Armchair Analyst: Rooney's DC debut, Atlanta lag & more from Week 20

Week 20 is now in the books, and so's the World Cup. Allez les Bleus!

Let's take a look at the weekend that was in MLS:

Give Me the Cure

I want you to read this from my colleague Charlie Boehm. CLICKY!

Charlie's been in D.C. for a million years and put into words, better than I could, what the opening of Audi Field meant for that team and that community. He also put into words just how much work is left to be done both by the club and by said community to bring United back to their once incandescent glory. To crib Charlie's point: Saturday night's 3-1 win over Vancouver wasn't the end of that process, but very much the beginning.

So D.C. have a lot of work to do, but it needs to be noted that they’ve been playing well, and they showed a lot of how/why against the 'Caps. They dominated possession and made it useful possession, then cranked said useful possession up to 11 when Wayne Rooney subbed on:

There was some discussion over where Rooney would play – he hasn’t played as an out-and-out No. 9 for years, and most recently was used as a pure midfielder by Sam Allardyce the second half of this past season. But for this D.C. team, it doesn’t make any sense to use him anywhere but as a center forward.

Why? Because D.C. haven’t had any real problems shuttling the ball from the back to the front. In large part that’s because they’ve got skill all over the field, but also/especially it’s because Chris Durkin has beaten out the competition and is having a quietly excellent year as a defensive midfielder with regista tendencies (and to be clear: he’s, at this point, much better in attack and possession than defense). His ability to do Wil Trapp-style things has made it easier for United to move forward as a unit, which is why they’ve been a good attacking team.

Rooney can potentially make them a great attacking team. No disrespect to Darren Mattocks, but I suspect Rooney will both find and finish chances at a higher level than the Jamaican international. But what really matters are two things: His passing ability (which has always been even more of a calling card than his finishing ability) and his attacking gravity.

When Wayne Rooney’s out there in the attacking third, you have to pay attention to him. You take a step or two or three closer to him, and that creates more room for the other guys on the field, and it turns out that smart attackers like Paul Arriola and Zoltan Stieber and Lucho Acosta and Yamil Asad know what to do with that space.

"We saw what Wayne is – a high quality, elite soccer player," is how United head coach Ben Olsen put it. "He didn’t lose possession, made some key passes, and got on the end of a few balls in the box. This is what he’s going to do for us. There’s been a lot of talk about where Wayne is going to play. In my mind he’s a number nine, but he’s a versatile number nine. He can drop off as a 10 in scenarios and even make plays as a No. 8. It’s nice to have versatility and I think he’s going to be fine wherever he plays."

Mattocks doesn’t bring that. And again: He’s had a fine year, and has proved his smarts in figuring out how to make use of space that others have created, and while he doesn’t have the same kind of attacking gravity that Rooney does, his straight-line speed opens space underneath in its own way. He is an asset.

That won’t go away, and Mattocks has a place in this team. But Rooney has the potential to make this attack legitimately great – as in, second half of 2016-level great – and that means D.C. are very much a threat to climb their way into the East playoff race.

Last Chance for a Slow Dance

Atlanta are a respectable-but-not-great 5-3-4 in their last 12 games, haven’t won back-to-back games since late April/early May, and have taken only eight of the last 18 home points available. Their 1-1 home draw against the Sounders officially knocked the Five Stripes from first to third in the league on PPG. They clearly, clearly clearly have issues against teams that bunker.

Right now the diagnosis is simple: They’re similar to the Red Bulls in that they have just one consistent, open finisher (Josef Martinez). Miguel Almiron hasn’t been that guy, and Hector Villalba has been injured/not as clinical as last year, and Ezequiel Barco is, at this point, a pretty average MLS winger with occasional moments of 1v1 brilliance, but little end product.

The issue, again, is breaking down a defense that 1) is packed in, 2) refuses to let Almiron get into space and be an open-field creator, and 3) isn’t going to try to play through the press. “Bunker and counter” works against high pressing teams, and while Atlanta don’t press nearly so hard as they did last year, they still spend a ton of time on the front foot and still love to generate a ton of their attack by forcing turnovers way up the pitch.

