Week 10 is done! Let's try to figure out what happened...
The Long Night
The New York Red Bulls have been on what felt like the verge of a crisis arguably since the second-to-last game they played in 2018, when they got their doors blown off in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship down in Atlanta. Sure, they turned it around and won the next game, but their year was done, the lights went out, and they entered 2019 carrying a serious amount of gloom with them. Add in Bradley Wright-Phillips's prolonged slump (or permanent, age-related loss of form?), Kaku's dramatics, Tyler Adams' departure and Kemar Lawrence's everlasting injury woes, and RBNY looked to be stumbling through the darkness
They didn't on Saturday, arguably for the first time all year. They blitzed the Galaxy in the first 15 minutes, then battled for the full 90 en route to an entertaining and deserved and play-from-the-front and rally-from-behind 3-2 home win.
Those first 15 minutes... man. That was a throwback to the frenetic, no-holds-barred, all-out press that defined this team for the first half of last season. They never even let LA get to within 40 yards of goal until it was 1-0 to the home side:
Green arrows are completed passes, and red are incomplete. The Red Bulls strangled the Galaxy.
But the Galaxy are good, and their coach is good, and the have a habit of figuring things out. In this instance, as soon as the Red Bulls dialed back the press a little bit (which is almost always inevitable given the amount of energy they were expending), LA got on the ball and came into the game some. In the process they were able to exploit some confusion in RBNY’s defensive plan – when defending in a middle block, they sold out so hard to prevent the Galaxy defense from beating them that they let the Galaxy CBs occasionally waltz straight upfield.
Enter Diego Polenta, regista:
Polenta did that once, and then four minutes later did it again. It was 2-1 Galaxy at the half and this is where I thought the Red Bulls were done. They’re not as stacked in terms of raw talent as the other teams with big dreams in MLS, and now they weren’t on the same page, and their good start had gone for naught. I thought they'd come out totally demoralized.
Instead they came out pissed, and were aided by head coach Chris Armas winning the tactical battle against Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Armas made a crucial sub, with Omir Fernandez coming in to play as a second striker as RBNY switched to a two-forward lineup for the final 35 minutes, which eventually became a 4-4-2 for the final 25 when Derrick Etienne came on as well. The shifting formations – they went from a 3-3-3-1 to a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 – and line of confrontation gave the game a ragged, desperate edge, and that suited RBNY.
The two subs were integral in the game-winning goal. Fernandez's ability to pop up in between the lines and make plays, and then Etienne's ability to finish it off... this was a very different look at the end of the game than what they'd showed at the start:
I think this is what Armas has meant, all along, when he's talked about being better with the ball, and using passing and possession to disorganize the opposition rather than just relying on the press. There were good signs earlier in the game as well – Brian White's not Wright-Phillips, but his battling hold-up play and unselfish runs are similar (and Armas himself has said as much).
Beyond that, it feels like something of a reaffirmation of the Red Bull ethos. White, a draft pick who came to the team essentially via RBNYII and Fernandez, an academy product, and Etienne, an academy product, all arrived via the same, non-glamorous pipeline that's been so essential to this team's three Supporters' Shields in the past six seasons.
"All those guys know that that's where Aaron Long started and we're watching and that's a platform," Armas said after the game. "So for Derrick, to see him take those games serious – then it's not such a surprise. They are getting these real reps. And then just to see Derrick get rewarded with the work he's put in and a big goal, and we know he loves those moments, and he's built for those moments.”
I don't know if this means RBNY have come out of the gloom entirely, but it felt like a real and replicable step forward.
For LA, it’s a disappointing loss and continues a trend of poor second halves. The flip side is they showed some things in terms of pushing the midfield forward and breaking lines with aggressive off the ball runs that had been missing (if I were uncharitable I'd say "non-existent") before this weekend. And the wingers have started producing for real, which is promising.
I don’t think the Galaxy really have anything to worry about. They're still a top four or five team in MLS.
Houston have adjusted quite a bit over the past three years under Wilmer Cabrera, but at their core they still are what they are: A devastating counterattacking team, which they showed on Saturday in a 2-1 Texas Derby win over FC Dallas. This is a goal as soon as they’re able to play out of their own end:
My colleague Bobby Warshaw wrote a bunch on the Dynamo following the game, and I largely agree with his takeaways.
