13 games in Week 10, 24 teams. Let's dig in with a thought on each club.
Josef Martinez scored two goals in the 3-0 win over Sporting Kansas City, but they were only a minor part of his overall contribution. At around the 20th minute, with Atlanta looking once again slow and predictable in possession, Josef started to drop back into the midfield and demand more of the ball. Usually, it’d be infuriating to watch Josef move that far from the goal, but he provided Atlanta exactly what they’d been needing. He connected one-touch passes and/or made quick runs after making a pass that changed the rhythm of Atlanta’s movement. The slower passes set Sporting up, and then the ball would get to Josef and everything would speed up and and Atlanta could break through Sporting’s defensive lines. It might not be sustainable for Josef to get that many touches away from the ball, but it set an example of what needs to happen.
The Fire entered Banc of California Stadium with the primary intention of slowing down LAFC’s attack. What they did particularly well in the 0-0 draw, though, was to remember that LAFC are just as dangerous on the counter as through possession. Chicago were incredibly diligent in their attacking-defensive shape. When Chicago had the ball, the Fire were just as worried about their defensive cover for when they lost the ball. They weren’t about to get counterattacked. They only ever let five players go forward, while five players always stayed back. It ensured that LAFC could never get a head of steam on the break.
FC Cincinnati had a chance to do something really cool this season. They had a chance to re-frame how teams think about roster build — double down on a couple key attributes and build the game plan around those skills. It looked like that’s what they were going to do, too, when they took three straight positive results in March. The plan was clear and consistent. Since then, they’ve changed their lineup, formation, and approach every game, and never in a way that has catered to their best attributes. What could have been.
Tell me the last time a last place team was must-see TV. You can’t, can you? Yeah, the Rapids' season has been bad. But we’re in the midst of history here. Usually it’s a drag to watch a struggling team, but the Rapids’ games have been amazing to watch. It could always be worse. (Also, play Kei Kamara and Andre Shinyashiki as split forwards with Kellyn Acosta as the attacking midfielder, Benny Feilhaber and Cole Bassett as the shuttlers, and Jack Price as the base of the midfielder — that’s your foundation to build from.)
Columbus Crew SC
It’s been a rough month for the Crew, losing five in a row. Harrison Afful has missed all five of them, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Afful has always been the player who keeps opposing teams on their toes. One option I’d like to see the Crew try is to move Pedro Santos to attacking midfield and shift Federico Higuain to the side. I don’t have a precise reason for it, but it’s been about 12 months since the Crew’s attack looked tasty, so it might be time to try some new seasoning.
FC Dallas didn’t take any points off Houston, but I doubt they will feel bummed about the afternoon. Luchi Gonzalez’s group finished with 64% of the possession and, had two very close calls gone differently, we’d probably be saying Dallas dominated the game. One potential point of improvement for the team, though: Dallas looked sluggish in their middle block. They didn’t have their usually sprightliness. They weren’t able to force turnovers and get out in transition, so they were always left having to break down eight Houston players. It’s the first time it’s happened to Dallas this year -- maybe it was the absence of a forward-thinking midfielder like Paxton Pomykal, or maybe it was the hot afternoon conditions. Either way, it’s something Gonzalez will want to address before it becomes a trend.
It was clear that Lucho Acosta and Wayne Rooney looked a little more dangerous in the 3-1 win over Columbus than they had the last few weeks. It wasn’t by chance. Paul Arriola had been filling it at left wingback the last few weeks; against Columbus, Ben Olsen moved Arriola back into the midfield and asked Lucas Rodriguez to take the wingback role. While Arriola is more suited to the wingback position than Rodriguez — he’s more combative in duels and a little more honest following runners — he’s also missed farther up the field. As Olsen told reporters after the game, “Wayne [Rooney] and Lucho [Acosta] were able to find some better pockets of space in the game because of Paul’s running.”
The Dynamo got the 600-word treatment this weekend.
The TL;DR version: Work hard, play hard.
The last few weeks, I had been wondering who Giancarlo Gonzalez, the Galaxy’s newest center back signing, would replace. The easy money said Daniel Steres, given the Galaxy brought in Diego Polenta in the offseason. But Steres had been playing well and Polenta had made a few mistakes and still didn’t quite look fully fit, so I started to think that Steres could pull off a potential Aaron Long scenario. Then this weekend it became clear why the Galaxy were so keen on Polenta in the first place. The dude dropped two of the best passes of the season, initiating both Galaxy goals. Not many center backs in this league can do that, and if you have one of them it opens up a whole realm of attacking possibilities.
