Armchair Analyst: Your complete guide to the Week 31 MLS slate

The final weekend of September is here. The season's almost done.

Let's jump in:

Saturday Slate

Chicago Fire vs. LAFC
3:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

With all due respect to the Fire, this game's much more about LAFC finding the right balance down the stretch and into the playoffs than it is about anything Chicago do. They've been a reactive blob of a team this year under Veljko Paunovic – they've just about entirely scrapped the "victory through possession" ethos that dragged them all the way to third place in last year's table – so it's tough to preview them week-to-week.

LAFC's a little bit easier to pin down. And it should be noted that last weekend's game, a pretty run-of-the-mill 2-0 win over the Quakes in which LAFC were very good defensively and kind of static in attack, featured a slight but significant formational shift.

Here's what LAFC looked like in a recent 4-2 win at Toronto FC:

That's a network passing graph 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.

This is a 4-3-3. Lee Nguyen (24) has more of a playmaker's role than the other central midfielders, but he's still very much a part of the midfield rather than a second forward, and the two wingers are playing high and relatively connected to the center forward.

Here's last week against the Quakes:

This is much, much more of a 4-2-3-1 with Carlos Vela (10) playing as a pure second forward. The midfield was a true dual pivot as opposed to the free-flowing three-headed midfield monster we've seen at times from the Black-and-Gold this year. Neither fullback pushed as high as we've seen from them, supporting the attack rather than initiating it. And that attack was supposed to flow through Vela rather than to him, as Adama Diomande (9) led the line.

I understand the appeal of this more basic approach, if indeed that's what we're going to see from LAFC from here on out. There's so much talent in that front four that "let's throw them out there in their natural spots" should be an effective gameplan, and – more to the point – this does seem to provide a good dose of the defensive structure and rigidity that LAFC have, at times, been missing.

In terms of offense they are very clearly one of the best teams in the league, while defensively they have been clearly a step below the other elite tier sides. Sacrificing, say, 10 percent of your attacking fluidity for a 25 pecent increase in defensive effectiveness? I just made those numbers up, but still, the principle's right and the gamble makes sense.

Or it did last week anyway. Let's see what happens on Saturday.

Seattle Sounders vs. Colorado Rapids
4 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

We've seen it a million times over the years: A team goes on a long winning (or unbeaten) streak, and then when it comes to an end, they immediately hit a lull. The question then becomes "do you have the mental fortitude to come back and find the formula that fueled the winning streak in the first place?"

That lull for Seattle happened last week, with a pair of dispiriting losses. Will it be three?

If it is, then yeah... time to panic for the Sounders, because you absolutely can not drop points at home to this Colorado team. Expect Seattle to come out in their standard 4-2-3-1 and to try to play into the gaps between the Rapids center backs and fullbacks. Everybody who's tried this over the past month has succeeded, as Colorado have taken just one of the last 18 points available, and have conceded 17 goals in that time.

Also: I'm willing to concede that Harry Shipp was maybe a bigger loss for the Sounders than people realize:

He's out with a long-term injury. It's time for Victor Rodriguez to step toward a big opportunity.

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact
7 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

In terms of Eastern Conference playoff implications, this is the biggest game of the weekend, and probably the biggest remaining game of the regular season. If D.C. win, they're probably heavy favorites to pass Montreal in the coming weeks and grab the sixth spot. If the Impact win, it's hard to see how they don't qualify. If it's a draw ... probably still advantage, Impact.

I enjoyed this from Tifo Football on how Wayne Rooney's been drifting between true 9 and false 9 for United:

In large part the goal of his movement is/has been to get opposing defenses to come with him up the pitch and toward midfield. Doing that opens space in behind for runners like Lucho Acosta, Yamil Asad and Paul Arriola. It's like aikido – you use the defense's momentum against them.

This very same strategy worked pretty great for TFC three weeks ago against this very same Montreal team, as the Reds' forwards got between the lines, got Montreal's defenders moving toward them, and then cut them up. It's useful film that I'm sure both Remi Garde and Ben Olsen watched a bunch of this week.

