Let's dive in.
Here’s what I wrote before the game: The New York Red Bulls are without their two best and most important players in Bradley Wright-Phillips and Tyler Adams. I’ll be surprised if this is not a multi-goal Atlanta United win.
Here’s what I wrote after the game:
- Aaron Long outplayed Leandro Gonzalez Pirez
- Sean Davis outplayed Eric Remedi
- Brian White outplayed Josef Martinez
- Alex Muyl outplayed Tito Villalba
- Derrick Etienne, Jr. outplayed Ezequiel Barco
There is more than one way to build a great, and on this day – a 2-0 Red Bull win that could’ve been 4- or 5-0 – an utterly dominant MLS team. RBNY have spent on the likes of Kaku, Daniel Royer and Marc Rzatkowski, and those players lifted them. But what defines this team is that nobody’s put more blood, sweat, toil and tears, money, time and resources into building their youth-to-pros pipeline than the team in Harrison, and there’s been plenty of proof of concept, including two Supporters’ Shields already.
Because of this remarkable performance on Sunday, they now have more than just a puncher’s chance at a third.
I’ll get to the tactics in a minute, but it needs to be said: This was as much a victory of logistics as it was strategy, tactics or personnel, because the logistics of how the Red Bulls build their entire club, from the ground up, makes it possible to replace players the caliber of BWP or Adams and not skip a beat in the biggest game of the regular season. Every other team in the league would’ve lost this game before the ball was kicked, but because RBNY care about developing their own local talent, and because they believe in their ability to develop guys who come through the SuperDraft, and because they have a holistic approach to how they play, they could just go down the list to the next guy up and create a plug-and-play situation that kept the Supporters’ Shield race alive.
I’m impressed. You should be, too.
I’m also impressed by how this team, on this day, melded the all-out press that defined the Red Bulls through the first half of the season with the more patient, possession-oriented approach that head coach Chris Armas has been instilling (and that I have been admittedly lukewarm on).
We all know what the press looks like. Here’s what patience and precision in possession looks like:
I’ve been skeptical about the adjustments Armas has been encouraging from his team – the Plan B that will hopefully, from a RBNY point of view, make this squad the one that is finally destined to take every hurdle in the postseason. At times the Red Bulls have been unable to exert their will upon the game, and at other times they’ve been sloppy in the back, and overall they’ve not been able to generate as many chances as they were earlier in the season.
That all disappeared on Sunday. They pressed Atlanta viciously for the first 45, played long when they had to, played patiently out of the back when they wanted to, and finished the game off with some classic counterpunching. It was as complete a performance as any coach could’ve hoped for, and Armas deserves a ton of credit. I’m willing to shake his hand, and bet everybody else is, too:
TATA!— Anthony Rizzo (@RizzoReport) September 30, 2018
SOME AFTERNOON HEAT! pic.twitter.com/zKpSzRVzlF
Well anyway, now he just needs to bottle this and make sure it’s ready to go in November when the playoffs begin. Because if it is, then RBNY are probably favorite to, for the first time in their history, stand on the field and hold up a trophy when the playoffs end.
D.C. United just beat the hell out of Montreal Impact on Saturday in the weekend's other absolutely gigantic game. Obviously there wasn't a title on the line in this one, but rather the upper hand in the race for the East's final playoff spot. With the 5-0 win United are two points back of the Impact, but have a higher PPG, two games in hand, and four of their final five at home.
They also have, in Lucho Acosta, a No. 10 who's playing as well as anyone in the league right now and should be the Player of the Week after a dominant 1g/3a performance. And it's not just about the boxscore numbers he's putting up, or his combination play with Señor Wayne, but it's how he allows United to play legitimately tough passes into the most valuable real estate on the pitch:
Montreal bunker, and then they counter, and of late they've been killing teams who've tried to play through that bunker. Baiting teams into passes like that one above, into spots like that one, are literally their very best attacking weapon.
Because Acosta is so active seeking those lanes and so secure once he gets on the ball there, D.C. sprung the trap and then buried the Impact with it. Once they made it 1-0 Montreal had to come out and play, and once they did that, D.C. threw a few more tons of dirt on the visitors by unleashing a vicious high press that turned the game into a rout.
“He obviously has a lot of confidence and the way he is playing is great not just with the ball but off the ball," is how winger Paul Arriola, who had a pair of goals, put it. "He is being held accountable for defensive movements and I think that’s great because without him in the middle to take away the [opposing defensive midfielder], the way that him and Wayne work together really helps us defensively, at least the other eight that are behind them. So credit to him for what he is doing and everything he is touching now is a goal which is nice [when] you give the ball to him in the right spots."
It's just the second time Montreal have conceded more than one goal in a game since July, and not coincidentally their second loss in that stretch. They still have an identity and still have two more points than United, so this race isn't run yet. But it sure did get a lot harder for an Impact team that really, really needed a result in this one.
A few more things to ponder…
9. The other gigantic, leave-no-doubt win was Seattle’s 4-0 over Colorado at CenturyLink, breaking a mini two-game skid for the Sounders and creating a little bit of breathing room between them and the playoff line. Nicolas Lodeiro was great, as was pretty much everyone else on Seattle, and there’s not much to analyze beyond that. It was just a case of a good team beating one that’s not so good.
