Another fascinating week around the league. Let's jump right in with a thought for each of the 24 teams.
The last two weeks have felt like waiting for the "Game of Thrones" return. Is the great kingdom about to crumble? Does the ruler, Frank de Boer, have an idea for how to stop the losses? Are they going become more aggressive on the attack, or will they continue to feel the opponent out? Who’s going to step up and be the hero? Will the great names, Josef and Pity, figure out how to work together? So much drama.
It’s cool to see Mo Adams make a niche out of being a defensive specialist, particularly as a midfield man-marker. He followed Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo everywhere the Spaniard went on Saturday. By my count, Adams has now had the privilege of man-marking Pozuelo, Ignacio Piatti, and Miguel Almiron in his short professional career.
Cincy have an interesting group of attacking players. They all have the skill to ball out in the final third, but you don’t really want any of them building possession through the middle third. They are above average in the skills needed to create chances around the box, but below average in the skills needed to build intentional possession. Alan Koch said at halftime on Sunday that he wanted his team to keep the ball more; I yelped. It seems to me — and I almost never say this about soccer — that they should always go for the most difficult chance toward goal, because that’s what the attackers are better at executing.
In his postgame interview, Anthony Hudson lamented the team’s defensive mistakes. He’s right; it’s been too easy for teams to get chances. The Rapids have conceded the most goals in MLS. It’s Hudson’s decision now to decide whether the individuals can clean up the play, or if he needs to adjust the tactics to protect them. He has gone with a basic 4-4-2 defensive midblock to this point -- it might be time to drop one of the attacking players into a true defensive midfielder anchor spot (similar to what Sam Piette does in Montreal) to protect the defenders. It’s a tough choice, given the general possession play has often been solid from the Rapids, but it’s a thorn he might have to hold.
Columbus Crew SC
To take a guess at what the Crew will be doing in training this week… Columbus did a nice job at passing through New England’s press, but not quite as good a job at the pass after that. It’s a strange feeling for a player to get the ball in the space beyond the press — you’ve already bypassed multiple opponents, so you look up and can see threatening options. You feel like you should go for the killer pass. But that killer pass is probably still a difficult, low-percentage option. It’s better to resist the emotional urge to go direct toward goal and, instead, try to advance through simple passes again.
Matt Hedges and Reto Ziegler, man. They are so good and it allows FC Dallas so much flexibility. The fact that FC Dallas started four teenagers gets the headlines, but that’s only possible with a solid foundation around them. Young players need to be put into a structure that helps them succeed. Hedges and Ziegler provide it. They can defend in a variety of ways, and they are both calming presences. To have two excellent center backs goes so far.
It’s a tough one to swallow for D.C., losing 4-0 at home. The general public’s thought will be that LAFC crushed D.C., and D.C. are miles behind in the “best team in MLS” race. But D.C. should be quick to remind themselves that all four goals came in transition. Ben Olsen’s group didn’t get completely outplayed; they misplaced four (very generic, simple) passes and got punished for them. That’s not to say that D.C. didn’t deserve to lose, or that their weaknesses — namely, the defensive midfielders dealing with pressure on their backs — didn’t get exposed. But I don’t think this game disqualifies D.C. from being discussed among the elite.
It’s been a great first month of MLS action for the Dynamo, but they have a big decision looming. Memo Rodriguez has shown he deserves to continue to start on the left wing, putting up four goals in his four games; his movement and style mesh well with other attackers around him. The left wing’s incumbent, though, Romell Quioto, is one of the bigger names on the team, and has shown he’s also a high level starter. Even if Rodriguez has proven he should continue to start, it’s never easy to tell an established starter that he has to sit. Wilmer Cabrera has the luxury of options, but he will need to navigate the waters carefully.