But let me expand upon them a bit, because the difference between this year and last year for the Dynamo is twofold. First, they’re just a much deeper, more balanced and talented team in their back six. DaMarcus Beasley goes down? Here’s Adam Lundkvist (who it turns out actually can defend a bit) to take all the minutes. Alejandro Fuenmayor still isn’t ready yet? Maynor Figueroa drinks from the fountain of youth. The nightmare of another Juan David Cabezas injury? The dream of Matias Vera walking into the XI like a seasoned pro, and actual seasoned pro Boniek Garcia evolving into a zone-moving register.
Second is Memo Rodriguez. He’s been a perfect cog in the Manotas/Alberth Elis/Tomas Martinez attacking machine, able to effect the game without needing a ton (hardly any, really) of the ball. He’s scored four goals simply by understanding how to use the space that the other guys create, and he picked up that assist above by making the simple, correct play.
Those are the differences between 2018 and 2019. Over the final 20 minutes, though, one of the most worrying sames popped up: a needlessly defensive sub from Wilmer Cabrera.
The Dynamo head coach took off Manotas for midfielder Tommy McNamara in the 73rd minute, which invited Dallas – who’d generated nothing in the second half to that point – forward repeatedly. They got the first goal and were denied an equalizer by what I thought was a shockingly soft call.
Houston had been dominant, but because of their ultra-conservative approach down the stretch, they were lucky to get the result they wanted. That was very much a warning shot about the potential of repeating the bad parts of 2018.
"We (subbed in) some fresh legs... just to contain and move the ball," is what Cabrera said after the game. "We could have done better in those 10 minutes just to keep it and don’t give it to them, because when they have that ball they were just like launching it and that’s it.
"Yeah, they scored. They have to take risks and they took risks. We didn’t capitalize on the possibilities that we had in front of us."
He's sugar-coating it a bit – Dallas's lone goal came off of some lovely build-up play – and I think he's missing the point as well. Houston didn't capitalize on their late chances to break not because them's the breaks, but because Cabrera took off the one guy (Manotas) likeliest to actually capitalize in those moments. They don't have the type of depth and flexibility in attack (only four of their players have scored), and in a game this big... look, they got away with it this time. In 2018 they almost never did.
Given how much the schedule toughens up in the coming weeks, keep an eye on this.
Dallas obviously struggled in this one, and they missed Paxton Pomykal (just as they did in the second half last week against the Quakes). The “triple pivot” central midfield in their 4-3-3 doesn’t really work if none of the guys involved are a threat to 1) get the ball on their foot, 2) drive play into the final third, and 3) make a good (or sometimes killer) pass. The don't have anyone who can turn those 50/50 balls they win in central midfield into final third penetration.
Pomykal does all that – what has made his early-season form so notable is that he’s a modern, complete midfielder, not necessarily that he’s a visionary chance creator – and so far there’s no like-for-like replacement on the roster. There certainly wasn't in the starting midfield trio of Bryan Acosta, Carlos Gruezo and Edwin Cerrillo,
The good news is that Luchi Gonzalez eventually recognized this, subbing off a destroyer (Gruezo) for a purer attacking midfielder in Santiago Mosquera (who had his best game of the season) and going to a 4-2-3-1.
I bet we see something like that next weekend, especially since Michael Barrios will be out (yellow card accumulation) along with Pomykal.
A few more things to ponder…
10. Jonathan Osorio scored a worldie and Jay Chapman got the second after a sublime touch in Toronto FC's thoroughly professional 2-0 win at Orlando City on Saturday afternoon. The Reds still miss Jozy Altidore – there is just no replacing his finishing, nor his ability to combine around the box – but after a few hiccups last week they were able to cobble together a coherent attack that focused a little bit more on pushing the wide players forward in isolation.
Obviously it worked as the Reds put nine of their 13 shots on target.
Orlando City had their chances – they took 18 shots, many coming via the Nani-to-Dom Dwyer connection. But they tested Quentin Westberg only twice, and that kind of finishing is how you drop points at home.
NYCFC have now taken 10 points from their past four games, and it's not a coincidence that those are Heber's four starts. The Brazilian center forward is highly mobile and highly unselfish both on and off the ball, and his movement is what's creating all that room for the likes of Maxi Moralez and the rest of the attack.
