How serious a chance do you have of making the playoffs if you're below the line entering Week 23? Let's dig back through the last three years (since the expansion to six playoff spots in each conference) to put it into perspective:
2017: In the East, Atlanta United climbed above the line while Orlando City dropped. In the West, FC Dallas' death spiral was just picking up steam this time last year, which opened the door for San Jose to eventually climb into the playoffs.
2016: You remember this one, right? D.C. United jumped up over the final three months of the season while the Revs did a nosedive, and in the West the Sounders made their now-annual second-half surge as the Whitecaps dropped out.
2015: It was the first year of TAM, which was added midseason, so you'd think that would have made the league more volatile. But nope. Everyone who was above the playoff line as of Week 22 was above the playoff line at the end of the year.
In other words: Four teams in three years have managed to make a late-season push over the hump. In 2016 those pushes were sparked by team-defining transfer window moves (Nicolas Lodeiro and, yes, Patrick Mullins), while in 2017 they were sparked by a weird schedule (Atlanta's run of home games in September and October) and Los Toros Tejanos' still-so-complete-I-can't-wrap-my-head-around-it meltdown.
So something has to go extremely right, or something has to go extremely wrong for there to be a lot of playoff position shuffling at this time of year. And if your team has stood pat over the past few weeks, you'd better hope either they're already in a strong position, or they're about to get healthy, or that the next seven days will bring a new arrival who can dominate over the final two-and-a-half months of the year.
If one of those things isn't happening you're probably going to have a sad and early end to the year.
One more note: The new MLS Fantasy season begins this weekend:
I dominated my colleagues Bobby Warshaw & Ben Baer in the apertura. Come join the fun.
Now, let's look at Week 23...
Atlanta United vs. Toronto FC
Atlanta are still – despite occasional struggles against the bunker, a few injuries and a propensity to shoot themselves in the foot trying to play through the press – the best team in the league. About 10 different people asked me, this past week at the All-Star Game, whether I thought we'd all be going back to Georgia again in December for MLS Cup.
My stock answer was that they are probably the odds-on favorites, though they aren't as heavily favored as Toronto FC were last year, or LA in 2014 (don't @ me Sounders fans, everybody knew the Galaxy were going to beat Seattle in the playoffs that season).
Two reasons why they're not at that level: They've struggled at times against other top teams, and TFC are finally getting back to full health. It might be too little, too late for the Reds, but they are going to ruin somebody's fun over the next couple of months.
We know what that looks like in attack. Here's what it looks like in defense:
Zavaleta is a fine player – roughly an average MLS starting CB. Mavinga was quietly Best XI-caliber the second half of last season, and then was superb in CCL play last year, and TFC have probably missed him more, over the past four months, than they missed any other injured player simply because he makes the field smaller. His uses his range and anticipation to shrink the amount of space his opponent has to play in, and that, in turn, covers up many of the rest of the team's range-related deficiencies.
If TFC get a result here (and to be clear, I do not expect them to), it'll be in part because Mavinga has had a Player of the Week-caliber performance.
Montreal Impact vs. D.C. United
The Impact have been defined by their compact, take-no-risks 4-3-3 over the past two months, and playing that way – almost exclusively on the counter – has allowed them to climb up above the playoff line. They're still not a particularly dynamic team, in that they can't toggle between pressing/possession/countering/transition from one to the other, but there's something to be said for "pick one thing and do it really well."
They need to do that against this D.C. team, because a big chunk of the Impact's good form was fueled by a soft spot in the schedule. It toughens up again starting next week, so Montreal need to get points where they can find them. And given it's a home game against the last-place team in the conference, anything but the full three points here is a catastrophe.
I would expect Paul Arriola to have a particularly energetic game for United. He'll need to spend a lot of his time trying to drag Impact d-mid Sam Piette out of the middle, which makes Montreal exponentially more vulnerable.
Orlando City vs. New England Revolution
New England's record since April 14: 4 wins, 6 losses, 7 draws. Their record on the road: 0-3-4. As teams have rounded into form over the course of the season, and as they've collected tape on the Revs' press, New England have become more and more vulnerable. Right now they're hanging onto sixth place by a fingernail.
The Purple Lions have finally come to the end of a brutal 13-game stretch in which they were outright favorites to win only twice. They went 1-12-0.
They should win this game. I know things have been bad defensively – their 51 goals against are worst in the league, and they're on track to eclipse Minnesota's historic mark for defensive futility set last year – but they're home, they're healthier, and their attack has had its moments recently.
If they win they're just three points below the playoff line and strange things can happen. If they don't win, the season's over.
FC Dallas vs. San Jose Earthquakes
There is some debate over who Dallas are, now, in the wake of the Mauro Diaz transfer. Since selling the Magic Little Unicorn™ FCD are 4-2-1 in league play and 4-3-1 overall. That's pretty good.
Their current identity can be seen in one clip:
Victor Ulloa, who has locked down a starting central midfield role, hit this same pass nine times at Sporting last weekend. They are just dying to get their attackers into the open field, and right now Ulloa's right foot is the way that's done.
Will it change some with the introduction of Pablo Aranguiz, the Chilean No. 10 who looks to be Diaz's replacement? In the long run, probably. In the short run, it's hard to imagine FCD straying too far from what's been working lately.
Don't expect the Quakes, who are not blessed with a ton of speed at the back or a coherent way of putting pressure on opposing distributors up front, to play any sort of a high line, though. Their best shot at stealing a result here is to try to button it up and make the Dallas attackers beat them with final-third combination play.
Minnesota United vs. Seattle Sounders
Back at the end of June the Loons were entering a stretch in which they'd play six of eight at home. They've won four of those so far, with this being the finale before a long – and my guess is season-ending – five-game road trip.
