First, a little bit of housekeeping:
Usually in this column, over the past six years, I've covered every game of the week, not just the weekend. But since the league has grown and the column has grown and we're already at about 3000 words per outing (it used to be about 1200), and since the schedule is packed with busy Wednesday nights this year, you'll now be getting two versions of this column most weeks: The usual Sunday night version (which you're reading right now), and, during most weeks, a smaller Wednesday night version.
So if you want my extended thoughts on the midweek games, HERE you go. Yet more toilet reading for you.
By the way, we've now officially rounded the quarter pole – just over 25% of the regular season is in the books. I'm giving it two more weeks before I lede with "you are what your record says you are."
Let's dive in:
Book of the Stranger
San Jose went to Seattle on Wednesday and got themselves a super-exciting, back-and-forth 2-2 road point, and then three days later went to FC Dallas and locked it down en route to a scoreless draw. The Quakes are – I'm not kidding here – just two points out of a playoff spot, and unbeaten in three, and have just one loss in five. They're winning at home and drawing on the road, which is the blueprint for a good season literally anywhere in the world.
I'm not sure how much of this is real and how much of it is a blip. They're a different type of tactical challenge for teams because of their system, and they're aware of it.
"This team is growing, and we are starting to have more self-confidence from week to week. We believe in ourselves, we believe in our skills, and we believe in what we can do. In the past three games, we had teams struggling with our philosophy and fighting spirit," is how center back Florian Jungwirth put it after Saturday's match.
Seattle's Harry Shipp was explicit about exactly that after the midweek matchup.
“It was wild,” Shipp told The Athletic's Matt Pentz. “I’ve never really played a team like that. I think that’s partly why they’re decently successful—the novelty of it. It takes thinking, and understanding how to drag teams out of position. It’s totally different than a normal game that you play. It took us a bit to adjust to it.”
The system (or "philosophy," to use Jungwirth's word) is man-marking pretty much everyone once they cross the central midfield stripe. This is what it often looks like:
The system serves an obvious defensive purpose, as it's disruptive and unorthodox. Over the past three or four weeks it's been successful in that regard.
But it also serves an attacking purpose. In order to break down a well-drilled man-marking scheme you are probably going to be throwing players forward at unusual times, and in unusual spots. Center back Kim Kee-Hee was way upfield at times on Wednesday (not entirely unusual for Kim, who's one of the most comfortable CBs in the league with the ball on his foot), and you could see in the clip above how high Dallas' fullbacks were getting so early in the play.
And there's the attacking purpose: When any defender pushes that high then the defense is exposed and you have a chance to counter if you win the ball, then transition quickly into space. You have to be disciplined about making the field big in attack in order to exploit those moments.
Which is why it's only man-marking "pretty much" everywhere, and not actually everywhere: The Quakes take some risks and actually do pass runners off from time to time if they feel like they're in a spot where they can win the ball centrally and then spray to the wings.
I suspect that "win the ball centrally" bit is why Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez decided to go with three more defense-minded players in central midfield on Saturday, for what it's worth. It worked in that they didn't give up a ton of great chances, but it also didn't work in that they dropped home points.
It was a learning experience for everyone, and it was both fun and weird to watch. It almost always is with the Quakes so far this year.
(Ok, I just went long on the Quakes two weeks in a row in this column – no more deep dives into their system, their results or their roster for at least a month, I promise)
The Wars to Come
Part of it is just that they’re hurt. They’re missing a million different players. But another part of it is that this season they went all-in on becoming a beautiful passing machine, and when they’ve been fully fit and healthy they’ve been that. I still think the series against Toluca is arguably the best I’ve ever seen an MLS team play.
The problem is that while there’s a high ceiling for this approach, there appears to be a very low floor and not a lot of wiggle room in the XI. The passing machine breaks down if Ilie Sanchez is rested. The passing machine breaks down if Matt Besler is hurt. The passing machine breaks down if Graham Zusi is tired. The whole thing breaks down, apparently on both sides of the ball, if Roger Espinoza is out – and he’s going to be out until August.
Sporting have now conceded 21 goals in the last 540 minutes (six games) across all competitions, with all of them coming in April. Ten of them were against Monterrey and we should write that off because Monterrey are so good, you say? Well eight have been against the Quakes and Revs, both of whom just ripped off the Rayados playbook: win the ball, then run. Because Sporting can't keep up:
I’m not breaking any news if I tell you that this is not a sustainable way to play soccer, and I’m not breaking any news if I tell you that they are a slow team that struggles to defend in transition. The league has noticed.
This is where the low floor of the passing machine comes into play. They can defend by having the ball, but they can’t defend without it. Brad Friedel went right at that weakness.
