Armchair Analyst: Form, function, the bubble and more from Week 1

There is no more home-and-home in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. There is no more question of whether it’s a positive or negative to host the second leg. There is no more questions about whether the best regular-season teams get their due in the postseason.

The playoff format has changed, and with it, some would (and have) argued that the stakes of the regular season have changed. The Supporters' Shield is still the Shield – you know how I feel about that. But now the Shield winner gets a playoff bump commensurate with the worth of that trophy, and every higher-seeded team gets the most obvious advantage possible over lower-seeded teams.

Can’t sleep out of the gate, folks. Even the Seattle Sounders got the message.

Let’s dive into Week 1:

One Way Out

With the above in mind, the playoff race is already on in the Eastern Conference. The idea – my idea, and the idea of most – is that both Philly and Toronto are and will be on the playoff bubble for the duration of the 2019 season. Maybe one or the other goes on a long winning streak to disprove that, and maybe one or the other signs a player (or three) who lifts the whole endeavor. But as it stands, looking at these teams, I think most folks would squint and see “yeah, anywhere from fourth through 10th.”

That’s what I see, too.

Toronto’s issues have been well-documented thanks to the CCL faceplant they took against Independiente, a 5-1 aggregate loss that was jarring enough for Greg Vanney to switch his team into a very Costa Rican-looking 5-4-1. The purpose of this formation (as it’s most often used) is to give the team a bit of defensive stability, and to be honest it didn’t really work – the Union’s shoddy finishing let them off the hook.

The other purpose is to flip the deep midfield into a double-pivot, which allows the two players to take turns getting forward with late runs into the box. Michael Bradley has always been very good at this – he scored 15 goals in an Eredivisie season mostly by just repeatedly making those late runs.

And then he got two more on Saturday in Toronto's 3-1 win in Chester. It should be a reminder of what Bradley’s capable of as a box-to-box midfielder, but the real issue is what it exposed about the marriage between personnel and (brand new) system for Philly:

(volume up for analysis)

I don’t know how the Union fix this with these players. I’ve been skeptical of their switch to a high-pressing, 4-4-2 diamond all offseason, and that was before they spent the first 90 minutes of the season dumping huge, kerosene-doused logs on that particular fire.

It’s just one game, the season’s far from over, and as Vanney just proved, meaningful adjustments can be made over the course of just a couple of days. I continue to believe that exact sort of thing – be it a tactical, formational or personnel adjustment – is in Philly’s near future.

The Toll

The LA Galaxy academy has long been the sleeping giant of MLS. They have the most fertile recruiting grounds – I would take Southern California over literally anywhere else in North America – the biggest name brand, a head start in even launching an academy, and a head start with their USL team (LA Galaxy II existed before any other MLS-to-USL affiliate).

What they've lacked is a "proof of concept" moment. I'll be honest in saying that I think it's their own doing, and that a team like Philadelphia would've figured out a way to matriculate at least a half-dozen kids up to the first team. They've paid a toll for failing to do that, losing a handful of kids over the past few years to teams both across the pond and south of the border.

Changing that culture is a big reason why there's a new braintrust in Carson, both in the front office and on the sideline.

So it wasn't too much of a shock to see new manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto turn to 16-year-old academy star Efrain Alvarez at the hour mark on Saturday night against the Chicago Fire. And as befitting his reputation (and his productivity last year in the USL), Alvarez was instrumental in changing the game – he factored in both LA goals as the Galaxy came back from 1-0 down to win 2-1.

Here is that proof of concept moment:

Good little bit of skill. Good vision. Great cross. Assist.

Alvarez changed the game for the Galaxy, and was one of the big reasons they won it outright. Culturally, it felt like a new beginning.

“The plan, at times, is not easy because many times the team has its needs, and the growth of a player has its own," Schelotto said of Alvarez's development after the game. "But we are going to work throughout the week and every day to give Efrain the possibility to grow, give the team a possibility to have a player like Efrain and for the team not to drawback from having to help Efrain grow because he is 16 years old, but for it to be a situation where the team, just like Efrain, can benefit from each other.”

As for the Fire, they dominated the first half and did some very fun stuff down the left-hand side. They probably should've gotten two or three goals out of it, and should definitely feel like they left points on the table.

But they really did look good for long stretches – better than most of last year.

A few more things to ponder…

10. The Revs showed a very good mentality in their 1-1 draw at FC Dallas, using an opportunistic Carles Gil goal to battle back from a goal down and get the road point. They hardly had any of the ball, and their press really did not bother FCD, but they were much more solid in their middle defensive block than last year.

Part of that might be Luchi Gonzalez’s fault. First, I’m gonna recommend Jason Poon’s usual excellent breakdown from BigDSoccer, and second I’m gonna point out that in addition to Paxton Pomykal, Pablo Aranguiz should’ve come in at some point in the second half. Both are creators in different ways, and Dallas needed a dose of that.

Luchi played it too safe by starting three non-creators in central midfield, and rode Santiago Mosquera – who leads the league in chances almost, but not quite created – 25 minutes too long at the left wing.

9. Sometimes the simple lessons are the best ones. Here’s what RSL head coach Mike Petke said after RSL’s 1-1 draw in Houston,a place they usually get killed. (Ed. note: RSL had a 3-10-1 record (-7 GD) all-time at Houston before Saturday, including a win last year):

“Building off last year we dropped the line a little bit. We made it difficult for their strengths, which is guys like [Mauro] Manotas, [Alberth] Elis, and [Romell] Quioto getting in behind. I thought they did very well there.”

They did. This is Year 3 of Houston being amazing on the break but punchless against a deep line, for what it’s worth.

8. Alexandru Mitrita! Pass of the Week!

There are 8.5 million reasons to love that pass.