How not so good? Colorado are now one of just two teams in the post-shootout MLS era with two separate 6+ game losing streaks in the same season. They’ve been outscored 19-1 since a 2-2 draw at LA on August 14.
8. If the LA Galaxy miss the playoffs that’s probably the game they’ll want to point at, but right now they’re in the midst of pulling an Undertaker-at-Wrestlemania back-from-the-dead trick. On Saturday night they posted their second straight 3-0 win against a conference foe, this time drilling the ‘Caps.
Zlatan was, once again, immense. And he gave us our Face of the Week after his second goal of the night:
7. LA are two points back after Real Salt Lake’s 1-1 draw at Sporting KC on Sunday night. Sporting were able to cut off the supply of service from the midfield to RSL’s attackers, and while part of that is just good, solid, positional defense, the other part of it is how you position yourself in attack. And for SKC, that means moving Graham Zusi way up the right side, which dragged RSL’s left winger Joao Plata deeper than he wanted to be, and made central midfield lopsided as well.
So RSL were a mess through midfield, but 1) Justen Glad was imperious in central defense, 2) Nick Rimando had the millionth monster game of his legendary career, and 3) they were ruthless on the counterattack, mostly through presumptive Rookie of the Year Corey Baird. RSL's blueprint has been very similar to RBNY's, and while they haven't been quite as good, they control their own destiny with three games left in the season. Can't ask for much more than that.
SKC could've asked for two more points, and given the spark Diego Rubio provided when he came on for the final 15, I have to imagine they'd have gotten them if he'd been healthy and available for the full 90.
6. The Timbers climbed up to fourth by virtue of a scoreless home draw against FC Dallas in one of the weekend’s uglier games. Portland, playing without Sebastian Blanco, tried out a 4-4-2 diamond that generated next to nothing against one of the better defenses in the league.
This is 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. In order for the diamond to work the forwards have to have some sort of partnership with the ball, and as you can see Jeremy Ebobisse (17) and Samuel Armenteros (99) played like two guys who've never been on the same field before for more than brief moments.
I’ve got to tell you: It’s weird that Diego Chara is still not back to playing as a defensive midfielder, and has spent the vast majority of the last four months as some version of a shuttler, mostly pinned to one side of the field or another instead of dictating play from the middle. One of the pleasant surprises of the first half of the season, Cristhian Paredes has been banished, and the midfield as a whole is much less dynamic than it once was. I don’t get it.
Dallas, meanwhile, should be happy with a four-point road trip to Cascadia, but at least mildly concerned that they haven’t scored an open play goal in any of their last three outings.
5. The other scoreless draw was in Columbus, where Philadelphia rebounded from their disappointing U.S. Open Cup showing midweek to strangle the life out of the game in Ohio. As it stands, with Crew SC in fourth place and Philly in fifth, these teams are slated to meet in the Knockout Round a month from now.
4. That said, there should be real questions about NYCFC's ability to hold onto third place after this week. They did get a 2-0 midweek home win over Chicago, but followed that up with a short-handed and listless 2-1 loss at Minnesota United at the weekend. They're now 2-5-4 across their last 11 games, and Dome is still tinkering – this week it was a pure 4-3-3 with three very rigid midfielders.
Granted, they played this one without David Villa or Maxi Moralez (both were rested), and that makes a difference. And granted, Yangel Herrera is rumored to be back soon, and that's a big deal: They're 7-1-3, +10 when he plays 75+ minutes, and just 8-8-3, +4 in all other games. But it feels like excuse-making at this point for a team that's now spent a third of the season dragging its rear end across the carpet.
Angelo Rodriguez, who's come in for some criticism in this space, deserves a round of applause for his very clinical brace. The Loons need their Designated Player No. 9 to play like an actual DP No. 9 come 2019.
You should watch this whole video, but if you just want the Dio/Carlos Vela clips, jump to 3:20:
Vela did not complete a single pass to Diomande. Diomande did not complete a single pass to Vela. And their lack of chemistry wasn't limited only to on-the-ball moments.
The loss – playing as soft as they did, being as leaky as they were – is something of an outlier for LAFC, who are still in third in the West and are still going to the playoffs and are still a decent bet to ruin somebody's day there. But if they're going to be a legitimate threat to win the whole damn thing, they need to figure out how to get their two best players functioning together.
As for Chicago, it's safe to assume there will be big changes this offseason, but one thing that shouldn't change: playing time for Djordje Mihailovic. He walked right back into the starting lineup in mid-August when he got healthy and the 19-year-old has 1g/3a in about 400 minutes since his return from an ACL tear, including 1g/1a on Saturday. He is a major piece of whatever comes next for this club.
2. San Jose played 60 wonderful minutes before running out of gas and getting run off the field over the final half hour in Houston, courtesy of the same old issues: lack of speed at the back, mistakes in their own 18 and tragic goalkeeping. The Dynamo won 3-2, capping an excellent week for the Orange.
Houston are infinitely better with Juan David Cabezas back.
That result pretty much ended New England's season. And yeah, it's kind of remarkable that they've won just once in three months but still had faint playoff hopes heading into this past weekend. MLS is weird like that.