David Bingham put together the type of performance Friday night that had him on the fringes of the USMNT a few years ago. He made two huge saves early on — yeah, Ali Adnan’s PK was bad, but Bingham deserves credit for his quick reaction to stop the ball from rolling over the line — that kept the outplayed Galaxy in the game. The Galaxy’s defensive woes last year weren’t Bingham’s fault, but he also didn’t step up to save them very often. He deserves as much credit for the Galaxy’s three points on Friday as Zlatan, who had a goal and an assist.
It’s hard to come up with anything about LAFC that hasn’t already been said. Carlos Vela has been unreal; Diego Rossi looks like the next player to go for eight figures; Mark-Anthony Kaye is playing like an All-Star; Latif Blessing has stepped into center mid and been a boss; Eduard Atuesta has taken the leap from average starter to stud; Walker Zimmerman has been an elite center back. So I’ll give a shout out to Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey, two veterans who rarely do anything flashy but almost always make the right play and quietly make everyone around them better.
The Loons scored both their goals on Saturday from the same pattern of play: an outside back playing into the striker, Angelo Rodriguez, with wingers joining for the knockdown. It is clearly something that Minnesota have worked on in training, and considering how well it worked against Tim Parker and Aaron Long, don’t be surprised to see more of it in the future. Minnesota analyst Kyndra de St. Aubin and I broke it down at the board:
Sometimes when a team gives up seven goals like Montreal did to Sporting Kansas City last week, you can say, “yeah, that team’s defending sucks.” But Montreal’s defending doesn’t suck. (They might not be elite, but they certainly aren’t in the toilet.) In that case, you say, “That team is going to focus on their defensive shape and decision making all week in training.” That’s what we saw in Saturday’s draw at Yankee Stadium. Montreal sat deep and tight and didn’t take any risks (five of the seven goals they gave up against Sporting last week were on poor mistakes that led to transition!) and got a point on the road.
New England Revolution
I don’t know the last time I saw a lineup like the one New England used in the last two games. The Revs deployed a… I’m not sure the formation. It was four defenders, one defensive midfielder, and a bunch of attackers. As you can see in the graphic below, they wanted to play the game in Columbus’ half. While unique, the logic makes sense — nobody has been able to break down a set defense in front of Zack Steffen, so go for broke on creating turnovers and transitions. It almost stole the Revs a point in Ohio.
There are two types of struggling teams: ones that look like they have coherent ideas with replicable patterns but just aren’t able to do them, and ones who don’t. Both scenarios are brutal for fans, but at least when you’re in the first category, you feel like the losses have purpose and you’re building toward something. NYCFC are in the second category right now. I’m not quite as down on the team given Maxi Moralez has been out and Heber just arrived, but there’s definitely some concerning stuff (or lack of stuff) taking place.
New York Red Bulls
When we think of the Red Bulls, we generally think of the press. The main point of their press — and this goes for RB Leipzig as well — is not the place on the field that they pressure the ball, but the intensity that constantly fighting for the ball brings to the game. It’s not that RBNY defend high, it’s that they are always going, always stepping, always making the opponent feel uncomfortable. That was their competitive advantage the last few years — the Red Bulls were more alert and intense and they made everyone feel uncomfortable and unable to execute their plan. RBNY haven’t been doing that this year.
Dude, Chris Mueller. He could be this year’s candidate for the “Aaron Long Award,” the guy who goes from relative obscurity into the national team picture. Mueller has unique traits among the American attacking pool — he has excellent command of the ball at his speeds, he has an eye for the final pass, and he has the “screw all of you I’m the best player on the field” swagger. He still needs to improve his decision-making on the ball — he’s good, but he’s not Lionel Messi and he needs to make simple connection passes more often — but if he figures it out, Orlando are sitting on something nice.
