Three months of the MLS season are down. My firm belief is that the soccer we're seeing is better and more diverse than ever, and that means we're seeing more and more diverse ways of teams attempting to win the game.
It reveals itself in the possession numbers:
Has possession mattered in MLS in 2018 so far? Maybe not so much as RBNY, LAFC and ATL haven't relied on it very much. pic.twitter.com/E6pmKNekfS— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) May 28, 2018
Atlanta United, the Red Bulls and LAFC are three of the nine (or so) best teams in the league, and while they (and FC Dallas and Houston) haven't relied upon possession as much, the top four teams are NYCFC (60.5%), Sporting KC (59.3%), Toronto FC (57%) and Columbus Crew SC (53.8%).
In all, 7 of the top 10 teams in the league in total possession percentage are above the playoff line; six I mentioned above, plus Orlando City. TFC – literally the second-best team on the continent when healthy, though it's now an open question/legit concern as to when/if that will be – make it eight, while Philly and RSL are the other two rounding out the top 10.
Let's take a look at what's happening with the Union:
Welcome to Undertown
How much attention have you been paying to the Philadelphia Union? Have you noticed what's happening? Have you noticed how they've pulled themselves out of their early-season funk? Have you noticed how Keegan Rosenberry has grown a beard and rediscovered his 2016 form? Have you noticed how they've gone 3-2-1 in their past six games? Have you noticed how the central defense – a pair of 19-year-old academy kids in Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie – have existed somewhere between "lockdown" and "rock solid" for the past month?
That's who the Union have become in May of 2018, thanks to reps cohesion and chemistry. They went to Harrison this past weekend and they did what nobody else has done (not Xolos, not Chivas, not Chicago in a 2-1 win for the Fire six weeks ago) in a long time: They outplayed the Red Bulls. They built from the back, they strung passes through their veteran midfield, and they rocked the vaunted RBNY pressure back on its heels with precision and useful, purposeful build-up patterns.
They made the game their own and should have won because they were able to set up in their own attacking third and string passes together in a way that almost nobody does on the Passaic – or, honestly, anywhere else.
#RBNY final-third passing accuracy allowed:
- 4/14 v MTL: 48%
- 4/21 v CHI: 36%
- 4/28 @ LA: 54%
- 5/5 v NYC: 56%
- 5/12 @ COL: 52%
- 5/20 @ ATL: 61%
- 5/26 v PHI: 68%
That 68-percent passing accuracy in the final third wasn't a mistake and it wasn't useless. Philly battered the Red Bulls and probably should have won this one. C.J. Sapong missed a penalty and Ryan Meara had a second straight monster performance in goal, and somehow the visitors turned three points into one. It should've finished 1-0 or 2-1, but it ended 0-0.
But still ... you can't have watched that game and not take away a "man, this is progress" feeling from the Union. They were really good, and Jim Curtin is right to like what he sees.
"As a coach, I can't create that in practice," Curtin said about facing a team that plays with the week-in, week-out intensity and skill of RBNY. "It's impossible. Until they go through it, I try my hardest to create it but I can't. The intensity that they play at, the speed of game, a young player is never going to be used to that and for them to both step up and handle it can confidence, with winning tackles, playing with a yellow card, too, by the way, playing smart -- we have asked them now through the weeks to grow and they are growing before our eyes and they are impressing."
"They are impressing the other staff, as well. Again, happy with where they are at. But it was a total team effort. I don't want to take away from the rest of the group. I think everybody put a lot into it and again, [and I am] almost disappointed that we didn't make three points."
Curtin is no dummy and he's aware that progress isn't linear. Sapong has followed up his career-best season in front of net with his career-worst, while from week-to-week the wingers can dominate or disappear. April was miserable for the young backline; May has been stellar. That's just how this works.
But what's important right now is that Philly have proved they can go out, keep a zero and get results on the road. It's a major step for a young team that's been a long time coming, and while I still don't think they're a playoff squad ... folks, it's worth paying attention to the Philadelphia Union. They're playing good soccer and it's not an accident.
All You Need is Nothing
I'm taking the opposite tack and feeling the opposite way about a struggling team on the other coast. I'm just not sure, at this point, what the San Jose Earthquakes are all about. They're 2-7-3 following Friday night's 1-0 loss at the LA Galaxy, and the song remains entirely the same for this team that was partially reconstructed over the winter:
As I said in the above video, it almost doesn't matter what formation the Quakes set up in. They've tried a 5-4-1, a 3-4-3, a 4-2-2-2, a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1, and regardless they always seem to find a way to concede goals from Zone 14. It's not inexperience or anything like that – in this game they had Florian Jungwirth, a Bundesliga veteran, and Anibal Godoy, who's on his way to the World Cup, patrolling in front of the backline. It just didn't matter. They've simply shown no ability to adjust and adapt to/for the weakness that's been killing their season since first kick.
Head coach Mikael Stahre was sanguine afterward.
“It was quite a good game. It was a game with a lot of intensity and passion. I think we stood up in a good way. We deserved at least a tie in this game,” he said, before addressing areas in which his team need to improve – which, to his credit, he admitted are myriad and sundry.
“I think we need to improve in all parts, actually. Tonight, we weren't dangerous enough in the last part of the field. I think handled the build up well. I think we handled the defensive part well. I just think we weren't dangerous enough in the last 30 yards of the field.”
