Armchair Analyst: Your complete guide to the Week 21 MLS slate

There was a single midweek appetizer, as Minnesota United beat the Revs 2-1 in Minneapolis. Darwin Quintero continues to be the guy who was beloved at Santos Laguna rather than the guy who inspired certain levels of antipathy at Club América. The Loons haven't done a ton correct in their first 18 months of MLS, but so far signing the Colombian attacker as their first DP has been an A+ move.

Let's dive into the weekend to come:

Saturday Slate

Atlanta United vs. D.C. United

3:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Most everyone remembers that D.C. weirdly had Atlanta's number last year, right? They Benny Ball'd their way to a trio of wins, bunkering up in order to bottle up what was the league's second-best attack in 2017. It was very obviously the right decision from Ben Olsen, and it was very obviously frustrating for Tata Martino & Co. – they still struggle against the bunker, by the way – and it's very obvious that United aren't really built to bunker in 2018. They tried it a bit earlier this year against the Five Stripes, and got roasted 3-1.

What D.C. are built to do is to come out and play, which they showed last week against Vancouver:

Take it with a grain of salt, though. The 'Caps have a bottom three defense this season, while the Five Stripes are top five.

Keep an eye on the wing battle, by the way. Some Atlanta fans have begun to miss Yamil Asad (8g/3a) more than they thought they would.

Seattle Sounders vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

4 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

At this point in the season we know pretty well all there is to know about the 'Caps. They can't defend much, when they can win balls then quickly spray to the flanks they will murder you on the break, and... I guess there is no third thing. They'll have Cristian Techera back at least – and yeah, that matters, because he has 6g/1a in 759 minutes so far in 2018 – which will make them better, but they are what they are.

We don't know what we're about to see from the Sounders, though. Best guess is a 4-4-2 with Raul Ruidiaz making his debut as a starter up top alongside Will Bruin.

“Early in my career in Houston, we played with two forwards and that’s when I excelled the most,” Bruin told SoundersFC.com. “Now the defenders have to worry about two people instead of just me occupying space in between two center backs. When center backs have to worry about two bodies up there, that creates space for everybody else and more space in behind. I think it’ll create more opportunities for us and more goals.”

He's right in that playing with two forwards can and does often open up space in behind, both for the striking partnership and for any wide midfielders who want to push up (go ahead and look at how France played for a tutorial, and no, that was not a 4-5-1. Antoine Griezmann was very much a second forward in a compact 4-4-2).

The big issues will be 1) figuring out the timing of when to drop back off the front line and help in possession, and 2) figuring out if either Bruin or Ruidiaz – who's not an orchestrator – can do that job. Chances are neither will be asked to do it a ton, and that's fine given the level of on-the-ball skill in Seattle's midfield, but it's a club you need to have in the bag if you're going to play with two up top in the modern game.

Chicago Fire vs. Toronto FC

7 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

And now for the Fire's fifth game in 15 days across all competitions. They've lost the previous three MLS games, but won convincingly – 4-0 over Louisville City – in midweek U.S. Open Cup play.

Chicago stared what's pretty much their first XI in that one, once again using the 4-3-3 which has freed up Aleksandar Katai to be a free-roaming, all-offense-all-the-time attacker on either wing (he played on the left vs. Lou City, which isn't his usual place of residence). Despite their defensive woes the Fire really have found an attacking rhythm based upon Katai's ability in isolation and the midfield's ability to use the ball in order to rearrange the opposition, thus making sure Katai gets those 1v1 chances. Add in Nemanja Nikolic's poaching touch, and there you have an uncomplicated but effective attacking group.

Toronto's remaining schedule – six of the 15 games they have left are against NYCFC, RBNY, Atlanta, LAFC and Portland, which are the five best teams in the league – is probably too tough for them to climb the 11 points they need in order to get back into the playoff hunt. But win this one at Chicago, then beat them again next week at BMO, and they might have a slight pulse.

Probably not, though.