Sometimes a season is a like a game of Monopoly; the player who gets out to an early lead starts to have everyone focus on not letting them win. LAFC are getting that treatment at the moment. After putting up 21 goals in seven games, opposing teams decided they probably need to focus first and foremost on stopping LAFC. Vancouver, Chicago, and Seattle played with tight lines and kept numbers behind the ball (though the Sounders were forced into it after going down a man). In three of the last four games, LAFC have scored one goal or less, including two shutouts. It’s not exactly an original story, and it’s a credit to what LAFC have accomplished early in the season, but it’s a problem LAFC will have to solve.
Beitashour offered some thoughts on Chicago’s tactical plan last night. pic.twitter.com/nt4EsmsP6B— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) May 5, 2019
It occurred to me during the 1-1 draw with the Sounders that the Loons are the new Sounders. Last year, I spent the entire second half of the season trying to logically make sense of Seattle. The Sounders were winning, but they didn’t have an “it.” That’s Minnesota now. They’ve gotten results against the Red Bulls, Seattle, the Galaxy, and D.C. United in the last month, so they are clearly doing something right. How would you describe them, though? Are they a possession team? A counterattacking team? A team that’s organized defensively? No, no, and no. What are they? Does it even matter?
Of course I say Remi Garde is the frontrunner for Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year and they go out and lose 2-0 at home. Main takeaway: If I’m a Montreal fan, I want my team to do well enough to make the playoffs, but not so well to get a home game. Montreal are better suited for road games; the opposition will have the onus to dominate the ball, and Montreal can happily wait for their mistakes.
NYCFC have gone 3-0-2 since switching to a 3-4-3. It’s probably not a coincidence -- the three center back setup brings natural stability to a team, and Anton Tinnerholm and Ben Sweat/Ronald Matarrita are tailor-made for wingback roles. But it’s hard to look past the elephant in the room with it. The 3-4-3 doesn’t suit the attackers. More specifically, it means at least one player who needs to be starting, isn’t starting. The Cityzens won on Saturday without their most expensive signing in league history, Alexandru Mitrita. Mitrita is best suited to play on the left… but Maxi Moralez started on the left. Move Moralez to the right? Well, I’m not sure anyone who’s seen NYCFC in the last year would say that Ismael Tajouri-Shradi shouldn't be on the field. And that doesn’t touch on Jesus Medina, who only has three starts this year. It might make sense for NYCFC to keep using the 3-4-3 in the same lineup, but it doesn’t help from the business standpoint to keep their two most valuable assets, Medina and Mitrita, on the bench.
New York Red Bulls
They’s aight. If there was any question that the Red Bulls could still Red Bull, they stomped on those concerns. The game, as Taylor Twellman pointed out on the ESPN broadcast, felt similar to when Atlanta visited Red Bull Arena at the end of the regular season last year. The Red Bulls played the game at a pace and intensity that Galaxy, like Atlanta before them, couldn’t deal with. (And yeah, it helped that Kemar Lawrence looked fully fit again.) When the Red Bulls need points, they still have that something to get it done.
New England Revolution
Some might call this spin, I’ll call it a reframe… the Revolution played even with the top team in the Eastern Conference for 45 minutes on the road. Yes, the second 45 minutes were (very, very) bad, but you can’t ignore the first 45. The game plan of “work harder and run faster than the other guys” caused the Union a lot of problems. The end result was embarrassing, but there were also some positives in the first half to build upon.
The Lions have been the most consistent team throughout the year; their matches have the smallest amount of standard deviation. Every game looks roughly the same, and the Lions have the same chance of winning every game. They haven’t outplayed anyone this year, but they also haven’t been outplayed. For a team recovering from one of the worst seasons in league history, I feel like that’s an impressive accomplishment.
On Wednesday, I gave some dap to Jim Curtin after the Union’s 2-0 win over Cincinnati. One specific decision Curtin has made lately that’s paid big dividends, including in the win over New England on Saturday: When Ilsinho enters the game, the Union adjust their defensive system. They slide from a diamond midfield to a flat midfield. In the diamond, the highest player, usually Brenden Aaronson or Marco Fabian, marks the opposing defensive midfielder. It leaves the three other midfielders, recently Alejandro Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin, and Jamiro Monteiro, to cover the width of the field.
Ilsinho doesn’t have the defensive trigger to either follow a player around or cover a ton of ground, so the diamond doesn’t work with him. But instead of keeping Ilsinho off the field -- have you seen what this man can do? -- or asking him to play a style that limits his ability, Curtin has mended the system to fit him. Bedoya moves to the middle to join Medunjanin and Ilsinho plays the right, where he has less defensive responsibility.
