-3-2-1 next week (with David Guzman in place of the hilariously suspended Lawrence Olum) even though they didn't really have much of a clue in attack.

As for Dallas... they really did let Portland off the hook here. For one, Oscar Pareja refused to sub out the obviously injured Anton Nedyalkov at halftime, so of course the Portland equalizer came from that spot. And for two, the way they're set up right now, it's Carlos Gruezo who's often asked to make a telling pass. That hasn't gone so great.

Also worth noting that neither last year's DP, Cristian Colman, nor this year's, Santiago Mosquera, affected the game at all in the second half even after Olum was sent off. FCD are unbeaten in regular season play this year (1-0-2), but all three games were at home and this one left me concerned.


A few more things to ponder...

4. The Galaxy defense put on their big boy pants and got a well-deserved scoreless draw at Vancouver on Saturday night. The most interesting part was that LA went out in a 3-5-2, which looked both combative and natural as they conceded just one good chance on the night (a breakaway for Yordy Reyna in the 39th minute).

The 'Caps just banged away at it with 30 crosses, a number they eclipsed only three times all last season.

3. Our Pass of the Week goes to both Felipe Gutierrez for the entry and Khiry Shelton for the backheel on Diego Rubio's dramatic 91st-minute equalizer in SKC's 2-2 draw at Colorado:

This game was wild and incoherent so I'm just gonna list things:

SKC have now conceded multiple goals in all four games this year

  • The combined expected goals were 5.13, highest in the league this weekend
  • SKC – SKC!!!! – have now participated in the highest xG game each of the last three weeks
  • Colorado took a 2-0 lead
  • Colorado surrendered that 2-0 lead in a second half during which fully 1/3 of the passes they played were long-balls
  • Colorado should play fewer long-balls

2. Columbus went out and got the job done in a pretty businesslike 3-1 win over visiting D.C. United. Federico Higuain joined the 50/50 club, and Cristian Martinez started to repay some of the faith that Gregg Berhalter's shown in him. I also thought that while Ricardo Clark played well and Artur was once again excellent, Wil Trapp's absence was notable.

D.C., meanwhile, were feisty. Despite the scoreline this was the best game I've seen them play this season, as they moved the ball really well at times and put the Crew SC defense back on their heels. They were also on the wrong side of a no-call that could maybe have changed the game.

Ben Olsen's got some decisions to make in midfield and up top.

1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to Bradley Wright-Phillips, who scored his 88th and 89th regular-season goals in New York's 3-0 stroll through Minnesota United:

That post-goal celebratory smile is infectious.

The Red Bulls are the best team I've seen in MLS this year, and the deepest. On this day it wasn't just BWP, but much-maligned Homegrown Alex Muyl – who got a goal of his own and hit one of the sweetest bending through-balls you'll ever see on the capper – doing damage, and Homegrown back-ups at both fullback slots, and USL guys in midfield, etc. etc. etc. 

MNUFC weren't bad, by the way, especially considering their own absences. It's just that they got put into the wood-chipper, same as Olimpia, Xolos and Portland – everybody who's paid a visit to the bend on the Passaic so far in 2018.

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