Armchair Analyst: The whole weekend in review from MLS Week 21

This is the time of year in which off-the-field stuff – trades, transfers and the like – tend to take the spotlight from what happens on the field. How could we not be at least a little entranced by the Kellyn Acosta-for-Dom Badji-and-picks swap that the Rapids and FC Dallas reportedly pulled off on Sunday night, a story first broken by Jon Arnold? (The move became official on Monday morning)

  • FC Dallas get: Badji, Colorado's (likely very high) natural first-round pick in the 2019 SuperDraft via a pick swap, an international spot for 2018 & 19, and a 50% of the transfer fee should Acosta be sold before the end of the 2020 summer transfer window.
  • Colorado get: A 23-year-old central midfielder who, 13 months ago, was good enough to be starting for the USMNT in the Azteca and drawing interest from UEFA Champions League teams like PSV Eindhoven and FC Copenhagen and a second-round pick.

I like this trade for both teams, to be honest. Maxi Urruti hasn't scored in two months and Cristian Colman clearly isn't going to work out, so Badji – who has a very respectable 7g/2a in 1343 minutes this year – fits a need. To put it simply: He is now Dallas's best center forward option. Add in what's likely to be a top 5 pick (maybe top 2), and the international slot, and the sell-on fee, all for a guy who's currently the fourth central midfield option...

And that's the rub. Acosta has not been earning minutes this year because he's been outplayed by the likes of Carlos Gruezo, Victor Ulloa and Jacori Hayes, and there's another cadre of Homegrowns moving on up as well. Dallas missed the window to sell him on last summer, and then Acosta missed the window to grab the entire team by the scruff and make it his own.

He will almost certainly get the chance to do exactly that in Colorado, playing for a team that's basically gone sans midfield for most of the last couple of months. Acosta, at his best, is a ground-eating, field-spreading No. 8 with two good feet and the ability to 1) hit game-changing diagonals, and 2) push into the attack with third-man runs.

If Anthony Hudson uses him in that role, in a 3-5-2, Acosta could very well earn his way back into the USMNT picture in a big hurry. My worry, though, is that Hudson – who has proved to be an overly defensive manager – will miscast him as a sort of No. 10 in the 5-4-1 Colorado have been playing, or will shuffle him out to wingback.

It's tough to tell these days.

Bottom line, though: This trade makes sense for both teams. If the Rapids get the best out of Acosta, he and Jack Price form a solid deep-central midfield tandem – a real spine to build around. And for Dallas, they get a guy who can score this year plus yet more young potential in next year's draft.

Let's take a run through the entire MLS weekend. It's been a while since I've done the whole slate, so here you go:

Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 1

The Five Stripes' PR sophistry was amusing ahead of this one: Ezequiel Barco was just given the day off! He definitely wasn't suspended!

Except Tata Martino pretty well undercut that in the aftermath, as he said he held Barco out for violating a team rule, and that he'd be out next week as well, and that he'd have to earn his way back in by earning the team's trust. That, uh, sure sounds like a suspension.

It doesn't matter, though, because D.C. – particularly Wayne Rooney – kept turning the ball over in midfield against Atlanta, and if you turn the ball over in midfield against Atlanta you lose. And Josef Martinez gets a hat-trick. That's his sixth in his 1.5 MLS seasons, which is the all-time record, and as long as he doesn't pick up an injury he's going to set the new single-season goals mark this year. He has been spectacular.

The Five Stripes played once again in a 4-2-3-1, having mostly scrapped the 3-5-2 they used for a good chunk of the season's first half. Andrew Carleton, making his first MLS start, was pretty good, and played a big role in the first two Atlanta goals. With Barco suspended he should play more, and if he keeps playing like that he will play more.

Also, take a minute to love Michael Parkhurst:

Seattle Sounders 2, Vancouver Whitecaps 0

The Sounders were mostly okay, though they generated just one shot closer than 12 yards are are oftentimes still too slow to move the game around when they have an inch of daylight. We didn't get to see enough of Raul Ruidiaz to determine whether or not he can change that.

Ruidiaz makes good, hard, penetrative, Martinez-esque runs, by the way, the sort of runs that create the pass rather than the other way around. It was, perhaps, telling that he was subbed on for Will Bruin instead of alongside Bruin, but regardless Brian Schmetzer's got some fun stuff to figure out.

