Goals are down significantly year over year, dropping from a shade under 3.2 goals per game in 2018 to a shade over 2.8 in 2019. I think you could argue that defending has improved a bit, while goalkeeping has mostly stayed the same.
The issue has been finishing. As pointed out by my colleague Ben Baer, everybody's got the yips:
Guys have been brutal in front of net in 2019. Goalscoring tends to increase in the summer – maybe everyone will find their finishing boots.
Something Very Expensive
The first way is “you are what your underlying numbers say you are,” and if that’s the way you’re going to go about it then you see a playoff team because right now, via expected goal differential, Chicago are a top five team. If you’ve only been looking at boxscores and the standings then you’re probably snickering a little bit, and I don’t blame you.
Expected goals numbers are, at this point in the season, more predictive of future success than actual goal differential, or PPG, or win/loss percentage, or any of the more standard metrics we all got used to in the dark days before advanced analytics. But “more predictive of future success” doesn’t mean “100 percent predictive,” and sometimes the numbers can lie – or at least mislead a little bit (for example, the Sounders currently have a negative expected goal differential on the season. Sunday's result notwithstanding, anybody out there think they’re actually bad?).
For the Fire, here is the lie in the numbers: They have scored first only five times in 14 games. And in two of those, including this most recent outing, they scored first, then conceded an equalizer, which meant they were back to square one: Chasing a result at home.
“Chasing a result” is the default setting for Chicago this season, with the other side of that coin being “controlling the game.” When teams as talented in attack as the Fire – on paper this front six is devastating, and if Nemanja Nikolic had been finishing his chances at even a below average rate rather than a record-settingly disastrous rate you can see above, I probably wouldn’t even be writing this blurb – are suddenly chasing a result, they tend to generate xG in bunches just based upon raw talent. Those aren’t empty numbers, per se, and sometimes throwing the kitchen sink works (2012 Quakes, anyone?). But that kind of late-game, snatch-success-from-the-jaws-of-failure approach is often not repeatable. If you’re going to be a really good team in this or any league, you need a plan of action that can be executed upon week after week after week.
Chicago don’t have that. This week they played a front-foot 4-1-4-1, pressing like hell from the start (which I kind of get, as the wingers needed to be truly wide in order to cut off service from NYCFC’s center backs to their wingbacks). Last week it was a mid-block 4-2-3-1, while the week before that it was a front-foot 4-2-3-1. The game before that it was a possession-heavy 3-4-1-2, and the game before that was a 4-4-2 bunker.
Which is why the second way of looking at them, i.e. “You are what your record says you are” is absolutely on the table despite their strong underlying numbers. The Fire are 4-5-5, good enough for eighth place in the East. They should be better based upon their talent, the underlying numbers and – often – the eye test. But a team with multiple veteran internationals up the spine, and multiple veteran internationals in attack have really only controlled two-and-a-half games all season long. My running theory is that this is because they’re a brand new team virtually every single game thanks to the week-to-week, mix-and-match tactics that Veljko Paunovic just can’t help but indulge in.
If literally all of the above sounds familiar to NYCFC fans that’s because they went through this exact same cycle over the final few months of last season and the first month-and-a-half of this one. Dome Torrent was even more of a tinkerer than Paunovic, and his team suffered for it. Once he stopped fiddling around in early April, shifting full-time to a pretty uncomplicated 3-4-2-1, the Cityzens went on this run.
Credit to him for resisting the urge to mess with it too much over the previous six games, and for making the right choice in this one – bringing center back James Sands off the backline and into midfield to create a low-block 4-3-2-1 after about 20 minutes. It was a good switch in that it worked (NYCFC were the better team in the second half, and probably deserved the draw) and also in that it was a necessary switch that had actual context and reasoning behind it.
A Rich Find
Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Portland Timbers are murder on the counterattack. Philly re-learned that lesson, to their detriment, in a 3-1 home loss to a Timbers side that completed their 12-game, season opening Odyssey in style.
The biggest, unmissable part of the style was their shiny new DP, Brian Fernandez. The second-leading scorer in Liga MX's Clausura this spring has continued that form as he's journeyed north, grabbing three goals on five shots in his first 115 MLS minutes. He has endeared himself to teammates and fans by always immediately running to his fellow attackers (which will forever be my favorite celebration) after scoring, and endeared himself to teammates and fans by being freaking up for it. He. just. does. not. stop.
The question now is what Portland will look like going forward. Fernandez played as a true center forward in this one, just ahead of Diego Valeri in a 4-4-1-1 and with incumbent center forward Jeremy Ebobisse out wide on the left. Fernandez has had some success throughout his career as a forward, but has more often been more effective as an off-the-ball, goalscoring winger. In the 2018 Apertura he played as a No. 9, and Liga MX teams were able to bottle him up by turning him into a hold-up, target forward.
