Consider this a public service announcement: Do yourself a favor and download the MLS app in order to watch the condensed games – 15-to-20 minute versions of every game throughout the weekend:
These show up usually about 40 minutes after every game, and let's face it: You don't watch every game every weekend, and sometimes the standard highlight packs aren't enough.
Ok that's the end of my PSA. Let's dive into Week 2:
The Columbus Crew lost their head coach, and their left back. They got new leadership, and it's a new era for a new team in so many ways.
Mostly, though, they look the same: They're a possession-heavy 4-2-3-1 with just about all the good, old, familiar personnel back in place. New head coach Caleb Porter’s a smart guy who understands that in a league of relative parity (less than there once was, but still), chemistry and cohesion play outsized roles and thus it’s better to be flexible than dogmatic. He's not going to squeeze them into, say, a counterintuitive 3-4-3 just to prove a point. Instead, he's weaponized their year-over-year consistency.
It helps that he's done that. It also helps that Gregg Berhalter’s Crew played the way Porter’s old Akron team, and his 2013 Timbers team (the best team he had in his Portland stint) played. This is a Berhalter goal, but also a Porter goal:
"We’re a team," is how Porter put it in the postgame press conference. "We’re not a group that has individuals that are any better than each other, so for us, we always have to keep the concept of that team and it was a team performance today.
"This is a good team," he continued. "I’ve always admired this team and watched this team from afar. That’s one of the reasons I decided to come here."
That makes sense. Literally all of it.
That’s not to say that Porter hasn't made at least a few tweaks. For one, by the eye test it appears that Federico Higuain is dropping a little bit deeper to get on the ball this year, which can allow the wingers and fullbacks to push a little bit higher a little bit earlier. The structure is damn near identical but sometimes B happens before A and C happens before B.
Higuain dropping also means there’s a potential disconnect between the midfield and center forward Gyasi Zardes. Porter is filling that gap in the obvious way: Zardes has been asked to drop deeper himself and get on the ball more as the Crew play through him a bit.
- Zardes, 2018: 14.6 passes per game, 10.6 successful
- Zardes, 2019: 26 passes per game, 18 successful
Gyasi is still a goalscorer first and foremost, and we saw that on Saturday as he had a brace in Columbus’s entirely comfortable 2-0 win at the Revs. But so far he’s also been linking play in a significant way. This is both a distinction and a difference from last year, though beware of the small sample size.
The big difference for the Revs so far in 2019 is that they haven’t been pressing nearly as much, which was their calling card in 2018. This week it put a bit extra stress on the team’s defensive shape in open play, and as the clip above showed, that extra stress was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
So far, the attack has not been good enough to bail them out, and Cristian Penilla's regression is a real concern.
Ozzie Alonso is a million years old and with a million miles on his legs, and on one side of the ball he’s playing the same old role (destroy everything and win the ball) after moving to Minnesota United this offseason. On the other side... he's kinda not.
So far in 2019 (it was especially apparent on Saturday against San Jose in Minnesota’s 3-0 win), Ozzie’s not been a roving, counter-stopping midfield release valve. Instead he’s been doing a Wil Trapp or Michael Bradley impression, dropping deep to split his own center backs and be the guy who directs possession sequences from the very start.
He's done a little bit of this before in his MLS career. A little bit. With the Loons he's been doing it a ton.
It makes sense – by advanced passing metrics Ozzie’s always been one of the best passers in MLS. Usually those passes came in the context of a normal central midfield role, or after winning a 50/50 then picking a quick, accurate pass upfield. Now what we have is the case of an old dog pulling off valuable new tricks:
Against San Jose’s frenetic, follow-your-man-to-the-toilet-if-that’s-what’s-required man marking system, it made even more sense to use Ozzie as the CB-splitting sequence starter. San Jose's defensive system leaves one of the two CBs free as sort of a libero, which means they have nine other field players to mark 10 men. That means there's always somebody free if you move the ball quickly and accurately enough and, well, that's what Ozzie did.
Having him doing the conducting this week allowed a lot more fluidity in possession (there were moments when either Ike Opara and Michael Boxall pushed forward and in each case it was them taking what the game gave them, though Ike really was letting his freak flag fly as an overlapping center back) and so much security in terms of who gets forward and when.
The added benefit of all of the above is it allows Darwin Quintero a completely free role. Quintero’s at his best when he doesn’t have to defend at all, and Adrian Heath and the front office deserve credit for getting the personnel and the tactics right so far.
