The 2018 MLS season is about 80% done. Hope everybody's ready for the finishing kick.
Let's dive into Week 27:
Of Time And Stars
The Seattle Sounders won their eighth straight game, the first time anybody's done that in a single season in the post-shootout era, thanks to a come-from-behind 3-1 win over visiting (and previously surging) Sporting KC.
The Sounders did it by building from the back, being patient, playing the ball from side to side, and waiting until gaps open up. They did it by defending deeper than most teams are comfortable defending. They did it by playing simple and taking few chances until they're in the attacking third. Maybe it isn't always who they've been, but it's certainly who they've become during this remarkable run.
And unlike last week against Portland it didn't take them 70 minutes to identify a mismatch – they went right at SKC Graham Zusi right from the start.
Say what you want about the simplicity of Seattle's approach, and the fact that they're not really playing "modern" soccer: They don't do a ton of work in transitions and press much, and their positions are more defined (save for Nicolas Lodeiro) than what we see from many other teams at or near the top of the standings.
All of that is true-ish, but what matters is that you throw 11 guys out there, and the one thing that truly connects them is the ball, and that's what the Sounders are built around – the fundamental idea that passing the ball is a good thing. Chad Marshall is reliable in his distribution. Kelvin Leerdam is reliable in his distribution. Kim Kee-Hee is occasionally game-breaking. Ozzie Alonso, who is the single greatest defensive midfielder this league has ever seen, is healthy and starting to do things like this again:
Hesitation dribble, side-step, and a defense-splitting pass. He eliminated the entire SKC press, just like that. It's a breathtaking bit of mental, technical and tactical skill, and it unleashes Brad Smith – who can definitely pass – into space.
Harry Shipp can pass, even though he's not the game-breaking No. 10 we'd hoped he'd be. Cristian Roldan can pass (and his movement when the game is tight is superb), and Gustav Svensson is uncomplicated, but he can pass. Lodeiro is maybe the league's best and most versatile passer of the ball, shifting from zone-moving No. 8 to winger to elite, chance creating No. 10.
So if you have that many guys who can pass the ball, and are patient about it, and most of them move well off the ball, too, you're going to win a lot of games. It's taken some luck to make it eight games, but you can literally not show me a single winning streak in the history of this sport in which luck was not involved.
And before you point me to the expected goals battle, which was roughly even: Please control for the game state. Six of SKC's eight biggest chances came in the last 15 minutes when they were down two goals and up one man and throwing the kitchen sink at the Seattle defense. For the vast majority of the game the Sounders were winning and controlling the game, and they were doing that because they were playing good soccer. They were the better team.
Real Salt Lake entered the record books on Saturday night. They became the first team in MLS history to score six or more goals in back-to-back games, following up last weekend's 6-0 win over Colorado with a leave-no-doubt-about-it 6-2 destruction of the death spiraling LA Galaxy in Rio Tinto. Here's a duck:
OK, now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about what RSL are doing.
The defense has improved across the board, but especially in central defense. Hat-trick hero Damir Kreilach refused to go to a postgame press conference alone afterward; he insisted upon bringing center backs Justen Glad and Nick Besler, who mostly kept the potent Galaxy attack under wraps. Those two guys have been good, as have fullbacks Brooks Lennon and Aaron Herrera (who's beaten out fellow Homegrown Danny Acosta for the LB job).
Sunny has pretty much permanently entered the XI as a destroyer on the "2" line of the 4-2-3-1. His range covers up a lot of mistakes that had proved fatal earlier in the season.
RSL have a cadre of quick, skillful attackers to sprinkle across the "3" line of the 4-2-3-1. Earlier in the year they were, for whatever, reason, static. Over the past two months, as the team as a whole has been better at moving the ball from back to front, they've become more dynamic and dangerous, and thus harder to track.
"False 9 by Committee" has worked! I thought (really, everyone thought, including the RSL braintrust) RSL needed a "true" center forward, one who goes toe-to-toe with the center backs, holds the ball up, and allows that "3" line to shine. But since Alfredo Ortuño didn't work out, they don't have that guy. Luis Silva's a false 9, and Corey Baird's a false 9, and Kreilach – yes Kreilach, the guy who was brought in this winter to play defensive midfield, and has spent almost his entire career bouncing between a 6 role and an 8 role – have shared that spot and... it's worked.
