Armchair Analyst: Battle of East titans, Darwin's debut & more from Week 7

"To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness."John Dewey

As I wrote last week, we're not quite at "You are what your record says you are" territory just yet. The schedule's been too imbalanced, the sample size is too small and there are too many other variables – including a still-open transfer window, a still-ongoing continental Cup competition, and a cadre of still-integrating offseason acquisitions.

But while we're not yet at that truly measurable phase, we have just about hit the point where we're figuring out if teams are figuring it out. The results are predictably mixed, but at the very least we have an idea of who's on the road to improvement and who's on the road to nowhere.

We are just under 20 percent of the way through the 2018 MLS season. There are three exceptional teams (you could argue a fourth depending upon how you feel about the Red Bulls) so far. It pays, at this stage, to be ruthlessly pragmatic about a team's relative strengths and weaknesses. That way lies happiness.

This Must Be the Place

One of those exceptional teams will be playing in the Concacaf Champions League final on Tuesday night. The other two played in front of 45,000 screaming fans in Atlanta on Sunday night.

Atlanta United's 2-2 draw against visiting NYCFC was riveting in just about every conceivable fashion. David Villa returned from injury (he'd played tune-up minutes Wednesday in a 4-0 destruction of RSL) and returned to the scoreboard. Ezequiel Barco finally got on the field. Alex Ring scored a golazo. Miguel Almiron was everywhere. The setting and the quality of play were both off the charts, and while the LA vs. LAFC game last month will linger longer in the minds of MLS fandom, I think this game was the best I've seen all year.

There are tons of reasons why, including the above. But the big ones for me were how 1) Patrick Vieira's gameplan to eliminate central midfield caused the Five Stripes to have to make a major adjustment, and then 2) how they were able to make that adjustment on the fly in order to start pulling the Cityzens apart. 

Through the first 23 minutes the game was something close to one-way traffic, with NYCFC dominating the ball and where either team could use it. That was the point where Almiron, Greg Garza and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez engaged in some on-field problem-solving:

Almiron was nominally a forward on the day, but NYCFC had so walled-off the midfield that he'd been starved for service and zero percent influential in the first quarter of the game. So then instead of having him drop back into central midfield in order to get on the ball, Almiron started flaring wide while Garza – a wingback – began pinching inside in order to create overloads and suck opposing defenders to him.

You can even see Garza pointing toward Almiron in that clip, telling Gonzalez Pirez where to pass to. A couple minutes later a similar sequence led to the game's first goal.

NYCFC's adjustment to Atlanta's adjustment was twofold. First, right back Anton Tinnerholm stopped going forward, instead acting as more of a distributing hub rather than an overlapping threat. Second, Villa mostly pressed up higher instead of dropping back to get on the ball as they decided "You know, we're probably good enough to get one if we just play through him, and it'll give us a little bit more solidity."

And that's how you got to the final score of an exceptionally intricate, well-played game. I think these are the second and third-best teams in the league, and I'm pretty sure they just showed us all why. 

Houses in Motion

I'm going to break my own rule and write about a single team in consecutive weeks here (I try to spread the love, but sometimes a story just persists and I feel compelled to keep picking it apart).

In this case, it's FC Dallas. And FC Dallas are interesting first because they are one of the handful of teams in MLS that, I think, could reach the above level. It's where they were at 12 months ago, and it's where they were at for most of the two years prior to that. I'm not sure where they've been since mid-July of last year, but "First team in MLS history with back-to-back 60-point seasons" is still in there somewhere.

Secondly, they looked like they figured something out this weekend in a 1-0 win over a pretty feisty New England team. Dallas, as they often do on the road, came out in a low-block 4-4-2 designed for the counterattack. They generated some great chances that way, and Cristian Colman – stop me if you've heard this one before – left the bulk of those on the table. (I'd still like to see him get a run of six or seven straight games to see if he can't find a finishing rhythm, and it's perhaps telling that when Oscar Pareja had to make a sub to get out of the 4-4-2 and into a front-foot 4-3-3, it was Colman and not Maxi Urruti who stayed on the field).

But yeah, I just gave it away: Pareja changed the game when he changed the formation. Too often folks use "formation" as a stand-in for "tactics," and it's important to know that's bad and wrong. Those are different things with different meanings.

At the same time, they're often related and on Saturday they definitely were. The goal of going to the 4-3-3 was to push their own midfielders up higher, to close down any easy distribution from New England's defenders, and to give Wilfried Zahibo one too many runners to keep track of in the final third.

And so...

That's Jacori Hayes's first career goal, and he deserved it. He was the best player on the field.

The larger point is that Dallas showed a level of flexibility and intentionality in their approach to this game that's largely been absent since last summer. They were far from perfect – the Revs had their chances, just like Dallas did – and they'll have to perform better in the coming weeks, and they'll have to do the above with Mauro Diaz on the field. It's not going to be easy.

And yet they've managed not to lose so far in 2018, which is a big step given how ugly 2017 was. Plus they've now collected road points, and they've done so in an unexpected but utterly rational way. It was fun and good.

Does this mean Dallas are back, or even that I expect Dallas to get back to where they were before the Big Gloom of the past nine months? I sitll have my doubts. But after that win I've got fewer than I did a week ago. FCD seem to know a little bit more about who they're supposed to be, and few things bode as well as that in the long run.

A few more things to ponder...

10. As I mentioned in the first segment, RSL got killed midweek in a game that was neither as close nor as competitive as the very lopsided scoreline indicates. The Claret & Cobalt were completely undone by NYCFC's decision to use Jesus Medina as a false 9, a tactical shift that highlighted the disconnect between the RSL central defense and central midfield. 

