Armchair Analyst: Zlatan, Zlatan, Zlatan Zlatan & more from Week Zlatan

So this is the start of the Major League Zlatan era. I have to say that my expectations were lower than they should’ve been, given that he is, indeed, Zlatan.

36? Coming off of devastating knee injuries? Not even close to fully fit?

It took him fewer than five minutes to create what will probably be the most-viewed highlight in MLS history (at least until Cristiano scores a banger for Miami in three years). The Galaxy became the second team in MLS history – over 5100 games – to overcome a 3-0 deficit, winning 4-3. The man has a sense of the moment.

And the first El Tráfico quite obviously dwarfed the rest of the league’s storylines this past weekend. Charlie Davies, who joined us for Matchday Central and knows a thing or two about big games, called it the greatest game in MLS history. I think it doesn’t quite measure up to the second leg of the Toronto FC/Montreal playoff series in 2016, but in terms of regular-season outings… yeah, I think I’m with Charlie. It was almost too much spectacle to analyze.

That said, let’s give it a quick run-through:

LAFC dominated the first hour with what’s become their defining feature — the ability win moments of transition by playing quick, short passes until Carlos Vela gets on the ball in a pocket of space. That space is created in large part by the tireless and intelligent running of Marco Ureña, who drags opposing backlines all over the field and puts constant pressure on teams with his movement.

The overall effect is to force the opposition into reactive defense. The Sophie’s Choice coaches have to make is “do we step up and be more proactive about shutting service down in the first place, and risk them running in behind?”

• Sigi Schmid chose wisely. Zlatan’s the headline, which is right and just. But Schmid’s decision to push central midfielder Servando Carrasco higher early in the second half was the tactical change that got the ball rolling downhill for the Galaxy. It paid in a very obvious way, as Carrasco forced the turnover that led to LA’s first goal (which came just as LAFC fans were attempting to “Olé!” the Galaxy in their own stadium – in retrospect a bad idea that the soccer gods viewed with disfavor).

It also paid in a less obvious way, as the pressing of Carrasco and Sebastian Lletget stopped the flow of service to Vela. Once that faucet was shut off, the hosts grabbed ahold of the game.

• Both Carrasco and Lletget were subbed off by Schmid in favor of a 4-4-2 for the final 20 minutes, which also turned out to be a smart choice. Usually teams in a 4-4-2 struggle in possession against anybody playing a 4-2-3-1 (as LAFC were), but by that point the Galaxy had so thoroughly wrested control of the game away from LAFC that momentum mattered more than numbers.

Plus, quite simply, there’s the Zlatan effect. Defenders are hyper-aware of him, which bends the entire game toward him and opens up space for his teammates. Watch Ema Boateng waltz through the LAFC backline here on the second Galaxy goal:

That doesn’t happen if it’s Ariel Lassiter drifting off the ball. It happens because it’s Zlatan.

And so there we have it, the recipe for an instant classic that we will indeed be talking about a decade hence and probably longer. Or, from a different perspective: just another day in the life of Zlatan.


A Change is Gonna Come

The day’s other 4-3 game was a giant sigh of relief for Orlando City, who finally got off the schneid in 2018 with the win over the visiting Red Bulls. How much you want to take from it depends upon how much stock you put in the fact that New York – who are justifiably more focused upon their Concacaf Champions League semifinal in Guadalajara on Wednesday night (10 pm ET; UDN, go90.com) — put out a B or even a C team with just a smattering of starters.

I’m not here to rain on the Purple Lions’ parade, though. A win is a win, and for large parts they looked very good doing so in attack (defense remains a real and potentially fatal issue). The big catalyst was a halftime switch to the 4-2-3-1, which spread the game out and made it tougher for RBNY to get pressure to the ball in midfield:

"It is absolutely our ideal scenario to be able to play in different shapes," is how Jason Kreis put it after the game, embracing flexibility but with a notable air of defiance. "We've been working through that since preseason. And so yes, I do think that you will see variations in how we approach matches, no doubt. Both within matches and from match to match."

There had been calls — loud and prolonged — from the fanbase for a move away from the 4-4-2 diamond and into the 4-2-3-1. Kreis had resisted them for a number of reasons, one of which, he hinted, was the prolonged absence of Dom Dwyer and subsequent injury to his backup, Stefano Pinho. Without those two guys there was no true center forward on the team, and without a true center forward you can’t really play a 4-2-3-1 unless you possess through the middle like Barcelona.

Orlando City have not possessed through the middle like Barcelona this year. And so the attempt was to compensate by playing two drifting forwards in the 4-4-2, an approach that worked better on paper than on grass. So it goes.

Switching to the 4-2-3-1 puts Dwyer, Justin Meram and Sacha Kljestan in their best positions, and early returns suggest the same will be true for Josue Colman, who looks comfortable at right wing.

Those four should be potent enough to create without all that much help from the six other players in purple, and that’s probably a good thing because they still are quite a mess. Mohamed El-Munir completely lost track of Florian Valot on the first RBNY goal. A turnover and quick counter up the gut ripped the defensive midfield and central defense apart on the second RBNY goal. Lamine Sane was overpowered on the third.

These can all be chalked up, at least in part, to individual errors. But when these types of individual errors happen game after game (and they have), you have to start wondering how much of it is simply baked into either the system or the personnel on hand.

If that’s the case then all of Orlando City’s problems won’t be solved with a simple formational switch, but maybe they can be mitigated. Perhaps the fullbacks won’t be so vulnerable if they don’t have to push as high to support the attack, and perhaps central midfield will be more solid if they go to the dual pivot of the 4-2-3-1 in place of the single d-mid of the 4-4-2 diamond. Maybe the knock-on effect of that is more protection for a central defense clearly in need of it no matter who’s been out there this year.

