16 games full of action in Week 12 and one thought on each of the 24 teams. Let's dig in.
It was, to say the least, a very frustrating afternoon for Atlanta fans. The 65 minutes of slow, generally pointless ball rotation while up a man felt like watching a commercial during "Grey’s Anatomy." You’re pretty sure you’re going to get back to the good stuff, but it’s taking an awfully long time. Two things worth pointing out:
- LAFC also failed to score while up a man for more than a half (four weeks ago vs. Seattle); playing against a packed, committed defense is hard. It doesn’t change the fact that Atlanta should have been better, and it was another addition to the sample of mediocre possession concepts, but it’s not a damning failure.
- The first 35 minutes, before Tim Parker’s red card, should have been encouraging for Atlanta United fans. They showed variation in their ideas! They looked to use the Red Bulls’ press against them and win second balls around midfield, and they played some balls behind Red Bulls’ back four. Atlanta looked much better on Sunday than they did when the teams met last September. Remember that "Tata" Martino only solved the Red Bulls puzzle by going away from the ideals he had used all season. Frank de Boer moved the needle while sticking to his soccer tenets. (If that’s praise-worthy it depends on how you see the game.)
“Goals change games” is both the most obvious phrase in soccer, and also the most underused one. Goals don’t just change the scoreboard, they change the flow of games. Being up 2-1 makes the following period of the game very different than being down 1-0, even though the only thing that’s different is the two kicks of the ball. That was the story of Chicago’s Saturday afternoon. The Fire played fine, should have been up 2-1 at one point, but missed their chances and allowed San Jose put the game away. It’s not to say that Chicago would have won, but a 4-1 loss didn’t feel like the right representation of the game. Also, read what Ben Baer wrote about Nemanja Nikolic.
First of all, I love this interview with Yoann Damet.
Two of the under-discussed parts of coaching are temperament and charisma. It’s certainly easier for Damet to remain calm after a 5-1 loss when he’s only the interim manager — and it’s unlikely he gets the full-time job this time around — but his demeanor in that interview will stick with me more than any tactical adjustments he’ll make.
Speaking of tactical adjustments, Damet neets to pick a more cohesive XI. He needs a group of players who want to and can play the same style. When I look at the lineup that played the majority of Sunday's defeat, I see some that would rather sit and counter and some who would rather press and possess.
And the run to the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs begins! Well...maybe. What’s wild about the Rapids getting their first win is that, while watching the flow of the game, I thought it was one of their weaker performances. The Rapids didn’t really try to pass, nor did they have much luck getting in the way when the Galaxy did. But the Rapids won the moments. They made a few big defensive interventions at key moments, and they took advantage of the moments when they could transition. Jonathan Lewis, Kei Kamara, Kellyn Acosta, Cole Bassett, and Sam Nicholson all looked confident attacking open space.
Columbus Crew SC
The Crew locker room must feel a little like ***GoT spoiler alert!*** King's Landing after Daenerys went ham. The 1-0 loss in Minnesota made it seven losses in their last eight games. Here’s the part to remember: Every season has its ebbs and flows. From a neutral perspective, I think the Crew have serious problems. Specifically, Gyasi Zardes isn’t the right striker for how Caleb Porter wants to play. Within their locker room, though, they needn’t look any further than their schedule to find reason to smile. They have Colorado next weekend, followed by three home games. They have an opportunity to turn the ebb into a flow real quick.
When FCD and LAFC met on Thursday, LAFC squeezed the life out of Dallas every time Luchi Gonzalez’s group tried to play through the midfield. What did Dallas do to adjust for Sunday’s meeting?
In the 27th minute, they had this goal disallowed:
In the 29th minute, they scored this goal to go up 1-0:
Look similar? That’s not by accident. Ryan Hollingshead acknowledged as much after the game, saying that Gonzalez had them run those patterns in training. When Dallas felt squeezed, they had a default option out of pressure: Dominique Badji would run behind, Dallas could clip the blind ball into the space and Dallas would use LAFC’s forward motion against them. Ideas.
D.C. were the best team in the East through the first four games. Since then, they are 4-4-2, with the four wins coming against Colorado, Columbus (twice), and a Sporting team that was missing three of its four starting defenders. Through none of them did they look particularly convincing — not nearly as convincing as they did at the end of last year and year part of this year, at least. As Wayne Rooney said after the 2-1 loss to Houston: "I’ve said it before — we’ve gotten lucky in games and we’ve gotten results and today we didn’t.” The idea that D.C. are one of the better teams in the league is, at this moment, outdated. (Although there’s a very fair question on who, exactly, takes their spot in the East.)