On the flip side: How high to push Oniel Fisher (or Arriola if it's him at RB)? D.C. attack best when their wingers dive inside in the final third, which means they have to get attacking width from their fullbacks. It's worked great, but when your fullbacks are pushing that high, every turnover becomes an existential crisis.

And when your right back pushes that high, and it's Ignacio Piatti lined up against him, you're just asking to get countered into the grave.

Columbus Crew SC vs. Philadelphia Union
7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Philly were pretty thoroughly beaten in the U.S. Open Cup final on Wednesday night, and while a bit of that likely comes down to that being their fourth game in 10 days, a bit more of it came down to Houston's ability to sever the connection between Haris Medunjanin and the rest of the Union midfield.

Medunjanin is the organizing force to Philly's possession-heavy approach, using that cultured left foot of his to 1) spray passes to the flanks, and 2) hit third-line passes between opposing midfielders to his teammates between the lines. That second function is the more important one, and it's the one that Houston took away:

Those left-to right diagonals – red arrows indicate incomplete passes – are Medunjanin's bread-and-butter. On Wednesday they were Houston counterattacks waiting to happen.

I'm not sure that Crew SC will sit on his left foot quite so much, but the effectiveness of that ploy will have been noticed by Gregg Berhalter & Co.

A win here pretty well guarantees Columbus will get a home game in the Knockout Round. I'm quite interested in seeing if Niko Hansen will get another start on the wing given his strong showing a week-and-a-half ago in Portland.

Toronto FC vs. New England Revolution
7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

TFC's season essentially ended last week, with both Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore limping off injured during losses to Tigres and RBNY, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them go a little bit experimental with their lineup, formation and tactical approach. Liam Fraser, maybe? Ayo Akinola? No reason not to see them, given the stakes are now very low.

The stakes for the Revs, of course, are very high, and there's not a ton of reason to think they're up to getting a win (which they desperately need) here. As noted by local blog TheBentMusket, their primary issues continue to be defensive, and newcomer Michael Mancienne – the highest-paid defender in the league – has not been up to the task of fixing the backline.

The former Nottingham Forest fullback does lead the team in both clearances and blocks per game after only five appearances, but his miscues on Saturday were glaring, especially considering the game’s magnitude. And New England has just one win since his arrival, the epic 1-0 victory in the Bronx over NYCFC. Their other impressive performance, a 1-1 draw at LAFC, occurred while the Chelsea youth product was in England for the birth of his first child. Overall, the Revs are just 1-2-2 when he’s been on the pitch.

That's not great. It needs to change if the Revs are to keep their playoff hopes on life support for one more week.

Minnesota United FC vs. NYCFC
7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

NYCFC got a much-needed win on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, riding a strong second half to a 2-0 result over the visiting Fire. Domè Torrent once again tinkered, though this time it was to good effect as a straight-up 4-3-3 (with Maxi Moralez on the wing) allowed them both a bit more defensive solidity through midfield, and a little bit more of the ball in dangerous areas.

It's a different story at Minnesota United. The Loons have ranged from very good to excellent at home over the last few months, which includes a rampant first half last week against the Timbers. They've flipped between a 3-5-2 and a 4-2-3-1, but regardless the goal has remained the same: Get Darwin Quintero on the ball in areas where he can make plays.

So they haven't so much defined a style (there's way too much roster churn for that) as they have developed a guiding principle. Yet "Let your best player decide the game" hasn't been enough to get them into the playoff hunt in any meaningful way, but it's made them a tough out in front of their own fans.

Houston Dynamo vs. San Jose Earthquakes
8:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Unspoken in that Philly bit above: Houston were only able to execute that gameplan because defensive midfielder (and 2017 team MVP) Juan David Cabezas is back. He was excellent on Wednesday, but he went all 90 and given the injuries he's battled all year, it would be foolish for Wilmer Cabrera to run him out there from the start again.

So there's a midfield question for the Dynamo. There are the usual ones for the Quakes, who've played some good soccer under Steve Ralston but have yet to collect a point. Fun moments, though.