"We were hoping that if we sucked them in a little bit, there's a lot of space behind [Andreu] Fontas and Abdul [Rwatubyaye] and [Yohan] Croizet and Zusi. And there was," Friedel said. "I think our attacks were quick and they were decisive and they were effective while it was 11v11."
The Revs had scored just three goals in their previous six games, but hit on what was absolutely the right gameplan on Saturday night.
I’m just not sure what this means for them long-term, though. They completed just 29 passes in the second half and more than 50% of their attempts were long balls. They blew two separate two-goal leads. It was a bizarre 90 minutes of soccer from the visitors that feels like it's not repeatable for a lot of reasons.
Regardless, I’m sure it feels great for them to see the ball go into the back of the net four times, and maybe that’s the type of breakthrough they needed to start collecting results. If it happened for the Quakes, it can happen for the Revs.
A few more things to ponder...
10. RBNY switched to a 3-3-3-1 formation for Saturday's 1-0 home win over FC Cincinnati, which is what they used in 2017 to good effect. It gives them more width, which was on display for the game's only goal:
That is gorgeous, and the whole sequence is our Pass of the Week.
But RBNY still didn’t look… good. Cincinnati hit the woodwork twice on two pretty simple balls over the top, and then once when Luis Robles came out to claim but couldn't. The final half-hour wasn't precisely "all Cincinnati," but this was much closer to 1-1 than 2-0.
It's now one goal in the past month-and-a-half for Cincy, by the way.
9. Montreal's great week was damn near exactly what was expected: They went down to New England and played for a point on Wednesday, but got a gift for 1-0, then got two more for the 3-0 final. And then they went back home and smothered Chicago before getting another gift for the 1-0 win.
Two games against two Eastern Conference opponents, two more zeroes on the board, and now five shutouts in six games. I don't know what to say about this team aside from "if you can't break down a bunker, you're not going to score on them." Montreal defend deep and know how to do it.
Chicago, meanwhile, had a miserable week with 180 minutes of losing, goalless soccer. A team with so much attacking firepower should have better ideas but they've scored more than a single goal in just three of their nine games, and their only real explosion was against Colorado.
This game was the second in a row in which Jeremy Ebobisse grabbed the game-winning goal. He's now started seven times this year – all on the road – and scored in four of them. Here's the entire list of center forwards who started two-thirds (or more) of their team's road games last year and scored in more than half:
- Josef Martinez (15g in 19 games, including playoffs)
- Bradley Wright-Phillips (10g in 17 games, including playoffs)
- Mauro Manotas (9g in 13 games)
That's it – that's the whole list. Some guys (Zlatan had 7g in 11 roadies) either weren't available enough, while others (Gyasi Zardes had 2g in 18 away dates) weren't able to put the ball in the net when they left home.
My considered opinion is that the Timbers lucked out when they struck out on their offseason center forward targets, because it's given them time to realize that, yeah, Ebobisse actually is a high-level, starting caliber No. 9 in this league. Pro-rate his current goals per 90 (.61) over the course of a season and you're looking at a guy who lands between 15 and 20 goals, and has a rate right around what Manotas (.65) and Zardes (.58) did last season. Adjust for home vs. away factors (a guy who scores .61 goals/90 on the road probably does .8 goals/90 or better at home), and they might actually have a guy who goes for 20+.
He is basically on track to be what Manotas was last year, and the fans have noticed:
If you stretched those numbers over a 2500-minute season, that would be 13 goals and 9 assists. At age 22 that’s firmly in “Sell to Europe for high-seven or low-eight figures next winter” range. #RCTID— Chris Rifer (@ChrisRifer) April 27, 2019
The Timbers front office seems to have as well, as they're now being more strongly linked with Necaxa's attacking right winger Brian Fernandez. Fernandez is a goal machine who doesn't play up top, which means that you could pretty naturally put him, Ebobisse, Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri into the same front four in a 4-2-3-1 (or a 4-4-1-1, since Valeri really plays as a second forward rather than a midfielder now).
That attack would be scary.
Right now, for TFC, it's the defense that's scary. I keep noticing that they're sitting on that No. 1 spot in the allocation order, and that Omar Gonzalez's season ends next week, as does his contract. Stay tuned.
7. NYCFC handed Chicago the first of those 1-0 losses this week, grinding them down and then grinding one out on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, then managed just a point on Saturday against visiting Orlando City.
It was a seven-point week (including last weekend's win at D.C. United), which is good. Dropping two points at home to a team you're fighting with – now and presumably down the road – for a playoff spot? That's not great, especially with a four-game road-trip coming up.
Regardless, it's absolutely true that NYCFC are playing their best soccer since last July.
Orlando City weren't great, but if you'd offered them a 3-3-3 record through nine games I bet they would've taken it. And if Dom Dwyer finished an open header from six yards, this blurb would read very differently.