Kreilach, Silva and Baird have 16g/6a between the three of them when playing as a false 9. I've documented before how Baird's movement (he always tries to drift between the weakside CB and FB, rather than hitting the gap between the CBs) has opened space for those around him, and Silva does a lot of the same stuff.
Now look at his, how Kreilach vacating the normal spot a No. 9 confuses the Galaxy defense:
That's Kreilach drifting away from the central channel and out wide, and that's Albert Rusnak, the No. 10, receiving the ball with his back to goal like a center forward, except his about four yards further from goal than a center forward usually is when receiving that pass. It confuses Michael Ciani just enough to make him a split second late closing down, and that gives Rusnak the room he needs to turn and fire one home.
RSL play weird, and that weirdness, when playing against disorganized backlines, creates just enough hesitation to turn normal defensive rotations into cracks. And when guys like Rusnak, Joao Plata, Jefferson Savarino and Bofo Saucedo are playing as well as they have been, those cracks turn into chasms. Those chasms are being filled with goals.
They just killed the Galaxy on Saturday night. They left no doubt who the better team was. They subbed in a duck. It was all good in Sandy, because for the vast majority of the game there was only one team on the field, and it was the one playing weird, fun, unexpected, playoff soccer.
A few more things to ponder...
8. All hail the Impact? They maintained control of the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race with Saturday's convincing 3-0 win over a listless Red Bulls team. Montreal are usually the victims on set pieces, but they turned the tables on an RBNY team that have been struggling in that department recently, getting the night's first on a corner, the second on a free kick, and then coasting to a never-in-doubt, comfortable win for the rest of the night.
This was a necessary "stop the bleeding" win for the Impact, who'd no doubt felt some pressure after a six-game stretch in which they'd won just once. And while they are in, as I said, control of the sixth spot, the work's not done yet because the rest of their schedule is brutal: at Philly, vs. NYCFC, at D.C., vs. Columbus, vs. Toronto, at New England. And, of course, because of what D.C. United did on Sunday night (more on that below).
Three of the last four are six-pointers against teams that could plausibly catch them. Montreal's defense needs to figure out what went right against RBNY, bottle it, and keep it with them for the rest of the year.
7. That said, TFC didn't look much like a team in danger of catching anybody this week. Their 4-2 home loss to LAFC was yet another defensive disaster in a season full of defensive disasters. They don't win balls in central midfield at the same rate they did last year, and they don't close down danger through central midfield as well as they did last year, and that puts pressure on a patchwork backline that's not been up to the job.
LAFC, after struggling for about a month, have gone 3-0-1 in their last four and are up to second in the West.
6. Up to seventh in the West? That'd be the 'Caps, who beat San Jose 2-1 and are now 4-0-2 in their last six and possessed of an outside chance at making the playoffs. This whole sequence might be the prettiest goal they've ever scored under Carl Robinson, and it's all our Pass of the Week:
That run from Alphonso Davies is devastating.
In addition to Davies, Homegrown products Russell Teibert and Brett Levis (who is Homegrown-ish, having played for the 'Caps U-23s and Whitecaps 2, but not the academy) have both played huge roles in this run. Better late than never.
5. Philly basically secured a playoff spot this week, going on the road to beat D.C. United midweek before grinding out a 2-2 draw at Orlando City on Saturday night. It probably feels like two points dropped for the Union, who took and then squandered a late lead, but it's hard to complain too much from a two-game, four-day, four-point road trip against conference foes.
The bad news for Philly was that Borek Dockal came off with some sort of injury on 40 minutes. The good news is that Homegrown central midfielder Derrick Jones took his place and put in a solid and reliable, if unsexy 50 minutes as the usual 4-2-3-1 turned into more of a 4-3-3. It was a slightly different look than we're used to seeing from them – one in which the midfield played a little bit deeper, they had a little bit less of the ball, and the wings had to do more of the playmaking lift – but it worked. And it's the type of look that could be useful down the line, say in the last 30 minutes of a road game in the playoffs. Hint hint.
Cory Burke got another goal in this one, and he's now on 8g/1a in 949 minutes. There's no "Breakout Player of the Year" award in MLS, but there should be, and if there was then Burke would probably be it. His consistent goalscoring has changed Philly from a solid team that plays pretty if ineffective soccer to a dangerous team that plays winning soccer.