In the “cojones” category, Gio Savarese benched Diego Valeri four games ago. The three games since, the Timbers have gone 3-0-0 and completely turned their season around. Throughout the history of MLS, one of the basic truths has been that coaches have catered to — and very often given too much leniency to — star players. Savarese didn’t like what he’d been seeing from Valeri, he did something about it, and both the Argentine and the team have responded.
Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake have now lost three straight to the Timbers, all in the last 15 matches RSL have played. A postgame quote from Mike Petke stuck out to me: “We didn’t break lines enough.” I’ve given Petke credit for getting individual gameplans right this year, but I think this one he got wrong. You can’t break lines against the Timbers. Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes eat up those passes through the middle. The best way to beat the Timbers is shift them side to side and look for overloads in the wide channels. For RSL, that means getting Jefferson Savarino, Albert Rusnak, and Aaron Herrera 3-v-2 near the sideline. That should be RSL’s bread and butter (probably regardless of the opponent).
San Jose Earthquakes
The second the Quakes went down to 10 players, my first thought was, “I bet they haven’t worked on this before.” There’s only so much time in each training session, and so many training sessions in a preseason. The Quakes had other things on their plate — namely, learning a system that was entirely new to everyone on the team. Matias Almeyda confirmed it in postgame press conference, acknowledging that they had yet to practice what happens if they go down a man. The players deserve a ton of credit for figuring it out on the fly. They dropped their lines back 20 yards, allowed the FC Cincy center backs to have the ball, and had Danny Hoesen man-mark FCC’s defensive midfielder. Almeyda probably couldn’t be more proud of how his players responded.
I’m a sucker for a teacher vs. student battle, and Ozzie Alonso vs. Cristian Roldan lived up to it for me. I realize that Sounders fans think Roldan is already an MLS star. He isn’t...yet. He’s close, but it’s a bit of an affront to Alonso, Kyle Beckerman, Dax McCarty and the other dominant midfield forces of MLS history to suggest Roldan is there. But the Sounders midfielder has definitely taken a step forward this year, and performances like he put in against Alonso inch him closer to the Building Block category.
Sporting Kansas City
I loved Peter Vermes’ quotes after the game. When asked about his depleted roster, he told reporters, “When you have 9-10 people out that are injured and are starters on a regular basis, it’s not like you’re a magician and you can suddenly come up with something. The players, you have to work with them. You have to make those guys better. It’s not like they’re bad players. That’s not the idea. The idea is that they’re the ones who aren’t getting the rhythm of game after game.” It’s a) honest -- the 3-0 scoreline and five league games without a win tell a clear picture and any spin would have been very transparent; b) it doesn’t throw the players under the bus; and c) it’s thoughtful and intelligent. A player’s ability isn’t absolute; it’s about the situation. Sporting can win with the players at their disposal, but it will take time. Vermes gave the perfect answer in a tough scenario.
This is a great stat:
If @torontofc can hang on, they will earn the 85th win of the Greg Vanney era, more than the previous 8 coaches combined. In 107 less matches #TFCLive @24thminute @LukeWileman @vocalminorityCA @WakingtheRed @JohnMolinaro @joshuakloke pic.twitter.com/ymC3TRyNFV— Martyn Bailey (@martyn_bailey) May 4, 2019
Hand raised, I questioned Vanney’s appointment at the time. He had never been a professional head coach and he was taking over one of the most volatile clubs in the league and asked to manage some of the biggest stars in the league. From coaching academy kids to Michael Bradley is a big jump. In the same way we can look back and say Anthony Hudson didn’t have the experience to lead an MLS team, Vanney didn’t, either. It seemed like Vanney was the guy being throw on the fire until someone with more experience came along to clean up the dust. But we’ve forgotten all of those things since Vanney has done such an excellent job. He now has five trophies, a Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year award, and is rightfully considered one of the better minds in the league.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
First half note, after Fredy Montero gets a goal and an assist: “Fredy looks good! God, did Vancouver need that.”
Second half note, after Montero gives away two penalty kicks: “Oh, Fredy.”
But I’d bet Marc Dos Santos would take that type of performance every single day. It was noteworthy. That’s what the ‘Caps have been missing. Their attackers have looked cumbersome. It seems clear to me, though, that Montero, Lass Bangoura, and Lucas Venuto have talent; they have moments that make it clear why Vancouver invested in them. But they haven’t played with conviction. They simply look like three players who are trying to find their place with a new team, a new coach and, for Bangoura and Venuto, a new country. Friday night’s win over Colorado provided a taste of what they could provide.