The World Cup group stage is over and there are, as we speak, a cadre of MLS players winging back home. None of them will play this weekend, but most will play again soon.
Let's dive into Week 18:
Minnesota United FC vs. FC Dallas
Let's forget the Loons for a second because we know all about them at this point (they'll play a 4-2-3-1, they'll be soft at central midfield, they'll be disorganized at the back and Darwin Quintero can ball). There's just not much left to explore.
There's a bit more to unpack about FC Dallas, who could be on the verge of entering the post-Mauro Diaz era. The Magic Little Unicorn™ is, according to reports from multiple outlets, on his way out, with his landing spot said to be Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai FC in Dubai. It seems credible and it seems very close to final, and that means Dallas are going to have to find a new way to define themselves as an attacking club.
Because since his arrival in 2013, that was Diaz's job (when he was healthy, which was not often enough). He was/is/has been a throwback No. 10, built in the Valderrama mode – find the ball at midfield, avoid a challenge, then release a throughball to put the Dallas wingers into space, or to put a forward through on goal. When he was on the field Dallas pretty much always had the answer to "How do we move the ball into the attacking third and get dangerous?" and, because of that skillset, it was worth adjusting the rest of the team to account for Diaz's individual weaknesses.
To put a point on it: He was literally the best player for the best team in FC Dallas history (the 2016 Supporters' Shield/U.S. Open Cup double winners), and was their best player so far this season as well.
When he's not been on the field the last five years, Dallas have struggled. There were times when "sit deep and counter through Fabian Castillo" worked pretty well and, early last year, "Let Kellyn Acosta spray to the flanks" had its moments. But Castillo's long gone and Acosta's not the guy he was 12 months ago, and there's a reasonable concern that this team could suddenly be short of ideas.
There are, at this point, three possibilities as direct replacements for Diaz on the roster:
Roland Lamah: The Belgian veteran has low-key had a nice season (6g/4a in 1000 minutes), and was part of one of the most interesting tactical wrinkles of the season from Dallas when Oscar Pareja moved him off the flank and into a No. 10 role, while Diaz was shifted wide to the left. It was bizarre and I thought it wouldn't work, but it did – really, really well. Lamah doesn't have the passing vision of a pure playmaker, but if Dallas want to go pure counterattack, using him underneath the center forward would be a very reasonable choice in large part because his movement and speed would disrupt opposing defensive midfielders (they'd have to drop deeper just to track him, which would cause dislocation in their own shape).
Santiago Mosquera: The Colombian, acquired this offseason, hasn't been great (1g/3a in 700 minutes), but has shown flashes of the talent that made Dallas decide to go out and get him in the first place. His movement isn't as sophisticated as Lamah's, but his vision's better and he's a more natural central player. He's also arguably more of a modern No. 10 than Diaz, in that he absolutely will push up into the 18 and get his fair share of looks. At the same time he's nowhere near the same kind of through-ball artist – who is, really?
Mosquera has been rehabbing, but he did travel this weekend. And long-term, he's probably the best bet to take this spot.
Paxton Pomykal: The 18-year-old has been dominant in his age group, but has had too many injuries and too few minutes to become an effective pro as of yet. If he'd been getting minutes for a USL team the past two years, perhaps he'd be more ready to take on a larger role, but FCD have yet to make the investment in their own affiliate (though – good news, everybody – Dallas TD Fernando Clavijo once again confirmed they'd have their own USL club starting next year).
Pomykal might not be a No. 10, anyway. He's often looked more comfortable on the flank, and sometimes as a No. 8. And as a passer he's looked more of a zone-mover rather than a chance creator. Who he really is as a pro is a very open-ended question.
And that's true of FC Dallas as a team at this point. Up until last week they'd lost just twice all season across all competitions. Now they've lost twice in a week, shipping six goals and scoring just twice, and lost their best player. I absolutely understand why they'll sell Diaz – this is a business for one, and for two they learned to their detriment last year that holding on to players for too long can/will have long-term fatal consequences on a their season.
But they've got some problems to solve now. There's hope that the answers can come from within, but nothing in this life's guaranteed.
UPDATE: Lamah started as the No. 10 with Pomykal on the wing as Dallas won 1-0 in MNUFC. Lamah got the winner by heading home Mosquera's corner kick just before the hour mark.
It was a choppy, aesthetically un-pleasing performance, but a win's a win.
Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers
Portland took care of the home/easy part of their schedule, and over the past two games have edged into the more difficult run of games. A scoreless home draw against Sporting was fine; a 1-1 draw at Atlanta United last weekend was better than that. Another result would run their unbeaten streak to 10 games (12 in all competitions), and it's because of their defense.
