Week 11's done. Let's figure out what happened:
The Old Gods and the New
There have been some markers laid, over the past couple of years, regarding "best MLS team of all-time" status. Toronto FC won the domestic treble (the metric version) in 2017 and took 69 points while going +37 in goal differential en route to the Supporters' Shield.
TFC's points record lasted exactly one season, then the Red Bulls broke it by grabbing 71 points – a disproportionate amount of those against fellow playoff teams, who they dominated – during the 2018 regular season.
Atlanta finished second in the Shield race with 69 points of their own last year, then blew through the playoffs at a canter, with much more ease than TFC had managed.
And now a new challenger appears. Following Saturday's 3-0 win at Columbus, LAFC are first in MLS in points (27), points per game (2.25), goals scored (29), goals per game (2.42), goals allowed (tied with Atlanta with 8), goals allowed per game (all alone at .67) and goal differential (+21).
They are +21 after 12 games. Only two other teams have even scored 21 goals this season. The sum total of current Eastern Conference playoff teams is only +18. The Shield winners from 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013, and 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008 had goal differentials of less than +21 across the entire season.
They are first in total shots, shots on target, shots from inside the box (they've got 145 and the next closest team is at 113), expected goals, expected assists, and expected goals against. They are among the league leaders in raw possession, passing accuracy, total passes in the attacking third, passing accuracy in the final third, and passes allowed per defensive action. They are among the league leaders in long passing sequences (6+ passes), and total time spent on the ball (a lot), but are also among the fastest teams in the league in terms of direct play (behind only counterpressing teams or counterattacking teams).
Speaking of counterpressing, theirs is – by the numbers – nearly as suffocating as what RBNY sprung on teams from 2015 through 2018, except they pass like 2017 Toronto FC and in Carlos Vela have a centerpiece who's putting up Sebastian Giovinco numbers while having an Miguel Almiron-type all-around impact. Walker Zimmerman is arguably the Defender of the Year, Diego Rossi will probably win 22 Under 22, and if there was a Breakout Player of the Year award then Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Eduard Atuesta would have to share it among themselves.
They lost their starting No. 10 (Lee Nguyen) and their starting No. 9 (Adama Diomande) for about month each, and actually played better. They whiffed damn near completely on one of the most expensive DPs in league history (Andre Horta) and it made them zero percent worse.
I don't care if you think that's a pass, I don't care if you think that's a shot. I care that it's the gazillionth time LAFC have cut through a good MLS defense like a hot knife through butter, and if you do that enough you will walk the ball into the net plenty.
“In my opinion, in watching all the games and all the teams, they’re the Man City of MLS,” is what Columbus Crew head coach Caleb Porter said, referring to the newly crowned back-to-back Premier League champions. “The budget, the talent, the way they play, that’s the best team in the league. And as I’m standing there at 1-0, I’m looking at my team and my feeling was that I was proud of them for how they played, everything they gave.”
That's a little bit of spin, but a lot of truth. Except it has to be noted that, a third of the way into the season, LAFC are looking much more like the 2017-18 version of Manchester City – the one that set a new points record and goal differential record and ran away with the EPL title – than the 2018-19 version of Manchester City, who pipped another historically great team and merely won the title with the second-highest points total of all-time.
And here's one more thing to consider: LAFC are actually underperforming their expected points total a little bit! Remember that they came into this game on a bit of a slump with just one win in four, and that they drew their last two games despite a healthy dose of domination both at Seattle and home against Chicago. They just went cold in front of net, for two weeks.
In other words, they just had their rough patch. And now we're at the point where if the eye test, the boxscore numbers and underlying numbers all agree – and in LAFC's case they absolutely do – then you are what your record says you are.
What that all says is LAFC are on track to become the best team in MLS history. That's where we are right now. That is, so far, the biggest story in MLS in 2019.
Now it's up to them to go out and do what TFC did two years ago: Set a bunch of records and win every trophy you play for. Keep playing like this and I like their odds.
Philly started the season 0-2-1. Since then they've gone 7-1-1, including Saturday's rather excellent 2-1 win over Toronto FC in Toronto. They are the only team in the league with a positive, double-digit goal differential besides LAFC (+11), and are now atop the Eastern Conference. They are playing with a level of ruthlessness that has mostly eluded them throughout their existence.
Look at this goal:
First of all, that's a great give-and-go. But second, watch the start of that clip again. Notice Auro limping off? That's TFC's right back. Jamiro Monteiro sees that, and knows that, and where does he go?