While the Dynamo have gotten off to a good start, I’ve remained skeptical because I was 80% sure it was an “Alberth Elis decided he wants to annihilate fools” stretch. Elis had recorded a goal or assist in seven of his nine starts this year. The whole “fastest team in America” thing only works with Elis at his best. When Elis got tired, hurt, left for Gold Cup, or sold, then what? Well, there’s Tommy McNamara, of course. The Dynamo looked perfectly fine after Elis went out hurt. Now, playing against a D.C. team who had a Wednesday game isn’t the toughest test. But an Elis-less Dynamo passed their first test.
We started to see the first potential danger to their Supporters’ Shield run.
They didn’t look as lethal with a different starting lineup. It’s obvious, and true for all teams, but it didn’t come up because they’ve been almost perfectly healthy throughout the year (and Latif Blessing stepped up to fill in when injuries did come). The midfield didn’t look quite as dominant without Eduard Atuesta on Sunday; Carlos Vela didn’t look quite as dangerous starting at center striker. Will everyone stay fit playing at the pace Bob Bradley has set? How will they replace Mark-Anthony Kaye and Walker Zimmerman when they depart for the Gold Cup?
Also, is the goal drought from the center strikers becoming a problem? Adama Diomande missed another sitter. You could pin three dropped results -- Chicago, Seattle, and now Dallas -- to poor finishing. Diomande and Christian Ramirez have only scored two goals combined in LAFC’s last 10 games.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto opted for a formation and style change on Sunday. He went with a 4-3-1-2, using Jonathan dos Santos, Sebastian Lletget, and Joe Corona behind Favio Alvarez. It’s a switch that makes a ton of sense to me, especially for when Zlatan Ibrahimovic comes back from his suspension. It puts everyone in spots that fits their attributes, and also provides more energy and direct running higher up the field. The problem that the Galaxy need to solve is still getting width, specifically on the left side. Diego Polenta started at left back; he could probably play left back in certain scenarios, but not when he needs to be the pseudo-winger.
When we think of the teams bringing through young domestic players, we don’t usually put Montreal in the conversation. We should probably adjust that. Remi Garde hasn’t shied away from putting young Canadians on the field. This week, he started three Canadian players aged 21 or younger -- Zachary Brault-Guillard, Shamit Shome, and Mathieu Choiniere.
Minnesota United FC
I’m very down for Adrian Heath trying Miguel Ibarra at left back, as he did in the Loons’ 1-0 win over Columbus. Ibarra checks the boxes on what you would want from an outside back: He’s focused, quick, and doesn’t mind defending. More than anything, it allows Heath to get as many of his top players on the field at once. The tradeoff for Heath: try Ibarra at a new position, or keeping one of Ibarra, Kevin Molino, or Ethan Finlay off the field. The Ibarra-to-left-back experiment might not work in the end, but it’s absolutely worth trying.
New England Revolution
Mike Lapper gave us some insight into soccer game theory in New England’s 0-0 draw with Montreal. Most coaching decisions — starting lineups, substitutions, suspensions, etc. — are made with the future in mind. The manager always has to interact with the player again. It’s mostly why we don’t see players subbed in the first half or big stars benched. But Lapper, who will hand over the reins to Bruce Arena soon, doesn’t have to worry about that. So he went ahead and handed in the slip to pull Edgar Castillo, one of the team’s senior players, in the 33rd minute for tactical reasons. Castillo wasn’t happy about it. Could it hurt Lapper’s relationship with Castillo? It doesn’t matter that much. Lapper doesn’t need to worry about next month, and he helped his team get a point on Saturday. DeJuan Jones was great once he came on at left back.
New York City FC
NYCFC were big winners despite having a bye. The East teams who played had a pretty dismal weekend across the board. Nine of the 12 teams in the East dropped points, including five of the other six teams above the playoff line...including the three teams above NYCFC.
New York Red Bulls
Red Bulls vs. Atlanta games are the best matches in MLS right now. In this iteration, we only got 35 minutes before Tim Parker got sent off. But those 35 minutes were different than most games. The pace of the game; the intensity on the duels; the tactical cat-and-mouse — they’ve all been higher over the last two seasons than any other MLS matchup. I realize the game doesn’t have the same fan energy as other games — I saw your tweets, lovely people of the Pacific Northwest — but in terms of on-field energy, Red Bulls-Atlanta is at the top. It reminds me of the old RSL vs. SKC/Kyle Beckerman vs. Benny Feilhaber & Roger Espinoza games. In terms of rivalry, I’m partial to ones formed by the players, even if it’s fleeting.
