Armchair Analyst: The whole weekend in review from MLS Week 30

It's been a couple of months since we went through the entire weekend worth of games, and I'm out of big picture ideas/themes/metaphors to flog, so let's just go back to the well, shall we? Time for a good, old-fashioned round-up.

LAFC 2, San Jose Earthquakes 0

I'll get this out of the way early: The Quakes played more good soccer in 180 minutes this past week under Steve Ralston than they'd managed in the 2500ish they'd played under Mikael Stahre. On Wednesday they suffered one of the more heartbreaking results of the year, seeing a 4-1 lead turn into a 4-3 loss, and then on Saturday they headed into downtown LA to face one of the top teams in the conference.

As well as they played, as good as the moments were through that fun, "we want the ball, and will use it to spread you out and move you around" midfield, they simply do not have the talent to survive borderline calls, or short-turnaround road games, or a few defensive breakdowns, or shoddy marking on set pieces, or squandered chances:

Their margins are smaller.

LAFC's margins are not smaller, which means that they can go out and get comfortable results even when they don't play particularly well – which was the case in this one. The Black-and-Gold were not "sharp" in any particular sense, and Bob Bradley is still in a little bit of mix-and-match mode in terms of trying to get the best out of his cadre of attackers. In this one it was less of the usual 4-3-3 and more of a pure 4-2-3-1, with Carlos Vela playing directly underneath Adama Diomande

Those two have no chemistry yet, and while the attack generated a lot of shots, they didn't generate a lot of good shots.

They didn't have to, though. Again: their margins are bigger. And in this case it wasn't the individual, creative brilliance of Vela or Diego Rossi or Lee Nguyen or Benny Feilhaber, but rather the aerial dominance of center back Walker Zimmerman, who rose up and punished San Jose on a pair of corner kicks that led LAFC to a win.

LAFC were able to win, and experiment, and fine tune all at the same time. It's why they're near the top of the West.

New York Red Bulls 2, Toronto FC 0

I've been looking for a few ways to try to explain how much the Red Bulls have changed under Chris Armas. And before I dive in too hard here, let me just start this segment with the understanding that I still think RBNY are very good under their new manager. Following this win they're now 8-3-3 with a +5 goal differential in Armas's 14 games in charge, which is a good look no matter how you slice it.

I'd argue, though, that it's not as good as what RBNY were during the first 16 games of the season, in which they went 10-4-2 and were +18. I finally found a number I think shines a light on why.

It is the "duel," an Opta stat that's exactly what you think it is. Two players go for the ball, and who comes away with it?

RBNY through the first 16 games of the season were elite at winning duels, and off-the-charts in terms of engaging in them. They challenged for more balls in more spots and with more energy than any team I've ever seen in this league, and pretty clearly defined themselves by winning those duels.

  • Five of RBNY's bottom six games in terms of total duels this season have come under Armas
  • Seven of RBNY's bottom 11 games in terms of total duels won this season have come under Armas
  • Ten of RBNY's bottom 15 games in terms of duel success rate have come under Armas

They still compete for and win a lot of balls, and as they showed against Toronto FC in a 2-0 win (a game in which they had their fewest duels of the season, and tied for their fewest duels won), there's more than one way to skin a cat.

I'm just not sure that what they're doing now is the most effective way. RBNY are not yet as good at passing the ball as they were at winning it.

It'll be interesting to see if they reclaim their identity next week against Atlanta United in a must-win if they want to grab their third Supporters' Shield in six seasons.

Columbus Crew SC 2, Colorado Rapids 1

Here, in this sequence, is the illustration of how Columbus are one of the best teams in MLS and also not one of the best teams in MLS:

Here as well is our Face of the Week courtesy of Pedro Santos.

Santos, the Portuguese Designated Player winger, has now played 3046 minutes in MLS between the regular season and last year's playoffs. He has taken 92 shots, many of which have come from good spots. His expected goals on those shots sits at 6.10 according to Opta.

He has scored one career goal.

Santos takes over 2.7 shots per 90 minutes (including playoffs), which means he's a high-volume shooter. Steve Fenn did some wonderful research last month in which he catalogued all the high-volume shooters in MLS history, with a minimum of 3,000 minutes played. The worst finisher of that bunch was Portland winger Dairon Asprilla, at .08 goals per 90 minutes.

Santos is at less than half of that number – .03 goals per 90, to be precise, worsting the worst finisher in MLS history by a mile. Just by pure luck he should have two or three more goals.

I understand why he's gotten so much run, as he's a smart player in build-up play, has good feet and does a good amount of unselfish running. He can be effective, and has been, at helping to dictate the game.

