Armchair Analyst: Your complete guide to the Week 15 MLS slate

In to Week 15, which marks the final weekend before the World Cup break. Bear in mind that a bunch of teams are in a crazy busy stretch – Real Salt Lake, for example, are grinding through an absolutely brutal five-games-in-15-days run – which can/will undoubtedly lead to some squad rotation.

We already saw a good chunk of that in Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup games, and we'll see more this weekend. Let's dive in:

Friday Forecast

Philadelphia Union vs. Toronto FC

8 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & Streaming Info

We're finally here: Not quite do-or-die, but more along the lines of "do or you'll probably soon be dead."

Toronto FC are just eight points out of the final playoff spot with five months of the season left, so... really, there aren't a lot of must-wins at this point in the season. But their schedule is brutal from here on out and if they figure out a way to drop yet more points, then that magic number (51 will almost certainly get them into the postseason) gets that much further away. TFC don't die if they win this game, but they really, really need to win this game.

And they should win this game, because as good as Philly's been lately, they'll be playing this one without either Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya, who got red wedding'ed last weekend in Atlanta. The Union have not just been getting results in recent weeks; they've actually been good and fun, and a lot of it has come from the ability of those two to organize things deep in midfield, take the bulk of distributive pressure off the young backline, and keep turnovers to a minimum. Without their veterans in that spot I'm just not sure who the Union are or what they can do.

On the flip side, I didn't see Justin Morrow or Nick Hagglund or Eriq Zavaleta or Gregory van der Wiel or Jonathan Osorio or Marky Delgado on the injury report for TFC this week, and that means 1) they'll trot out a defense with four actual defenders for the first time in ages, and 2) Michael Bradley will go back to defensive midfield.

So here it is, Reds: We remember the 1990s D.C. United team and the 2010-14 Galaxy team as the best ever not just because they had singularly dominant seasons, but because they strung title-winning seasons back-to-back, and kept it together over the course of years. Nobody's ever going to take what y'all did in 2017 away from you, nor the bittersweet 2018 CCL run.

But if you want to claim an entire era like those teams did, now's a good time to start winning again.

Update: TFC were up for the task, and while Philly tried to grind, they let Jonathan Osorio slide out of their hands twice in a 2-0 win for Toronto. One road win down, the rest of the slate to go.

Saturday Slate

NYCFC vs. Atlanta United

12:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & Streaming Info

The first time these two teams met this year, a 2-2 draw in Atlanta back on April 15, the game was characterized by a bit of misdirection from Tata Martino. He had Miguel Almiron – usually a No. 10 – actually starting as a second forward in what looked like a 3-5-1-1, and gave him free rein.

Almiron took that free rein and constantly drifted wide to the left touchline, where Leandro Gonzalez Pirez constantly found him by pinging long diagonals over NYCFC's pressure:

That was a useful release valve for a Five Stripes team that's struggled more than once against high pressure schemes.

The worry, from an Atlanta point of view, is that this won't be as effective – it simply won't spread the game as much – on the smaller Yankee Stadium pitch. The Cityzens know how to turn it into a game of second balls and quick, short passes into the channels when they're at home, and nobody in recent years has figured out how to slow them down.

That said, they're not the same team lately. Part of that is simply down to the brutal schedule, and part of it is down to the fact that Yangel Herrera first wasn't the same as he'd been last year, and now isn't going to be available until next year. Patrick Vieira, for as long as he's managing this team, has other options there, but none is as destructive as the Venezuelan international.

Which means maybe Atlanta won't really have to worry about playing over the top. With Herrera gone there's a much better chance you can play through NYCFC at least a little bit.

Columbus Crew SC vs. New York Red Bulls

5 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & Streaming Info

My colleague Bobby Warshaw and I wrote about 1500 words on the Gregg Berhalter vs. Jesse Marsch tactical match-up that's baked into this game. The Red Bulls will press high and Crew SC will do their damnedest to build through it – unless they decide to do what they did against New England three weeks ago and play long-balls over it.

