Nobody reads the lede anyway. Let's just jump in!
For the first time in a long, long time, there was no confusion at the start of the year for the Seattle Sounders: this is Nicolas Lodeiro's team now. The little Uruguayan is central to everything the Sounders do, and in a lot of ways he is the whole system. He's also the MVP, and the most important player (in terms of his value to his own team) in the league.
But he's not actually the entire system. Seattle's staff have tinkered a bit early on, taking advantage of Lodeiro's motor – he is the most honest No. 10 in the world when it comes to tracking back and putting in grunt work – by throwing numbers forward with abandon and just overwhelming teams in the attacking third.
Here's how it works:
- They start in a 4-2-3-1
- d-mid Gustav Svensson dropping between the center backs to help initiate sequences of possession
- Both fullbacks fly forward, often all the way to the endline
- Cristian Roldan holds the fort as a lone No. 6
- The shape becomes a 3-3-4 with Lodeiro and Victor Rodriguez as dual 10s, the fullbacks as wingers and Jordan Morris + Raul Ruidiaz as forwards
This is fun. This is exciting. This is admirable. I've always wanted to believe that if I were the coach of a soccer team, my approach would be "haha you might score two, but we'll score four!" Seattle have been must-see TV in March.
What’s really made them work is the interplay both on and off the ball between Morris and Ruidiaz. There was justifiable concern about that – Morris has always been more of a forward, and played the wing only out of necessity in 2017 and 2018. Ruidiaz, meanwhile, is a pure fox-in-the-box No. 9, not known for much at all besides his right-place, right-time goals and reliably smart pressing.
Both guys have added new facets to their games. As we’ll see right here:
“We each have our own ways of attacking so maybe it’s hard to focus on [just one of us],” Morris said of Seattle’s front four, as reported by SoundersFC.com. “It helps to open up teams a little bit. You’ve got Raul, who’s great in the box; Nico finding the passes, pulling the strings; Víctor taking people on, and I like to try and get in behind. It’s those different ways of playing that makes [our attack] unpredictable.”
It just as apparent on the second Seattle goal of the day, with Ruidiaz freezing the Chicago defense to allow Morris's burst through the gut.
Seattle are the only team in the league to start perfect through three games, and this has been the recipe. The underlying numbers love their attack as much as the boxscore numbers do.
The warning, of course, is in the defense. Seattle have been prone to allowing good looks on the counter, and this one could've ended 4-4 as easily as 4-2. Chicago didn't precisely have a bad finishing day, but it also wasn't particularly good.
Worth noting that the Fire switched to a 5-3-2 (or maybe a 5-3-1-1 depending on how pedantic you want to be) after getting shredded in the first 20 minutes, and really came back into the game with it. Given Bastian Schweinsteiger's stated preference of playing in the back instead of midfield, as well as the addition of Nico Gaitain, my guess is we'll see more of that look in the very near future.
Love, Exciting and New
Everybody looked at FC Cincinnati's early schedule, and then looked at how overwhelmed they were in Week 1 at Seattle, and kind of assumed they'd be winless – and maybe even pointless – heading into April.
They took care of the point last week at Atlanta. This week, on Sunday, they took care of the win by thoroughly outclassing the other MLS Cup finalist, Portland Timbers, by 3-0 in the first-ever MLS game in Cincy.
There is, at the moment, not a lot of mystery about FCC: They defend in a classic 4-4-2, and attack by having one of the forwards (Fanendo Adi in the first half, Darren Mattocks on for Adi at the break after he got hurt) push high, while the other comes underneath and both wide players fly forward. Neither central midfielder – Victor Ulloa and Leonardo Bertone – is going anywhere, and neither should: that's not their strength.
What is their strength is the way they sit low and just choke-slammed Portland's attackers once they got within 40 yards of goal:
Sometimes passing accuracy numbers don't matter. Sometimes they outright lie.
This time they're telling the truth, and they matter a lot. The three goals Cincinnati put up were the surprise, but the solid, sensible defensive block is the repeatable bedrock of this team. You can sit deep, invite your opponents forward, and then just destroy the game in midfield. Once you've done that, send your runners the other way. Fast.
The players have naturally bought in.
"I mean, it’s a great execution of what we have been working at and training [for]," said defender Nick Hagglund afterward. "We went from getting shellacked in Seattle, and a gritty performance in Atlanta. So, coming home and putting it all together a little bit, it puts confidence in the team going forward."
That confidence comes from the clarity they've developed, in pretty short order, regarding who they are as a team.
Portland are, at the moment, lacking that very thing, and they have the ignominious distinction of being the first team in MLS history to concede three or more goals in each of their first three games of the season. Read that sentence again, remember that Chivas USA once existed, and take a deep breath, Timbers fans.
Now exhale and relax. As pointed out on the FS1 broadcast, every MLS team that's ever started the season with a prolonged road trip has bounced back and made the playoffs. We just saw D.C. pull this trick last year.
Still, it doesn't happen by accident. Plenty to work on for Gio Savarese & Co.
A few more things to ponder…
D.C. had, on paper, one of the tougher opening schedules, playing three straight games against 2018 playoff sides. They’ve pitched three straight shutouts and have outscored the competition 7-0 even as Rooney and Lucho Acosta haven’t quite duplicated the dominance they showed as a duo last season. They have seven points through three games, and look the part of a team that intends to be good for more than half a season this time.
As RSL head coach Mike Petke said after this one, his players should have a few beers, air things out amongst themselves, and put the result behind them.
9) Houston also have seven points from three games, though with a bit softer schedule than what D.C. have faced. They finished their mini-homestand to start the year with a 3-2 win over a plucky but ultimately pretty overmatched ‘Caps bunch.