Go back through the last four games and watch how Heber's movement constantly forces opposing defender to run at their own goal. It's textbook.
And it's a problem for Montreal. The Impact are nearly unbreachable when the game's happening in front of them (five shutouts in six games heading into this one), but if they have to scramble they're giving up at least two. And if they give up two without Ignacio Piatti on the field, they're going to lose.
8. The Union took care of business with a six-point week in Chester, following up Wednesday's by-the-book 2-0 win over Cincinnati with a 6-1 thrashing of the Revs. Six different players scored this week, they're now first place in the East, and they're one of only two teams in the league (LAFC are the other) with a double-digit goal differential.
They've done this largely without the help of Marco Fabian, who's been injured or suspended for most of the year. Cory Burke, last year's leading scorer, is now stuck in Jamaica for at least three months, and David Accam has yet to live up to his billing despite flashes (including the final goal against New England).
It doesn't seem to matter. Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos are both healthy and both acclimated, and Fafa Picault continues to be a tone-setter with his relentless pressing. Brenden Aaronson limps off, and Jim Curtin makes an adjustment – flat four instead of a diamond – and a sub, and so Ilsinho sets poor Edgar Castillo on fire.
Four of the next six, before the break for the Gold Cup, are in Chester. The Union have a chance to create some distance from the pack.
New England are losing touch with the pack a bit, and have the league's worst goal differential at -14.
D.C. were the better team – Columbus have lost five straight and are not playing good soccer – but this is all anybody's going to be talking about (justifiably IMO) from this game this week:
“Obviously we score a goal, and we all know what happened,” Crew head coach Caleb Porter said afterward. “It’s a fair goal. 100 percent. Referee gets in the way, referee fouls [Lucho] Acosta. And then the referee goes and looks at the television to bail himself out. I’ve never in my life seen anything like that. Ever."
Read the whole story HERE.
6. Things aren't great anywhere in Ohio right now, as FC Cincinnati completed another goalless and pointless week, following up that midweek loss at Philly with a 1-0 defeat at San Jose late Saturday night. Cincy have now scored just once in the past month-and-half – that's 655 minutes, or almost 11 hours of game time.
They played most of this one with three defensive midfielders, even after going down a goal (22nd minute) and up a man (51st minute). Head coach Alan Koch displayed what I would consider to be a post-modernist point of view with regard to positions and roles.
"Let's not get caught up in where you type-cast a player in terms of playing," Koch said after the game. "We all know, and I'm very aware we have a lot of defensive midfield players, but we're not going out and playing with everybody as defensive midfielders. Obviously, we're moving players around and playing them in attack-minded positions."
DP striker Fanendo Adi, who returned after a length absence via injury and suspension, had a more traditionalist view.
"Obviously, we’re playing a lot of players out of position and this is something we need to identify. We can’t play guys out of position and expect them to be excellent in those positions where they don’t play," Adi told the Cincinnati Enquirer's Pat Brennan.
"Obviously, you know, I’m a character that can speak out but you just have to support the coaches as well and try to do what is right. He knows why he plays guys out of position but I think we just need to realize that guys can be played out of position and that affects the team. The identity is missing."
San Jose have their identity and now they're collecting points pretty reliably, having gone 3-1-2 in their past six games.
5. Chicago went out to downtown L.A. and did what they've become very good at when facing high-powered attacks: They bunkered up and got themselves a point, holding LAFC to a scoreless draw. In the process Bastian Schweinsteiger gave us our Pass of the Week:
Basti... pic.twitter.com/8EVqOAXfwj— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 5, 2019
That is outrageous.
LAFC have now won just once in their past four, and for the second game in a row left points on the table with their profligacy in front of net. I think it's a blip.
4. It appears that Minnesota United's improved defensive form is not a blip after making some personnel changes at the back. Once again Brent Kallman and Eric Miller started on the left side of a back four, and for the third straight game the Loons mostly avoided the kinds of catastrophic errors that had plagued them up until mid-April. And so they got a 1-1 home draw against a gutsy but still short-handed Seattle side.
The lingering concern has to be regarding whether this defensive improvement is strictly personnel-related, or if it's come entirely at the expense of Minnesota's ability to attack via possession. Over the past three games – all at home – they've conceded just once. But also they've scored just twice, and taking five of nine available home points, even against good teams, is not great.
