Armchair Analyst: All 24 MLS teams in review | Week 14 analysis

The Gold Cup is just about here, and for this 2019 version, we're going to try something a little different: I am going to write a day-after-big-USMNT-related-events newsletter. This isn't in place of my usual column and studio work – I'll still be doing a lot of both, which will include analysis of the official roster once that's announced, as well as the two tune-up friendlies and a U-20 World Cup postmortem.

But I often find that, the morning after a USMNT game, I have a slightly different perspective. Maybe some other writer or fan, or a player (on the team or not) has made me slightly modify my point of view, or maybe someone's made a good point that I hadn't thought of, or maybe I'll just want to shine a light on what I think is good analysis or good writing.

Plus there are are always good GIFs and snarky tweets around USMNT games. You know I love those, and thus I shall share them with you, gentle reader.

The first newsletter will go out on Monday morning (June 3). The first of the USA's friendlies is on Wednesday at 7 pm against Jamaica, and the second newsletter will go out on Thursday.

Now let's dive into MLS Week 14:

Wide Awake

Was LAFC's 3-2 win in the first game at the newly-renovated Providence Park the best game of the season so far? I think so. It was quality, and it was wild, and there were gaffes and there were golazos.

And in the end, as usual, there were three points for LAFC. They continue to be a level or three above the rest of the field in 2019.

LAFC’s dominance in this one came via the high press, causing turnovers right from the start. And while the focus will be on Jeff Attinella's error, don't let that distract you from Latif Blessing’s performance. The little Ghanaian was everywhere – his field coverage would be elite for a box-to-box destroyer. For a No. 10? What Blessing does both in terms of keying the press and tracking back is, at times, mind-bending, and creates an unusual, you-can't-actually-prep-for-it-in-practice type of midfield balance that is at the heart of what LAFC have done so far in 2019.

Think about it. The through-the-lines passing ability of the guys behind Blessing – neither Mark-Anthony Kaye nor Eduard Atuesta is a typical 6, both are playmakers at heart – means you can live with Blessing’s occasional sloppiness in distribution, and give him a platform where he can flit between advanced destroyer and playmaker and forward and winger, sometimes all within the same sequence.

The game I think about when watching Blessing these days is the second leg of the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals, when Jesse Marsch used Tyler Adams as a No. 10 in order to completely destroy Toronto FC's ability to build out through possession (which worked – RBNY won that game and should've won the series). Blessing is that, but every single week. It's amazing.

And for months there's been no doubt that Blessing has outright won the job ahead of Lee Nguyen, who has been one of the best pure 10s of this decade, and Andre Horta, a Portuguese youth international who, at this time last year, was considered one of the very best central midfielders in the Portuguese Premeira Liga. Both guys barely even get off the bench now.

When you have a team as good as LAFC, there is not one key thing. Of course Carlos Vela gets and deserves all the headlines; he is obviously the best and most indispensable player on the team. But you can’t overlook the best-CBs-in-the-league-level distribution (yes, they’ve been better than Matt Besler or Andreu Fontas), nor what Kaye and Atuesta have done, nor the blazing, weak-side speed of Diego Rossi nor the no frills, solid two-way play of Jordan Harvey, Steven Beitashour and now Tristan Blackmon, nor the hold-up play of Adama Diomande or the dogged, relentless, fundamentally perfect runs of Christian Ramirez.

Here, have a small sampling. Watch how Ramirez’s near-post run drags the defense away and gives Blessing the opening to sneak past a napping Diego Chara to get onto the end of Harvey’s inch-perfect cross:

All of that, taken together, has LAFC on track to be an historically great team.

But the biggest year-over-year difference for LAFC – beyond, of course, Vela going from Best XI-caliber to “Best season in league history”-caliber – has been Blessing. With all due respect to Paxton Pomykal and Jamiro Monteiro, he is a two-way force unlike any other attacking midfielder in the league, and his defensive work does more to shape where LAFC's opponents can and can't play than anything else on the field.

It’s staggering how often he just gets involved in the play. Part of that is his engine, which is always running, but another big part is just that he has a nose for the ball. This, from a guy playing as the No. 10, breaks the model of what to expect from that position:

  • He’s third in total tackles, behind a d-mid and a CB
  • He’s second in tackles won, behind a d-mid
  • He’s third in fouls conceded, behind two d-mids
  • He’s fourth in recoveries, behind Atuesta and two other d-mids

That's a defensive player! And yet, look at his classic No. 10 numbers:

  • He’s tied for third in fouls won, behind Vela and Nicolas Lodeiro
  • He’s third in fouls won in the attacking third, behind Vela and Alberth Elis
  • He’s seventh in chances created from open play, behind five DPs and a TAM player

Want to know why Vela had so much of the ball in good spots on Sunday night? It’s because Blessing was in five places at once, always at least partially occupying Chara and Cristhian Paredes. And when he wasn't occupying their attention, he was capitalizing on their lapses by picking his spot in the box for that goal above.