They will have to stop RBNY's Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kaku, of course:

EDIT: Somehow I missed that Kaku is gone this weekend. That's obviously a benefit for Columbus (who'll be without a few internationals as well).

Still, the Red Bulls tend to play the same way regardless of their personnel. We shall see.

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Orlando City

7 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & Streaming Info

The 'Caps have scored multiple goals in each of their last five games. The fact that they've won just one of those should tell you all you need to know about their defense, but still: They're putting the ball in the net.

A few things have coalesced for this team, which is still playing very direct, and very much on the counter, but are hitting fewer crosses and long balls.

First is that: They're hitting fewer crosses and long balls. Second is that Yordy Reyna is back and healthy, and has 2g/3a in his last four games. Third is that Cristian Techera is in his best run of form since coming to MLS, with five goals in his last four games and six in his last five. To contextualize, Techera has six goals in 640 minutes this year. Entering 2018 his career high was seven goals in a shade under 1600 minutes.

Is it sustainable? Probably not at this level, but those two guys have been great. So too has been Alphonso Davies, who hasn't made the leap but has made a leap. Davies is probably the most fearsome open-field player in MLS right now, and every weekend creates at least one highlight in which he sends a helpless, stranded defender to the afterlife. And while the boxscore payoff for that hasn't been overly dramatic, he's got 1g/4a in 1100 minutes, and according to our friends at AmericanSoccerAnalysis he's about 50 percent more likely to be involved in a build-up that leads to a quality chance on goal than he was last year.

Orlando City have been better defensively lately despite their four-game losing streak, but there's reason for concern here. If the Purple Lions bring their backline up in an all-out effort to bag a goal, there will be space in behind for Vancouver's fast and direct trio. And if they're able to find that space, the ball will end up in the net.

FC Dallas vs. Montreal Impact

8 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & Streaming Info

Dallas have found success lately by flaring Mauro Diaz out to the left wing, then having him pinch inside and thus allowing left back Ryan Hollingshead to overlap. It is a hyper-aggressive approach since Diaz doesn't defend much (more than he used to, but still) and because if you turn the ball over with your left back 100 yards from goal, you're probably going to get hurt.

Are the Impact equipped to deliver any sort of pain, though? The answer is "Probably not." They've scored just once in their last five games – let's take a look and enjoy it, since Montreal goals are so rare:

Nice finish! And a good driving run from Raheem Edwards, who will likely be the guy in a position to capitalize should Hollingshead push too aggressively, to start the play!

But that's all so far from the norm for Montreal under Remi Garde. Anything but a convincing win by FC Dallas here would be a genuine shock.

Chicago Fire vs. New England Revolution

8:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & Streaming Info

Analyzing the Fire is a weird process because they're a different team (just about, anyway) every single week. Sometimes they play a 4-3-3 way on the front foot, and other times it's a 5-3-2 with man marking all over the field. Often they'll attack through the flanks, and other times it'll be up the gut. When they start Nemanja Nikolic he drifts off the back shoulder, and they play him into space. When they start Alan Gordon he bodies up and they play through him – or at least to him – a little more.

Which Fire will we get in this one? My guess is it'll be a sort of hybrid, in which they play direct to Gordon over the top of the New England pressure, but don't bother with man-marking because... I mean, who do you man mark on the Revs? There's no one guy you have to shut down because the whole point of the Revs system is that the press is the best playmaker. They turn you over in bad spots and put the ball in the net.

Houston Dynamo vs. Colorado Rapids

9 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & Streaming Info

Houston, who were playing good soccer, were miserable last week with a pair of one-goal losses at RSL and then at Montreal. They then followed that up with what I imagine was a cathartic 5-0 U.S. Open Cup win over NTX Rayados, a game in which they played almost exclusively their back-ups.

It'll be back to the starters now, and here's your facts: Houston have designs on a playoff spot, and Colorado have lost eight straight games in all competitions. They played their starters on Wednesday night in Tennessee and lost 2-0 to Nashville SC, who held them to just three shots – none on goal.

