Armchair Analyst: Union's hard, TFC's soft & more from Week 17

Into the summer we go. Let's roll through Week 17:

Vanishing Point

We've talked about the Philadelphia Union a lot, both in this space and on Matchday Central over the past two years. The grand takeaways have been steady: They're a talented if naive team, filled with skilled players who want to make the right play – not just the next play – and are sometimes hamstrung by the non-linear improvement of some of the youngsters in the roster.

They have also been hampered by some overseas signings that haven't panned out, especially in attack. That's been compounded, this year, by non-productive seasons from a pair of MLS veterans who were supposed to lead the line: C.J. Sapong and David Accam. Sapong has 2g/1a in 1,150 minutes. Accam has yet to score or assist in 826.

They need those guys to figure it out, at least partway, if they're going to be a team that makes major progress in 2018. But even if they don't it seems, in the wake of Saturday's 4-0 thrashing of a 'Caps team that had been unbeaten in six, they're finally in the realm of "more answers than questions" in attack.

Borek Dockal, the DP No. 10 signed in March, had two goals vs. Vancouver, and now has 4g/5a in his last seven games. Not coincidentally, the Union are 4-2-1 in those games. Fafa Picault also had a goal, and now has 2g/1a in his last six. Ilsinho had a goal, and now has 3g/2a in his last six.

They have been playing well for a long time. Now they are starting to finish, and that includes finishing the weekend above the playoff line in sixth place.

On a more micro level: Jim Curtin had to manage this game, tactically speaking, without the services of the suspended Haris Medunjanin. If you think of Philly as "Crew SC-light" in terms of how they get on the ball and spread the field, it's important to understand that Medunjanin fills the Wil Trapp role. He's the one who orchestrates where the game is played and at what tempo, and his left foot is probably the best in the league. They are a different team without him.

And against the 'Caps they were arguably a better team without him because of how veteran Warren Creavalle was able to both shrink central midfield and run down potential counterattacks – nullifying the stuff that Vancouver had done so well over the past month. This was an under-the-radar and understated, but dominant performance:

With Creavalle patrolling the middle, Vancouver's counter vanished. And you can see, from the second clip, that he allowed Philly to push up higher – which made it difficult for the 'Caps center backs to distribute from the spots they wanted to, or at all meaningfully. And in the final clip is a friendly reminder that Creavalle's always been able to connect his fair share of passes and move the game around. He doesn't do it like Medunjanin does, but in this one he didn't need to.

Beyond that… why were Dockal and Picault and Ilsinho able to push so high? In part it's because Creavalle's field coverage gave them more license to get into the box and worry less about the space behind them.

They have different ways to beat you now. They are adaptable and at least a little bit flexible.

I get why folks will be hesitant to buy stock in the Union. We've seen something close to this film before, and I'm not going to waste my breath trying to talk you into them.

But you should, at the very least, notice what got them past the Red Bulls in the U.S. Open Cup, and what's gotten them into the playoff picture, and what had a damn good shot at keeping them there.

Dissonance Theory

The big story for the New York City FC game this weekend was supposed to be the debut of new head coach Domènec Torrent. The Spaniard looks, on paper, to be a great hire, since the first bullet point on his resume will be "assistant coach for literally the greatest soccer team of all-time (Barcelona, 2008-2012)." Obviously there aren't a lot of guys who can say that.

And Torrent clearly has a talent. In his first game he revealed himself to be a demon sorcerer capable of absorbing David Villa's talent and then transferring it to Jo Inge Berget, because how else do you explain the Norwegian (1g in 938 minutes under Patrick Vieira) going off for two in the second half of a 2-1 comeback win over Toronto FC?

So we can add "fell powers" and "control over the dark arts" to Torrent's C.V., but not much beyond that really because oh my God what is wrong with the Reds:

That's how you're going to give up the game-winning goal at a conference foe? That's how you're going to play when it's June and you're six points below the playoff line? That's how you're going to defend your domestic treble?

That's your championship will?

Before we continue, let me paraphrase a colleague who's played in MLS: Let's acknowledge what should be considered a general truth. Namely, these guys want to win. Every athlete wants to win. But for some reason, something deep in their minds, that desire to win is not providing the little edge it did last year.

I'd been giving TFC some mulligans due to injuries, and assumed that when healthy they'd start looking more like the team that made it all the way to the CCL final, and the team that was literally the best in league history last year. They're not close to 100% healthy yet, but look at that clip again... that's not health, that's effort, and it looks like something is broken.

Three possibilities:

  1. The Disease of More. Pat Riley wrote about this 30 years ago, about how hard it is to get guys to keep being unselfish after a first championship. Repeating is hard.
  2. CCL hangover. It's real, and it's often devastating – ask FC Dallas last year, or the Montreal Impact in 2015.
  3. Contract issues. Sebastian Giovinco has admitted he's unsettled. Similar sounds are coming from Jonathan Osorio's camp. That's their best player overall, and their best player on the season. Issues like that – again, look at FC Dallas last year – can be a distraction even if everybody's being a good soldier.

Last year, and earlier this year in the CCL, Toronto did not give up goals like this. They weren't a ferocious pressing team (save for both MLS Cups), but they were very attuned to the moments when the ball turned over, and always understood how to make it hard for teams to build through central midfield.

They have not been that this year. They've been the opposite of that and, for an afternoon at least, turned Berget into a superstar.

Paraphrasing again: the ability to concentrate or focus can shift, sometimes imperceptibly, for all kinds of reasons, and in a league like ours, that shift is the difference.