One note from last week: They actually did a better job of winning midfield duels against LAFC than they've normally done throughout the year. If they can win those duels, win the ball, and then play through the middle, they can start to develop a useful identity.

LA Galaxy vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
10 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

LA won for the first time since July last weekend, dominating Seattle 3-0. They went up early, rode it out, and got a much-needed shutout.

And there's no secret to how they did it: They just went back to the basics, played a bog-standard 4-4-2 and managed to not screw up all that much at the back. Up top, Romain Alessandrini tormented the right side of Seattle's defense in 1-v-1 situations, which pulled defenders away from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ola Kamara. Ibrahimovic and Kamara then did what good forwards do when they have that kind of extra space.

There's nothing fancy about this. It's a training session:

And that's good! That's how you want things to be.

This game will come down to that at least in part. The other part will be winning the ball at central midfield in order to stop Vancouver's vicious counterattack (I'm assuming they'll still be a counterattacking team in the post-Carl Robinson era).

And that's the downside of the 4-4-2: You lack an extra man in central midfield to control the game. If the 'Caps start dominating those second balls and getting out on the run, one of the forwards will have to drop back to help, or Alessandrini will have to come in off the wing and into central midfield to help, and then suddenly you're talking about a different team playing in a different shape.

Portland Timbers vs. FC Dallas
10:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Portland's recent form, summed up:

Throughout the last 10 games they've been unable to figure out when they want to get pressure to service vs. when they want to play deep and track runners. Rarely have they been able to do both, and as that goal illustrates, sometimes they're simply unable to do either.

Gio Savarese has tinkered with different formations quite a bit over the last two months, and in the second half of last weekend's 3-2 loss at Minnesota the Timbers looked good in a 4-2-3-1. It would seem a smart bet to try to reprise that look in this game against an FC Dallas team that has no compunctions about sitting back and absorbing pressure.

They also have no compunctions about playing long balls over the top, just like the one seen above. FCD aren't remotely a pretty team right now – not by a long shot – but if you let them play long and play on the run, you will lose.

Sunday Doubleheader

New York Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United
1 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

You can read my colleague Bobby Warshaw's tale of the tape for this game HERE.

What I will focus on – and what I think RBNY should focus on – is the play of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. The last time these two teams met, the Red Bulls turned LGP into a turnover machine:

As Atlanta evolved away from the high pressing identity that defined them last year, more and more of the game has fallen to LGP's foot and that is mostly smart and good. He's one of the best CBs in the league at hitting third-line passes in transition, he pushes forward well, and he might be the very best in the league at big left-to-right switches (apologies to Matt Besler).

Back in May when these two teams met, he was a liability, and RBNY's No. 1 pressing trigger. Any time the ball came anywhere near him, Red Bulls players closed down like maniacs and forced him into rushed passes.

Here's the thing: Rushed passes are bad. But rushed passes when you're attempting some of the most difficult, high-risk passes in the game? Those can be fatal. Throughout the last two seasons we've seen Houston and D.C. United use similar principles – though with those teams, it comes off the counter rather than the high press – when facing the Five Stripes.

LGP is definitely going to try those passes. Can you make that work to your favor?

Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake
5 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

SKC's version of LGP – the high-risk, high-reward gambit – is the positioning of right back Graham Zusi. He's a converted midfielder, which means he's very comfortable in the final third, which means he overlaps higher and harder than any other fullback in MLS. This is mostly a good thing for Sporting, who are second in the West on both points and points per game. They've also won six games already in August and September, which is more than their past two seasons combined.

But when Zusi goes, and it results in some kind of turnover (even via a blocked shot or clearance), that is the magic hour for teams facing SKC. And in Joao Plata, RSL have the exact kind of left winger who can punish those overlaps.

Watch Ike Opara's positioning, as well as Roger Espinoza's.

One More Thing to Ponder

Japan has landed two rovers on the asteroid Ryugu, the first time that's ever been done.

Happy weekending, everybody.

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