Five games down, 12 more to go. Hit play on Thursday’s Extratime with The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio, who gives his take on LAFC and Bob Bradley’s soccer commentary, then explains how training compensation and solidarity payments will affect Major League Soccer.
Let’s dig into MLS Week 9.
What changes will Adrian Heath make?
The Dark Clouds, True North Elite and others in Minnesota’s wall of noise are still waiting to commune postgame with their boys, to belt out Oasis and bask in the first three points in the club’s spectacular new digs. Draws are OK, I guess, but home wins are the playoff formula.
Minnesota United get their third crack at Allianz Field on Sunday against Eastern Conference-leading D.C. United (1:30 pm ET; FS1 in US, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada). Both teams played Wednesday night. The Loons took a point at home against the Galaxy (shutout, yay!) while Wayne Rooney’s free kick took all three for the Black-and-Red in Columbus.
It won’t be easy for Minnesota to scratch their itch. D.C. have flaws, like every other team in the East, but road woes aren’t among them right now. Ben Olsen’s team are undefeated away from Audi Field in 2019, the last MLS squad standing in that regard, with three wins (CLB, COL, ORL) and one draw (NYC).
Heath has some big decisions to make with both Francisco Calvo and Jan Gregus returning from suspension, Miguel Ibarra back from injury, one of five wingers competing for two starting spots, and the play of left back Eric Miller and center back Brent Kallman in the midweek shutout of the Galaxy.
It goes without saying — but this is Minnesota, so it’s worth saying —that a shutout would be a good start in pursuit of that home win. In many ways, I felt LA papered over Minnesota’s flaws with their Zlatan/cross-centric attack. Romain Metanire and Miller locked down the wingers, arguably a relatively weak spot in Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s squad, and Ike Opara and Kallman were free to bracket Ibrahimovic and play to their strengths in the air.
The Loons can deal with direct play. It’s been combination play between the lines, ruthlessness on the counter and unforced errors that resulted in 15 goals allowed in seven games up until Wednesday night.
“Well, it might keep you and everyone else quiet now that we’ve kept a clean sheet,” Heath said after the match. “I’m fed up with hearing it. I’m sure you’re fed up with talking about it. I know I am. The clean sheet was welcome.”
So will he go back to Calvo, who’s been wearing the captain’s armband but got the boot late in last weekend’s loss in Toronto for a petulant kick out? What about Michael Boxall, relegated to the bench following a head-scratching error in the same game? Here’s betting Heath sticks with what worked midweek, a group that Opara said trusted each other and “stuck together.”
As for Gregus, he’ll go right back in for Rasmus Schuller. If Ibarra’s hamstring is truly 100 percent, I expect he’ll be back in the starting XI as well. That leaves one of Ethan Finlay, Kevin Molino, Abu Danladi and Romario Ibarra for the final place in the attack. That position must attack and defend given the Loons' issues defending overloads in wide areas (watch those NYCFC highlights).
Unlike LA, D.C. United have two players who exist to play between the lines, drop off shoulders and pop up in spots you weren’t expecting. No, Rooney and Luciano Acosta haven’t yet gone full-on LuchoRoo (think soccer Super Saiyan), but Sunday may just present the opportunity to get back to their 2018 form should the Loons get gappy. Paul Arriola is a handful, too. Same for Lucas Rodriguez.
It’s a real test for Minnesota, who were rightfully juiced about those three away wins, but still have plenty to prove. It’s worth mentioning that all three of those wins came against teams in transition or poor form: Vancouver’s first game under Marc Dos Santos, San Jose’s second game under Almeyda’s man-marking system and a third-straight L for the slumping Red Bulls.
Maybe Sunday is gonna be the day. By now, the Loons should’ve somehow realized what they’ve got to do.
Best season: Nani, Fabian or Gaitan?
All good players. All different players, in different circumstances. Here’s where we currently stand, if you’re just looking at the stats.
- Nani – 4 G, 4 A in 8 GP, 6 GS for Orlando City
- Gaitan – 0 G, 2 A in 5 GP, 3 GS for Chicago Fire
- Fabian – 2 G, 0 A in 5 GP, 5 GS for Philadelphia Union
I’m also watching the games, and I’m going to take Nani, and not just because he has the early lead in goals (some fluky, some from the spot) and assists. To me, he’s able to affect and contribute to the attack and Orlando’s success in the most ways.
Nani’s position has been somewhat fluid so far for James O’Connor — winger, forward, central attacking midfielder, wherever he wants to go — and he can do just about everything. He creates chances from open play (1.43 per 90) and from set plays (0.95). He takes defenders off the dribble (2.38 completed per 90) and can score with his head, feet or whatever body part Sacha Kljestan bangs with a deflected shot. He can capably lead the counterattack as well as find gaps in and around the final third.