Blessing was just. Freaking. Spectacular.

Of course, so were the Timbers in the second half as they roared back and made a real game of it. They came out of the break with their hair on fire and threw caution to the wind, trusting their center backs to run down (and kick the hell out of) Vela and Rossi in transition while expecting LAFC to ease off the accelerator just a bit (which they did).

It was a risk to play like that, but when you're down two at home against a team as good as LAFC, you have to take risks.

The question, though, is did they take enough? Or a better framing, which was brought up by Taylor Twellman on the broadcast, maybe isn't "did they take enough risks?" but rather "did they take their risks early enough?"

Had Gio Savarese brought Jeremy Ebobisse on 10 to 15 minutes sooner (he waited until the 76th minute to bring on a second forward), this one could’ve ended up being very different. Any center forward would’ve been a help just in terms of 1) getting numbers into the box, and 2) freeing up Brian Fernandez a bit. Ebobisse’s particularly good for the sidekick role because he really is more of a set-up man than pure goalscorer, and Fernandez obviously knows what to do when paired with someone who'll get him the ball in good spots.

Regardless of the final score, this, from Savarese, is basically correct about how the Timbers got back into the game in the second half:

“The desire. The willingness to win the ball. The way we moved the ball from one side to the other side. We created chances," he said afterward. "We scored, and for me that’s important. I felt the guys did a great job in the second half to make sure that they’re a good team in transition. [LAFC] has a good team, good players and I thought we did a good job, in the second half especially, to match up with them and give them a lot of problems.”

There aren't many teams who can say that about facing LAFC this season. The Timbers head into the Gold Cup break carrying Saturday night's L and sitting in 11th place in the West. They will not be staying there for long.

Nice And Neat

Colorado snuck a point out of Philly midweek, then returned home on Saturday to take all three in a 3-1 win over visiting FC Cincinnati. They have collected four results in a row, and have been a lot of fun doing so.

Their "Rapids Way" isn't the keep-it-on-the-ground, Mile High tiki-taka that seemed to be promised a couple of years ago, and that since departed head coach Anthony Hudson seemed to try to be aiming toward, but you don't have to do that to play pretty soccer. And in Colorado's case the prettiness comes from their ability to get out on the break with something close to the same approach as the 2017 Houston Dynamo. The Rapids use actual wingers now – Jonathan Lewis, Sam Nicholson and rookie Andre Shinyashiki comprise the current rotation – and for the last six games, they have found space and made use of it.

That 2017 Dynamo team was built to do things: Kill you on set pieces, and then kill you again on the counterattack. Since Conor Casey's taken over as interim head coach that's exactly what Colorado have been doing, as six of their 12 goals since he's been in charge have been on set pieces, five others have been on counters, and only one has come via any sort of press (none have come from sustained possession). This is a pretty straight-forward, "let's simplify and dare teams to try to catch us in the open field" formula.

Hand-in-hand with this approach is the decision to drop the line of confrontation and defend deeper, which is... duh. This is what struggling teams always do.

Of course, that wouldn't be a solution without sturdier defense and steadier distribution from deep-lying midfielders Jack Price and Kellyn Acosta. There is no ambiguity in their roles anymore: They both sit deep and protect the backline, and only rarely venture forward. You can see it in this network passing graphic made using Opta data:

Each circle represents the location of the corresponding player's aggregate touch, while the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes exchanged. Acosta (10) and Price (19) aren't asked to control the game like, say, Atuesta and Kaye. They're now just in a "make it difficult to play through the middle, then when you win the ball, spray it to the flanks" system.

The other part of the approach that's working is Kei Kamara (23) unselfishly checking back into midfield to act as a possession hub and to rearrange the opposing backline. When Kei drops, the opposing defenders come with him, running upfield and leaving space in behind. That presents the chance, if the timing is right, for the Rapids wingers to use the defense's momentum against them and find acres.

Obviously it's been working. 

Just as obviously, nothing's quite been working for FC Cincinnati, who have now lost eight of nine. There are glimmers of hope when they're on the ball and knocking it around midfield, but at this point they look very much like an expansion team with an unbalanced roster and zero match-winners. They're on 11 points through 15 games and if you were to set the season-long over/under at 36 (Minnesota United's total from 2017), I'd hammer the under.

