2019 season, 24 teams. With 12 games to chew over, let's jump right in with an observation on each team.
Every coach works on a spectrum of "Autonomy to Instruction." Tata Martino’s magic stroke in Atlanta was that he found the perfect spot on that spectrum. He provided concepts and roles, but didn’t coach too much. The players interpreted the principles in ways that suited them. It appears that Frank de Boer has moved closer to the Instruction side, providing more rigid directives. As a result, the team’s defending has been more textbook clean, their positioning and decisions the type of stuff you’d show in a lecture, but it hasn’t been as effective in two of the three games so far.
One potential reason: They haven’t carried the same energy into the new system. They’ve assumed the right positions, but dropped their vigor once they’ve gotten there — as a product of less autonomy, it seems. Consequently, they’ve forced fewer turnovers, particularly in the advantageous spots that they used to. Or maybe they’ve just shown less energy because of the congested schedule around Concacaf Champions League -- it could be that, too.
The Fire blew a lead against the Galaxy, but they claimed the pointless-yet-not-insignificant “won the hearts of the neutrals” prize for the weekend. Aleksandar Katai and Przemysław Frankowski threatened the Galaxy’s back four nearly every time they got on the ball, and Djordje Mihailovic threaded a few needles.
Djordje Mihailovic is going to win a lot of #USMNT fans over playing like this. Watch the vision to turn and split the defense with the pass, then the technique on the volley to keep it down and send it towards the top corner. #cf97 pic.twitter.com/C2PRlEnm24— MLS Buzz (@MLS_Buzz) March 3, 2019
I imagine anyone who tuned into the game would gladly watch the Fire again.
There’s a rule when writing a script: you don’t start with the climax at the beginning. Where’s the story supposed to go if Wonder Woman saves the world on page 4? Leonardo Bertone scored the goal of the weekend, and potentially the best first goal in expansion club history.
What a goal right? ... but chill, Leonardo. You can’t poke the dragon like that. Also, this 👇. Cincinnati might need to rethink their approach.
I'm, I'm not exactly sure what Cinci had in mind when they decided to draw their line of confrontation in front of the center circle. They aren't athletic enough to put consistent pressure on Seattle, so how was this supposed to play out?— Bobby Warshaw (@bwarshaw14) March 3, 2019
The best characters in stories have bold personalities. We can latch onto and connect with the story via their personas. It’s delicate to show personality in sports, however — too much, and you’re a phony; too little and you’re boring. We rarely get personalities that add something new. Colorado, though, might have the two best personalities in MLS right now, in Benny Feilhaber and Kei Kamara. They provide interesting (honest, human) lines off the field, as Feilhaber did when he said after Saturday’s 3-3 tie with Portland, “Look, as much as it’s fun to watch this, I hate playing in this crap. This isn’t football. It’s crazy.” But they also show personality on the field, with their movements, their ideas, their facial expressions. I’m high on the Rapids for a lot of soccer reasons, but I’m also looking forward following a team with personality.
Columbus Crew SC
Gregg Berhalter’s playing system was set up to create easy opportunities for the strikers; Caleb Porter’s style uses the striker to create opportunities for everyone. Porter uses the striker as a point for wingers and midfielders to link around the box. Gyasi Zardes demonstrated in 2018 that he could score 19 goals in Berhalter’s system, but I wasn’t sure if he could provide the delicate passing around the box to fit Porter’s system. It was my main question about the Porter-Crew fit heading into the season. But the early signs were encouraging, as Zardes looked much more comfortable on Saturday than I had expected. The Crew never hit their stride as a team, but Zardes should feel good about his first game in the new role.
There’s a buzz around FC Dallas again. The club had a weird thing happen throughout the last few years in which they were winning, but they couldn’t rile any energy among neutrals. They certainly didn’t do anything wrong, yet they were stuck in a strange space. This year, I have too many things I want to say that I can’t pick which one to go with. Did you see how fluid they looked playing out of the back? Why did Paxton Pomykal not start? What happened that the new TAM striker got moved to third on the depth chart? Since when is Reto Ziegler captain instead of Matt Hedges? Luchi Gonzalez has already accomplished the first charge of any head coach: sparking interest.