His finishing, though, has gone past tragedy and into comedy. If Columbus were getting more out of Justin Meram on the other wing, or more raw production from Federico Higuain (who, to be fair, had 1g/1a in this one), you could float Santos as a playmaking, pocket winger and live with the unfinished looks.

But that's not the way things are right now for Crew SC. They had to squeeze out a 1-goal win over 10-man Colorado when they should've won going away. It's an issue that's been staring at them for a year-and-a-half, and there's no compelling evidence it'll be going away anytime soon.

Atlanta United 2, Real Salt Lake 0

This was the best team in the league, at home, just taking care of business against an outclassed (but still game – RSL competed) opponent.

The interesting aspect of it was Tata Martino breaking out a new formation, opting for a 3-4-3 with Julian Gressel and 16-year-old US youth international George Bello at wingbacks:

This is a network passing map 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 back and forth. Bello (21) is on the left, with Gressel (24) on the right.

And yeah, that's normal midfielder Jeff Larentowicz (18) as kind of a sweeper, leaving Eric Remedi and newly healthy Darlington Nagbe to handle central midfield.

I'm not sure if this is what to expect from the Five Stripes going forward, or if this is just Tata taking another club out of the bag and giving it a swing. My guess is we'll get to see what he deems to be his A+ lineup next weekend in Harrison.

Montreal Impact 1, NYCFC 1

I didn't, and still don't understand Dome Torrent's decision to go with a 4-4-2 diamond midfield over the past couple of weeks, as it's robbed a team lousy with wingers of some of the dynamism true, wide attackers can and do provide. By making the game more compact they have struggled to spread out their opposition, and have lacked the sharpness needed both on and off the ball to simply play through them.

Was this weekend their nadir? Well, they did get a point on the road, which isn't a bad result by any means. But they got it via an own goal and didn't take a single shot from inside the box. Montreal are a good-not-great defensive team who were able to build a wall and about 25 yards from goal and keep NYCFC from really troubling Evan Bush in any meaningful sense.

The Cityzens have now taken just seven points from their last nine games (one win and four draws), their worst run of form since their 2015 expansion season.

This result, though, was much more painful for an Impact team coming off back-to-back three-goal wins and needing to put as much room between themselves and D.C. United as possible. NYCFC, to their credit, didn't concede a lot of bad turnovers in the middle of the pitch, and if you don't do that, Montreal just don't have a lot of ways to break you down – save for a bit of wizardry from Ignacio Piatti and a deflected blast from Micheal Azira.

They need a result next week at D.C. now. If they don't get one, they probably don't make the playoffs. If they do, sixth place is almost certainly theirs for good.

New England Revolution 2, Chicago Fire 2

New England had stopped a summer's worth of bleeding over the previous three games by simply making fewer inexcusable errors at the back. In this one they gave up the first goal after Aleksandar Katai took the ball off of Brandon Bye's foot, and the second after Michael Mancienne turned the ball into his own net.

The Revs remain a super strange team. They seem to care about passing now, and Brad Friedel has banished a number of the players he signed this offseason (we need to put an APB out on Gabriel Somi, and Wilfried Zahibo is nowhere to be found). Kelyn Rowe was in central midfield to start the game, and finished it at left back. Juan Agudelo is exclusively a midfielder now. Scott Caldwell is asked to get into the box and finish plays off.

Given Montreal's draw the Revs had an open door here, but they couldn't walk through it. And given the rest of their schedule, it's really, really tough to see them closing the gap. They're in eighth place now and they're probably going to stay there.

Chicago's roster is built so haphazardly they're playing Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of the four best central midfielders this century, at center back. But hey they're unbeaten in three now and are out there ending people's seasons.

Orlando City 0, Houston Dynamo 0

Orlando City started four deep-lying midfielders and only two attackers. They were clearly playing for a scoreless drawHouston weren't, as Wilmer Cabrera ran out something close to his first XI despite having the U.S. Open Cup final on Wednesday (8 pm ET; ESPN2, UDN) – and got it.

None of the Lions' players were under age 26, and head coach James O'Connor, who's now 1-9-3 in his 13 games in charge (all competitions), made just one sub. If there's been a silver lining to this miserable year in central Florida it's been the play of rookie winger Chris Mueller, but Mueller never got off the bench.

Houston weren't able to break down the bunker, and didn't really try super hard to do so. They spent the better part of this season trying to use the ball, have finally accepted they're not good enough to do so, and are now settling back into last year's identity just ahead of their chance to win a trophy.

It's the right move, even if it meant a dire draw.

Minnesota United 3, Portland Timbers 2

"If Portland finishes in the top three of the Western Conference, Diego Chara should be a finalist for MVP. The numbers speak for themselves." – Bobby Warshaw

The numbers over the long haul: They are now winless in 22 games in which Chara doesn't start.