What has to be the best part of the year’s start for Wilmer Cabrera is his team’s newfound depth. They’ve survived the loss of Juan David Cabezas, and Homegrown winger Memo Rodriguez has downright thrived filling in for Romell Quioto:
I think it’s fair for the ‘Caps, now with no points through three games, to be a touch concerned about their defense failing at basic things.
8) “A defense that fails at basic things” has been the story for far too long in San Jose, and through three weeks new head coach Matias Almeyda hasn’t fixed it. The Quakes allowed tap-in after tap-in on Saturday in Harrison against the Red Bulls and lost 4-1.
Almeyda’s man-marking scheme is predicated upon the idea that if you win your duels all over the field, you’ll eventually win the game. San Jose are currently winning 48.6 percent of their duels, which means they’re always playing catch-up on an individual level.
Since there’s no passing runners off in a man-marking system, that’s a quick and painful death.
The Red Bulls were mostly fine coming off of Tuesday’s CCL disappointment. Light a candle for Florian Valot’s knee, though – he’s absolutely a difference-maker for this team when healthy.
7) Our Pass of the Week, the director's cut:
The LA Galaxy were really, really good – better than the scoreline indicated – in their 3-2 home win over previously perfect Minnesota United. A lot of LA’s goodness (the biggest part of it, in all honesty) has to do with their central midfield, which resembles FC Dallas’ “triple pivot” that my colleague Bobby Warshaw wrote about last week. Add a (mostly) healthy Sebastian Lletget to players like Joe Corona and Jonathan dos Santos, marinate for a little bit, and it’s pretty, pretty good. Even without Zlatan.
This is not a “back to the drawing board” moment for Minnesota, but more of a “back to the film room” 90 minutes. They’ve got to figure out how to get pressure to the ball in central midfield against good teams.
6) The good news for NYCFC so far to start the season: They’re no longer falling behind all the time, which was a constant issue in the second half of last year.
The bad news: They can not protect a lead to save their lives. Twice they led on Sunday at home against LAFC, and twice they allowed the visitors to come back in what eventually became a 2-2 draw. NYCFC now have three points from three games, and if there's a silver lining, it's that 1) the last two have been against very good teams, and 2) they at least got Alexandru Mitrita off the schneid. The little Romanian always produces highlights, and on Sunday he produced a goal.
LAFC got forced out of their comfort zone by NYCFC's 3-headed defensive midfield monster in this one, and were forced to spend more time and energy attacking up the flanks than they like. They really, really missed Steven Beitashour.
5) Columbus got their second straight shutout win, locking down FC Dallas by 1-0 in Ohio on Saturday. Through three games they’ve only scored two open play goals, but only allowed one. Take away the PK awarded to the Revs last week – which Zack Steffen saved, anyway – and they lead the league in expected goals against.
Watch how quickly they snap back into their 4-2-2-2 defensive shape any time the ball’s turned over. They just don’t get broken down, and if you don’t get broken down you won’t give up a lot of goals.
That said, Dallas had their chance: It came off a midfield turnover they forced with a press, and fell to the feet of Michael Barrios, who scuffed his shot:
FCD’s finishing has cost them the past few years. 2019’s off to the same start.
4) It had a chance to be a pretty decent week for the defending champs. Atlanta United played their best game of the year midweek in a 1-0 CCL win over Monterrey – the Liga MX club's first loss in any competition since December – and looked mostly very good doing so. They weren't going to come back in the series, but it felt like they were going to "come back," at least a bit, toward being what they were the previous two years.
Frank de Boer made at least some concession to the reality of the team's results (and form) by switching out of his 3-4-3 and going to four at the back around a half-hour in. It helped, since the Five Stripes had neither a shot nor a completed pass in the attacking third at that point. But obviously it didn't help enough.
And now for the #PlayYourKids plug of the night: 18-year-old Homegrown playmaker Brenden Aaronson had Philly's goal on the evening, as well as a delightful throughball that should've led to another. He did not look at all overwhelmed by the moment, or out of place filling in for the suspended Marco Fabian.
3) #PlayYourKids Part 2: 19-year-old Ayo Akinola got his first MLS start and rewarded Greg Vanney with a goal and an assist in Toronto FC's 3-2 win over the visiting Revs. He will be away with the US U-20 national team this week, but it's a safe bet that on the other side of the international break he'll be getting real playing time with the Reds.
Also sure to be getting real playing time: The newly healthy Jozy Altidore, who came off the bench for a 22-minute cameo that included the game-winning goal. Toronto are a far cry from the treble-winning 2017 version of themselves, but they've taken six points from two games. Can't start better than that.
The Revs have not been so successful after their offseason tinkering, but at least it looks like they got the Carles Gil signing right. The Spanish playmaker has, following his brace, now scored all three New England goals this season.
Five of the next six for New England are in Foxborough.
2) Sporting played their sixth game in 18 days on short rest and at 5280 feet of altitude. They were fortunate to walk out of Colorado with a 1-1 draw, but it's a funny thing how often good teams end up being "fortunate," right?
The Rapids, still playing out of a 4-4-2 diamond, had their chances to win. And they improved over last week's showing by doing a better job of refusing to just completely concede a flank. The shuttlers rotating out of central midfield came faster to close down Sporting's wide overloads, and that is not insignificant progress for Anthony Hudson's gang.
1) And finally, our Face of the Week goes to Montreal's Zakaria Diallo, who was first baited into a totally unnecessary red card by Dom Dwyer, and then let the Orlando City fans know the score on his way to the showers:
Montreal won 3-1 in a laugher, getting their first two goals in the span of about 15 seconds midway through the first half. The Impact are on a six-game road trip to start the season, and now have six points through the first three of those. They're playing with house money.
It was a very 2018ish performance from the Lions. They should find Petke's RSL guys and get rid of the memories of this one over a few pitchers.