For now, making an attacking sacrifice in order to get more zeroes on the board is probably worth it. In the long run they'll need to find a better balance.
Seattle need to get rested and get healthy, and I'm sure they were relieved to see both Raul Ruidiaz and Will Bruin get back out on the field. But this game exposed many of Jordy Delem's limitations when it comes to directing the game from deep, Gustav Svensson-style:
Delem works hard and reliably breaks up play, but the Sounders use their No. 6 to spread the game and switch the field of play when they're on the ball, as well as to play overlapping fullbacks into space. That may be asking too much of Delem.
Portland are who they are: They defend deep and either hit you on the counter, or beat you with their top-end skill DPs (and they had to in this one, as center forward Jeremy Ebobisse – who'd been playing so well – had a shocker). This was their path to an MLS Cup appearance last year, and it seems destined to be their path again this season.
I don't know what to say about RSL, so I'll let DP striker Sam Johnson, who had his third goal of the season, say a lot:
“I’m not really feeling happy. After I scored of course it’s okay but I’m not feeling happy. I have to express myself now. I’m just doing a run around for the guys. Even when training it’s difficult for me to get the ball from them. They can see that I’m running around, and not very often I don’t get the ball. I’m just running around on the field. They have to trust me, I’m a player on the team. They have to trust me. I’m a striker for them. Unfortunately, we lost. I’m not happy about it but I think scoring is good.”
This seems not great. But wait, there's more!
“Sometimes it makes me angry because since I came to the U.S. I see that every time – two or three times – I try and make a run, it’s difficult. So sometimes you have to be fast. When you see me going, you’ve got to give the ball, you’ve got to trust me. They brought me here and if I come here, they have to trust me. If one or two times in a game, it really gets me frustrated. I’m just trying to do my best for the fans to see what I can do. It’s been really hard for me.”
Ok... hmm. He's got three goals in his last four games, so maybe a tad dramatic here. But then again, he's only taken one shot – no more, no less – in each of his past three.
“For every opportunity, I have to make the most of it, because in every game I only get one. Maybe a maximum of two. If I have one and get one will be difficult. Getting an opportunity from Corey [Baird] – which was a very good pass. It was a service. I appreciate it a lot. Thank you, Corey, thank you very much – I found the back of the net, I think it’s good.”
I have to admit that I didn't notice anything unusual, in terms of not playing to or through Johnson, on Saturday (or any of the previous games). He was offside four times, which is a lot, but I chalked that up to the learning curve of playing with a new, off-the-shoulder center forward as well as an expected product of RSL's naturally unstructured approach to attacking play.
So yeah, I didn't see anything telling or revealing of some internal rift between the players – but then again, I wasn't looking.
I will be now.
2. As Stu Holden said on the FS1 broadcast, this current version of Ezequiel Barco is the best version of the 20-year-old Argentinean attacker that we've seen. He was dominant in Atlanta United's 3-0 win at Sporting KC, their third win in four games.
I'm still not entirely convinced that the Five Stripes have turned a corner, as those wins have come against New England, Colorado and now a Sporting team who've now conceded 24 goals in their past seven games. You can only beat the team in front of you, and credit to Atlanta for doing that, but this was the first leg of a five-games-in-14-days stretch.
I have no idea what they'll look like on the other side of that.
Sporting, of course, look like road kill. Slow road kill who have gone 0-4-3 with a -14 goal differential since the start of April. Atlanta followed the same blueprint everyone else has lately, just getting out on the run and counterattacking them to death.
1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes, collectively, to the Rapids bench after they gave up the late decider in their 3-2 home loss to Vancouver on Friday night:
One again the attack was not the problem, as Kei Kamara bagged a brace from the spot to bring him up to seven goals on the season, third place in the Golden Boot race. But the defense did not improve in the first game under interim head coach Conor Casey.
Vancouver's trio of goals counts as an explosion by their standards, but keep this in mind: Over the first five games of the year they went 0-4-1 (.2 ppg) with 4 goals scored and 9 conceded. Over the next five games of the year they've gone 2-1-2 (1.6 ppg) with 6 goals scored and five conceded.
Marc Dos Santos is a good coach. I don't think this team will be in the playoff mix, but their early improvement is evident by the eye test and in the numbers.