The numbers in this one: They were outscored 3-0 in the first half with Chara on the bench, and dominated the second half, but couldn't quite find the equalizer, once he came on after the break.

The Timbers are now 3-6-1 since the end of their 15-game unbeaten run, a large enough sample size to say that whatever magic they had from April to August has dissipated. It was apparent in the numbers at the time, of course – you can't just grind out one-goal wins week after week. Eventually even the best teams regress to the mean, and the Timbers are far from the best.

“The second half, that was our team," is what head coach Giovanni Savarese said afterward. "We came in with the right energy. We spoke in the locker room and we did the things we know we are capable of. We almost tied the game. I think we had good chances and it was a great effort. This is the team that we have to have. This is the team that can come out and play away and get victories because what we did in the second half was fantastic.”

Of note is that Savarese switched his side to a 4-2-3-1 for the second 45, which is not a look we've seen a whole lot of this year. But it really was effective.

And Minnesota were effective as well. Let's give Darwin Quintero our Pass of the Week:

The Loons are now a totally respectable 9-4-1 at home, and in Quintero (and perhaps goalscorer Romario Ibarra?) they've shown that they can get the occasional big signing right. Their other DP, striker Angelo Rodriguez, has left a bit more to be desired.

Philadelphia Union 2, Sporting KC 0

Over the last 25 games across all competitions, Philly are 16-7-2 with a +16 goal differential. Sustain that over the course of a full season and you're right there in the Supporters' Shield fight with Atlanta and the Red Bulls.

That run coincided with DP No. 10 Borek Dockal, who leads MLS with 15 assists, really settling into the team and understanding the system after a rough first two months, and with Cory Burke fighting his way into the rotation. Those two personnel changes are the biggest reason why the Union, who were the lowest-scoring non-Seattle team in the league over the first two months, have averaged nearly two goals per game over the last four.

But they are not the only reason, and what better example of that is there than Sunday's unexpected win over visiting Sporting KC? "Unexpected" because Philly head coach Jim Curtin mostly rested his starters ahead of Wednesday's final in Houston. Burke didn't play, nor did C.J. Sapong or Haris Medunjanin or Andre Blake or Jack Elliott or Raymon Gaddis. Dockal played just 55 minutes. Alejandro Bedoya, Fafa Picault and Keegan Rosenberry came off the bench. 

Curtin went deep, deep down the bench – all the way to Bethlehem – and found a bunch of reserves and academy products and USL projects who played Sporting to a standstill. And then, over the final 20 minutes with Bedoya seemingly everywhere, they won the little moments and the big game thanks to Jay Simpson (!!!) of all people.

Two notes on Dockal, both from Bobby:

  • Philly has very rarely adjust game to game, but it seemed pretty clear that Dockal was assigned to making sure Ilie couldn't help the buildout
  • Offensively, Dockal provided the perfected example of what you want from a USMNT No. 10. He didn't create chances, but he just made everything so damn calm

The Union were good. They will have to be even better – cleaner on the ball, and more precise in their finishing – to claim the club's first trophy on Wednesday.

LA Galaxy 3, Seattle Sounders 0

The scoreline was dominant, but the Galaxy weren't, really. Instead they were just solid and compact and played with a bit of decisiveness in the big moments – moments they've habitually lost all season – and that gave the attack (which is legitimately scary at times) enough breathing room to shred a Galaxy backline playing without Chad Marshall as they went on to win by three goals.

Both teams came out in what were basically flat 4-4-2s, but this wasn't really about that beyond "keep a good shape." It was just about being quick and committed in the final third, and one team having Zlatan and the other... not.

Dom Kinnear's teams have played similar to this in the past (and to be fair to Dom, they've also played some nice soccer – the 2005 Quakes and 2007 Dynamo teams in particular).

Now is not the time to worry about that, though. Now is the time for "get the ball to Zlatan and try not to screw up."

On this day they did it well. And while it's still a reach to imagine them making the playoffs (they'd probably need to win three of their last four to have a chance), at least they kept the dream alive for one more weekend.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC 1, FC Dallas 2

It's the little things, right? Especially when you're not a team that can put 11 guys out there and just count on winning the talent war, you've got to make sure you take care of the little things.

What's Yordy Reyna doing at the near post there? Why doesn't Doneil Henry keep tracking Matt Hedges?

This win vaulted FC Dallas back to the top of the West, and they fully deserved it. They played like a veteran team who've been there before, and that's because they have: many of these guys are holdovers from the 2016 double-winning side.

There's no silver lining here for Vancouver. The rest of their schedule's a woodchipper and it's hard to see them making another appearance in the postseason after this one.

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