Colorado played a 5-4-1 instead of their usual 3-5-2 on Wednesday with, I think, the idea that they'd add some protection to their center backs (who routinely become turnstiles in 1v1 situations). It kind of worked and it's probably advisable to try the same against Alberth Elis & Co.

Seattle Sounders vs. D.C. United

10 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & Streaming Info

D.C. United, who are now very much playing out of a 4-1-4-1 every weekend, and who with Paul Arriola as one of the central midfielder in the middle of that "4" line are super-energetic in spots where teams tend to be a little bit more tactical, should be a pressing team. When they do it, it's often effective:

They've been doing it more over the past month, and they've been playing better (sometimes even good) soccer because of it.

As Arriola's grown more comfortable in his central role, and 18-year-old defensive midfielder Chris Durkin has grown more accustomed to the speed of play – with the ball he's already there, though without it he can be caught a step behind – D.C. have come closer to embracing this as their identity. They really, really should look like the Revs do, and it seems like Ben Olsen & Co. have come around on that idea somewhat.

I'm not sure what the Sounders should or will look like. They've risen from the dead before but this team is older, more injured, less cohesive and with a more fractured locker room.

The rebuild will start next month, and will be both broad and deep this coming winter.

LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake

10:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & Streaming Info

Give me a little misdirection, Galaxy:

LA have done a good job of beating the teams they should beat and, all due respect to RSL for their recent form, but this is a team that the Galaxy should beat at home. And the way they should do so is above.

RSL, though they've been better the past few games, have nonetheless struggled to coordinate their central midfield with their central defense, and any sort of misdirection can/will flummox them. LA need to have Zlatan Ibrahimovic drop off that front line, collect the ball in the pocket and play their wingers through. And Sebastian Lletget needs to make hard, direct, early runs out of central midfield when Ibrahimovic drops.

On the other side of the ball look for Danny Acosta to get forward. Whoever Sigi Schmid plays at right back tends to stay too tight to the central defenders, which gives up a ton of space to the attacking left wing/left back combo. Acosta and Bofo Saucedo have done very, very good work there in recent weeks:

Portland Timbers vs. Sporting KC

10:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & Streaming Info

Portland's Christmas Tree formation has played a significant role in rescuing a season that got off to a painfully slow start. There are three keys to it:

  1. The deep-central midfield (the "3" line in the 4-3-2-1) is hyper-mobile, which means they cover a ton of ground defensively, but at the same time have the legs to get forward in attack
  2. Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco are in sync (on the "2" line), especially in transition. When one drops centrally to receive the ball, the other extends vertically (and neither goes wide with any regularity)
  3. Both fullbacks, but especially right back Alvas Powell, gets waaaaaay forward in possession, which provides useful if not often decisive width (which brings us back to Point 1 above – the hyper-mobile 3 line can easily cover for an overlapping FB)

I fully expect Portland to get at least one goal in this one based upon Valeri and Blanco finding blind spots behind Ilie Sanchez in transition.

I also expect Sporting to overload their own right side – Portland's left – by pushing Graham Zusi way upfield and using him as a possession hub. The idea will be to pull the Timbers towards him and leave Daniel Salloi isolated against Powell on the back post.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. LAFC

10:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & Streaming Info

Wednesday night for San Jose was something completely different, which in its way meant more of the same:

I've not seen any discernible advancement with this team in terms of finding any sort of identity, or making any sort progress overall. Danny Hoesen is playing well – 7g/2a in 1130 minutes is nice – but that's not been enough to keep this team's head above water, and I don't know what formation or personnel we'll see on Saturday night.

I'm not sure for LAFC, either. Bob Bradley's been doing the rest of the Western Conference a solid by not playing a center forward for the past month, a decision that I think had 1) cost this team points, and 2) come to an end over the past week after Adama Diomande's good second-half performance at FC Dallas. But Diomande was subbed off at the half in LAFC's Open Cup win after a scary-looking collision, so back to the 4-6-0 it is, I guess?

One more thing to ponder...

Happy weekending, everybody.

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