Armchair Analyst: Your complete guide to the Week 20 MLS slate

A quick rundown of midweek:

  • NYCFC dominated Montreal 3-0, but did so with an unusual tactical approach – one I don't think I've seen before (we'll get into it in a minute). Dome Torrent has been impressive.
  • Chicago and Philly played a wild one, with the Union eventually prevailing 4-3 in second half stoppage thanks to David Accam's first goal of the year. The Union will be extraordinarily grateful for the weekend off ahead of next Wednesday's US Open Cup quarterfinal, as they looked like a team that could use a break.

They'll be the only ones getting a break this weekend, as there's a full schedule of 11 games on tap. Let's dive in:

Saturday Slate

New York Red Bulls vs. Sporting KC

7 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

On paper, this is a fairly even matchup between two of the best teams in the league. Slightly closer look, and...

Home/road splits matter quite a bit, and especially so if Ike Opara – who's limped out of last weekend's Sporting game with a hamstring strain – can't go. And especially especially so if Peter Vermes decides to go with a very experimental XI, which is, IMO, pretty likely given that 1) Sporting have their own USOC quarterfinal on Wednesday, and 2) over the past five years nobody's treated that tournament with more respect than SKC.

To put a fine point on it: I expect Sporting's lineups to be reserve-heavy. And I think RBNY should/will dominate that group.

The question is "How?" We know that, under Jesse Marsch, the idea was to create as many 50/50s as possible, win those and go direct. Chris Armas is putting his stamp on the team by asking them to use the ball more, to possess and pass and be patient when the game warrants.

That has, in the words of Tyler Adams, "already caused some conversations." It will cause more as the season marches on.

New York City FC vs. Columbus Crew SC

7 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

So about our friend Dome: On Wednesday his NYCFC bunch faced a Montreal team that – wisely, in my estimation – decided to skip the soccer and go directly to the bus parking. For the first half it worked a charm, especially since the Cityzens were without either David Villa or Jo Inge Berget (both still likely out this weekend as well), their two true center forwards.

In the first half NYCFC played a 4-2-3-1 with one false 9, which is what most managers would do at that point. In the second half, well, here are his own words:

“The message was that we have to change a little bit, especially when we play with two strikers. Our intention was for our strikers to go back and our wingers up. The intention was to create a space behind the midfielders. After 10 minutes, we were able to create the spaces and we were more comfortable in the field, so we can make 10, 11, 12 passes and that’s very important for us... Two special players for me right now are [Jesus Medina] and [Maxi Moralez]. It’s very difficult for them to lose the ball and their intention for us was to play with Jesus, play all the time with Maxi, and our wingers go inside and play behind them.”

In other words, after the halftime break they switched from a 4-2-3-1 with a flooded central midfield and one false 9 to a 4-2-2-2 with a spread out midfield, wing overloads and two false 9s in Medina and Moralez.

The Impact didn't know what hit them – it's unlikely they knew what they were seeing across the field from them – and a tight scoreless draw turned into a blow-out in which the NYCFC wingers ran wild.

I'm not sure what look we'll see against Crew SC. I'm also not sure what we'll see from Columbus, who've won once in seven, have been shut out three times in four, and could probably stand to toss a different look out there. We've seen Gregg Berhalter go with three at the back before, and this might be a good game to trot that out again.

Montreal Impact vs. San Jose Earthquakes

7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

And so this is the end of a string of mostly pretty easy games for the Impact (save obviously for the midweek excursion to the Bronx), a home game against the worst team in the league. If the Impact have designs on the sixth spot in the East – and why wouldn't they, obviously? – this is a must-win, because the schedule's about to get much harder.

Let's have Quakes M/D Florian Jungwirth explain why this is a must-win for Montreal:

Three points or bust, Impact.

New England Revolution vs. LA Galaxy

7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

I'm struggling to figure out what to say about this one. In part it's because the Revs have not changed much, at all, since the early part of the season, and in part it's because the Galaxy still play a relatively nondescript brand of soccer that pretty much runs through Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Both teams are prone to errors at the back, both hit an unusually high number of long-balls (the Revs actually lead the league in that stat).

The big difference between the teams is that the high-energy Revs are likelier to snatch a goal off a turnover or a mistake, while the Galaxy – decidedly not a high-energy team – are likelier to build one either through Zlatan or, as last week showed, perhaps through a bit of midfield play. They have that club in the bag now that Jona Dos Santos is back from World Cup duty.