The team of the weekend. Atlanta had their reasons to be flat, but Ben Olsen’s team still put together the most complete performance of the weekend. If Frederic Brillant and Paul Arriola play as well as they did on Sunday — to partner the consistently excellent Wayne Rooney, Lucho Acosta, and Russell Canouse — D.C. will be in the hunt for Supporters’ Shield.
For the last three years, the Dynamo were Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto’s team. They were the biggest stars, with the biggest impact on the team, and the highest market values. That might have changed this offseason. Mauro Manotas always looked like a star in the making, but a low-grade star, not quite able to get to Elis’ potential. The goal he scored to tie the game against Real Salt Lake, though, that was elite. The movement to shade off the defender’s back, then the acceleration to get to the right spot, then the finish. Tack on the two goals to help Houston get past Guastatoya, and it’s been a great start for Manotas.
Sebastian Lletget is to Zlatan as Russell Canouse is to Wayne Rooney. The Galaxy won, but they didn’t look great doing it. Simply, the Galaxy have rarely looked great without Lletget on the field in the last couple years, even when Zlatan’s been in the team. Zlatan will always get his, but Lletget might be more important to the Galaxy’s functionality as a whole. I’m holding all reservations on the Galaxy until Lletget returns to the lineup.
There are few things better to watch in soccer than a striker who feels slighted. They play with an energy and fire that gets lost over a normal 10-month season. Man, did Adama Diomande look like a dude with a point to prove when he got on the field on Sunday. After starting the game on the bench in reserve to Christian Ramirez, Diomande scored one of the goals of the weekend. Try to watch this and not flinch at how hard he hits the ball:
One of the storylines to track throughout the season will be Ramirez and Diomande competing for, and pushing each other for, the starting spot.
If I’m a Loons fan right now, I’m excited out of my mind. Ike Opara looked good, Ozzie Alonso looked good, Jan Gregus looked good, Romario Ibarra looked good, Francisco Calvo looked awesome and Darwin Quintero looked amazing. Every single significant variable came out on the right end of the grade sheet. As a result, the team looked more thoughtful and controlled (to go with the bursts of brilliance) than they had in their two years prior.
One of the side effects of parity within the league is that everyone assumes fairly homogenous styles. Every team opens the season attempting to play attractive, attacking soccer. For the viewer, it means that most games look alike. For many teams, it often means they struggle for 10 games before they hone their thought process. Not Montreal, who started 2019 the same way they ended 2018, and the same way they put up a 60-point pace for the last 21 games of the season: defend, wait and counter. In itself, it isn’t particularly exciting. But within the grand scheme of the league, it adds nice variation to the games. I appreciate Remi Garde’s call-me-boring-all-the-way-to-the-playoffs approach.
New England Revolution
Shoutout to Jalil Anibaba. Every analyst tries to explain the intangible value of veteran glue players. Anibaba is the prime example. He stepped into the starting lineup after Michael Mancienne picked up an injury in warmup and put up the same reliable performance he always does to help the Revs get a point on the road. He plays with intensity every day, he holds his teammates accountable, he organizes on the field. Anibaba isn’t about to make a Best XI, but he’s a vital component to any good team.
New York Red Bulls
Siri, what’s the value of a coherent system through a soccer club?
Siri: Good morning, Bobby. That would be, “The New York Red Bulls.”
Chris Armas rotated eight starters from his CCL squad and they still went toe to toe with a 2018 playoff team. There’s a lot of conversation about the value of the pressing scheme. My favorite part about the Red Bulls is the clarity of the rules and, more significantly, that it allows every player to play with conviction. It’s not the pressing, per se. It’s that everyone knows exactly where to be and what to do within the press. New players can step into the team and play without hesitation.
No team followed the preseason prediction script more than NYCFC. Dome Torrent stuck to his reputation, using a surprising lineup and tactic from the onset, with Alex Ring as the attacking midfielder. The unpredictability created moments of brilliance — led by Alexandru Mitrita, who looked consistently dangerous in his first MLS game — but also stretches of disorganization. They remain straddled on the fence, between a team that could be impossible to stop, and a team who could look completely lost.
