By my count, there have been 12 coaching changes in Major League Soccer over the past calendar year. That’s fully half the league! The newest face in the ranks is also the oldest, by far.
That’d be Bruce Arena, who is not yet on the New England Revolution sidelines but already in the midst of the most all-encompassing, ground-up rebuild of his career. Hit play on my Extratime chat with New England’s new soccer czar – head coach and sporting director – then let’s dive into five questions ahead of the Week 12 weekend action.
Are Atlanta United the best defensive team in Major League Soccer?
Five straight wins. Five straight shutouts. Frank de Boer’s got his detractors grumbling in private instead of outright calling for his head on Twitter. Results will do that. Should Atlanta win their two games in hand, they’ll occupy first place in the Eastern Conference. Things change quickly in MLS.
Now, that doesn’t mean everything is perfect with King Peach. We can still debate what the last five games mean, whether Pity Martinez is truly settling in, who plays where in the Five Stripes’ best backline configuration, which of Tito Villalba or Ezequiel Barco ought to start when the latter returns from the U-20 World Cup and any number of other storylines swirling around the defending champs.
I’m too tired for all that, though.
Today, I just wanted to know what the numbers say about where Atlanta’s defense stacks up against the rest of MLS. Gimme that sweet, sweet Opta data. The underlying numbers back up what your eyes are seeing. This may just be the league’s best defense. It’s one of Atlanta, LAFC, New York City FC or Philadelphia, from a quantitative perspective at least.
I most value the following, all per game: expected goals (xG) conceded, xG on target conceded, shots on target allowed. The top four in each category is the same, just a different order once you get past LAFC at No. 1.
- LAFC: 0.86 (1st), 2.54 (1st), 0.7 (1st)
- ATL: 1.19 (2nd), 2.91 (3rd), 1.01 (4th)
- NYC: 1.25 (3rd), 2.82 (2nd), 0.94 (3rd)
- PHI: 1.25 (4th), 3.17 (4th), 0.93 (2nd)
So are Atlanta United the best overall? Nah, probably not, but close! Best recently? You bet.
Time to see if they can keep the shutout streak rolling against the Red Bulls on Sunday in Harrison (5 pm ET | FS1 — Full TV & streaming info). The all-time record for consecutive shutout minutes is 727 by the 2007 Houston Dynamo. Atlanta (456) have at least three games to go to match that.
When will the Colorado Rapids win a game?
Not a fun question, but it’s an open one until, well, you know.
It will change the profile of the match on Sunday night (8 pm ET | TV & streaming info).
On paper, this might not look like a good matchup, but the Galaxy have lost three straight, are fairly predictable in attack – their cross-heavy approach might actually play to Colorado’s strengths – and could be missing their two best players in Zlatan and Jonathan dos Santos (hamstring).
Hey, five of the Rapids’ last six losses, all consecutive, have come by a single goal! This question could finally become moot on Sunday. Or not. You know, the way things have been going and all.
Can the Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic be five percent more efficient?
Nobody’s been on the end of more big chances (16) than the Fire No. 9 and 2017 Golden Boot presented by Audi winner. Nobody’s missed more big chances (11), either. You can rue the misses, sure, but ultimately both of those numbers are good news. Nikolic is getting in the right spots.
Chicago just need him to be a tad more efficient with those chances, especially with Nico Gaitan injured. The Fire haven’t been bad on the road, though they haven’t won away from SeatGeek Stadium in 2019. They just haven’t taken their opportunities. To wit, two tight 1-0 losses, a 2-1 opening-day defeat in LA on a late Zlatan winner, a 0-0 draw (at LAFC, no less) and a 2-2 in Toronto in which they led 2-1.
They’ve proven they can keep it tight, now they just need a couple more moments of focus in front of net to take them above the playoff line. That could happen as soon as this weekend against San Jose (Saturday, 3 pm ET | Univision, Twitter — Full TV & streaming info), what promises to be a fascinating tactical battle between Matias Almeyda and Veljko Paunovic.
Which players will I have my eye on?
Darwin Quintero (Minnesota United) – The Colombian started hot and so did the Loons. Then Quintero picked up a groin injury, the attack began to reorient around the hold-up and target play of Angelo Rodriguez and Minnesota’s star player’s production fell off (two goals, both in a wild game against Toronto FC, in seven games).
Lately, it’s coincided with his team’s attacking drop off: two goals in four games, three of those coming their new home, Allianz Field. Quintero doesn’t look altogether comfortable playing off or combining with Rodriguez. It’s a conundrum for Adrian Heath, and every game is an opportunity to get the mix right in the final third.
Frankie Amaya (FC Cincinnati) – No U-20 World Cup for Amaya, which has to be a huge bummer. This year’s No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick is keeping his head up, though, and more playing time with FC Cincinnati might just be what the development doctor ordered. The 18-year-old has gotten two straight starts and about around an hour of run the past two games. No box-score impact yet, but he’s had some nice moments. Spend the 3 pm ET hour on Sunday in Orlando watching Amaya and Co. try to keep the momentum going after Alan Koch’s dismissal (TV & streaming info).
Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes) – Did you see the effusive love Almeyda gave the Quakes 22-year-old midfielder this week? That’s more than enough reason for me to give Yueill the "Beckham Cam" treatment on Saturday afternoon.
"I think he's one of the players with the brightest futures in this league, especially being born the United States. I like his personality a lot. In terms of soccer, he is very complete, and I see a big European future for him. He's a player that trains very well, and when he plays in games, he plays the same way he trains. He plays well in training sessions, friendly matches, and in easy and difficult matches. He always plays with the same effort, and it shows that he is a national team player."
What’s the must-watch ESPN+ game of the weekend?
Taylor Twellman said on Thursday night’s ESPN2 broadcast that he thinks the Sounders are the only team that can reach the sky-high bar LAFC have set during the 2019 season’s first two months.
That may well be true, but Seattle are going to be hard-pressed to keep up their current pace. Six away games in seven is no joke, and neither are the Union, the Eastern Conference’s hottest team outside Atlanta United (five straight wins) and New York City FC (unbeaten in seven).
WATCH: Union vs. Sounders – Sat., 7:30 pm ET on ESPN+ in the US, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada
Still, Philadelphia’s best win is either last week at Toronto FC – not looking quite so good after Wednesday night’s punchless performance – or home against FC Dallas. Mixed in are two dubs against Cincy and home wins vs. Montreal, New England and Columbus. Good, not great.
Know what would be a marquee win, though? Taking down the Sounders with Raul Ruidiaz back. Narratives aside, this ought to just be a well-played game. I’ll take as many of those as I can get.
Your challenge: Get outdoors and kick the ball around this weekend. Endorphin rush!