They will play a 3-5-2 designed to get Darwin Quintero on the ball one way or the other. Quintero's ability to play as a through-ball conjuring playmaker, or as a winger with pinpoint crossing ability, or as a ride-the-line goalscorer has led to the most exciting month in club history. He's been wonderful, and the team around him has done well to sacrifice parts of their own games in order to give him a platform for all of his skills.
Seattle, however, have been the league's best defensive team over the past six weeks, conceding just three times in six games (they're 4-0-2 in that span). While the attack is still a work in progress, the defense has done an exceptional job of keeping play in front of them.
New York City FC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
NYCFC are 10-0-1 at Yankee Stadium. They will still be absent David Villa, but are once again approaching full health. They will press high, they will combine in the final third, they will push the fullbacks up and pinch their wingers inside, they will bring firepower of the bench. They will build from the back and spray the ball around when they can.
In short: There is no reason to think this will look like any other game at Yankee Stadium over the past two years.
For Vancouver, they have to hope the defense – which has been iffy – can handle that pressure, and that the central midfield can win enough ball to put their wingers into what little space there is in the Bronx. Otherwise it's batten down the hatches and hope for a set piece.
Colorado Rapids vs. LA Galaxy
This was made using Opta data. Each circle represents the location of the corresponding player's aggregate touch, while the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes exchanged.
The diamond is naturally a very narrow formation, but... yeah, you could say Colorado had some spacing issues. Calling this "a little bit tight" would be charitable.
Formations aren't tactics but they can/do/should serve the tactical choices a team makes, and in the case of the diamond: This is the formation you pick when you want to win control of central midfield and dictate where the game is played. It's the formation you play when you want to make the game one of rhythm, a chess match in which you're pulling the opponent into the worst spots. It's the formation you play when you have an attacking midfielder or second forward capable of using the possession the rest of the team generates to carve open the opposing defense and create golden chances.
Last week, against a not-great D.C. defense, Colorado's starting attacking midfielder (Johan Blomberg) and two starting forwards (Sam Nicholson and Giles Barnes) combined for zero passes completed in the attacking third, one chance created, one shot, zero shots on goal and zero touches in the box.
It's a work in progress.
Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting KC
This might officially be a must-win for the Dynamo, who've won once in the past two months and are paying for all the points they've dropped from leading positions throughout the year. Their inability to protect Zone 14 – a yearlong issue with Juan David Cabezas injured and his back-ups not up to the job – has been their Achilles' heel. As have individual errors in central defense.
It gets fixed now, at home against a Sporting team that is on their worst run of form this decade, or Houston's regular season probably ends sometime in the next month.
As for that Sporting team... their bad run of form has come because they're slower to get pressure to the ball up top and in central midfield than they've been in the past, and their center backs have all regressed from last season, and because the risks they're taking with right back Graham Zusi's positioning are no longer paying off.
Remember how I said that Ulloa hit that big, right-to-left diagonal nine times? That's right into the spot Zusi vacates when he attacks, and since SKC are not as good as they used to be at winning the ball back once they lose possession, pushing Zusi all the way up has become a game-killing risk more often than not.
Real Salt Lake vs. Chicago Fire
RSL's attack cratered last weekend without Albert Rusnak, and the good news for the Claret-and-Cobalt is that the Slovak playmaker is not listed on this week's injury report. If he's healthy, expect him to set up shop between the lines as usual and try to combine with the wingers on each side, while center forward Corey Baird makes hard diagonal runs to drag Chicago's central defense around.
That central defense has been very, very bad for the Fire, who've lost five straight and conceded 15 goals in that time. I have a suspicion Veljko Paunovic will scrap the 4-3-3 for the time being, and go back to the 3-5-2/5-3-2 with Bastian Schweinsteiger as a sweeper in this one.
Portland Timbers vs. Philadelphia Union
Portland's ability to play in transition has been their calling card this year, as they've flipped between a 4-3-2-1 and a 5-3-2 in order to create a massive amount of backline stability, which then can be used as a sort of tactical aikido designed to release Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Samuel Armenteros into space.
The problem with this one: Blanco's suspended and Armenteros, who missed last week's game with a back injury, is still listed as "questionable." Fanendo Adi rode to the rescue with a late game-winner last weekend, but Adi's not in Portland anymore, and it's an open question as to whether the other forwards on the depth chart can answer the bell.
Against Philly there will be plenty of chances to answer said bell. The Union have improved a lot in defensive transition, but it's still not their strong suit:
Even with Portland's absences, if Philly get a result here it's a huge statement.
New York Red Bulls vs. LAFC
Three of RBNY's six worst defensive performances, going by expected goals allowed, have come in the five weeks since Chris Armas has taken over. The majority of those shortcomings have been the result of turnovers in either midfield or out of the back.
The Red Bulls are trying to play with the ball a little bit more. I understand why Armas has made this decision, but there's already been some short-term blood spilled, and that might have some long-term effects. It's hard to just flip a switch from "create as many 50/50 balls as possible" to "let's put our foot on it and create a little bit of rhythm." And I'll add that playing Tyler Adams out of position as a winger (which is what he was in the first half of last weekend's loss to the Crew) compounds those difficulties.
New York's still really good, and has the potential to keep being really good. They're just not who they were, in terms of how they got really good before. It's a new coach and that's meant a new team, and that's meant a little bit of disorganization.
LAFC have, this year, feasted upon any sort of disorganization. They've hit a rut lately with just one win in five, and have to figure out how to replace Mark-Anthony Kaye for the rest of the year. Things aren't great for them right now, but things can get good again in a hurry if RBNY don't lock in defensively.
One More Thing to Ponder
What happens when you put an 8-year-old's handprint onto a petri dish and let the microbes grow after the kid's played out side for a bit and before he's washed his hands.
Happy weekending, everybody.