He's also a guy who developed at Bethlehem Steel, Philly's USL affiliate. We've talked a lot about the Union's academy investment, and we should now dap them up for the investment they've made in their entire pipeline. It's a huge chunk of why they'll be in the playoffs.
4. FC Dallas put the brakes on what had turned into a mini slide – one win in five – with a convincing and comprehensive 4-2 win over the visiting Dynamo on Saturday in Frisco.
The most noteworthy takeaways:
- They are much better when Reto Ziegler is at CB instead of Maynor Figueroa
- Maxi Urruti continues his transformation into a "run anywhere you want" No. 10
I think Pablo Aranguiz is going to have a tough time getting onto the field. Oscar Pareja is loathe to bench Urruti, and to be fair, Urruti repaid that faith with 1g/3a in two games this past week after a long barren spell.
3. NYCFC are officially slumping. They went to Columbus and got damn near played off the field in the first half, took an against-the-run-of-play lead early in the second half, then almost immediately folded and gave that lead away in what became a 2-1 loss to a Crew SC team that's mostly righted the ship.
It hasn't been just one thing with NYCFC and is much more a collection of little things. But one of those "little things" is larger than it seems at first glance, namely: They're playing 8% fewer passes in their own defensive half under Dome Torrent, which means they're doing less work with the ball in terms of rearranging their opposition.
Think about NYCFC at their best. Yes, they could and did viciously press teams, but they were also patient and studious and precise with their movement when they had the ball. The goal was to suck opposing defenses into bad spots, then when they were compact, to use one or two touches to eliminate a whole host of them and force a scramble. Then in the midst of those scrambles, kill.
They don't really do that anymore. It's a problem.
For Crew SC, this was Justin Meram's real homecoming, the first time he looked and played like the player he was last year. If they get more of that guy in the coming weeks, and if Federico Higuain stays healthy, they are indeed, as Torrent said, a threat to win the league.
2. Wow. Let's run down the list of things D.C. United did in Sunday night's really, really really impressive 3-1 win over visiting Atlanta:
- They ended Atlanta's seven-game unbeaten run
- They ended Atlanta's two-game winning streak
- They ended Josef Martinez's nine-game goal-scoring streak
- They ended Martinez's streak of 10 straight road games with a goal
- They bounced back from a painful midweek home loss to Philly
- They climbed up to seventh in the Eastern Conference on both points and points per game
I'll admit I didn't think they had it in them. I'll admit that I thought the midweek loss to the Union would be more destructive to both D.C.'s team morale and their overall playoff hopes. I'll admit that I underestimated the "Bill Hamid vs. Atlanta United" effect.
I'll also admit that I didn't think D.C. would do such a good job of protecting the ball and limiting their midfield turnovers. They were out-possessed – almost everybody's out-possessed against the Five Stripes – which is fine, and there were times when they sprayed their passes a little bit. But there weren't a huge amount of passes that were forced down blind alleys or into traffic, and if you don't do that, you at least somewhat limit Atlanta's ability to counter on you. And if you limit their ability to counter on you, they're beatable.
Paul Arriola was excellent in his first game at right back, and the center backs have been better since Kofi Opare's won the starting job. The defensive midfield pairing of Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno has been solid. What Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta have done together in attack has been beyond solid – it's been spectacular and compelling and match-winning.
D.C. could've fallen apart after the two-game losing streak against RBNY last weekend and Philly midweek. Instead they outplayed the best team in the league, and deserved their win. Next week they go to the Bronx and visit NYCFC. Then they have a run of seven straight home games.
Anyone brave enough to bet they'll still be below the playoff line at the end of that stretch?
Why didn't he even attempt to kick it? I don't know! It's a mystery! He looks confused, too!
Good week for the Timbers, though, who followed up their four-game losing streak with four points. As for the Revs, they're now winless in nine and Brad Friedel's backing up the bus.
"I told the players to their face that every single one of them are playing for their contracts, absolutely," he said after the game. "We’re learning a lot about what’s happened here the last few years."
He also added that "We’re coaching for our contracts. That’s professional sports."
New England are on 1.15 ppg, their worst record since 2012.