That was the high point – he, one of the most expensive transfers in MLS history – was the high point for NYCFC in an otherwise pretty dispiriting 2-2 draw at Orlando City. They ceded a lot of possession in large part because their default approach was to hit a ton of long-balls to Mitrita and Maxi Moralez, both of whom are 5-foot-3, and they rarely took advantage of the Lions’ relatively high line by sending runners out of midfield. And so they squandered a 2-0 lead.

Of course, a lot of credit for that should go to the hosts. Orlando City were the better team for the vast majority of the game, and once both Nani and Dom Dwyer got on, things officially got lopsided.

I’m not sure what this means for the Lions long-term, since they were so bad last year it’s hard to buy too much stock after a defensively frail home draw against a team I picked to miss the playoffs. But it wasn’t nothing. There was some spark, some inventiveness, even a bit of cohesion, and if it’d gone five minutes longer, there’d have been three points as well.

7. Jordan Morris's Comeback Player of the Year campaign is off, and running, and scoring one-time left-footed goals from the wing, apparently. He and the Sounders were expectedly dominant in their 4-1 win over FC Cincinnati on Saturday night at CenturyLink Field.

The tribute to Sigi Schmid was class.

Nice debut goal for Leonardo Bertone, but FC Cincy need to spend this week in the film room figuring out how to keep their defensive shape.

6. It took two years and one game, but Minnesota United finally did it – they got their first road win against a Western Conference opponent, going to BC Place and taking out the 'Caps by 3-2. Darwin Quintero had one of his semi-regular "oh damn guess he's gonna be unplayable today" games, which drove the whole Loons attack:

It was a game not without worries for the visitors, though, as their set-piece defending remained disorganized.

Too early to judge the 'Caps, but pay at least a little bit of attention to how easy it was for the Minnesota attackers to just blow up that Vancouver midfield with pace.

5. Pace, trickery, ruthlessness in front of goal... Ignacio Piatti's had it all, and at age 34 he's clearly still got it all. He got the first goal and Saphir Taider got the second – off a brilliant Zakaria Diallo cross – in a come-from-behind 2-1 win at San Jose.

The Impact kept with the approach that served them so well in the final 2/3s of 2018: They sat deep and absorbed, then sent numbers forward opportunistically. It is the right idea for this team who, it should be noted, start the season with six straight on the road. Get one more win (maybe next weekend against a Houston team that'll probably be rotating the squad) and it's officially a successful trip.

San Jose did what everyone expected, drawing a line of confrontation about 15 yards over the midfield stripe and playing Matias Almeyda's man-marking scheme at all points beyond that.

It is, in its way, reminiscent of the "turn everything into a 50/50" approach the Red Bulls used last year under Jesse Marsch, but is susceptible to teams who have 1) players who can eliminate defenders off the dribble, and 2) get out and run.

4. The wildest game of the weekend was in Colorado, where the 10-man Rapids battled back late for a 3-3 home draw against the visiting Timbers in a freaking blizzard. It was officially the coldest game in MLS history, clocking in at 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

Andre Shinyashiki, who just spent four years at the University of Denver and is thus more used to both altitude and snow than any Brazilian on the planet, didn't mind any of it:

Given the circumstances, I'll allow only two semi-legit takeaways from this game:

  1. The Rapids will be much more fun than any time in recent memory
  2. The preseason problems that dogged the left side of Portland's defense in preseason continued into Week 1

3. D.C. United did a very nice job with the ball on Sunday night in their 2-0 win over visiting Atlanta (who didn't rotate their squad as much as I'd expected). They were performing, as Jon Champion said, "with a bit of a swagger at times." It felt like the D.C. team that closed out last season.

Part of that team was their swagger and ability to interchange in possession, but another part – the underappreciated part – was their ability to press and harass opposing teams as they try to build up. It's not the RBNY-style high, frenetic press, but more of a selective pressure that denies any sort of time and space throughout central midfield.

D.C. are often spectacular and damn near always solid. It's the formula for a contender.

Atlanta United, who scored 140 goals over the past two years, were the first team to be shut out in the 2019 season and the only team to be shut out in Week 1. Naturally.

2. Bobby Warshaw and I spent the first half of Sporting KC's trip to LAFC debating whether Sporting were on track to be the best pure possession team in MLS history. We spent the second half talking about how they were absolutely exhausted and looked exactly like a team that had just played 90 minutes at 9,000 feet.

LAFC got the late, come-from-behind 2-1 win thanks to an Adama Diomande blast. It wasn't really 2018 vintage, flowing LAFC at any point – early season lack of sharpness was apparent.

But my guess is that Bob Bradley will have liked this performance better because, frankly, it was tougher. They didn't back down from Sporting's physicality, and the defense avoided the types of late errors that cost them so dearly, so often last year. So when there was a chance to take the full three points, it was the Black & Gold making the decisive play.

I see no reason to think these two teams won't spend all of 2019 at or near the top of the West.

1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to Columbus Crew SC winger Pedro Santos:

Columbus drew 1-1 at home against what was essentially a RBNY reserve team – Chris Armas did better resting nearly all of his regulars than Frank De Boer or Peter Vermes did playing nearly all of them. 

Columbus probably shouldn't have drawn, though. The Crew didn't exactly dominate the game (they just edged the Red Bulls on expected goals), but they pretty consistently got the ball into good spots, like the one above, and didn't do anything with it, like in the play above. One they got into the final third they didn't get the touches they needed from the wings.

It's a familiar script for Columbus, virtually the same as the one they followed in 2018.

The good news in central Ohio? Just about everybody in the league needs center backs and they've got a few extra. Meanwhile, lots of teams have wingers they can put on the trade block in return.

Window's still open. My guess is at least a few teams aren't done making moves. The Crew's braintrust have enough of a sample size to know they should be one of them.

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