Happy Canada Day, and Happy 4th of July, and Happy Let's Take a Break from Arguing About Messi vs. Ronaldo Weekend.
Let's take a look at MLS Week 18:
Bring the Noise
They have now won three straight, and are tied for second in the West in PPG, and are outright second in the West in goal differential, and are third in the West on total points, and it's still at least a little bit tough to pin down what, exactly, makes them so good beside "boy they sure do put a lot of skill players out there."
But I gave it a shot:
My colleague Bobby Warshw was also generous enough to provide his own take:
Keep the ball moving simple – be brave to give and get the ball in tough spots – because in doing so, at some point a player will get the ball in a good pocket or area. When we get that moment with a player in space, we need to take advantage; we can’t settle. The runs off the ball have to change from checking as a passing option to moving to become a threat, either directly on goal or to a more dangerous zone.
So it's really a principle rather than a system, and what's been telling so far is how applicable the principle has been with given personnel. To that point: When LAFC play with a true center forward (either Marco Ureña or Diomande), they're 8-2-0 with a +10 goal differential. When they play without one of those two guys, and thus by default with a false 9, they're 1-2-3 with an even goal differential.
Does that mean what they're doing can't work without a center forward? No, not really. But build-up play is always more complicated without a true center forward, and the margins in MLS are always paper thin given the parity in the league.
As for what the center forwards do that makes build-up play easier, to me it's as simple as occupying defenders instead of occupying space. Guys like Ureña bring the defense with them, which means said defense can't get busy ballhawking in lanes or hunting the pockets to slow down the likes of Carlos Vela, Benny Feilhaber, Diego Rossi, Lee Nguyen et al. With either of those No. 9s on the field, nobody's been able to figure out how to stop LAFC, and more to the point the series of principles turned both guys into juggernauts.
Ureña was a Giovinco- or Almiron-level chance creator before he got hurt. As said above, Diomande is averaging better than two goals per 90 minutes. And as said above, the team keeps winning.
Of course, there's only room for one of them out there, which presents Bob Bradley with a dilemma. We talked about that a bit:
All due respect to Ureña, but Diomande's scored 32 goals in 32 games under Bradley. When you produce like that the decision makes itself.
Shut 'Em Down
Here's the thing: the first of their four wins was against the Dynamo's reserves. The second and third were against an Orlando City team that's very clearly cratering in an even more spectacular fashion than last season (and yeah, I'm pretty surprised by that – they have more, better and more balanced talent than last year). And so when it came to really assessing the Impact, my stance was "well, let's wait til you beat somebody for real."
On Saturday they beat somebody for real, taking down Sporting KC 2-0 at Stade Saputo. The eye-test strong defensive performance matches the underlying numbers, which have seen Montreal perform better on the defensive end over the past seven weeks. Since May 21 they've allowed 1.03 expected goals per game, and just five goals. In the 10 games before that they shipped 27 goals on an xG against of 2.47.
Here's what this weekend's win looked like:
If you stop allowing goals you start winning games. Or at least you give yourself a chance to win games, and the Ignacio Piatti-led attack is starting to oblige themselves.
So how have they stopped their opponents, exactly? On Saturday it was a compact, relatively low-block 4-3-3 that never allowed any penetration through the middle – they've gotten very good at preventing third-line passes. In part that's because their central midfield no longer takes any risks pushing forward. Piatti & Co. are largely tasked with creating everything themselves.
The other change is simply personnel. Rod Fanni and Rudy Camacho are healthy now, and so the Impact are better in central defense than they were. This is especially manifest on restarts, as Montreal aren't getting dunked on every single week anymore.
Is it enough for me to start believing this team's destined for the playoffs? Nah, not really. There's just not enough depth pretty much anywhere, and not much dynamism aside from Piatti.
They're capable of getting some results, though, and they're definitely out there to ruin somebody's day. Nobody's gonna be afraid of the Impact or anything, but at this point nobody should look at them and think "well, those are three points on the schedule."
A few more things to ponder...
9. Atlanta took Orlando out behind the woodshed, a 4-0 win in front of 70,000 – the first real blowout in this rivalry that's not yet a rivalry, really, because the Purple Lions haven't held up their end of the bargain. Got to win at least once against a team before you're their rivals.
New head coach James O'Connor's got a great track record in USL (similar to Gio Savarese's in NASL), and I still believe there's plenty of talent on this roster to do the job. And it's important to understand: This is not a team bereft of young talent. Chris Mueller is 21. Cam Lindley is 20. Josue Colman is 19. And of the veteran guys, none is so long in the tooth that they're at the very end of their days.
I'm not sure O'Connor can or will do it this year. But I expect this team, in the coming weeks and months, to start performing much better than they have been.