There were worries that Minnesota’s rebuild would look and play out too much like Orlando City’s last year, but the early returns are great (though once again: beware of the small sample size).
The Quakes are off to a very tough start. They’ve struggled to complete meaningful passes through two weeks and have resorted to lumping in an eye-gougingly depressing 44 crosses from open play. It’s also worth questioning whether or not they have the personnel to man mark all over the field – there is no part of the multi-verse in which Harold Cummings solo-marking Quintero is a good idea – as is required in Matias Almeyda’s system.
A few more things to ponder...
10. I promised you all 24 teams, and that means I'll even have a word to say on the two BYEs, Toronto FC and the Red Bulls.
For RBNY: Florian Valot and Vincent Bezecourt both continued to work toward 100% health, each starting in NYRBII's 3-1, USL season-opening win. Bezecourt went 80 minutes, while Valot went just 45. I suspect that's because Chris Armas intends to use Valot – who is, in my opinion, the most creative winger they have on the roster – from the start either midweek at Santos Laguna or next weekend at home against San Jose.
For TFC: Across the pond Alejandro Pozuelo went 88 minutes in Genk's 1-0 win. Back home all's quiet, though some pieces are moving as they pursue at least one TAM winger.
9. Orlando City are another team whose early returns have been promising – to the point that they should be at least a little upset they’ve got only two points instead of six from their first two games. After a dodgy first 20 minutes in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Chicago, they locked it down in their 5-4-1 for the next 70, until a mental error allowed C.J. Sapong’s equalizer in second-half stoppage.
The wingbacks did a very good job of funneling Chicago’s possession to the defensive midfielders. It was coherent and structured.
All that said, the Fire should be furious with themselves as well, in large part because they 1) probably should’ve put the game away inside 20 minutes, and 2) allowed a soft-as-hell goal.
Chicago have looked good through two games. They haven’t looked effective.
8. FC Dallas were both good and effective in Saturday’s 2-0 win over visiting, Zlatan-less LA. My colleague Bobby Warshaw will have more on them on Monday, but we can let this clip do a lot of the talking:
I’m not sure Dallas are an apex predator in this league, but based upon personnel and style I expect them to trend in that direction.
The Galaxy are still very much a work in progress – Joe Corona started and went 90 in this one about 15 minutes after he officially joined the team. Despite the loss I think if I were a Galaxy fan I would be encouraged by the way they’ve looked to start the season.
7. A new look for the Philadelphia Union. A new formation, a new tactical approach, a bunch of new players and a new sporting director.
Same old problems in front of net, though. Philly scored 50 goals on an xG of 57.9 in 2018 – a disappointing, but not necessarily disastrous season-long finishing performance. This year, following Sunday's 2-0 loss at Sporting, they have one goal on a league-best 4.62 xG.
They're generating chances, but not finishing them. Union fans know the drill.
Sporting KC obviously know the drill as well, and looked mostly fine after midweek's disappointing CCL loss to Independiente. The second leg, at home on Thursday, is literally a must-win.
6. Three points for RSL! Face of the Week for Albert Rusnak!
This is a tour de force Face of the Week from Albert Rusnak. Up there with the all-time greats like Bruce Arena, Ben Olsen & Will Johnson. pic.twitter.com/kXrPU34AxE— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) March 10, 2019
RSL got their first win of the year in their first home game of the year, taking all three points in a 1-0 over the 'Caps thanks to an EXTREMELY debatable penalty. Corey Baird is prepping hard for Concacaf.
Vancouver are essentially a brand new team with a brand new roster this year, so it's tough to have too many takeaways from any game in which they participate. On an individual level, though, it's clear that Inbeom Hwang is a baller.
5. Seattle jumped on Colorado inside of 10 minutes, going up 2-0 and just staying there for the rest of the night. That left side of the Sounders attack, with Brad Smith overlapping as Victor Rodriguez cuts inside, has been unstoppable through two games and the whole team has benefitted.
As such, they've avoided the type of turgid start that has marred each of their last four campaigns. Given what they're usually capable of in the second half of the season, we should all maybe get used to seeing them at the top of Shield standings.
Colorado did some good stuff in the second half, including a very nice sequence right at the hour mark. I still don't know what to make of them, though, as their first two games (10 men in the snow against Portland, on the road vs. maybe the best team in the league) are such distinct and borderline inimitable data points.