So Seattle, to their credit, decided not to play out of the back. And they marked Almiron especially tight (scroll to the 9 minute mark of this video… or honestly, watch the whole thing):

“Teams are playing differently here,” said Atlanta United d-mid Jeff Larentowicz after the game. “It seems like there’s a formula and it’s up to us to crack it.”

Here's how my colleague Bobby Warshaw put it:

This is another game Atlanta didn't beat a defensive team. Revs, Red Bulls, Portland, Dallas, and now Seattle.

When a team doesn't want the ball and forces Atlanta to use the ball to beat them, Atlanta are now 0-2-3.

The prognosis isn’t as simple as the diagnosis, beyond “trust the system.” The Five Stripes rang the crossbar and forced Stefan Frei into a couple of huge saves, and even with the day’s frustration they were clearly the far superior team, both when it was 11v11 and 11v10 (xG had it at 2.3 for Atlanta to 1.05 for Seattle, a number that includes Nicolas Lodeiro’s penalty).

Which is all a long way of saying that I still think the Five Stripes are probably the best team in MLS, and are at worst the fourth-best. They are still very much a threat to do the Supporters’ Shield/MLS Cup double, and if Almiron or Barco or Villalba improve by just a touch in front of net, they go from a threat to do the double to outright favorites.

But yeah… Larentowicz is right: There’s a formula against Atlanta now, and it’s up to Tata Martino & Co. to come up with a solution.

A few more things to ponder...

9. Red Bulls needed a heroic performance from Marc Rzatkowski to take a 3-2 win over a short-handed, visiting Sporting KC team. The big assumption was that the transition from Jesse Marsch to Chris Armas would be seamless, but… no, it really hasn’t been. The Red Bulls, through two games under Armas, are still a pressing team, but it’s neither as high nor as hard, and there’s been more emphasis on using the ball to break teams down.

It cost them the game last week at NYCFC, and it cost them a goal this week against Sporting. And spoiler alert: RBNY aren’t going to get two outside-the-box thunderbolts every week to save the result. (That said, dap to Armas for making much better subs this time).

Sporting have some issues, though:

Granted, they played this one with backup center backs. But they've played a lot, and conceded a lot (by their standards) even when they've had their first-choice backline on the field.

8. Chicago played a lineup of reserves at FC Dallas on Saturday night, and got drilled 3-1. I don’t blame Veljko Paunovic et al for putting their emphasis upon/saving their vets for Wednesday’s USOC quarterfinal at home against Louisville City.

Dallas, who are still easing into the post-Magic Unicorn era, played a 4-2-3-1 with Roland Lamah as a No. 10 underneath center forward Maxi Urruti. Lamah is a very different type of playmaker from Mauro Diaz – much more mobile, a greater goal threat from open play, and nowhere near as inventive a passer or overall game conductor.

It will be an ongoing adjustment for FCD.

7. Our Pass of the Week goes to Jonathan Lewis, who keeps coming in and changing games for NYCFC. In this case it was the game-winning assist against visiting Columbus, who’ve now won just once in their last eight:

Is this the greatest pass of all-time? Obviously not. But what I love about Lewis’s game is his ability to sort through where on the pitch everybody else is, and then make the game simple for them. It’s a rare skill – the game gets especially frenetic in the attacking third as the defense gets more and more desperate.

So for most players, the game speeds up. For Lewis it seems to slow down. He has 1g/2a and has hit the post twice in just 117 minutes, and so far the best part of the Dome Torrent era has been Lewis’s ascent into the regular rotation.

6. Colorado and Houston played a game of soccer on Saturday night. Both came out in versions of the 5-4-1. There were no goals and few good chances for either side.

5. There were plenty of good chances in LA’s wild, come-from-behind 3-2 win over the slumping Revs (3-3-5 in their last 11 after a 4-2-2 start). The Galaxy actually played most of this one 11v10, but couldn’t take advantage at all until Ashley Cole got sent off with five minutes left.

