Armchair Analyst: SKC's depth charge, NY debuts & more from Week 19

Week 19's in the books and we're aimed directly at the playoff race. Teams that are above the playoff line at this point in the season tend to make the playoffs at about a 90 percent rate.

Good Times Bad Times

Are Sporting KC fans panicking a little bit? They’ve now taken just one of the last nine points on offer and have won just twice in the past two months, and there’s a ripple of fear about the summer swoon having actually come during the spring this year. They were 7-2-2 on May 9 following a 2-0 win at Atlanta United. They’re 2-2-4 since then.

The proximate cause has been injuries, plain and simple. Felipe Gutierrez was a key to that hot start, then he got hurt and hasn’t come back (and his replacements have offered nothing in attack). Matt Besler has been hobbled, as has Seth Sinovic. Khiry Shelton won the starting center forward job – even though he couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net – by making everybody around him better, then lost it because he got hurt. And Jimmy Medranda got hurt, and Cristian Lobato got hurt, and suddenly this team was sapped of any sort of depth or flexibility. Add in red cards to Daniel Salloi and Roger Espinoza in Wednesday’s 4-2 loss at RSL and Saturday should’ve been an L.

It wasn’t, though. They got a 2-2 draw against visiting Toronto FC and I will grant that Sporting were fortunate enough, in terms of match-ups, to be playing one of the few teams more injured than they themselves are. Nonetheless, I suspect that Sporting will mostly avoid their annual summer tailspin because Peter Vermes has taken more of a plunge in terms of both building and playing depth in 2018.

A reading from the book of Jaylin Lindsey:

The 18-year-old Homegrown, who can and has played both left and right back, and both left and right wingback, has soaked up valuable minutes both in league and U.S. Open Cup play of late. So has fellow Homegrown Wan Kuzain, who's been steady and mistake-free in central midfield. Emiliano Amor is getting time at center back, and Kharlton Belmar – excellent in USL with Swope Park Rangers – has finally earned his way into MLS minutes.

Ideally these guys wouldn't all be on the field together, all at the same time, all trying to keep the ship afloat. Ideally Kuzain could be out there giving Espinoza a breather while the rest of the team around him is made up of regulars, or Lindsey could be giving Graham Zusi his first day off since like 2004. The best way to get young or new players integrated and used to playing with the first team is to surround them with guys who are first teamers.

Vermes hasn't really had the luxury of doing that. But in throwing so many of these guys into the deep end recently, he's gotten the measure of more than a few of them (especially, it has to be said, in the Open Cup win over FC Dallas and the scoreless draw at Portland). Long-term, that is a good thing.

Obviously, as their record shows over the last 10, it hasn't been pretty. But it's been effective enough to keep SKC in the hunt, and for the first time I can remember, Sporting's depth pieces are credible enough to warrant playing time even when the starters are back. That, in turn, should keep guys like Espinoza, Zusi, Besler et al fresh enough to avoid another autumn collapse.

Three things, though:

  1. Vermes has to buy into this and not run his veterans into the ground.
  2. Ike Opara came off hurt on Saturday. I think he's the one guy on that team who's actually irreplaceable.
  3. There's a chance none of this matters too much unless they actually do find a goalscoring No. 9.

The window opens this week, by the way.

Battle of Evermore

My colleague Charlie Boehm on games at Yankee Stadium: "You can see how it dominates the players' mentality. Even if they have time, they don't think they do – so clearances instead of passes out, etc."

That has obviously, over the years, played into the hands of the New York Red Bulls, who've largely dominated the Hudson River Derby.

That dominance did not continue in the first meeting of the new era, as Domé Torrent and Chris Armas squared off for the first time. The reason why is pretty straightforward:

  • Pragmatic Domé, in Sunday's 1-0 win over RBNY: 24.2 percent of NYCFC's attempted passes were long balls
  • Dogmatic Patrick, in May's 4-0 loss to RBNY: 14.6 percent of NYCFC's attempted passers were long balls

When you meet a team that presses as high and hard and relentlessly as the Red Bulls do, you're pretty well got to take the opportunities they give you to try to play over the top, and you've definitely got to be smart about when and where you attempt to build through them. If you want to see this on a bigger stage, it's "Pep vs. Klopp in the Champions League," but in our league this derby has been the best possible example, again and again and again.

