Would you believe it, 13 games in Week 13. Let's check in on each of the 24 teams.
One of the bigger surprises of 2019 has been that Darlington Nagbe, perhaps the best possession player in the league playing in the most possession-oriented system in the league, hasn’t been more influential. I would have thought that Nagbe playing in a Frank de Boer system would become one of the best players in the league. I’ve been desperately waiting for Nagbe to get a chance to be the metronome of a possession team. It’s been the opposite, though; he’s had the worst year of his career. Most players on Atlanta have struggled this year, but I find Nagbe to be the most surprising one.
Matt Doyle led his Sunday column with his thoughts on the Fire. My add: If you haven’t watched Aleksandar Katai yet, find a Fire game on ESPN+ or DAZN to put on your calendar. He’s one of the few right-footed players who has the elegance of a lefty. He’s also quicker than he looks, and glides away from defenders when you think he’s gotten himself into trouble. He’s been consistently excellent this year.
It was good to see Fanendo Adi look like a handful again. It’s easy to forget how freakin’ good Adi can be. Part of it is his fault in that he doesn’t always bring the heat. But he’s as complete a striker as there is in the league. He’s a monster with soft feet and a quick brain. He wasn’t at his best in the loss to the Red Bulls, but it’s the best he’s looked in 12 months.
A lot of the attention in Commerce City has gone to Kellyn Acosta, Kei Kamara, Jonathan Lewis, and Diego Rubio -- and rightfully so, probably. The Rapids' best player the last two weeks, though, has been Sam Nicholson. He’s looked a bit like a Scottish Miguel Almiron. He sprints forward on the break a lit bit too fast and a little out of control but almost always ends up on the other side of the recovering defenders with the ball. The Nicholson-Lewis counterattacking duo makes the Rapids dangerous at all times.
Columbus Crew SC
I hope Caleb Porter gets creative to help the Crew get out of their funk. I’m not sure he will, given he’s in Columbus for the long haul and understands he’s building principles to last. But he has some interesting pieces that could be molded in unique ways. Right now, he’s keeping some of his more talented players off the field for the sake of maintaining his traditional 4-3-3. Artur, who had been one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the league over the last two seasons, hasn’t been in the starting lineup. It could be fun to see what type of interchanges Porter could create with Artur, Wil Trapp, David Guzman, and Pipa Higuain all roaming the middle of the field (plus Harrison Afful, when he gets back).
First...I'm pretty liberal with players trying new positions, but I can't say I ever thought I'd see a world with Ryan Hollinshead playing center back. Second… Dallas’ season is going to come down to Pablo Aranguiz, isn’t it? In the short-term, Aranguiz needs to take Paxton Pomykal’s role of turning the team’s own-half possession to final-third chance creation. In the long-term, he needs to contribute goals. Michael Barrios and Dom Badji have never been goal machines, and Jesus Ferreira can’t carry the load himself -- FCD have only scored four goals in their last six games. They need someone crashing the box with late runs (and then finishing the chances). Aranguiz should be that guy. When I watch Aranguiz, it looks like he’s close to breaking out. FCD’s season probably depends on it happening.
Is it… time for Ben Olsen to… bench Lucho Acosta or Wayne Rooney? It’s crazy, obviously. You can’t bench your Best XI players! But… what’s the better option? The team is clearly in a mid-season malaise. I’m not sure you want to overhaul the type of soccer you’re playing -- the tactics and style have proven to work when everything is clicking. They mostly need their star players to play like stars again. It seems like the moment requires careful man management rather than Xs and Os adjustments. You wouldn’t keep Rooney and Acosta on the bench, but perhaps Olsen needs to make a statement to create a spark.
- The Dynamo’s attacking balance has been excellent this year, with Elis playing as a true winger flying down the right sideline and Memo Rodriguez tucking central from the left as an inverted player. And...
- Although Quioto has played on the left, I always thought he would be better on his natural right side. It seemed like he was playing on the left because Elis preferred the right. It seemed like this would be a good chance to get Quioto back to the right while also maintaining the attacking patterns that have driven the Dynamo toward the top of the West.
What lessons can we take from LAFC’s dominance right now?
One thing that’s replicable: The early actions off the ball. LAFC initiate their third-man runs a move before the pass gets delivered. When the ball travels through the midfield, one of the wingers or outside backs starts to take off, so the midfielder can turn and play quickly into a player in stride. Nobody in that attack stands and waits; everyone’s constantly thinking a step ahead.