One way to avoid that is to perhaps start developing an attack similar to LAFC, with Sebastian Blanco in the Carlos Vela role and Fernandez in the Diego Rossi role. Rossi, who is a goalscoring winger and nothing else, is constantly working off the ball, finding space off the back shoulder. The game runs through Vela and whoever happens to be LAFC's hold-up forward on the night, while it often runs to Rossi.
It's something for Gio Savarese to consider. Regardless, the key, if you're trying to defend Fernandez, is to keep him in front of you.
Philly, despite a pretty good first 30 minutes, ended up doing a bad job of that. Their success this year has been down to their depth and flexibility, but also to their ability to win 50/50s and thus keep their defensive shape.
Diego Chara says nope.
The other thing – and this is the second week in a row I’m writing this – is that there’s reason to worry they don’t have the high-level finishers they need to hang with the elite teams. Kacper Przybylko had a nice goal, but he missed what would've been the equalizer from four yards. As a team they had three or four other golden opportunities that they didn’t find the final touch on. They left points on the board here, again.
I’m still a big believer in the Union, but these last two weeks aren’t a mirage. When they play the best teams in the league, they don’t seem to have that extra gear they need.
A few more things to ponder...
10. Speaking of “the best teams in the league,” LAFC stole Montreal’s lunch money and gave them a wedgie, winning 4-2 at home on Friday night. This is one of the best tifos I’ve seen in this league, by the way:
Also, should we give Carlos Vela the MVP yet? In 15 games he has 15g/9a. For comparison’s sake, the best full season Ignacio Piatti – an unquestionably great player who’s regularly mentioned in MVP discussions over the past four years – has put together was 16g/13a. Vela is unreal right now.
Piatti still doesn’t quite look himself after his return from injury. They need him to ASAP, with three home games coming in the next 12 days heading into the Gold Cup break.
9. The other team in LA are very much “the other team in LA” right now, and played like it in central Florida on Friday night. The Galaxy were very fortunate to come away with a 1-0 win, and Orlando City need to consider having someone besides Nani take penalties (he’s a Giovinco-esque 1-for-3 on the season).
8. Real Salt Lake have won three in a row following Friday night’s late, dramatic 2-1 win over visiting Atlanta United. Jefferson Savarino’s stoppage-time winner was the first goal RSL have scored in the final 15 minutes of a game this season, and is emblematic of RSL’s best “thing”: Get the ball onto the foot of one of their wingers and have him cut inside, then give a rip.
That led to their first goal as well, and let’s give Pass of the Week to Albert Rusnak:
This is the pass of the week not just because it’s a picture-perfect switch, but because this is perfectly illustrative of what RSL are doing right now. Rusnak, Bofo Saucedo, Damir Krelich and Nick Besler are all capable of hitting inch-perfect switches, and are now doing so at a furious rate. They’re generating low percentage chances (though if Saucedo buries a few more of these I might have to change my stance on that), but 1) right now they’re hitting the back of the net, and 2) you can see there’s a window here for Saucedo to connect with a true center forward if the option comes available and if they work on it in training.
Atlanta fans are frustrated with the loss, which is understandable. But it took a pair of golazos to beat their defense, which isn’t going to happen every week.
7. Vancouver’s first five games: 0-4-1. Vancouver’s next five games: 2-1-2. Vancouver’s third five games: 2-1-2. That record includes a very credible road draw on Wednesday at RBNY, which I wrote a bit about, and Saturday’s opportunistic and occasionally spectacular 2-1 home win over FC Dallas.
The ‘Caps seem to have evolved out of the 4-3-3 they were playing with in the first part of May and are now somewhere between a 3-5-2 and a 5-4-1, but whatever their formation they tend to be most comfortable (and dangerous) playing out of a low block. They still don’t have the attacking skill to pry apart a set defense, but have become increasingly good at finding transition moments and then taking advantage of them. Chances are if they go 2-1-2 over their next set of five games, they’ll be above the playoff line with 2/3s of the season in the book.
Injury-hit Dallas are heading in the other direction, having gone 0-4-2 in their last six to complete a winless, miserable May. Pablo Aranguiz has not been able to fill in for Paxton Pomykal, Michael Barrios has come back down to earth after a hot start, and none of the center forwards have been consistent. The defense has not been able to bail them out.
The good news? This was their toughest month of the season. Sure, they failed the test, but they’re still above the line and the schedule gets more manageable from here on out.
6. The Red Bulls ended up passing the test this week even though they’ll want a redo on that home draw against the ‘Caps. Their 2-0 win at FC Cincinnati on Saturday night – one in which Luis Robles had to repeatedly bail them out in the first half – was a gut check moment for this club, who have now gone 5-1-1 in their past seven and climbed up to third in the East on points (fifth in PPG).