So Domé changed the conversation. Good on him.

On the other side it was not a great debut from Armas, who seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the machine that Jesse Marsch created.

1. The Red Bulls are arrhythmic – rhythm is death to them. They don't want games to be about passing the ball well, they want games to be a discrete series of duels and immediate transitions that leave you gasping for breath.

2. As soon as any game settled into a rhythm over the last few years (but especially this year), Marsch always made a sub to change – or outright break – the rhythm. Sometimes these subs were attacking, sometimes they were defensive, sometimes they were used to change the shape of the team. But what they were mostly about was breaking any sort of rhythm.

3. You could feel this game settling into a rhythm around the 70-minute mark. This doesn't mean that NYCFC were suddenly playing prettier soccer or stringing passes together like Man City. It just means that they were clearly growing comfortable with the type of game it was and had been, and were happily settling into it.

4. Once that became clear, Armas needed to make any sub. But instead he waited, the rhythm of the game lulled RBNY into a sense of security, and BAM!!!, 1-0 to the Pigeons. And thus when Armas did finally make a sub, it was a reactive one. The Red Bulls, of course, are not great at playing reactive soccer.

Nobody in Harrison should freak out about Armas, of course. The dude was managing his first career game, on the road, against one of the best teams in the league, in a nationally-televised derby. He wasn't going to get every decision correct.

And so his first lesson was a hard one. What really matters, on the longer timeline, is if he's able to learn from it and apply the lesson it in the future.

A few more things to ponder...

10. Montreal continued their cull of the weak, handling a bunkered-in Colorado team with more ease than the scoreline indicated in a 2-1 win for the Impact. It’s their fifth in their last six games, has edged them up above the playoff line for the first time since March, and there’s not much to say beyond “Job well done” given the schedule they’ve just played.

Which is to say: They’re where Orlando City were after that six-game winning streak. You can only beat the teams in front of you, and they’ve done that. Now the Impact, with their newly compact midfield and more resolute (though still vulnerable on set pieces) defense, play at NYCFC, at Portland and vs. Atlanta in three of their next four.

We’ll see how they look on the other side of that stretch.

Colorado, of course, look like a team that knows it can’t attack without exposing themselves to a fatal degree defensively. So they bunkered into a 5-4-1 and prayed, but if you get outshot 21-2, you’re not going to win many points.

9. All the highlights you need from New England’s 0-0 draw against the visiting Sounders:

The Revs have two more games in which they need to take points (home to LA, at Minnesota) before a brutal three-and-a-half month closing schedule. The Sounders have 15 goals, and an outside chance of catching Josef Martinez in the Golden Boot race.

8. Following Saturday’s pretty comprehensive 3-0 destruction of Minnesota United, Houston are seventh in the West on points, sixth on points per game and third in goal differential. Since May 5 they’re 5-3-2 with their only losses being at RSL, at Montreal and at Sporting. Not bad.

They’re starting to get a little bit healthier as well, and on Saturday it was big center back Philippe Senderos – who’s now gone 90 in three straight games – who was the star, banging home two goals on set pieces (which the Loons still can not defend).

There was nothing flashy about the win, which is fine. What’s really important for the Dynamo is that, for the first time in a long while, there was nothing sloppy about the win, either.

7. There wasn’t much slop from Real Salt Lake, either, in their really surprisingly comfortable 2-0 win over visiting FC Dallas on Saturday night, which came on the heels of that impressive-as-hell 4-2 win over Sporting on July 4. They controlled the midfield, and the kids up top – Jefferson Savarino, Albert Rusnak, Bofo Saucedo and Corey Baird – just constantly disrupted any attempts by Los Toros Tejanos to build from the back.

It’s finally starting to look like the second half of last year a little bit, as RSL have gone 6-3-1 in their last 10, and have done it with energy and mobility.