Orlando City SC
The Lions looked really good in Sunday’s 5-1 win over Cincinnati. Their possession looked sharper than it has all year. The biggest point from the game, though, is that Dom Dwyer scored. Dwyer hadn’t scored in his last seven matches, and there were some bad misses in there. He had clearly become frustrated. It’s still fairly obvious to me, however, that Orlando need Dwyer. They are an okay team without him, perhaps a playoff team. They could be a real threat in the East if you take what they are doing and add a confident Dwyer.
If you haven’t noticed on these columns, I often try to find positive things to say about struggling teams and potential holes in good teams (mostly because that’s how I used to think as a player -- you need to always look for what will make you better tomorrow), so after saying nothing but positive things about Philly for the last year, here’s my main thought at the moment: Auston Trusty needs to get better at passing the ball between the lines. He hits too many balls long when he starts to feel pressure. This year, it’s not as frustrating to watch because it plays to the Union’s new style. But it’s bad for his US national team future. Trusty can do just about everything you’d want defensively from a center back, but he needs to become a better passer.
I’m extraordinarily interested to see who Brian Fernandez replaces in the starting lineup. It should give insight into how Gio Savarese wants to play moving forward this year. If Fernandez slots in wide for Andy Polo, then it says to me that he’s okay being a counterattacking team. If Fernandez goes up top for Jeremy Ebobisse, it probably signals that Savarese wants his team to keep more of the ball. I’ve said over and over that I think Portland need to accept and double down on Option A. Savarese, though, has continuously attempted to shift the Timbers to Option B.
Real Salt Lake
RSL took their defensive intensity to new a level in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Toronto. At first, I actually thought RSL were man-marking Toronto across the field — RSL players were staying close to their TFC counterparts and getting dragged out of position — but then I realized it was just an aggressive zone. RSL always erred on the side of squeezing the field too much and/or getting too close to a player (presumably because they weren’t worried about Toronto attacking the space behind them). TFC’s Alejandro Pozuelo, in particular, almost never found more than a couple yards of separation, even when he wasn’t close to the ball. It was the perfect plan for the day. Toronto had 63% of the ball in the first half but rarely threatened RSL’s goal.
San Jose Earthquakes
The weekend was all about Wondo. Matt Doyle and I wrote about it. One point to add: How cool is it that Shea Salinas provided the assist for the record-tying goal? This is the ninth year the two have played together; Salinas shares the same “work first, ask questions later” mentality. They’ve both been underappreciated (yes, Wondo has still been underappreciated). So much about Wondo’s afternoon was poetic.
They are the team that probably feels the best about their result this weekend. It was only a draw, but it was an impressive draw — on the road while missing seven starters at the top team in the East. I can’t tell you how great those types of games are for a locker room. Any gritty performance lifts a team. It’s multiplied when there are non-starters mixed into the lineup. A long season is hard for players who aren’t getting much playing time. When they feel like they are a part of the success, it lifts everyone’s mood. Seattle will need everyone. Their next three games: at Sporting, at Dallas, and at Montreal. I’d say four points from that would be a success.
Sporting Kansas City
I don’t have much to add to what Matt said about SKC in his Sunday column. They have moments when you think to yourself, “Oh, there it is. They’re back.” Then something horrible happens to them/they do something horrible to themselves and the only honest reaction is, “How the hell did that happen?” It’s nearly impossible to dissect because it’s just a moment of nonsense. It’s the exact same thing that happened with Toronto last year. My instinct still tells me that SKC will be fine, and I’d put money down that SKC would be fine, but I felt that way until the very end for Toronto.
It’s pretty clear that Toronto’s season will come down to Jozy Altidore’s health. He’s not only a force on his own, but his contributions make the game easier for everyone else. Everyone on the team plays better with Jozy on the field. When Jozy is healthy, Toronto are one of the top teams in the East. When he’s not, they are a bubble team. It’s hard to extrapolate anything about TFC beyond that.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
I’m a big fan of early, aggressive substitutions and tactical adjustments. Too many teams wait too long to make changes (largely for the reason noted in the New England section). Sporting dominated the first half of the 1-1 draw with the ‘Caps. To cope, Marc Dos Santos subbed in Derek Cornelius at halftime and switched from a 4-3-3 to a 5-3-2 to allow the five defenders to be more aggressive. In the 51st minute, Krisztian Nemeth checked back for a ball and had Doneil Henry tight on his back; Nemeth took a bad touch and received a red card on the subsequent challenge. Would Henry have been that tight without another center back? Probably not.