I can't sum it up better than this:
Gio’s Timbers have shown themselves to be a really effective reactive team. They’ve limited and countered ATL, NYFC, and LAFC — some of the best attacks in MLS this year.— Chris Rifer (@ChrisRifer) June 24, 2018
They haven’t shown they can impose themselves on an opponent and dominate, though. #RCTID
Are the Sounders a team they want to try to impose themselves upon, on the road? I doubt it. Seattle's too inviting a target to counter against given their lack of mobility in central defense and the way they throw their fullbacks way upfield. Expect more of the same from Portland (though with Sebastian Blanco coming off a knock, it's an open question as to whether or not their three-man attack will be as effective as it was through April and May).
Atlanta United vs. Orlando City SC
Atlanta United are going to miss Darlington Nagbe. Our Ben Baer broke down what the US international has brought to the Five Stripes this year, and it's not been insignificant. His ability to hold onto the ball has remained elite, and Tata Martino has turned that into a weapon.
For Orlando City... I don't know. They've played two games under interim head coach Bobby Murphy and both times it's been a back five rather than the back four everybody's gotten used to. I'm not sure how much he could or should change, and to be honest I'm nowhere near convinced that the formation has been the problem. Bottom line is that no matter who's been on the field for the Purple Lions, and where, it's felt, looked and played like a series of individuals rather than a collective.
Notice how Sané slows down. He needs to be sprinting to his spot so he can open his body toward the field. He doesn't & he doesn't and you see what happens. It's so poor technically and, quite frankly, just lazy and lets his team down. pic.twitter.com/KDI8f69TDH— Bobby Warshaw (@bwarshaw14) June 24, 2018
Murphy's not going to be able to fix that on an interim basis. They need a new, permanent head coach within the next week.
EDIT: As I wrote that, Paul Tenorio reported that they're closing in on Louisville City's head coach James O'Connor as the new boss. I haven't watched a ton of Lou City this year, but the smart USL-watchers I speak with always name O'Connor first when I ask for their list of the best USL coaches, and as Portland's Gio Savarese has proved this season, if you're good at your job you can make the jump from the lower divisions into MLS pretty seamlessly.
Montreal Impact vs. Sporting KC
The Impact have won three of four, and credit to them for that. But as with Orlando City's good run a few months back, it's important to pay attention to who they're actually beating. In Montreal's case it was the Dynamo reserves at the start of the month, and then a pair of wins over the death-spiraling Lions.
So enjoy the wins, but don't get too far ahead of yourselves, my Quebecois friends.
Meanwhile, Daniel Salloi is developing into a star:
If the season ended today, Daniel Salloi would have the highest G+A per 90 among 21-yr old forwards of the past 11 seasons. Here he is next to the other 3 who finished above .7 over a whole season pic.twitter.com/DLkiJE9Ejd— Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus) June 28, 2018
Since Week 2 Sporting are 11-1-5 across all competitions with a +20 goal differential. If the Impact win this won, then we'll start to talk.
Columbus Crew SC vs. Real Salt Lake
That's the rough sketch of the Columbus Crew SC system, which has propelled them up to fourth in the Eastern Conference. It's been running smooth as ever from the back, but so far it's been breaking down in the attacking third because their finishing has just not been good enough. Other than Gyasi Zardes, nobody on this team has more than a single open play goal.
As per Opt,a Columbus have generated 30.67 expected goals, and that's translated to just 22 goals total. That means they're underperforming by 8.67 goals, and only Seattle are in the neighborhood (11 goals on 17.05 expected) in terms of front-of-net profligacy. Nobody else in the league has underperformed by even half as much as Columbus.
Fortunately for Zardes et al, RSL's 33.49 expected goals against is worst in the league, and that they've allowed 30 goals off of that, and that they have been particularly bad on the road (1-6-1, -15 GD).
Crew SC are winless in five, and are actually just 4-5-5 in their last 14 games. This will be their 11th home game of the season, and while I still like the way they're playing and their defense has been rock solid... this is a must-win game for them, especially with five of the next seven on the road. They have to get three points.
New England Revolution vs. D.C. United
The Revs are a lot like Columbus: They got off to a hot start in March and have been sort of scuffling along ever since. They're 3-3-5 in their last 11 – 3-4-5 in all competitions – and the press that caused so much discomfort for so many at the start of the season has suddenly been at least a little bit gappy.
D.C. have the ability to do that, though they haven't shown it much because they haven't been able to comfortably push either fullback up the pitch (both sides of have been an issue, to put it mildly).
This is the start of a three-game homestand for New England, before they play five of six on the road. For D.C. we're entering the very end of their unbalanced schedule, as this is the second-to-last road game before they open Audi Field in the middle of July.