Vancouver have lost four of five and are 4-8-4 since their 3-1-1 start to the season. Their defense and goalkeeping is a far cry from last year's bunch that defended their way into the playoffs.

Chicago Fire 1, Toronto FC 2

How much do we make of this for the Reds? Given the way things are shaking out in the Eastern Conference playoff race, the door probably isn't slammed shut just yet – win next week at home against this same Fire team, and suddenly TFC are just six points below New England's pace with three months of soccer to go. We've all seen teams dig out of deeper holes than that.

And there are finally more hands on deck to do the digging. Jozy Altidore started and went 80 minutes, opening up more space for Sebastian Giovinco than the Atomic Ant has had to work with in months. And Victor Vazquez was back for a cameo, and Chris Mavinga went 90, and even so...

Yeah, this was a game they probably should have lost. While a lot of the focus has been on shortcomings in front of goal and blunders in net, what's really distinguished this year's TFC from last year's is how easy it is to play through them. Gaps appear now where they didn't, and the simple truth of this one is that the Fire weren't good enough to make the Reds pay.

So don't go rushing into any TFC stock just yet. They certainly have a better chance than they did a week ago at this time, but the task remains tall and the underlying data isn't great.

Philadelphia Union 1, LA Galaxy 3

The Galaxy have won three straight. They're 6-1-3 in their last 10 games, and have climbed to fourth in the West, just two points below Sporting KC. They've done it by outscoring teams, which is a luxury you have when your lead striker is Zlatan Ibrahimovic and when your secondary scoring threat is Ola Kamara:

Bobby's right that this was a good lesson for the Union's young CBs, and it's very true that all of US soccer benefits when good, young players like Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie go head-to-head against attackers like the Galaxy's.

But Philly need points. Their next three games are all on the road, and if things go bad the season could end real quick. Their lack of finishing keeps leaving the door open, and opponents like Zlatan keep slamming it in their faces.

LA's uber-attacking 3-5-2 with Romain Alessandrini as a left wingback in the second half was a lot of fun, by the way. They're better playing like that than they are when they try to defend.

New York Red Bulls 2, New England Revolution 0

"Sloppy, soggy, and an aesthetic mess" is probably the best way to describe this game, which was played in heavy rain in New Jersey. It was also played with RBNY's starting d-mid, Tyler Adams, at right wing, and if you'd asked me how the Red Bulls looked at any point I'd have said "they look like a team starting their d-mid at right wing."

This would make a certain amount of sense if RBNY were pressing as high and frenetically as they were earlier in the season – or, say, against Chivas and Xolos in CCL. Adams has, I think, greater range than anybody else in MLS, and using him explicitly to disrupt an opponent's best outlet has merit as a tactical approach. It's what they did last season in the second leg of the playoffs at Toronto, when Adams made Michael Bradley's life a living hell.

But it wasn't really that, and it took the Revs falling apart on a restart for the Red Bulls to get their breakthrough. I remain perplexed about this team's direction under Chris Armas.

As for the Revs... time to worry. It's now three straight losses, four winless and just a 4-6-6 record since the start of April. The schedule remains difficult with lots of road games and lots of familiar opponents who'd love nothing more than to climb above the playoff line.

Columbus Crew 3, Orlando City 2

Columbus were a miracle comeback away from being on the same "uh, they're in trouble" heap as the Revs. And to be fair: They've got just five home games left this season, so they may very well be in some trouble regardless. But boy did they get bailed out by an iffy penalty decision and a bomb from Wil Trapp.

This team's still what it is: A collection of parts trying to make the machine of the system work. And sometimes that means the guy who gets the goals doesn't get much of the ball:

Orlando City did well in trying to keep Columbus under wraps, and were once again good/opportunistic on the break (and particularly punished Jonathan Mensah's slow decision-making with regard to stepping off his line). Their 4-3-2-1 is solid and robust, and their three-headed attack has been dangerous.

It might not end up mattering for this year, but I like what I've seen after a few games of the James O'Connor era.

Houston Dynamo 1, FC Dallas 1

In 2015, Mauro Manotas's first MLS season, he put zero headed shots on target.

In 2016, Mauro Manotas's second MLS season, he put zero headed shots on target.

In 2017, Mauro Manotas's third MLS season, he put two headed shots on target (no goals).

In the first half of 2018, Mauro Manotas put one headed shot on target (no goals).