Sign me up for the Nani-Dom Dwyer combo (sign me up for Nani’s fitness plan, too, please). When the two came off the bench for Orlando, the Lions seized the game and looked like they could have scored four or five. It’s entirely unclear how James O’Connor will deploy the tandem, they don’t seem like a perfect match for the 5-3-2 system that Orlando played on Saturday, but there’s reason for buzz around Orlando City Stadium again.
The main topic about the Union in the offseason was the stylistic switch to a pressing system, yet they didn’t look all that different than last season. They looked like a possession team who tried to press a little bit, rather than a pressing team that didn’t mind passing. The disconnect appeared to be more about lack of application on the ideas than lack of execution — unless the inability to execute disincentivizes the desire to apply the principles. Either way, I imagine the conversation at training this week will be sliding down that spectrum the other way a bit.
When you play with an inch of snow on the ground and your hair turning into icicles, I’m not sure it’s worth trying to take much from the game. The Timbers dropped two points, but why or what it means moving forward is tough to tell. The biggest thing for Gio Savarese will be framing the result as a point earned rather than points lost — getting a draw in the Mile High City on opening weekend is a fine result.
Real Salt Lake
The last two years, RSL have had plenty of firepower, but didn’t quite have the engine room. They could run past teams, but struggled to gain control of games. I don’t think the two early crunching tackles, and subsequently yellow cards, from their two defensive midfielders, Kyle Beckerman and Everton Luiz, were an accident or coincidental. Nobody is running through the middle of RSL this year — at least without a couple bruises to go with it.
San Jose Earthquakes
Who knows if the Quakes are going to be good, but they are going to be fun.— Bobby Warshaw (@bwarshaw14) March 3, 2019
Man marking like madmen + playing with confidence on the ball.
If you didn’t get to watch San Jose this weekend, carve out time soon to do so. Their man-marking system — in which they follow opposing players all over the field and make the game a series of individual duels — makes for enjoyable viewing. While the Quakes lost on Saturday, Montreal might be the worst opponent to use the man-marking tactic against, as the Impact don’t want the ball that much anyway.
Damn, did it feel good to watch Jordan Morris return from 13 months away from the field and bag two goals (admit it Cincinnati fans, you weren’t even that mad).
I didn’t know they included left-foot training as part of ACL rehab, either, but it worked. The Sounders balled out as whole. The shape looked more like a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3, with Gustav Svensson as the only true pivot, than the traditional 4-2-3-1 in the first game of the post-Ozzie era. Pros: It allowed Cristian Roldan to get forward; Lodeiro could rotate back to help with the build out. Cons: None yet, but TBD on whether they need more protection against the counter.
Sporting Kansas City
You know the cool inverted fullback system that Gregg Berhalter used in the January friendlies? Peter Vermes used it first, deploying Graham Zusi as a combo-outside back/center midfielder through 2018. Vermes didn’t get enough credit for the ingenuity. This year, he’s at it again. The new trick? He’s started former-winger/attacking mid/ right back Zusi a right center back position in a three defender setup in possession. It helped SKC dominate LAFC in the first half. Keep an eye out for a longer column on this tactic later in the week.
Greg Vanney made a couple smart tactical switches, as Matt Doyle points out in his Sunday column, but I think the best breakdown comes from a classic sports cliche (and I hate sports cliches, but this one feels right): Toronto looked up for it on Saturday. They looked like they didn’t resent doing the little things — staying mentally focused, moving their feet the extra two steps, transitioning aftering turnovers — that teams need to do to grind out results.
They got a little lucky that Philly missed a couple chances, but Toronto grinded to keep themselves in it. I maintain the belief that this team has the quality, and it’s about playing to their potential.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
It’s only Week 1, but it’s clearly a Marc Dos Santos team. The ‘Caps were well organized, with clear roles and tight defensive lines. That’s always Phase 1 of an MDS team. The other phases of play will come next. One potential point of improvement: the ‘Caps stayed in a middle block and didn’t get much pressure on the ball before midfield; that’s fine, except the defensive midfielder in the 4-1-4-1, Jon Erice, couldn’t cover enough ground to block open lanes. The midfield needs to move its line of pressure up a few yards, or Dos Santos needs to consider someone with quicker lateral movement in the No. 6 spot.