One little detail that’s been working well for the Union: Their strikers start wider when they defend than most teams use their strikers, and they funnel the play central. As a result, the strikers block the area that center midfielders rotate into when they want to get the ball from the defenders. Take a look at the graphic below that shows Paxton Pomykal’s touches in his own half in Dallas’ game two weeks ago. That zone on the left side is naturally blocked by a Union striker, and Pomykal didn’t get the touches he wanted against the Union. It’s already caused trouble for possession teams Columbus, Atlanta, and Dallas, and look for more of the same against the Galaxy’s midfield trio next weekend.
There are clearly problems, but there’s no reason to panic. The last three seasons, the Timbers have won 37, 37, and 38 points from their 17 home games. The last three seasons, the 7th seed in the West has finished with 48, 46, 44 points. The Timbers only need to steal about nine points somewhere in the remaining 12 away games to be on track for the playoffs. This was always going to be a tumultuous season — the team starts with 12 straight road games! — so it’s vital to keep things in perspective.
Real Salt Lake
The Albert Rusnak experiments continue. This season, he’s played three different roles: left attacking midfield, traditional central attacking midfielder, and combo striker/attacking midfield (along with Damir Kreilach). On Saturday night, Mike Petke added another wrinkle: Rusnak as facilitating midfielder. In the second half, Rusnak dropped into the double pivot when RSL defenders were in possession, with Everton Luiz pushing forward. Given Everton Luiz offers the muscle the midfield needs but not the ability on the ball, I’d expect some variation of this rotation to continue.
San Jose Earthquakes
Florian Jungwirth made a huge difference for the team. It’s a little ironic, too. He was left out of the team because he’s not as strong in duels as Harold Cummings or Guram Kashia, but his ability to read the game helped a ton. In San Jose’s press, the only free man is one of the center backs. It’s up to them to read the situation and react to where they are needed. Jungwirth did a nice job of dropping the line when San Jose needed to protect space and step forward to a player when they needed to squeeze the play.
After cruising through the first three games, the last two have been less comfortable for the Sounders. Of the 55 starting spots up for grabs through the first five games, 54 have been the same players in the same spots. The Sounders have the most obvious starting XI in the league. I’ll be keeping an eye on how that impacts the performances. I’m personally a big believer that continuity and team spirit — two things augmented by clearly-defined starting roles — can be advantages for a team, but mental wear can also happen when the same players start every game. I’ll be curious to see how Brian Schmetzer uses rotation to keep players mentally rested and hungry.
Sporting Kansas City
Peter Vermes said something on ExtraTime prior to the season that could shed light on Kelyn Rowe’s less-than-his-peak performances so far in 2019: It’s hard for players to step into a new system and pick it up right away (Vermes used the example of Alex Song struggling to integrate at Barcelona compared to Barcelona’s less-heralded academy players who had been in the system for years). Sporting have a detailed style of play. It requires players to constantly think, until it’s natural and they don’t have to think anymore. When players have to think, they won’t play as well. Rowe is still in the thinking phase, and you can see it when he plays. When it clicks, it should be the same as a big midseason addition for Sporting.
Nick DeLeon has been the perfect addition for Toronto this year. He possess a rare combo — he has technical tidiness to play centrally when the team wins possession, and the pace to defend the wide channel when them loses the ball. (Admission: I always knew that DeLeon had a little something, but I didn’t think he had the possession ability to play central — I was very wrong.) He can then use the burst of speed to cause teams problems on the wing when needed, something that Toronto had been missing from their central midfielders. He checks multiple boxes for head coach Greg Vanney.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
The ‘Caps put together their best 45 minutes of the season against the Galaxy. They were excellent in the 1st half, and could have or should have been up a goal or two. Marc Dos Santos drew up a smart plan for the game. He had his three center midfielders defend extremely tight to clog up the Zlatan-Joe Corona-Sebastian Lletget-Jonathan dos Santos pathways, while giving his two wingers more freedom to cheat. Once Vancouver got into the attacking half, Inbeom Hwang, who started on the left, tucked central behind the striker and Ali Adnan became the de facto winger. Dos Santos seems to be figuring out the right puzzle alignment for the group.