Last week, Mauro Manotas scored two headers. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Manotas has quietly and steadily improved, and has now scored 10 goals in back-to-back seasons for the Dynamo. He has a knack for getting goalside of his center backs – he's exceptionally quick – so he's weaponized a lot of Houston's wing play. His wingers have obliged by increasing their crossing volume this year (and mostly only cross from good positions).

But these are dropped home points for a Houston team that are 1) below the playoff line, and 2) terrible on the road. They maaaaaybe couldn't afford this.

As for Dallas... they weren't and haven't been convincing in attack as of late. Urruti can't buy a goal, and as of yet there's no clear successor to Mauro Diaz.

But they are a better defensive team than they were a year ago, and that has been enough. Dap up Reggie Cannon – who's gone way, waaaaay under the radar – for, at age 20, being one of the best right backs in the league.

Real Salt Lake 2, Colorado Rapids 2

So here's the point I keep making about RSL: They should not, can not play both Kyle Beckerman and Damir Kreilach together in deep central midfield in their 4-2-3-1. Neither can cover any ground at this point, which puts far too much pressure on the young defense to step off the line and make plays upfield – plays that have a tendency to go horribly wrong.

Watch this:

First thing you notice is Justen Glad, 20 yards away from the rest of his back four, trying to make a play in midfield. He's trying to make that play because Beckerman just got beat, and when Glad can't make the play... yeah, Kreilach's not going to win a single footrace.

RSL have spent a lot of time making the same mistake over and over again this year, and it just cost them badly. They can't afford to drop home points – definitely not to a rival, and definitely not to the second-worst team in the league – when they're so bad on the road.

They are fractionally ahead of Houston in PPG, and three points ahead in the race for the sixth spot in the West. But the Dynamo have two games in hand, and more home games left. This one had to be painful for RSL.

Portland Timbers 2, Montreal Impact 2

So I've been slowly digesting this new, vastly improved Montreal team over the course of two months. Step 1 was getting through the brutal part of the schedule – which was a total bloodbath in which the Impact lost eight of nine – without murdering each other in the locker room. Step 2 was getting a few actual center backs healthy. Step 3 was shelling into a fairly rigid and very unadventurous 4-3-3. Step 4 has been "collect points."

Granted: Portland were without Diego Chara, and Portland do not win without Diego Chara (it's 17 straight without a win when the Colombian's out). But they're still a very good team, and a better-than-very-good-team at home, and the Impact went in there and got a point.

There was nothing fancy about it: Just coil up, and then spring forward via direct balls to the flanks. The one wrinkle was who provided those direct outlets:

That's Ignacio Piatti's passing map from the match. Green arrows are completed passes, red incomplete, yellow are key passes (passes that lead to a shot) and blue's an assist. Piatti, the league's best 1-v-1 player and best goalscorer off the wing and maybe the best counterattacking player to boot, stayed deep and sprayed. He, time and again, played Matteo Mancosu and Alejandro Silva over the top, and the Timbers didn't quite adjust.

The Impact now have three of four at home. By the end of it they can have a death grip on a playoff spot.

Minnesota United 5, LAFC 1

Arguably the best win in MNUFC's MLS history, I think? It's got to be right up there with last year's 3-2 revenge win at Atlanta United – which didn't mean much to the Loons in the standings, but was at least a little bit of revenge for the home opener humiliation, and launched the Five Stripes toward their unhappy playoff destiny in Columbus. I still think that one's the best for the Loons, but this one... this one was close.

Simply put: LAFC were flat, and Bob Bradley was rotating the squad after a busy few weeks that now includes a trip to the US Open Cup semifinals. And the Loons took advantage of that almost from the first kick, pulling around the Wingdings defenders, exploiting Zone 14, and giving Darwin Quintero free rein all over the field.

Quintero's playing as a second forward in a 3-5-2, which is more like a 3-5-1-1, and it's about as free a role as you can give a player. Sometimes he drifts to the flanks and bends crosses around the defense, and other times he matches up against the center backs in the final third, and sometimes he comes deep to play runners through, and other times he'll ride the line, then run in behind if a CB bites too hard.

As so:

The central midfield has been just good enough behind him, and the rest of the attack has continued to range from "pretty good" to "very good!" The defense is still a concern, but the Loons just finished a stretch in which they had five of six at home, and they won four. For a team that was just about dead a month ago, that's life.

They're now up to seventh in the West, just ahead of the Dynamo (though behind them on PPG), and only two points back of RSL.

Six of their next seven are on the road. Let's see where the Loons are two months from now.

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