At least, they’ve done it like that at home, where they’re 8-1-1. On the road they’re 1-7-1, and they probably need to start picking up a few points here and there if they’re going to hold off the likes of the Dynamo and the LA Galaxy.

Dallas, for their part, looked spent. And that makes sense given they’d played 90 minutes in Minnesota, then 90 hard, hot minutes at home against Atlanta, and then 90 more at altitude in Sandy all while adjusting to Life After Mauro.

So I’m giving them a mulligan for this one, but I’m also keeping an eye on their body language and what I thought were some selfish shot/pass decisions reminiscent of last year. Not to mention I’m really not sure how they plan to create consistent danger without Diaz.

6. Oh Philly, Philly Philly Philly. They played so damn well for so long against such a great Atlanta United team, and when they had the chance to rip open the door...

I'm giving Alejandro Bedoya the Pass of the Week for that – the Sombrero + Pullback Cross combo, thankyouverymuch. Unfortunately for the Union, I can not give them three points for that because they just refuse to finish chances when they get them.

Atlanta, of course, have no such compunctions in front of net. They played nothing close to their best game, but Josef got his 18th from the spot, then they concocted another for Tito Villalba, they won 2-0 and they're on 40 points from 20 games.

You can't let the Five Stripes hang around. If you do, you lose.

5. The Whitecaps had to hold on for dear life and should be thanking their lucky stars that Nemanja Nikolic, of all people, figured out a way to miss from eight yards out deep into stoppage time of what was, eventually, a 3-2 Vancouver win at BC Place.

This was a pure Vancouver performance: They got out and ran at every opportunity, and Chicago just could not keep up.

It was also a necessary win, as four of the ‘Caps’ next five are on the road. That used to be a good thing for them, but with this year’s leaky defense it’s been very not good so far.

I’m honestly surprised Chicago went with what’s basically their first XI given they have a much more important game against Philly coming up on Wednesday.

4. The Galaxy absolutely drubbed Columbus by 4-0 on Saturday night, and they’re now 4-1-3 in their last eight games. They played a lopsided 4-2-3-1 in this one with their usual personnel-induced issues, especially on the backline.

But yeah, the midfield looked really functional against what I still think is a very good Columbus side. Jonathan Dos Santos was reliable and occasionally difference-making on the night as a No. 8, and Gio Dos Santos was excellent and influential in the hole as a No. 10.

These guys, after thousands of minutes of tepid play in MLS, are still big “ifs.” But they just destroyed what had been the league’s best defensive team entering the night, and I feel like folks should notice that.

3. Orlando City also got absolutely drubbed, 4-1 at the beautiful machine that is LAFC. It was James O'Connor's debut, and though the scoreline was ugly... I actually thought it was a good 75 minutes. So did Calen:

LAFC on the road are too tough a test to get a real read on what the Purple Lions are or could be under O'Connor. The Black-and-Gold are on course for nearly 80 goals, and over 60 points, which means they're a Supporters' Shield-caliber attacking juggernaut, and they've been putting teams into the blender. 

2. Two teams had 11-match unbeaten streaks last year: Chicago and Toronto FC. So Portland, who hit 11 after Saturday's 2-1 home defeat of San Jose, are keeping pretty good company. 

The Timbers have gone 8-0-3 during this stretch, and now seven of those wins are by a single goal. They are, at this point, so so so reminiscent of the 2016 Rapids – who, incidentally, had a 15-game unbeaten run that had seven wins by a single goal.

Portland fans will surely get mad at me about this comparison in the comments section, but again: There is nothing wrong with being a team that sits deep, absorbs pressure and counters to kill.

If you're in Oregon and you're still torqued off about this, here ya go: CLICKY

That's Michael Cox on how Atletico Madrid do the same thing. If it's a winning strategy, it's a good strategy.

1. And finally, I'm going back to Wednesday night for our Face of the Week, courtesy of the legendary Ben Olsen:

As Steven later pointed out, D.C.'s remaining schedule is favorable. If they can pick up 2 ppg from their 15 remaining home games, they will – at the very least – get themselves in the hunt and make a few people nervous along the way.

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