Philadelphia Union vs. LA Galaxy

7 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Philly have trusted the process with 19-year-old center backs Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty, who helped pitch a shutout on Wednesday in a 1-0 win over Orlando City in the USOC quarterfinals. Jim Curtin was effusive in his praise of both, but particularly singled out McKenzie's ability to move the game upfield and into dangerous zones of play, cutting out opposing defenders with his passing.

“His ability to not just dominate physically whether it is in the air, in duels, or in 1v1’s — but also what gets Earnie [Stewart] and I excited is how good he was with the ball," Curtin said of the Rookie of the Year candidate. "He played through the lines and played passes that eliminate five or six defenders at a time. I think he had one mistake maybe with the ball; we will still pick on him and be hard on him because we want him to get better. But we’re really happy with his growth.”

Here's his map of successful passes against the Purple Lions:

Notice how north-south that map is, and how many of those passes end in the attacking third? This is an evolution. The Union, in the past, have asked their CBs to be a bit safer – to play either through regista Haris Medunjanin or up the touchline to the fullbacks (especially RB Keegan Roseberry, who's quietly had a stellar third season after a disastrous 2017).

Now, when teams sell out to prevent distribution via those channels, the Union's kids are punishing teams at least a little bit. Against a group as prone to being pulled apart as the Galaxy's defense is, whether they're in the 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2 or any other formation they've tried, this is a weapon.

Of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is also a weapon. He has 11 goals in 973 MLS minutes, has scored in each of his last five starts (eight goals in that time), and the Galaxy have lost just once in the past two months. The Union's kids have another test to pass.

New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution

7 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Simply put: Under Chris Armas, the Red Bulls have decided to try to use the ball a little bit more in attempting to build out of the back. I understand why Armas wants to do this – it is certainly the style of soccer I most prefer to watch, and when it's done well is, I think, the most effective style of soccer. But playing out of the back comes with certain risks, and RBNY have paid the price twice in the last two games.

In Week 19 it was a miscommunication between Tyler Adams and Aaron Long that led to the only goal in a 1-0 loss at NYCFC. In Week 20 it was a loose moment from Sean Davis, then eight quick passes in the attacking third leading to Johnny Russell's tap-in.

"Eight quick passes in the attacking third" is not, I don't think, a thing I could've written about teams playing against RBNY at any time this season. It just didn't happen.

This is obvious, but the point of playing a million long-balls out of the back, which is what RBNY did for most of this season, was primarily to make sure that changes in possession happened further from their own goal. It was a defensive approach, first and foremost, and they weaponized it by fighting to the death to win those second balls and then transitioning immediately and directly into attack (this may sound like simple, basic stuff, but it really wasn't. They found a right-brained way of maximizing a very left-brained approach to this game of ours).

Armas has been playing it a little bit riskier through 180 minutes. The Revs – who can't defend, and have won just three times in three months, but still press like hell – will be waiting eagerly for those opportunities.

Columbus Crew SC vs. Orlando City

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

Last week Orlando City played something closer to a 4-3-2-1 in their regular season win over Toronto FC. Then on Wednesday, at Philly in that 1-0 USOC loss, they went to what looked and played like a very regular 4-2-3-1:

That's a network passing graph, made using Opta data. 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.

Dom Dwyer wasn't getting much service, was he? This Purple Lions team does have a lot of attacking/passing talent, but so far they have not been integrated at all, which is why their season has been so... let's call it "disjointed."

Columbus tend to rip disjointed teams apart, but beware: They've won just once in their past eight because they can. not. finish. Gyasi Zardes has been the only consistent goal threat, and he's cooled off considerably (3g in his last 9 games) following his hot start.

Houston Dynamo vs. FC Dallas

9 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

  • In 2017 Houston averaged 44% possession. In 2018 they average 50% possession.
  • In 2017 Houston successfully dribbled 7.1 times per game. In 2018 they successfully dribble 11.6 times per game.
  • In 2017 Houston played 18.7% of their passes long. In 2018 they play 16.3% of their passes long.
  • In 2017 Houston put 4.7 shots on target per game. In 2018 they put 6.7 shots on target per game.
  • In 2017 Houston scored 1.54 goals per game. In 2018 they've scored 2 goals per game.