But it's still hard and high-risk to play through the midfield against the Revs, so I'd expect LA to try to play over it. But this is a game on turf, and Zlatan didn't start the last time the Galaxy had to play on turf (he played 18 minutes at Portland), and long balls are much less effective if you're punting them in the direction of Ola Kamara than if you're punting them in the direction of Ibrahimovic.

Not sure what we'll see here to be quite honest.

FC Dallas vs. Chicago Fire

8 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Here is the FC Dallas network passing graph, created using Opta data, from last weekend's 2-0 loss at RSL:

Each circle represents the location of the corresponding player's aggregate touch, and the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes exchanged. You can see pretty clearly that the three attackers, Michael Barrios (21), Tesho Akindele (13) and Ema Twumasi (22) were stranded and starved of service from the ultra-defensive central midfield of Kellyn Acosta (23), Victor Ulloa (8) and Carlos Gruezo (7).

This is pretty obviously a problem in the post-Mauro Diaz era for FC Dallas. In the past when Diaz has been out, Oscar Pareja has opted for a bog-standard, counterattacking 4-4-2. The idea has been to defend deep in banks of four and then release their fleet-footed attackers into space.

They still have the personnel to do this, as they showed in the final 10 minutes of last week's 3-2 win over Atlanta United, and as they tried to do in the second half of the loss at RSL. We'll see if Pareja goes in that direction for the full 90 on Saturday.

As for the Fire, here's what Veljko Paunovic said after the midweek home loss to Philly:

"Not happy with the performance of course defensively. No team in the world, if we were in the Spanish league or somewhere else, teams that concede so many goals, they get relegated. No team in the world can support so many goals and it's my responsibility. I have to make decisions."

They, uh, did not play well.

D.C. United vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

8 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

The big news, of course, is the debut – not of Wayne Rooney (my guess is we'll see him for the final 30 minutes or so), but of Audi Field. Stadium openings have become something close to old hat, given the boom over the past decade. But I'm still at a point where nothing gets me quite so hyped as a new home for our sport:

Add in the fact that it's a stadium in the city proper, in a great location... I'm excited for D.C. United and all their fans.

I'm also excited to see how Ben Olsen adjusts his lineup with Rooney as an option. The Patrick Mullins trade seems to tip his hand at least a little bit, in that trading away center forward depth is an indication that, yes, Rooney is likely to be used as the No. 9 his shirt says he is. And that's probably the right idea, given the glut of wingers and attacking midfielders also on the roster.

Vancouver will have to match D.C.'s energy, as you know United will come out hyped. They'll also quite honestly have to defend better than they have been. D.C. aren't an attacking juggernaut, but 23 goals from 14 games is a very good return, especially when 12 of those games were on the road.

Expect United to press the 'Caps high and hard.

Minnesota United vs. Real Salt Lake

8 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

It's starting to feel like 2018 is going to be a reprise of 2017 for RSL: Start slow, make some changes, then find your form, get into a groove and make a push toward the top of the conference. The good news for the Claret-and-Cobalt, who are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games: The season's start wasn't so awful as last year, and the push toward good soccer came earlier. And so they're sitting fourth in the West on points, and fifth in PPG. Last year at this time they were like 92nd.

The bad news: So far it's almost all come at home. They're 8-1-1 in Sandy and 1-7-1 away. If they're going to stay above the playoff line, they will need to pick up the occasional road win.

At a MNUFC team that still struggles to defend, and doesn't move well as a unit, seems as good a time as any to collect some road points. Let's all recall that when RSL are going good, it's largely because they're moving the opposing defense and midfield around a ton:

That clip is old, and that attacking philosophy is older. But it's been as applicable in recent weeks as it was in May, and it'll keep being applicable for as long as soccer's about time and space.

The Loons have struggled to cope with that sort of thing throughout their whole MLS existence to this point. Their best bet is probably a shootout similar to their 4-3 win over TFC last week, though it's tough to ask for another three golazos from Darwin Quintero.