United have some pretty big tactical fish to fry coming up, by the way.
Chicago Fire vs. New York City FC
Since Dax McCarty and Luis Solignac got healthy a month back, Veljko Paunovic has mostly dropped the game-by-game adjustment cha-cha and have consistently played in a 4-3-3. Brandt Bronico has won a job beside McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger in central midfield, playing as a ground-eating, ball-moving No. 8 who does a bunch of unselfish running. Schweinsteiger's been more of a pure playmaker than at any point in his recent career.
Solignac (No. 9) has a different job than his opposite-side winger, Aleksandar Katai (No. 10). Katai stays high and is a pure attacker, while Chicago use Solignac's non-stop engine to run endline-to-endline, drop into the middle to help defensively, and generally raise hell. His work allows the central midfield trio to stay compact.
The Fire have one win and three draws since making the switch, and have generally carried play against their opponents. NYCFC, even without the injured David Villa, is a very worthwhile measuring stick.
LAFC vs. Philadelphia Union
I wrote a ton about the Union after last weekend's impressive showing, and with Haris Medunjanin suspended, all of that stands. I'm planning to write a ton about LAFC this weekend, so let's not dive in too deep here.
I'll just leave it at this: Earlier in the year LAFC were getting goals based upon their ability to create space and chances via flowing, back-to-front moves in transition. That's what happens when you have Carlos Vela and Marco Ureña on hand.
Without those guys, and with the additions of Lee Nguyen and Adama Diomande, they've become much more of a "quick combinations in the final third" type of team. So in part they've flipped their identity from "center forward creates space for the attacking midfielder and wingers against a stretched defense" to "attacking midfielder and wingers create chances for the center forward against a back-foot defense."
San Jose Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy
Mikael Stahre has continued to tinker as he's tried to figure out a workable formula for his Quakes. In recent weeks he's stayed with some version of a 4-4-2, though at times it's been closer to a 4-4-2 diamond and at other times it's been a 4-1-3-2 and at other times it's been an almost perfectly flat midfield four.
Always with the two up front, though, because Danny Hoesen is quietly having an All-Star caliber season, and while Chris Wondolowski isn't (4g/3a in 1133 minutes), it's not like anybody on the roster is making a compelling case to take his playing time away.
Amazingly, this is just LA's fifth game against a team below the playoff line this season. So far they're 3-1-0, which includes a 1-0 win over these Quakes a month back. And last time out, they dominated an RSL team that had been on a good run of form entering the game.
This was my favorite sequence of play from the Galaxy in that one:
LA's midfielders have slowly figured out how to make dangerous, complementary runs off of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's hold-up play, and there's been genuine chemistry at times both on and off the ball. They're 3-1-1 in their last five.
Toronto FC vs. New York Red Bulls
This one's simple: RBNY are the highest, hardest-pressing team in MLS (and I'd say they're the highest, hardest-pressing team in MLS history). They live off of turnovers, winning 50/50 balls all over the field and wearing teams out until they make a fatal mistake.
Toronto FC have been the sloppiest team in the league playing out of their own end, and have been one of the league's worst defensive teams over the final 15 minutes of games. They looked and played exhausted in the second half last weekend against NYCFC, and if you do that against the Red Bulls you lose by 50.
Also remember that the last time these two teams met, in last year's playoffs, Jesse Marsch entirely pulled off a bit of trickery by playing a 4-4-2 diamond with Tyler Adams at the point. The object wasn't to have him be the playmaker, but for him to make Michael Bradley's life a living hell and prevent any sort of meaningful distribution from the TFC lynchpin.
It worked. RBNY won the game and should've won the series. Only some poor finishing kept them from advancing.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs. Colorado Rapids
The Rapids got their first win since April 14 last weekend, dominating 10-man MNUFC in the closing stages before Tommy Smith's headed winner off a corner kick in stoppage time. It was a cathartic moment for a team that has not been good thus far in 2018.
"Cathartic" does not mean "corrective," though. The issues that have plagued Colorado all season were still on display against the injured and short-handed Loons, and the one that's been most decisive has been their inability to defend in space:
Darwin Quintero 1v1 against just about anyone is a mismatch. Quintero 1v1 against a retreating center back?
I don't know why the Rapids aren't more compact, and why their big CBs are asked, week after week, to make plays in the open field. These are plays they can't make.
And so enter the Whitecaps, a team that can and will eviscerate you if you let them get into the open field. Last time these two teams met, at the start of the month... yup. And yup. And yup. And honestly it just keeps going.
The 'Caps need to be patient and sharper than they were last weekend against Philly. As long as that happens, they'll find chances.
One More Thing to Ponder
Happy weekending, everybody.