All of that makes a ton of sense for a team that came into the season committed to expanding their game beyond "sit deep and counter." They're still not what I would call a pure possession team, but they've been leaning in that direction and, now that they're getting a few folks healthy, are conceding fewer awful goals.

When it gets flowing, as it did on Wednesday in a 4-2 USOC win over Sporting KC, it can be devastating. And it's quietly evolving toward "flowing like a damn river" as, since the start of May, they're 8-3-3 with a +14 goal differential.

As for FC Dallas, it's still very much "wait and see" mode. My guess is they go into this one in some version of a 4-4-2, sit deep and try to counter into space.

Real Salt Lake vs. Colorado Rapids

10 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

While Houston's evolution has been successful, Colorado's has not. They are 21st in MLS in successful passes, 21st in passing accuracy, 20th in passing accuracy in their own half, 22nd in passing accuracy in their opponent's half, and 22nd in passing accuracy in the attacking third. They are 22nd in chances created from open play, and 22nd in big chances created.

They'll go on the road at their rivals this week and most likely play a 5-4-1, try to absorb whatever RSL throw at them, and then lump balls upfield in the hopes of a smash-and-grab.

RSL… I think they should probably start their best forward, Corey Baird, at forward. Damir Kreilach should not play there.

Just stick with the 4-2-3-1 filled with skillful, mobile attackers that can pull teams apart. I don't understand the urge to overcomplicate things that's been, frankly, pretty destructive. The four teams above RSL in the standings (LAFC, Dallas, Sporting and Portland) aren't going to disappear, and the two just below them (LA and Houston) are coming up fast.

Somebody's gonna miss the playoffs out of that group. Keep starting a d-mid at center forward, and I have a guess as to who it'll be.

Portland Timbers vs. Montreal Impact

11 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

HERE is my colleague Bobby Warshaw's take on how LAFC beat Portland on Wednesday in the US Open Cup quarters, the Timbers' first loss in any competition since April 8. One particular bit that stands out to me:

It creates a potential blueprint for teams to consider when they play the Timbers:

  1. Play a transition-focused No. 10 (Vela rather than Nguyen; Jesus Medina rather than Maxi Moralez; Felipe Gutierrez rather than Yohan Croizet; Jefferson Savarino rather than Albert Rusnak).
  2. Give players, specifically that No. 10, the confidence to go for the transitions right away and take risks in transition. You can’t score once Portland get set, so don’t hesitate to go for it on a counter. Acknowledge that the low percentage transition attempt is better than any high percentage possession option.

Ignacio Piatti underneath Matteo Mancosu for the Impact, maybe? Piatti is still the league's best winger and has been devastating lately (5g/2a in his last six games), and I'm always hesitant to deviate from what's been working. But putting him in the middle so that any counter opportunities go through him, rather than to him, might make sense against this Portland bunch.

Of course, "this" Portland bunch is not quite the Portland bunch that went unbeaten forever as they'll be without Diego Chara, who's suspended via yellow card accumulation. The Timbers are winless in their last 17 games without him.

Sunday Nightcap

Minnesota United vs. LAFC

7 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

It's starting to look like the Loons are a fulltime 3-5-2 (or 3-5-1-1, depending upon what you want to call Darwin) team these days. It's been a worthwhile switch, as they've gone 3-1-0 in their last four games and have pulled themselves out of what seemed to be a springtime death spiral.

But you can still play through them pretty easily. Bobby Shuttleworth had a remarkable game against the Revs on Wednesday night, and has probably been the league's most underappreciated 'keeper this season. The backline is still vulnerable when facing multiple attackers (as was the case down the stretch last weekend against RSL), and there's not yet a solution at defensive midfield.

I'd expect LAFC to be aware of all of the above.

One More Thing to Ponder

Happy weekending, everybody.

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