That’s a lot of ifs, maybes and contingencies considering we’re just one month into an eight-month season, but points won (or lost) now count just as much as those won in September and October. What it looks like now is that the Purple Lions dug themselves a hole over the first four weeks of the season and, on Saturday, discovered a tool that might be useful – essential even – in climbing out of it.


A few more things to ponder...

9. I wrote about Toronto FC’s cruise-control win over visiting RSL on Friday night. The Reds, like RBNY, were more focused on CCL play (they host Club America on Tuesday) than the regular-season.

RSL, meanwhile, appear to have major problems. Mike Petke says he’s going to fix it.

8. What’d the five fingers say to the hand?

That, from Daniel Lovitz, is our Face of the Week, from Montreal’s 1-0 win at Seattle. The Sounders are 0-3-0 with no goals scored and five conceded, as well as three red cards in those three games. Brian Schmetzer was steamed.

"Very disappointed, very disappointed," Schmetzer said afterward. "[Kelvin Leerdam] understands what he did. He apologized. But again, it comes down to me because I have to make sure I tell them exactly what the expectations are of this club. We don't need to do those things. Because it's not the way we want to do things. ... And that sort of stuff is going to stop. It's going to stop."

The Impact have been feisty all year. They didn’t dominate this one even when up a man, but the one time they had a chance to make a decisive play, they got the ball onto Ignacio Piatti’s foot and, yes folks, he made that play.

This Montreal team isn’t complete, but I think they’re going to be much better than most (including me) suspected in 2018.

7. Atlanta United spent about an hour down a man and with Michael Parkhurst as the only real defender on the field. They held Minnesota United to just two shots on goal in that time while seeing out a battling-and-ugly 1-0 road win.

The Five Stripes haven’t had to win many like that in their brief MLS existence, and it speaks well of them that they were able to kill off a game like that. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle LAFC’s attack next week without Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (red card) and Jeff Larentowicz (ankle injury), though.

6. The Revs Dynamo’d the Dynamo, going into Houston and countering their way to a 2-0 win. New England do not care about possession; they care about drawing you upfield, and then killing you in space, and so far they look pretty good at it.

That was Houston’s primary – maybe only – plan last year. This year they’ve been a little more committed to trying to use the ball through midfield, and while it’s produced some pretty moments, it’s also left them vulnerable against teams like the Revs and Whitecaps who sit and clog and run, and Houston have now dropped two of their first three at home after losing just once at BBVA all last season.

Should Wilmer Cabrera revert? In the short term, maybe a little bit. In the long term… no. Houston have to get more comfortable using the ball if they want to compete for MLS Cup because the truth is only one pure counterattacking team to won that particular trophy in the past 15 years (2010 Colorado).

So the short-term pain should be worth the long-term gain. It would help, though, if Alberth Elis stopped wasting chances.

5. Speaking of countering teams to death, the ‘Caps went out and did it again, winning 2-1 at Crew SC. I’m giving this cross from Felipe our Pass of the Week because it’s the perfect illustration of how a dominant aerial presence can make a low-probability strategy into a high-probability strategy:

I bet that felt good for Kei Kamara in his return to Columbus.

Wil Trapp can not let himself get posted up like that, by the way. He struggled mightily in this one just days after a sterling display for the USMNT in the 1-0 win over Paraguay.

4. Dominique Badji grabbed the first Rapids’ hat-trick in seven years as Colorado won 3-0 against visiting Philadelphia. This game was tight and choppy until the first goal, but once Badji caught Jack Elliott napping on the back post, the floodgates opened.

Should it be that surprising? Philly’s backline was the youngest in MLS history, so the learning curve was steep and the on-field knowhow minimal.

Still, it had to be disappointing for Jim Curtin & Co. Also disappointing so far has been the play of new DP No. 10 Borek Dockal, who has done a whole lot of nothing in his first 160 MLS minutes.

3. Sporting KC and D.C. United were tied for worst defense in the league with nine goals conceded heading into Saturday night’s contest, so naturally they produced a tight, scrappy 1-0 SKC win on an own goal.

And more to the point, after a miserable 280 minutes to start the season the SKC defense has locked in for the last 170, allowing just three shots on target in that time. I’m not sure if that means everything that had been ailing them earlier has been fixed, but at the very least it’s promising.

2. San Jose have a problem: The gap between the central defense and central midfield keeps getting filled by guys in the wrong colors. In Saturday night’s 2-1 loss to visiting NYCFC it was Maxi Morales drifting into that spot — nobody picked him up — and getting the game-winner. Against SKC it was Graham Zusi, and against Minnesota United it was Kevin Molino.

This is a not uncommon flaw in a 4-4-2 with a double pivot. If the central midfielders aren’t in sync it causes the very problem (time and space in front of the central defense) it’s supposed to prevent. And no, Anibal Godoy and Florian Jungwirth have not been in sync. Both have struggled through the season’s first month.

1. Other than Seattle, nobody’s struggled more than Chicago, who once again came away with a disappointing result — this time a 2-2 home draw against the similarly scuffling Timbers. But at least Veljko Paunovic, by deploying Bastian Schweinsteiger as a sweeper for about the final hour, did something interesting in trying to fix a bad situation:

It really is a sword that cuts both ways. Chicago will get more of the ball with Schweinsteiger as a sweeper, and do more with it because when sweepers step into midfield they automatically create a numbers-up situation. That’s the whole point of playing with a sweeper.

But they will get battered in the air if they leave him there against smart teams. I think the solution right now for the Fire is A) hope Grant Lillard gets healthy, and B) hope he’s really good. Otherwise they’ll be playing a lot of 2-2 and 3-2 games, and I don’t have much confidence they’ll be on the right side of most of those.

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