One thing that might not be replicable: Every player in LAFC’s attack can dribble past a defender if the defender gets too close. Generally when you play against a great passing team, you either get tighter to the passers or stay deep and compact. Both options become vulnerable to getting beat 1v1. Eduard Atuesta, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Latif Blessing, Carlos Vela, and Diego Rossi can all dribble past a player. It’s difficult to find players who can pass well enough to play Bob Bradley’s system. To find players who can pass that well and also shuffle through lines in the dribble? I’m not sure a team should plan on finding those guys.
It was not a pretty performance by the Galaxy, but it’s hard to fault them -- after giving up nine goals in the last four games, Guillermo Barros Schelotto made the mission clear: better defending. Schelotto told reporters after the game: “We practiced yesterday, about the defense. We were very clear with the instructions with the players, they understood really good. Because today they played a wonderful game. I know in the second half maybe we give the ball to the other team, but we defended.” The defensive shape still wasn’t great, but the focus and commitment was.
@bwarshaw14 is Minnesota a pretender or a contender for a playoff spot? They have been getting gritty results from teams week to week.— Alex (@MegaShuckle19) May 26, 2019
To provide the simplest answer to this question: Contenders. Undoubtedly, Contenders. Now, to be upfront, I’m pretty lenient with the word “Contender;” everyone is a three-game win streak from getting into the hunt. But I would say that Minnesota are favorites for a playoff spot. When you have Ozzie Alonso + Darwin Quintero + Ike Opara + homefield advantage, you’re a favorite for a playoff spot. The Loons have secured shutouts in four of the last six games, and three of them came against very good attacks.
To get into the more complicated answer: The performances have not looked good. You’re right, they’ve been gritty. In soccer, “gritty” and “lucky” are pretty close to being synonyms. We’ve now seen D.C. United, Columbus, and the Galaxy go from “getting results despite mediocre performances” to just losing. Minnesota have enough talent to grind out results -- but I don’t think they should feel great about their last two months.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. I think everyone around Montreal already valued Samuel Piette, but you always get the people who drop the, “What does he really do, though? It can’t be that hard to stand in the middle and pass sideways, amirite?” The full value of positional intelligence and discipline is tough to see until it’s not there. It very much was not there on Friday night. The Impact struggled to put up any resistance to LAFC passing through the middle of the field. Piette would have been the guy to solidify the lines.
New England Revolution
First of all, credit to Mike Lapper. He took a team that had given up 18 goals in four games and stopped the leaks. In the last three games, they’ve conceded just twice and taken home five points. Looking ahead to the Bruce Arena era, if I could put together a group for Arena to coach, this would probably be it. Arena has always been excellent at maximizing talented attackers. He gives them just the right mix of instruction and autonomy; he provides a framework, but not too much detail to intrude on the natural talent. Seems kinda perfect for Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez and Cristian Penilla, doesn’t it?
The irony of what’s happening with NYCFC right now is hard for me to grasp. Dome Torrent came into New York with all of his Pep Guardiola swag, tinkered in an attempt to find the perfect blend for his squad, and now NYCFC play a conservative five-man backline and their attack is basically “get the ball to the five attackers and see what happens.” It’s not a bad plan -- NYCFC still have only lost one time all year. But it’s so hard for me to enjoy or consider the right plan given where the expectations were when Torrent took over.
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls entered 2019 with one of the three best center back pairings in MLS. Amro Tarek, not one of the players in that pairing, has been the team’s best center defender this year. Tarek has had an awesome few weeks. He’s been especially fantastic with his open-field tackles. Usually you’d say that it’s bad that a defender gets isolated so often and needs to make last-second tackles, but it’s a natural part of the Red Bulls’ game plan. It wasn’t always clear that Tarek could do that job, but he’s been key to the Red Bulls’ revival.
It’s been a weird month for Orlando. They’ve lost four of their five games, but they’ve played at better than any point since the start of 2018 (yes, that includes the six-game win streak). They’ve found a way to play attacking soccer -- they’ve attempted 70 more passes per game in May and created an extra three chances per game -- without giving away bad goals. The Lions took the game to Seattle, Atlanta, and the Galaxy, despite losing all three. They’ve also had almost everyone in the lineup play well (except Dom Dwyer), including a few standout performers. Ruan, Sebas Mendez, and Nani have been particularly influential. It feels like James O’Connor has a decision to make. Are Orlando on the right path with trying to press a little higher and keep the ball more? Or have they shown their best trying to be more expansive and their best isn’t good enough?