8. RSL’s bizarre. They avoided the mistake of playing Kyle Beckerman & Damir Kreilach together in central midfield, but Mike Petke… started Kreilach as a false 9? Even Jorge Sampaoli is confused by that one. They lost to Crew SC, 2-1, and were much (much much much) better once an actual forward got out onto the field.
Eduardo Sosa, the 22-year-old Venezuelan No. 10, looked very good in place of Federico Higuain even aside from the goal. The question I’ve got is “Can he play on the wing?” Because a guy who can finish like that would help this team, which has been bereft of goals from that spot.
7. Our Pass of the Week comes from Nicolas Lodeiro in Seattle’s 3-2 loss to Portland, their first MLS regular season home loss to their southern neighbors. You should watch this whole video, or just scroll to 1:56 if you want to hurt my feelings instead:
Seattle’s pretty close to fully cooked. Portland, meanwhile, picked up their sixth one-goal win of the year (out of seven total), and could perhaps make a run at Colorado’s record of 14, set two seasons ago.
The Timbers are unbeaten in 10, and 12 across all competitions. They’re feeling quite a bit like a rich man’s version of that Rapids team that made a serious Supporters’ Shield run.
6. New England got a much-needed 3-2 win over visiting D.C. on Saturday night, a result that keeps them comfortably in 5th place in the East. But here’s a trend to be worried about: Over the last nine games (5 at home), the Revs have conceded 18 goals. Over their previous eight games, they conceded nine.
Teams have figured out how to play through the press and create a few chances, and Matt Turner hasn’t been able to be Superman every single week. It’s a concern.
As for D.C… can Wayne Rooney play defense? Because that’s where they need the help.
5. I think I’m gonna buy Chicago stock. They’re 3-1-3 in the last seven, and unbeaten (2-0-3) in their last five since switching back to the 4-3-3 full-time. Obviously getting Dax McCarty healthy has helped and he gave fans a throw-back moment with his seeing-eye throughball to spring Nemanja Nikolic for the game’s first goal in a 3-2 win over NYCFC (McCarty was, once upon a time, a No. 10).
The big question now: What do they do with Aleksandar Katai? The Serbian winger has been awesome over the past few weeks, and destroyed the NYCFC left side all night (pour one out for the memory of Ben Sweat). The Fire now have to decide whether or not to extend his loan/buy him outright, and while it seems an easy decision… there’s a reason Katai’s bounced from team to team all decade, and why a guy of his considerable skills has never found a permanent home.
They have to be sure that the Katai who’s just been rewarded with a big contract will play the same way as the Katai who’s hungry for a big contract.
4. The midsummer California Clasico at Stanford Stadium pretty much always delivers. Chris Wondolowski and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both got themselves a brace, Romain Alessandrini scored a banger, Vako got on the board, and nobody could defend worth even half a damn in a 3-3 draw.
TFW you've got to go back for seconds:
I didn't know Wondo had this in his soul but I blame Twitter for it. pic.twitter.com/eaKUAMdeIE— Bobby Warshaw (@bwarshaw14) July 1, 2018
That's obviously our Face of the Week even though we can't really see his face.
Toronto FC played well, but they lost again, this time 1-0 to the visiting Red Bulls. They have 18 games left, and my guess is they need to take somewhere from 30-34 points from those in order to make the playoffs.
The Red Bulls weren't great, but Robles was. Sometimes that's enough.
2. Break up the Rapids! They bunkered into a 5-4-1 – center back Danny Wilson was, no joke, a central midfielder – got themselves an own goal, and then rode a magnificent Tim Howard performance to a 1-0 win at Vancouver. It's their second straight win, and they're now three unbeaten.
The new Rapids way seems very much like the old Rapids way, but at least it gives me a chance to use this Howard gif one last time:
Tim Howard's had his best 45 mins of the year, which is fitting as it's come on the 4-year anniversary of this... pic.twitter.com/Df2EQM5zdU— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) July 1, 2018
He finished the day with 10 saves.
The 'Caps are still above the playoff line on total points (23, 6th place) but are below it on PPG (1.28, 8th place). And since a 3-1-1 start to the year they're 3-6-4.
1. Friday was a special end to Pride Month, as Minnesota United midfielder Collin Martin came out to the world as a gay man. It was a shame we didn't get to see him play – he'd started three of the previous six Loons games, and played in six of the past eight.
And look, MNUFC fans could've used something to celebrate on the night. Their 1-0 loss to visiting FC Dallas was their third straight, and they've won just once in their last seven, and are actually behind last year's pace with 16 points through 16 games (they had 17 at this point last year). I don't think anybody expected them to compete for the playoffs this year, but nobody should've expected them to be worse.