He’s been Orlando’s best player so far, in theory and in practice, and I can’t say that for Gaitan or Fabian. It’s early, though. That could change.
Here’s what the Extratime driven by Continental crew thought of this question on Thursday’s show.
What’s my favorite thing to watch in MLS right now?
LAFC’s movement in the final third. It’s not close, really. Sunday’s rematch between LAFC and Seattle (3:30 pm ET, ESPN in US, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada) ought to be a good one, especially since it looks like Chad Marshall will be back.
I invite you to re-watch the Christian Ramirez goal from last Sunday’s 4-1 waltz against the Sounders. I love this goal. Not for the backheel from Ramirez, pass from Mark-Anthony Kaye or simple-as-you-like finish – though that’s all easy on the eyes – but because of the subtle movements that pulled the Sounders, one of the league’s best defensive teams, apart.
Let’s break it down in four frames.
LAFC catch right back Kelvin Leerdam out of position. All three attackers are in position to occupy Seattle’s remaining defenders, with Diego Rossi in space to receive a straightforward ball from left back Jordan Harvey and run at Roman Torres.
The Sounders recover, but Gustav Svensson must drop in to the right side of defense to cut off Rossi and make up for Leerdam’s recovery run. Eduard Atuesta shows for Rossi and pulls Cristian Roldan with him just enough to open a lane into the feet of Ramirez, who is dropping into the space at the top of the 18-yard box. Why is there so much space there? Because Carlos Vela’s shift to de facto center striker occupies all the attention of Kim Kee-hee and Brad Smith.
Rossi is patient, lets Leerdam clear the lane and finds Ramirez’s feet, drawing both Kim and Torres to the ball just as Leerdam is getting set positionally. Kaye, meanwhile, has rotated to the top of the 18 and Nico Lodeiro is late to cover. Where is Ramirez going to go once he releases this ball? To goal, via the gaping hole between Torres and Leerdam.
Kim dives in to cut out the pass (he doesn’t get there and takes himself out of the play) and Torres is pulled into Vela’s orbit. Vela’s movement here is subtle (a few steps toward the sideline) but it makes all the difference in moving the Panamanian the few feet needed to open the passing lane for Kaye. That lane is exploited by Ramirez, who spun into space and got goal side of Leerdam.
From there, it’s pretty simple. Pass and goal. It’s beautiful stuff. After watching this, I can understand why Bob Bradley wants more from domestic soccer.
Which players will I have my eye on?
Kelyn Rowe or Gianluca Busio (Sporting KC) – Basically, whoever gets the start in place of Roger Espinoza (out for 2-3 months with a left PCL injury). Espinoza has been a near-irreplaceable cog in Sporting’s success over the past decade. My guy Andy Edwards had the definitive write-up on this topic for The Athletic. How will Peter Vermes deal with the Honduran’s absence? It is something to watch closely.
Fanendo Adi (FC Cincinnati) – Adi was reinstated this week after undergoing assessment by MLS’ Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health (“SABH”) Program and being cleared for return by SABH Program doctors. In his absence, FCC won in New England (good) and then lost three of four while registering just a single shot on goal in 360 minutes (bad). Can Adi prove some punch to the attack? That’s what he’s being paid Designated Player dollars to do. Alan Koch needs him to deliver.
Cristian Espinoza (San Jose Earthquakes) – Dude is a live wire, and it feels like we’re just starting to see the best from him as Matias Almeyda gets the Quakes on the same page and drilled in his man-marking system. Espinoza has been a terror on the dribble this year – 17 completed in 35 attempts — and is bringing the final product, too. You can watch him for free and from wherever you happen to be on Saturday against FC Dallas (3:30 pm ET; Univision, Twitter in US, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada).
What’s the must-watch ESPN+ game of the weekend?
Here’s quick rundown of some, not all, of the stories swirling around this one…
- MLS Cup winners one year! Last place the next (and winless at home).
- Frank de Boer’s lineup and tactical decisions under the microscope.
- Pity Martinez isn’t Miguel Almiron … so what will he be in MLS?
- Only one team is still winless in MLS … and it’s the Rapids.
- Benny Feilhaber and Anthony Hudson just went off on defensive performances.
- Colorado = Team Chaos (for neutrals) … 35 goals have been scored (by both sides) in their eight games, most in MLS by far.
Enjoy the weekend. Remember, Matchday Central will put a bow on Week 9 on Sunday night.