They were too safe with their first pass after they won possession in Saturday’s loss to Portland. When Philly won the ball in midfield or their own half, they would connect the first ball to feet. They allowed Portland to get behind the ball. They needed to take a page from the Red Bulls’ book and create more chaos by hitting the initial pass straight at Portland’s defense. It’s not to say the Union needed to play direct, but you have to be able to recognize when the opposition is between attacking posture and defensive shape and take the a risk to go after them, especially when you’ve struggled to break them down with possession. The first pass might not come off, but the ensuring second ball creates another chance. The Union reverted to their pure possession ways, but needed to have some more of the new Ernst Tanner second-ball mindset.
I don’t know how any Western Conference team watched the Timbers beat Philly and didn’t start biting their fingernails. All three Portland goals were spectacular. I’m still not sure how they plan to play moving forward, or what their default playing style will be, but it might not matter. Brian Fernandez looks like he could be a top 10 player in the league. The Timbers could now have the best four most talented players on the field in just about every game they play. Saturday’s game back at Providence Park against LAFC will be fantastic TV.
Real Salt Lake
The win over Atlanta United looked to me like RSL’s most complete performance in the last 18 months. They buzzed around when they pressed; they stayed compact when they dropped into their own half and they attacked with pace.
Specifically, RSL’s back four looks really well-drilled at the moment. They are extremely buoyant as a line -- they step and drop with every pass the opposition makes. In general coaching theory, when the opposition plays backward five yards, your defense should “steal” five yards. It then allows the midfielders and forwards to subsequently step forward. We don’t generally see that; teams end up ceding those five and waiting. But RSL’s back four is very active at stepping and dropping with the movement of the ball.
San Jose Earthquakes
Does it feel like the Quakes are having way more fun than everyone else? That’s the vibe I’m getting. They look like the loosest team in the league. They aren’t scared of making mistakes, and seem to legitimately enjoy when something goes right. The smiles appear to be filled with actual joy, not just relief. It helps that they are playing some pretty fun soccer, too. They are fifth in the league in passes attempted since the start of May, third in pass completion percentage, and fifth in expected goals per game. Also, Cristian Espinoza has been a great addition to the league.
From the glass-half-empty perspective, it could be a rough upcoming five weeks for the Sounders. Chad Marshall is gone; Roman Torres, Xavier Arreaga, Raul Ruidiaz, Jordy Delem, Nico Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan all seem likely to leave for international duty. Kim Kee-hee, who limped off hurt in Sunday’s loss to Sporting, Gustav Svensson, and Jordan Morris are question marks with injuries. The starting XI could look very different from the one that stomped everyone in March. From the glass-half-full perspective, that starting XI could include 16-year-old Danny Leyva at some point. Leyva is probably the best Under-17 prospect in MLS at the moment. He will give Sounders fans a reason to feel excited about the summer.
Sporting Kansas City
Yohan Croizet at center striker? Yohan Croizet at center striker! After playing left back, winger, and center mid this season, Croizet started for Sporting at center striker in Sunday’s win vs. Seattle. And he was pretty dang good. Croizet has looked generally spasmodic in a Sporting jersey, and those unpredictable runs were exactly what Sporting needed. Croizet occupied Kim Kee-hee and Roman Torres and dragged them around the field. Also, check out how consistently Croizet simple he kept his passing to bring his teammates into the game:
Croizet, it turns out, was the hero SKC needed on Sunday night.
It’s tough to write about a team when two of their three best players are missing, so I’m going to use this space to do this… here are my Eastern Conference rankings, given all of the teams are at full strength:
- NY Red Bulls
Obviously there are giant “if’s” built into all of those. It almost certainly won’t end this way, because some number of “if’s” come true. But from what I’ve seen through the first 13 weeks, that’s the “At Their Best” Eastern Conference hierarchy at the moment.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
In the last six games that Jon Erice has started, the ‘Caps are 4-0-2, including wins over LAFC, Portland and Dallas. Everything about Vancouver has trended upward recently, but perhaps nothing or no one more so than Erice. There was a serious concern after the first couple weeks that Erice, who most recently played in Spain’s second tier, couldn’t deal with the frenetic pace of MLS. But Erice has acclimated quickly, plus received some help from Marc Dos Santos’ tactical choices -- the introduction of ultra-active Russell Teibert next to Erice has helped, as has the occasional three center backs so one can step into the midfield. Erice rarely does anything that catches the eye, but he’s been key to Vancouver’s growth.