A few more things to ponder...

10. Toronto FC have actually been worse than Cincy over the past six games, taking just two of 18 points available as they've dropped toward the playoff line, which they're still just barely above, following their hot start. Friday night's 1-1 draw at Vancouver made it abundantly clear that a full-on defensive rebuild is probably in the works as too many of their options on the depth chart there are either well past their prime or too unreliable due to injuries.

The 'Caps, meanwhile, should be kicking themselves for giving up a late lead that they'd earned with some typically dogged, disciplined play. That hasn't been enough lately, though, as they've managed just one win in five and remain stranded just below the playoff line.

9. Atlanta are now miles above the playoff line and climbing. They finished a stretch of eight games in 28 days in emphatic fashion on the weekend, easing past Chicago by 2-0 at home to cap off a six-point week and find their footing after back-to-back losses at RBNY and RSL. Josef Martinez had a brace and now has nine goals in his past 10 games.

It's not just the goalscoring, though: Josef is a target forward now. In 2018 under Tata Martino he averaged 16.8 passes per game, and created 43 chances in 39 games (including the playoffs). In 2019 under Frank De Boer he's up to 21.4 passes per game and has created 21 chances in 15 games. Atlanta's attack runs through Josef, not just to him anymore.

Chicago once again played pretty well, and once again got nothing to show for it. Their two-game road-trip this week finished with one very fortunate point, and veteran Dax McCarty was not happy on Saturday evening.

“Look in the mirror. Have honest conversations with ourselves," McCarty said after the Atlanta loss. "It’s not been good enough, so if guys can’t figure what they want and if they don’t want to be here then maybe we need to have honest conversations with ourselves because it’s not good enough from the team.”

8. Not above the playoff line yet but playing like they'll be there soon: Orlando City! They toyed with the reeling Impact on Saturday, winning 3-0 in Montreal and putting together this shockingly gorgeous sequence to win team-wide Pass of the Week honors:

This is the type of soccer that James O'Connor's Louisville City team were known for in the USL. It's taken a year, but he's starting to infuse the Lions with the same sort of mentality, and sequences like the one above drive that point home.

The Impact gave themselves a nice cushion to start the year, but it feels like they're in some trouble now. On Wednesday they'll host Seattle (another team that's reeling a little bit) to finish up a stretch in which they'll have played four of five at home heading into the Gold Cup break.

I'm not going to call it a must-win; we're just not at that stage in the season yet, and Impact still have some cushion. But it is maybe an "if they don't win then it means the issues that have been costing them results over the past two months are really starting to define their season" type of game.

7. Yes, I said it: The Sounders are reeling at least a little bit with just two wins in their last nine, and now two losses in a row following Saturday night's 2-1 L at previously sliding FC Dallas. Seattle fans were eager to point out on social media how many of their starters were missing, but Dallas – who were winless in May – can use that same excuse. 

Of course, it's kind of no big deal for Seattle:

Even if they take another loss on Wednesday night heading into the Gold Cup, they've still had their best first half of the season since 2015. And we know that they transform into a flaming ball of rage from mid-July onward, so I don't think there should be any panic in Seattle even with the reality of a Chad Marshall-less future.

Dallas, on the other hand, probably would've started to panic a bit if they hadn't gotten the full three points in this one. But they moved the ball fluidly for the first time in a while, which allowed Michael Barrios to cause constant problems getting around the edge.

That's their "we're just trying to keep our heads above water" default, which is fine. It'll be interesting to see if they evolve into a pressing team or a possession team once they have everybody back from international duty next month.

6. After all the "are we living in bizarro world?" worries through March and April, things have mostly gotten back to what feels like their natural state in the Eastern Conference. As I mentioned above, Atlanta are hot and have won seven of nine, climbing up to third in the standings. RBNY are almost at the same level, having gone 6-1-1 in their past eight, including Saturday's 4-0 thrashing of RSL – their best performance of the season.

The win bumped them to fourth place in the East, and their goal differential (+9) is third-best in the league. Over the past few weeks they've begun to look more and more like the 2015-thru-2017 RBNY team that pressed like hell, but also made a living on hitting third-line passes to cut through defensive pressure. I think this is what 

RBNY's approach caused RSL's backline all sorts of problems, and they were a bit rudderless in attack so they had no chance of wresting control of this game away even though they got it to halftime at 0-0.

5. There are two teams in the league with just one loss. One of them's LAFC, and the other one is 3,000 miles away. NYCFC have absolutely steadied the ship in the past two months, and while their 2-2 draw at Columbus on Saturday night flattered them a bit, a road point is a road point. Collect enough of those and you'll probably make the playoffs.