They’re still not humming along, but they just keep getting answers further down their roster than anybody else in the league. Last weekend it was Sean Nealis and Tom Barlow, while this week it was Brian White and Omir Fernandez:
I’m going to officially say this: Bradley Wright-Phillips is gonna have to WORK to win the starting job back from White, who has 3g/2a and a lot of rugged hold-up play (he is the best in the league at the cushioned header into a teammate’s path) in his 451 minutes this year. White is providing the kind of straight-forward, no frills No. 9 work that can give a struggling attack some structure, and absolutely did in the second half of the win at Cincy.
Also worth noting: Kaku looks up for it again. He’s looked like a DP since returning from suspension, and is a big reason they’re winning games.
For Cincy, this is the second straight week they put together a beautiful first 50 or 60 minutes before utterly collapsing. So it goes when you’re an expansion side that just doesn’t have the kind of front line that can turn positional dominance into actual productivity.
5. The Revs have now played three games in the post-Brad Friedel era, and have gone 1-0-2 following Saturday’s 1-1 home draw against D.C. United, during which the hosts had to play 10v11 for most of the second half after Matt Turner’s red card. This is obviously not bad for a team that looked like they were headed to the bottom of the ocean a month ago at this time.
During their three games New England have had 26.9 percent possession, 37.7 percent, and 32.3 percent. They are not super interested, at the moment, in the beautiful game.
D.C., who are now 4-4-3 since the start of April, don’t seem to be, either, and right now Wayne Rooney is the only thing keeping their attack afloat. Lucas Rodriguez has been a significant downgrade from Yamil Asad, while Paul Arriola has had to play all over the place. They miss him badly when he’s not on the wing, as Jason Anderson pointed out for Black and Red United this week:
Easily the biggest concern, though, is the play of Lucho Acosta. He has 3g/2a in 1300 minutes and hasn’t been influential at all. This is the 2017 and first-half-of-2018 version of Acosta, not the one that set the league on fire in the second half of the 2016 and 2018 seasons.
Which one is the real Lucho?
4. Two in a row for the Rapids! They got two off of set-pieces (including a spectacular game-winner from Nicolas Mezquida) and one on the break to beat the visiting Crew 3-2. “Set pieces and counterattacks” is a perfectly fine way to dig almost any team – but especially one with an unselfish target forward and a bunch of wingers who can run – out of a grave. Colorado have some stuff to work with going forward.
Columbus… it kind of feels like they don’t. They kind of reverted their style a bit back toward what they were under Gregg Berhalter in this one, spraying a lot of balls from deep central midfield to overlapping fullbacks, and dominating possession. But thanks to their inability to deal with corner kicks(!!!) they still found a way to lose.
The Crew have lost eight of their last nine, having been outscored 18-7 in that span. They’re down to ninth in the East on both points and points per game. It’s not good.
3. Sporting just couldn't possibly have themselves an unambiguously good night, could they? Sure, they finally broke their seven-game winless skid, and did so in fun and emphatic fashion, beating the Sounders 3-2 in front of a wild home crowd despite being without multiple starters via both injury and suspension. Sure, Johnny Russell put in what will go down as one of the truly great individual performances of the decade. That's fun!
Seattle have had only marginally better luck injury-wise this year and, well, it's time to start talking about Life After Chad. They went 5-0-3 with a +9 goal differential with Chad Marshall in the lineup in 2019. So far they're 2-2-2 and a -2 differential without him.
2. I think I'm officially on the "the Quakes aren't going away" wagon at this point, following Sunday night's impressive, come-from-behind 2-1 win at Toronto FC. They've gone 5-2-2 since that miserable, laughable 0-4-0 start to the season.
Plus they bring some serious entertainment value:
If you can't figure out that you should mark the guy with 150 career goals, you're not going to figure out how to make the playoffs.
1. Two weeks ago we were just about ready to smash the panic button for Minnesota United. They’d won just twice in their previous nine and the much ballyhooed defensive improvement heading into Year 3 had only sporadically materialized.
And now they’ve taken two straight 1-0 results. Saturday night’s win against Houston – a Houston side without Alberth Elis, it should be noted – was a very big one, especially since Ike Opara was available only as a sub. It took a lucky deflection off a Romain Metanire cross to get the win, but they'd have kept the zero anyway, right? And also: you make your own luck.
This, of course, is the obvious Face of the Week winner:
The Dynamo got yet another taste of life without Elis, and once again it wasn't great. You can look up at that chart for expected goals differential and you'd be correct to surmise that yes, they have been very good. But they have less depth and versatility than any of the other teams up there, and if you listened hard, you could hear the bell toll once or twice during this one.