That's a Roger Espinoza or Diego Chara move. Philly didn't have that before Monteiro's arrival. And Monteiro also brings an Espinoza or Chara-like defensive engine, which – along with Alejandro Bedoya, who will be forever underrated – has covered for the lack of mobility from defensive midfielder/regista Haris Medunjanin.
"This team has now answered a lot of questions. You know initially the challenge was to get above the (playoff) line, then it was to push for first place and stay in first place, and today the challenge was against the top team in the East in their building and what would we look like," is what head coach Jim Curtin said afterward. "Every player, to a man, stepped up in a big way. I think you’re starting to see the quality of Jamiro Monteiro and his ability to get around the field and make plays for us. [Medunjanin] again was excellent and I though overall as a team we made it very difficult on Toronto."
If this was most seasons we'd be talking about Philly as a Shield contender (maybe if Vela gets hurt that discussion will re-open). I feel like I've written this a million times already this year, but they're really well-balanced and flexible, and I'm starting to talk myself out of the notion that a lack of top-end attacking talent (Philly's attackers are competent-to-good; so far none are great) limits what they can accomplish.
Currently, Toronto's incomplete roster is limiting what they can accomplish, and may give Philly and D.C. the room they need to claim the top two spots in the East. Their ceiling is significantly lower when Jozy Altidore's not available (he came on for the final 18 minutes in this one), and they still need a TAM center back and a stretch-the-field winger.
I think they'll get those players in the summer. For now, though, they're playing catch-up in the East.
A few more things to ponder...
10. The Revs made a big change after Wednesday's embarrassing 5-0 loss at Chicago and were rewarded with a much better effort – and three points – on Saturday in a 3-1 win over the Quakes. The Revs were fun, and played with legit sauce for the first time all season. I almost want to give the whole team "Face of the Week" because they actually smiled, which has been a rarity in 2019.
Also: Buy your Tajon Buchanan stock now. He's going to turn one of the veteran, higher-priced wingers on that roster into summer window trade bait.
The Quakes could use another winger like that, but more than anything else this game was a reminder of how fragile their system can be when one player loses an individual match-up. Nick Lima, Anibal Godoy, Harold Cummings, Tommy Thompson... nobody had a good day.
Via the great Rick Lawes, "In games during the season where a coach was replaced, teams are now 30-28-18." In other words the new-coach bump is real (though it's often not sustainable, as Manchester United learned to their detriment over the past couple of months).
The above is for in-season coaching changes only, and includes FC Cincinnati's win on the weekend.
8. NYCFC have also re-embraced the "passing good" ethos in certain ways over the past few weeks, and that became entirely apparent in their dominant 2-0 win at LA on Saturday afternoon. It was, as Janusz Michallik tweeted, an "easy game," and they indeed did not have to break a sweat.
They had 59 percent possession, which is a high number in and of itself. But given the game state (teams that are trailing usually concede some possession) and the fact that they had a huge chunk of it in the attacking third, and completed passes in the attacking third at a 72% clip... this was a clinic. I'd argue that, in a lot of ways, it was their best performance under Dome Torrent.
Conversely, this was LA's worst performance under Guillermo Barros Schelotto. They switched to a 3-5-2 for the first half but that didn't produce any sort of meaningful forward partnership, and the midfield trio they have still can't seem to find the ball in or create any danger from the half-spaces.
It's Zlatan or nothing at this point. They'd better hope Favio Alvarez can ball.
7. Know who can ball in a "sit in a low block and make your life miserable" kind of way? The Vancouver Whitecaps. I picked them as a darkhorse playoff contender in the West and despaired after the first five games, when they were 0-4-1. Including Friday night's 1-0 Cascadia Cup home win over Portland, they've gone 3-1-2 since then and have the look of a team that will indeed be hanging around at or above the playoff line all season.
It's that bend-don't-break defense, man:
To be clear: Giving up the most shots in the league is not a great way to be a great team. But Vancouver learned out of the gates that their best bet was to limit the quality of opposing chances by keeping numbers back, rather than trying to limit the quantity of opposing chances by keeping the ball. They are still good at generating attractive passing sequences, but do so opportunistically rather than dogmatically. And it's working.
6. Want a weird week? Try the Red Bulls, whose starters sleepwalked through a 2-1 home loss on Wednesday against Montreal (a team that never takes regular season points at Red Bull Arena). So Chris Armas made 10 changes to the starting lineup, and naturally they... won 3-1, at FC Dallas.
I'm not sure what to take away from this one from RBNY other than "energy matters." The kids on Saturday played with a lot more of it than the veterans on Wednesday, and the game often rewards good energy.
Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez probably agrees, as he cited lost duels (50-50s, basically) as one of the main reasons for his team taking the L. He also apologized to the fans.
"I want to say I’m sorry to the fans that we didn’t do enough, but my commitment is to keep working, keep fighting and keep developing the group so we can earn points back and do it for our families and do it for our fans,” Gonzalez said after the game.
FCD did have their chances, though once again their finishing let them down.
5. Chicago's finishing did not let them down at any point this week(*) as they demolished New England 5-0 on Wednesday, then cruised to a 2-0 win over Minnesota United on Saturday. It needed to be six points from two home games and it was. Combine it with that entirely credible scoreless draw at LAFC last weekend and it was a pretty excellent seven-point week.
(*) Ok this is a fib – Nemanja Nikolic still had at least one inexplicable miss.
This, by the way, was a freaking work of art:
One thing I picked up from digging through all those underlying numbers in search of LAFC nuggets: The Fire have now actually created more big chances than anybody else in the league. The problem is that they've also missed more, but, well, those eventually start falling. This past week they did.
The bad news is that Nico Gaitan limped off after 33 minutes on Saturday. No update yet on how severe of an injury, but it's significant nonetheless as he was their best player during their big week.
Minnesota did not have a big week, and they're doing a slow-motion fall back toward the playoff line after their hot start. They've now gone 2-4-3 in their past nine and have scored just twice in their past four games. And it's concerning, on a macro level, that Adrian Heath can't seem to figure out how to get DP attackers Darwin Quintero and Angelo Rodriguez working together.
4. The Dynamo lost 1-0 at Seattle on Saturday night but I came away more convinced than ever that the Dynamo are legit (contingent upon the continued availability of Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas). It's not just that they went to a place where they usually get killed and definitely didn't, it's that they came in with a different game plan – risk exposure at the back by pressing – and did it well. The Sounders couldn't crack them open, and Houston had their chances to walk away with at least a point.
That's easier said than done in Seattle, though. The Sounders are who they are, and play deep into the playoffs every season for a reason.
For more on this match in particular I recommend Bobby Warshaw's column on Monday night.
3. Face of the Week goes to Orlando City forward Dom Dwyer, who was subbed off midway through the second half of his team's ultimately disappointing 1-0 loss at Atlanta:
Orlando City looked good enough to create chances, but not good enough to put them away. Dwyer needs to find his shooting boots, hasn’t scored since March.— MLS Buzz (@MLS_Buzz) May 12, 2019
Atlanta looked very tired in the 2nd half, I’d expect some rotation come Wednesday at Vancouver. pic.twitter.com/98OeWkNmyJ
Dwyer, who's goalless in five, missed the game's best and biggest chance. That's become a habit lately, and cost Orlando City a result at NYCFC last month as well.
"I think when you look at the balance of play we've had the three best chances," is what Orlando City head coach James O'Connor said at halftime (he was overstating it – they had two of the three best, but still). "We cannot not capitalize on those chances. When we get chances like we have, we have to take them."
The Lions have three goals in their past five games and have scored more than a single goal in a game just twice all year.
Atlanta's attack isn't much better, by the eye test, the underlying numbers or the boxscore, as they've scored just 11 times all season. But their defense is winning them games, as they posted their fourth straight shutout – including Wednesday's 2-0 win over TFC – and fifth in six outings. When you do that, you give the likes of Pity Martinez a chance to win some points for you, and for the first time in MLS, Pity obliged.
2. It was rainy, wet and sloppy in D.C. on Sunday night, and Tim Melia made a handful of great saves for Sporting KC, and it looked like he was going to save a point for the visitors.
Then Paul Arriola stepped up and scorched one to the back post. 1-0 to D.C. United, who still aren't playing great but have now won three-of-four and started off this brutal three-games-in-seven-days week by banking three points.
Wednesday night at Toronto will be interesting.
1. Our Pass of the Week goes to Nick Besler, who played this perfect pass over the top for an even more perfect touch and freaking trivela from Corey Baird in RSL's 3-2 Rocky Mountain Cup win at Colorado:
Baird did that this week. Last week his assist on Sam Johnson's goal was the same damn thing David Silva did for Sergio Aguero in Manchester City's title-clinching win on Sunday morning. He is better and more dynamic on the wing, where he's playing this year, than up top, where he spent most of last season en route to winning the Rookie of the Year award.
And that works out well for RSL, who in Johnson (who scored again) finally have a true center forward who fits Mike Petke's style. Johnson now has four goals in his last five games.
The attack isn't the issue for Colorado, who have now lost by 3-2 in both games of the Conor Casey era.