It was more than just tactics, though. RSL didn't track runners, didn't close down passing lanes, and didn't ever seem to work in tandem to clear danger. This is a team that still looks like they're in preseason.

9. Philly don't look like they're still in preseason. They just look like they have no idea how to finish their chances, and that continued to be the case in a soul-crushing 2-0 home loss to Orlando City. Let's let Montreal Impact and Canada legend Patrice Bernier diagnose part of the issue for the Union:

Yup.

After scuffling along through most of March, Jason Kreis has mostly pulled the right levers over the past two weeks. In this case it was giving starts to Stefano Pinho and Chris Mueller, two of the heroes of Week 6's epic comeback win over Portland. For the Lions it seems like it's about guys winning jobs, not just losing them – an important and valuable distinction.

8. Friday night's other encounter was up in Vancouver, where LAFC broke their two-game losing streak and hung a 2-0 loss on the punchless Whitecaps.

Vancouver didn't have any ideas as to how to consistently advance the ball into the attacking third without Kei Kamara's knockdowns. So they tried to possess more, and when they did that they opened themselves up to some danger via LAFC's counter in the other direction.

Ultimately, though, it wasn't the counter. It was Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, the two LAFC DPs, doing what they're paid to do.

By the way, as LAFC have taken nine points from the first five games of their franchise-opening six-game road trip, I'm willing to call said road trip a success no matter what happens in Montreal this coming weekend.

7. The other team in that group of three elites I mentioned are, of course, Toronto FC. They went to Colorado on Saturday, played most of the bottom half of their roster and lost 2-0 to the Rapids.

This was a pass/fail proposition for Colorado, with nothing more to be taken out of it than that. They passed. Onto the next one.

6. Three appearances, one start, two game-winning goals for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. There was nothing at all pretty to be taken from the Galaxy's 1-0 win at Chicago on Saturday as it was played in the driving wind and rain that that gave the Second City its, um, other nickname. 

That said, the Fire's Dax McCarty is worried.

"That's what we are," he said after the game. "We're below average right now. The results speak to that."

Chicago are 10th in the East with four points from five games. They've won just one out of four at home, which is not great news for a team that traditionally struggles outside of Bridgeview.

5. D.C. United traditionally struggle outside of Washington, D.C., but they did manage to get a win in Annapolis on Saturday, beating the visiting Crew SC 1-0 at the Naval Academy. It's D.C.'s last home game for three months, at which point Audi Field will open and they'll have a big old hole to dig themselves out of in the second half of the season.

Columbus are skidding. They've lost three straight and been shut out in three straight on the road. The chances are there, but they're just pounding the woodwork right now.

While I think they'll be ok in the long run, it's probably fair to start asking questions of DP winger Pedro Santos. His movement and vision are fantastic, but he's managed just 1g/3a in 1688 MLS minutes (regular season and playoffs) which is simply not good enough for a player with his role. Columbus need goals from their wingers or they'll drop down to the playoff line – and perhaps below it.

4. Yeah so my general take is that the Red Bulls are going to be fine. Tuesday night's loss to Chivas was among the most disappointing in MLS history for literally any club, but they followed it up by thoroughly outclassing Montreal by 3-1 in Harrison on Saturday. Here, let's argue about Kaku!

I understand Bobby's point and, by extension, Jesse Marsch's. But I'll stand by my take: In big moments, you need players who have a little bit extra something special, and you need to play your best players in their best spots. To me, starting Kaku vs. Chivas would've given the Red Bulls a better shot at both of those.

3. Darwin Quintero's debut was good stuff for Minnesota United. He got on the ball a ton, scored one goal and basically created the second, was willing and able to combine around the box, should've had an assist on a nifty chip to the back post that I still can't believe Christian Ramirez wasn't able to rise up for, and was often the best player on the pitch.

But the Loons lost 3-2 at the Timbers. Quintero isn't going to solve the fundamental question this team's been trying to answer since their first MLS game (which also happened to be in Portland): Can they defend? So far the answer is a resounding "no."

Same, by the way, for the Timbers. Portland's actually conceded more goals than MNUFC this year – 14, which is tied with RSL for league worst. They seemed totally determined to let Minnesota back into a game they should've killed off multiple times, the continuation of a trend for Portland in 2018.

2. Our Face of the Week, courtesy of Q:

San Jose both blew a lead and came back in a 2-2 home draw against visiting Houston. This was a weird, game-state-y game that I felt like the Quakes were controlling for a ton of the time. Jackson Yueill started in central midfield and gave them the ability to spread the field around as they went away from the 4-4-2 and into a 4-3-3, and upon first viewing I thought it worked.

Then I watched it again and... honestly, Houston should've won. They generated way more chances – many of them very good – were committed in their movements in the final third, and once again seemed to have clarity with regard to their plan. The Dynamo didn't seem as interested in "game flow" and "rhythm" as they were in potential decisive moments, and honest to god they won most of those outright.

They just didn't finish as well as they should've. They let San Jose off the hook.

I think the next step for the Quakes is going to be moving Florian Jungwirth back to central defense.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week courtesy of the other Roldan:

There are few things in this world I love more than a curling, properly weighted outside-of-the-boot pass into space. That was a lovely ball and a lovely goal.

Seattle got off the schneid with their 2-2 draw at SKC, who continue to look more fragile defensively than anyone had a right to think they would. They're still fine – 14 points from seven games has them top of the West on both points and points per game – but I don't see a team all that much closer to solving the defensive issues that plagued them throughout the bulk of March.

That might not be fatal in the West playoff race, but it's something they've got to solve in the coming months if they want to have more than their annual token postseason appearance.

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