Obviously you should check out Instant Replay for the guys' thoughts on the red cards. For the game itself, two notes:
- Seattle had a miserable eight-day stretch and I think they're gonna play pissed over the next month provided they get something close to "healthy."
- LAFC at times struggled against 10 men last year. I wouldn't say they "struggled" in this one – they clearly had their chances to win – but they only walked away with a point.
5. Houston walked away with all three points for the fifth time in seven games this year, drilling Columbus by 2-0 at BBVA Compass Stadium. It was the Dynamo's first shutout of the year, and it continues the trend of them just sort of quietly taking care of business.
Next week, which is the Texas Derby (in Houston), should be louder. I expect to see both teams playing for blood.
The Crew are playing for a single breath of air at this point, as their nose-dive – four straight losses, during which they've scored just one goal – is threatening to become a tailspin.
4. Minnesota United fans got to sing Wonderwall on Sunday, as they got their first-ever win at Allianz Field by 1-0 thanks to another goal and strong, battling, all-around performance from DP striker Angelo Rodriguez. He now has 3g/1a in his last five games, and just as important as the boxscore productivity is that he gives Minnesota a pretty clear path into the attacking third when/if Darwin Quintero can't go.
Said clear path is "lump it up to him and he'll out-fight his center back at least a few times a game." This is exactly how they beat the Red Bulls at the start of the month, and so finishing April the same way provided a nice bit of symmetry.
D.C. struggled for two reasons by my reckoning. First is that this was their sixth game in the past 21 days – a busy stretch that included an altitude trip to Colorado and saw injuries to both their left backs, their d-mid and their right back. They actually handled all of that relatively well.
The second reason, which they haven't been handling anywhere near as well, is that teams have at least partially severed the connection between Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta. The volume of passes they're exchanging over the course of a game is down about 25% since last year, and a significantly higher proportion of those are now square or back-passes.
United have to figure out how to open the game up again and let these guys cook. Getting healthy and getting a little breathing room in the schedule should help, but keep an eye on it as both the numbers and Acosta's body language have been troubling.
3. The LA Galaxy got four points from the week – win at home (2-1 over a plucky and dangerous RSL team, who came for blood in the second half on Sunday night) and 0-0 at Minnesota United midweek. As mentioned waaaaay above, when talking about the Quakes: that is the blueprint the world over. If you have one home game and one road game and you come away with four points, you've done your work.
They have won six of seven, and are 7-1-1 on the season. They lead the league in points per game and are tied for the fewest goals conceded. They have, in Zlatan, the most dangerous striker in league history, and they have, in Jonathan Dos Santos, one of the very best d-mids in the league (he's been phenomenal). Their center backs are solid, as are their other central midfielders.
Which is why I'm still kind of confused about why the Galaxy seem to alternate between "listless" and "vulnerable" so often (going by the eye test here). I want to know why they're almost always outplayed in the second half. I want to know why they can't/don't put games away.
Which is all by way of saying that RSL damn near had a point on Sunday night, and arguably should've had a point. Credit to them for putting the Galaxy under a ton of pressure.
Ultimately, though, credit to the Galaxy for getting the full three points.
2. Philadelphia went cross-country and, despite missing four starters while playing on turf, got themselves a come-from-behind 1-1 draw at Vancouver. The Union are now 4-1-2 in seven games since a pretty disappointing start to the year.
Increased depth, increased tactical flexibility, increased formational flexibility, and increased experience (the guys who are getting it down now are largely the same guys who made the playoffs and made the US Open Cup final last year) are why.
The 'Caps are scuffling, still trying to find their best shape (Inbeom Hwang played as a regista in this one, which was interesting) and someone – anyone – to make a difference in the attacking third. Neither of their newly imported DP strikers, nor their TAM wingers has been productive through the first two months of the year.
1. Atlanta haven't been productive either, but they did get their first home win! Darlington Nagbe did a nice job of being aggressive off the dribble to punish a packed-in Rapids defense and set up Julian Gressel for the game-winner for the 1-0 final.
It was not a pretty game, though it did provide our Face of the Week, courtesy of Pity Martinez:
The reigning South American Player of the Year has 0g/0a in 294 minutes, and he's not thrilled right now. Not at all.
Neither is Rapids head coach Anthony Hudson, who's now got his team on the bottom of the standings with two points out of a possible 27. He called his roster "a bottom group of players" and said that "every game we've played in, it's been the DPs, big money players up front that are making the difference."
I have a couple of quibbles with that, first being that neither Nagbe nor Gressel is a DP, nor were most of the other guys who've scored against the Rapids this year. Second being that despite the lack of DPs in attack, the Rapids have been mostly OK on that end with 12 goals from nine games. It's the defense where they've been historically poor, and few teams have spent as much on the backline and in goal over the past few years as Colorado have.
So yeah, it is a talent issue in some ways. In many, many others, though, it isn't.