Orlando City SC vs. Toronto FC

8 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

A recap of the first game of the James O'Connor era for Orlando City:

  • They lost 4-1 at LAFC
  • Their first 25 minutes were really good
  • Then Jonathan Spector got hurt
  • Their next 25 minutes were really bad
  • Then they came out of the break
  • Their next 30 minutes were really good, and they could've turned a 2-0 deficit into a 2-2 game
  • But for Video Review
  • Then they fell apart down the final 10 minutes

Nobody should've expected them to take points out of that game, especially after Spector got hurt (he is out for this one), but I was nonetheless encouraged. They seemed to be more difficult to break down than they had been, and their attack was less a series of 1v1s and more a series of good passing moves that started deeper in midfield. They looked like they wanted to absorb and counter, which is absolutely fine for a team that's questionable in defense.

Maybe TFC should take a page from that book? They shipped six goals last week and, while they're still missing literally half their field starters (Jozy Altidore, Victor Vazquez, Auro, Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor)... it's simply been shocking to see this team deteriorate. 

Colorado Rapids vs. Houston Dynamo

9 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

The Rapids rearranged a few deck chairs this week, releasing Joe Mason and reportedly close to signing former MLSer Giles Barnes. That's not likely to move the needle much given Barnes has not consistently produced at any level since the spring of 2015:

He hasn't been officially announced as of yet, so it's unlikely he'll play. And it's tough to figure out how he'd fit, anyway, since as the season's gone on the Rapids have retreated more and more into a defensive shell (their 5-4-1 of recent weeks has featured center backs at wingback and at center mid), and more and more they've ceded any sort of midfield possession or creativity. They are purely a "hit it long and hope" team at this point.

The question in this one, then, is how Houston will handle that exact thing. The Dynamo are getting better at playing on the front foot – they've quietly gone 5-3-2 in their last 10 – and can occasionally produce something memorable out of possession. But they also leave themselves vulnerable when they get all over the ball, and don't have enough speed at the back to play anything close to effective emergency defense.

Sunday Doubleheader

Atlanta United vs. Seattle Sounders

2 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Well, Raul Ruidiaz made the trip, so that should mean a debut and at least a little slice of happiness for Seattle fans. It'll be interesting to see how Brian Schmetzer uses the Peruvian international, who's really much more of a No. 9 than anything else. I sort of suspect we'll see him in a second forward role, playing just underneath Will Bruin

For Atlanta, it's officially been five straight games in which they've started in the 4-2-3-1 – last year's formation, as opposed to the 3-5-2 that they deployed for most of the first half of 2018. This is in part a function of getting Tito Villalba healthy, and lest anyone forget how good the Argentinean (soon to be Paraguayan) attacker was: He has 2g/2a in those five games, having played 264 minutes during that time.

The return to the 4-2-3-1 hasn't, however, meant a return to last year's all-out, frenetic press. The Five Stripes still play on the front foot a lot, but they're drawing a deeper line of confrontation and are much happier to absorb pressure, then use the running lanes created when an over-aggressive opponent sends too many of their own men forward. To wit:

That's filth.

Of note: Atlanta haven't won back-to-back games since the end of April/beginning of May. They've gone 5-3-3 in their last 11, which is very good, but they've yet to get themselves back on the type of run I think everybody is waiting for from them.

LAFC vs. Portland Timbers

6 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Portland are unbeaten in 11 games (8-0-3) in regular season play. Seven of those wins have been by a single goal, and five of them have been at home. Their only road games during the streak were at San Jose, at Colorado, at Atlanta and at Seattle.

Their two best results during this streak were pretty easily the 1-1 draw they got last month at the Five Stripes, and the 2-1 home win over this LAFC team back in mid-May. They have proved, undoubtedly, that they are a very good, very well-structured team who can absorb pressure, who can gameplan defensively, and who can get just enough out of the attack to hang in there against almost anyone. And if you give them the opportunity to hang in there, they tend to find a way to get the result they want.

If they get a result here, at an LAFC team that actually has a forward this time (they did not have one for their meeting in May), then the Timbers probably stop flying under the radar a little bit, and we probably start talking about them as one of the very elite teams in MLS, and probably the team to beat in the West.

LAFC are much better at attacking back-foot defenses than they were two months ago, though. Watch Adama Diomande come off his marker in the box before getting the tap-in:

This is a huge, litmus test game for both clubs. If Orlando City vs. TFC is the biggest game of the weekend in terms of long-term "will they make the playoffs?" implications, this is the big one in terms of "who's actually the favorites?"

One More Thing To Ponder

Enjoy the summer. Happy weekending, everybody.