Going down to 10v10 seemed to spark LA, who got a pair of goals in second-half stoppage time – one from Dave Romney, and one from Chris Pontius. That was Pontius’s second of the night and 50th of his very good MLS career.

And look, this is going to break some hearts, but LA aren’t bad. They’re now 5-1-3 in the past two months, and while their defense is flammable the attack keeps proving, week after week, good enough to mostly make up for it.

New England, as I mentioned, are headed in the opposite direction and are now staring at a stretch in which they play five of six on the road.

4. One of the teams that may put some pressure on the Revs in the playoff race? It could be Orlando City, who broke their nine-game losing streak with a 2-1 home win over Toronto FC on Saturday night, marking the first win of the James O’Connor era:

Simplifying and tightening their defensive structure was a smart move from O’Connor. Toronto – whose playoff chances are now just about dead – need to do something similar, and need to start finishing their chances if they’re going to have a prayer of playing in November. Their next two games are against Chicago, and they need to win both.

3. Mike Petke provided another epic postgame press conference, this time after he was unhappy with a pair of decisions in RSL’s 3-2 loss at Minnesota United. And Adrian Heath had a pretty great postgame interview of his own – though he was angry at his players, not the refs.

I think the folks with most reason to be upset are RSL fans, who had to watch Damir Kreilach as a false 9 once again. I just don’t get it, and it should be noted that once Petke subbed actual attackers on, RSL began dominating the game.

2. LAFC's scoreless home draw against the visiting Timbers was not great entertainment, but it was a very worthwhile bullet point in my "actually, Diego Chara's a top 3 MVP candidate" argument. He's been remarkable since getting healthy at the end of March, and Portland are now on a 12-game unbeaten run – the longest since the Rapids went 15 unbeaten back in 2016.

1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to San Jose’s Fatai Alashe from the Quakes’ 2-0 loss at Montreal:

Here is the sequence of events:

  • In the 41st minute, Quakes head coach Mikael Stahre subbed off starting center mid Anibal Godoy.
  • Godoy walked straight to the locker room, not to the bench and did not interact with Stahre.
  • In the postgame Stahre said that Godoy "asked me 3 or 4 times to be subbed out."
  • Alashe was Godoy's replacement, and he finished out the first half.
  • At 45:40 on the game clock (first half stoppage), you could see Alashe pull up lame while chasing a play, an injury the coach cited after the match.
  • Alashe was still seen warming up with the subs during halftime and stayed out on the field with the XI after Stahre "asked him to start the second half so we could prepare our second sub."
  • During the sequence described above, Alashe and strength & conditioning coach Greg Tella were both demonstrably arguing with Stahre

There are many questions left unanswered: If Alashe injured his groin just before the half, why was he out there after halftime? What was the point of letting him out there to almost take the field, only to ostentatiously sub him off just before the whistle? And what was the argument with the S&C coach about?

Also, if you look at the picture and the video of the incident... it sure didn't seem like Alashe wanted to come out.

It was a truly bizarre sight in the midst of a truly bizarre stretch for the Quakes. Florian Jungwirth ethered his teammates last week, and then Chris Wondolowski responded by retweeting (and since un-retweeting) an ex-teammate who called Jungwirth out. It seemed like battle lines had been drawn, but then after this game, Wondo tweeted his support of Stahre. Stahre's contribution to all of this was describing his team as "not just dogs***" which was, I think, meant as a compliment.

None of this makes any sense, and none of it has led to anything approaching respectable soccer. The Quakes are 2-11-6 on the season (2-0-0 against Minnesota United, 0-11-6 against everyone else), and are on a 10-game winless skid. At least their USL affiliate in Reno's a ton of fun.

The Impact aren't a ton of fun, and I'm not sure they're all that good, but they're no longer bad. And they did yeoman's work over the past month-and-a-half pulling themselves out of the abyss and into the playoff race. The schedule toughens up now – the rest of their year is pretty brutal, to be perfectly honest – but they've discovered and embraced their identity, Ignacio Piatti's forever young, and they've got a puncher's chance of hanging onto that sixth spot.

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