In part he's right. The Quakes didn't generate a truly good look all night and while they weren't sharp when they needed to be defensively, they did only get beat by a Romain Alessandrini banger. It's not like the Galaxy outright dominated.
But at the same time, it's not like the Quakes are any better than they were in March. There are lots of worries for teams below the playoff line, but in general it's worth looking at their improvement curve. Philly can point to theirs and say "see? We're doing lots of stuff right, just not finishing." When the Quakes point at theirs ... there's no curve at all.
A few more things to ponder...
11. LA actually took a pair of 1-0 wins this week, with the first coming Monday at the Impact. I'm convinced there are five for sure playoff teams in the West (Sporting, LAFC, Dallas, Portland, Houston) and then a sixth spot that's up for grabs. And right now, I'm thinking that the Galaxy are likeliest to claim that remaining slot because, so far, they only lose to good teams, and beat the teams they should.
Here are their losses:
- @ NYCFC
- vs. Sporting
- vs. Atlanta
- vs. RBNY
- @ Houston
- @ FC Dallas
It's a lot of home Ls, but none of those are actually bad. If the Galaxy keep beating the Montreals and San Joses of the world, they probably have the inside track on a Knockout Round appearance.
10. FC Dallas haven't been awesome, per se, but they've been the ruthlessly pragmatic and cohesive team that were the league's best in 2015 and 2016. They punctuated it with a 1-0 win in Toronto on Friday night, taking advantage of the injured Reds' lack of speed at the back to counter the defending champs into a loss.
Jesse Gonzalez helped – he'll be on the Team of the Week. But at the same time it's pretty clear that TFC have the yips:
It's time for concern if you're the Reds. We know they're literally the best team in MLS history when healthy, but the revolving door of center backs (Eriq Zavaleta played last week, then was injured this week; Chris Mavinga played a half on Friday, then came out with an injury; Nick Hagglund played the second half; what's in store for him next week?), the lack of left backs, and their disastrous form in front of net has left them foundering after nearly three months.
They've got precious little play left in the schedule before they turn this around.
9. There would be no wiggle room for TFC if the Revs had held onto their leads – plural – against the Whitecaps. But they turned a 2-0 lead into a 2-2 stalemate, and then a 3-2 lead into a 3-3 draw. Truth is, they were lucky to get that, and Kei Kamara's got two looks he wants back.
A point on the road is never a bad result, per se, and the Revs enter June with an eight-point lead in the race for the final playoff spot in the East. But there are 24 games remaining and the Reds have a game in hand. Those two extra points would've been nice for New England.
8. Still, that wasn't as disastrous a result as what Orlando City suffered at home against the Fire. Chicago won 2-1 in central Florida and the Purple Lions, who'd been on a six-game winning streak, have now lost three straight.
Those three are the first three of a 13-game stretch, from mid-May until the end of July, in which I figured Orlando would be outright favorites in just two games. Saturday's home date against the Fire was one of them, and even if they get healthy – a huge "if" – they're officially in a brutal stretch. Jason Kreis & Co. need to figure out how to grind out results or this year will slip away from them as fast as last season did.
RSL, like Philly, have invested bigly in their academy program and USL affiliate. The rewards they've reaped haven't been consistent, but are nonetheless bearing fruit from time-to-time. In this one, they played five members of the US Under-20 national team that made the quarterfinals of the 2017 Youth World Cup (Saucedo, Justen Glad, Brooks Lennon, Danny Acosta and Aaron Herrera), as well as sixth Homegrown (Corey Baird), a USL-developed CB (Nick Besler) and a young DP (Jefferson Savarino).
6. The best team you're not paying enough attention to are the Houston Dynamo. They dominated NYCFC, 3-1, on Friday night, punishing the league's best possession team for their stubbornness about playing through central midfield.
Houston are completely rocketized when they win the ball in midfield, and let's give credit to Wilmer Cabrera for allowing young center back Alejandro Fuenmayor to play through a rough first couple of months. That may have cost them points in March and April, but it will likely give them more stability and options in October and November.
4. Remember what I said about Philly's finishing?
3. Credit Minnesota United FC's backline for finally giving Bobby Shuttleworth a relatively easy day in their 2-0 win over visiting Montreal. There were none of the usual errors that have plagued the Loons for the last 18 months, and both Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra were on the mark for the hosts.
The Impact look destined to be one of the worst MLS teams in some time. They've lost eight of nine and the schedule doesn't really get easier.
2. D.C. United put in their second really good performance in a row, this time going up a man and then taking a 1-1 draw out of LA against LAFC. Truth is it could've/should've been more with better finishing (hear that, Wayne Rooney?)
United spent nearly a third of the game in LAFC's defensive third – a huge number, and one that shows they're getting more comfortable using the ball to pin teams back. Obviously part of that has to do with the man advantage, but earlier in the year when D.C. went up 11-v-10 they were still a sit-and-counter team.
I'll admit, I don't know if this is an aberration or not. But for two weeks at least, adding Paul Arriola to central midfield has helped.
1. And finally our Pass of the Week goes to Samuel Armenteros for this pass to ... himself:
That's outrageous, and so reminiscent of the 2002 Dennis Bergkamp goal that was recently voted best in the 25-year history of the English Premier League.
Armenteros has been wonderful as the Timbers have rocketed up the standings. Their 3-2 win at Colorado marked their sixth straight, and it's fair to say their early-season defensive issues have been mostly solved.
As for the Rapids ... six straight losses with no end in sight. They're off to the second-worst start in club history.