4. What a weird way for Diego Chara to get a red card:
Was Chara trying to give him a wet willy? #LAFCvPOR— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) March 11, 2019
The left side of Portland's defense was what I targeted as a weakness based upon their preseason play, and through two games that's held true. Julio Cascante and Jorge Villafana have struggled, and the rest of the guys in the back six (including and especially central midfielder David Guzman) have not been up to the task of shielding them.
Of course, a hefty chunk of Sunday's 4-1 loss at LAFC has to do with the hosts just being really, really good. They're not yet the perfect, beautiful, flowing, Barcelona-esque machine Bob Bradley clearly intends to build, but they pick good passes, spread teams out, and have more final third weapons than anybody in the league.
I picked them to win the Shield for a reason.
3. Mauro Manotas rides to the rescue again and again and again. He got the game-winner on Saturday in Houston's come-from-behind 2-1 win over visiting Montreal, magicking himself to the near post to stab home a low cross following a scrum.
He has been that guy for more than a year now, producing 29 goals in his last 3,334 minutes across all competitions since the start of the 2018 season, good for .78 goals per 90. He is, as it stands, the best example of an undervalued import who's come to MLS, found his feet and blossomed into a legitimate star. I think there is a significant chance he becomes something close to an eight-figure transfer.
This wasn't a disaster by any stretch for the Impact – a cross-conference road loss is about the most painless point to drop. But they have to use it as a reminder of how they have to stay locked in if they're going to spend 90 minutes defending in Evan Bush's lap. Zakaria Diallo switched off and it cost his team a result.
2. A classic 'keeper battle was the main course in NYCFC's scoreless home draw against visiting D.C. United – both Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid were huge, and both had to be.
This whole sequence was originally going to be our Pass of the Week, and should give an idea of what D.C. are capable of when they're able to combine:
Ben Olsen seems to be, in a lot of ways, the spiritual heir to Sigi Schmid. Sigi won with a super-structured, opportunistic LA Galaxy team in 2002, and won by putting the ball at the feet of a playmaking genius in Columbus, and won a ton in Seattle by just building the team around Obafemi Martins' and Clint Dempsey's ability to interchange and do s&*%.
Olsen doesn't have the titles Sigi owns, but he's gotten a super-structured, opportunistic D.C. team to the playoffs in the past. He had a No. 10 genius (Dwayne De Rosario) who led them to a good year and the team's one major title this decade (2013 U.S. Open Cup). And now that he has Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta, he's set up the team around them to complement and amplify their strengths.
Credit to Kim McCauley for pointing this out. Go follow her on Twitter.
NYCFC were definitely better than last week, as befits a team playing at home. Alexandru Mitrita is a "worth the price of admission"-type player, and their subs changed the game.
They've now, however, won just four of their past 18 going back to last August. It's too soon to call it a crisis, but not too soon to worry.
1. You hear that, Atlanta United fans? It's too soon to call this a crisis! You should not be freaking out!
You should definitely be worried, though, because none of the stuff that made the Five Stripes so great – and easily one of the most entertaining teams in MLS history – seems to have traveled with them through the winter into 2019. They were once again slow and indirect, scornful of transition opportunities and bereft of attacking ideas in a gut-punch of a 1-1 home draw against expansion side FC Cincinnati.
"They were a little bit spoiled with the results last season," De Boer said in the postgame presser before noting that the team has been run into the ground with five games in 17 days. "Everybody expected that and also that is normal. But everybody also saw what happened with Toronto when they played Champions League last season."
This is true and should not be ignored. Also not to be ignored is that the Red Bulls went on a long CCL run last year, lost in excruciating fashion, and went on to win the Shield and set the single-season points record. Of course, Jesse Marsch was a lot more willing to rotate his squad than De Boer has been thus far, and far less committed to a formation and tactical approach
The good news for Atlanta fans? They got to see our Pass of the Week!
That's newly arrived American-Israeli playmaker Kenny Saief getting on the ball and making a difference in his FC Cincy debut. His creative ability from central midfield is something the roster had otherwise been lacking, and you can see what a difference he made.
At no point in this season do I expect Cincinnati to be a possession team, but that's ok – they don't need to be. As long as they're about to put together quick-hitters out of midfield like that and defend solidly at the back, they'll be in the mix (though they do need to sit deeper than they have been – an inexplicably high line is what cost them on Atlanta's opener).
Who'd have thought we'd come out of that game more worried about Atlanta than Cincy? MLS is wild.