In this case it's been the difference between a legendary team and one that's going to be done playing by the end of October if they don't figure it out.

A few more things to ponder...

8. Orlando City are maybe the "after" version of a "before/after" picture of TFC? The Purple Lions, this time under interim head coach Bobby Murphy, dropped their seventh straight, this time a 2-0 home loss to the Montreal Impact.

Murphy apologized to the fans after the game, and fair enough: good on him for taking the hit. The players need to do the same, and then they need to sit down together and figure out how to pick it up. There are too many good-to-great passers of the ball – Sacha Kljestan, Uri Rosell, Justin Meram, Chris Mueller, Josue Colman, Jonathan Spector – to continue to settle for a series of 1v1 attempts. This team has the talent to use possession to control where the game's played, but instead they are consistently losing possession and giving up multiple run-outs in the other direction.

7. Seven games isn't the longest losing streak of the year, though. That mark (8) is held by Colorado. The Rapids broke it on June 13 with a 2-2 home draw against Chicago, and then broke their winless skid this past weekend with a dramatic, come-from-behind 3-2 win over visiting, 10-man Minnesota United.

Here is what happy Rapids fans look like:

Obviously that's our Face(s) of the Week, and just as obviously that still's from the seconds after Tommy Smith's 97th-minute (!!!) winner. IT was a nice moment for a team that's not had many this season, even if all the old bugaboos (poor goalkeeping, few attacking ideas, immobile center backs asked to defend in space) conspired to put the Rapids in a hole to begin with, and even if there's no real sign of improvement re: any/all of the above.

The Loons are now 1-5-1 in their last seven across all competitions, and have made zero tangible improvement over last season.

6. Chicago just keep on hanging around. On Saturday night, just four days after outlasting Atlanta in U.S. Open Cup play at Atlanta, they flew across the continent and got a very credible 1-1 draw at a Seattle team that's closing in on full strength. Nicolas Lodeiro was out there, and so was Ozzie Alonso, and Clint Dempsey, and Will Bruin, etc. etc. 

The Fire honestly should've won, but Alan Gordon somehow missed what was pretty close to a sitter late on. Still, despite their home struggles, they're very much in the East playoff race.

I know Sounders fans are used to their team making second-half surges, but this is a worse start than 2017 or 2016. Each of the last two years Seattle had 16 points after 14 games; this year, they have just 12.

5. Houston can't stop coughing up leads. Following Saturday's 3-2 loss at Sporting KC they've now dropped a league-worst 12 points (as pointed out by Steven Streff, D.C. have dropped 13) from winning positions this year:

Cabrera's subs have had the habit of repeatedly inviting the opposing team forward, and it's going to cost the Dynamo a trip to the playoffs if he keeps it up.

4. LAFC, meanwhile, are almost certainly in the process of punching their postseason ticket. They blitzed Crew SC early on, riding a Laurent Ciman free kick golazo and another Adama Diomande goal – this time off some nice combination play by Lee Nguyen and Benny Feilhaber – to a comfortable 2-0 win.

They now have 27 points through 15 games, which is six points better than Atlanta's torrid pace last season. LAFC are doing things.

Columbus did things, too – as always, they were fun and most effective going forward. But once again they weren't able to get any production from their wingers, and once again I'll say that it's asking too much of Gyasi Zardes to carry the entire offensive burden.

To that point: DP winger Pedro Santos now has just 1g/5a in 2,100 MLS minutes. I think the acclimation period is over – I think this is just who he is.

Look for Columbus to be busy during the transfer window.

3. The Red Bulls – who played the final hour down to 10 men – nonetheless dominated FC Dallas for the full 90 in a comprehensive 3-0 win on Saturday in New Jersey. When playing RBNY you have to be ready to win second balls in and around the area, and Kellyn Acosta wasn't:

Acosta got the hook from head coach Oscar Pareja – Pareja said he wanted to add another forward to take advantage of being 11v10 – and was visibly frustrated upon being subbed.

Here's some of the transcript from Pareja's postgame presser:

Q. He walked right off through the tunnel, looked pretty upset. Do you understand that reaction or are you upset?

PAREJA: No, no. I understand. I understand the players. We are all frustrated but I back the players up, especially in a situation like this. You know, in this moment is when they need us the most, especially a leader, and today, what happened in the game, that upset us, but the first analysis has to come from us, especially from me.

But with the players now and the attitude, we can become frustrated and it's normal. Kellyn gives his heart for this team and has grown here, and I know that he has frustration of no, sir being able to help in the moment, but Kellyn is fine.

I bet the competition in practice is going to be brutal for Dallas this week. If it's not, then something actually is probably wrong.

2. I don't understand Mike Petke's decision to go back to the Damir Kreilach/Kyle Beckerman defensive midfield combo that has proved to be so flammable for RSL this year, but that's what he did in Saturday's 1-1 home draw against the visiting Quakes.

Both teams finished poorly and probably could've had a couple more each, but what really stood out in this game was just how often San Jose were able to set up shop in Zone 14 and just go to work trying to create chances. They're a team that's not exactly overwhelming in that facet of the game, but… well, there they were.

Given the way they struggle on the road, RSL can't afford to give up home points if they're going to stay above the playoff line. Especially against teams that are way down at the bottom of the standings.

1. And finally, this whole sequence from Atlanta United is our Pass of the Week:

Despite the above, as well as surrendering 20 total shots Portland was able to keep the door mostly slammed shut, and walked away with a very nice 1-1 draw, that saw both managers play a little bit of tactical chess.

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