The Crew deserved more than just the point, but squandered a good gameplan and a throwback David Accam performance. The Ghanaian winger repeatedly found space both behind the opposing fullback and when cutting inside, and looked a lot like the guy who was so good in 2017.

Columbus need Accam to be that guy if they're going to crawl back above the line in the second half of the season.

4. San Jose have climbed damn near to the top of "fun to watch" teams. Part of it is that they play their unusual defensive scheme – Matias Almeyda's man marking has been written about here and elsewhere quite a bit – which games the game a different feel. Part of it is that they have well defined roles and guys who can pass the ball in central midfield. And part of it is that they throw both fullbacks waaaaay forward into the attack at pretty much every opportunity.

Nick Lima in Saturday night's 1-1 draw at D.C. United, ladies and gents:

I'm giving Leonardo Jara our "Face of the Week" even though we couldn't see his face, because his body language after getting clowned like that was as expressive as any close-up I've ever seen. Poor guy damn near retired on the spot.

And that's the way it's felt for United for a few months now. They have so much talent that they're at the top of the East, but since March have rarely played like they belong there. Teams have done a good job of severing the connection between Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta, but more than that the off-the-ball work that made them so fun over the final few months of 2018 just kind of doesn't exist now.

They very obviously need a break, which they'll get – they don't play again until June 26. Just as obvious is that Acosta's contract status is the elephant in the room. Until that is worked out, it's tough to imagine D.C. playing carefree, joyful soccer again.

3. It was a gut-check 3-2 win for Philly at Minnesota United on Sunday afternoon, the first loss for the Loons at their gorgeous new stadium. Philly were on the road and were thoroughly outplayed, and they gave up the lead twice. Minnesota peppered Andre Blake's net with 29 shots – 15 of which were blocked, an absurd numbers.

The Union have been controlling games all year, but in this one they had to scramble. They probably didn't "deserve" to win, but they also didn't "deserve" to take just two points out of their previous three games, all at home. They found a way (Ilsinho is a cheat code), and no matter what happens next weekend against the Red Bulls, they will enter the Gold Cup break atop the East on points.

I actually felt a little bit bad for MNUFC after this one, as they probably played their best game of the season. They absolutely blew up Philly's diamond, repeatedly creating overloads out wide and turning them into shots inside the 18. But none of the guys who are paid to score goals are doing so. Neither Angelo Rodriguez nor Darwin Quintero – who was yanked with 20 minutes to go and yes, that feels like it's going to be an issue – have scored since April, while Abu Danladi has two goals in his past 31 games.

No matter what happens at Colorado next weekend they'll head into the break above the line, but after doing such good work on the road earlier in the season they haven't made the most of their home-heavy spring schedule. RSL, San Jose, Vancouver, Sporting and Portland are seventh-through-11th in the West, and it's pretty obvious that the fight for playoff spots out there is going to be a bloodbath.

2. Speaking of, Sporting KC can exhale a little bit after picking up a very useful 1-1 draw at Houston on Saturday night. They are still miles from safe and equally far from healthy, and they have just one win in their past 10. But picking up a road inter-conference road point in this situation is exactly how you claw back into the playoff race.

Bear in mind that everybody down around the line in the West is cannibalizing everyone else. For all of Sporting's struggles, they're just four points back and with a game in hand. If they can win on Friday at Toronto, it's probably not "crisis averted," but it might be "crisis mostly weathered."

Houston are 1-2-2 in their past five and really needed to not drop those home points. They're just 1-3-0 on the road so far this year and will play 10 of 15 away from BBVA Compass Stadium on the other side of the Gold Cup break, a stretch that brings them through the end of August.

I think they're much more likely to be in the scrum around the playoff line than they are to be fighting for a top four spot in the West when all is said and done.

1. Is this just a new coach bump? Was Brad Friedel really that oppressive? Was the switch from a front-foot, high-pressing scheme to a back-foot, mid- or low-block countering scheme that much a difference maker?

It's probably a combination of all three things. Regardless, for the fourth straight game the Revs had under 40% possession, and for the fourth straight game they picked up a result. This time they went to Carson and dunked on the Galaxy by 2-1, heading off to the races at every opportunity and looking like a team that 1) knew how to play together, and 2) like doing so.

In other words they looked like a Bruce Arena team. And while I still am not going to wager on it happening, I'm gonna mention this anyway: The Revs are just two points below the playoff line in the East.

You have been warned.

The Galaxy, who attempted to play a 4-3-1-2 in this one, are still second in the West on points but have taken just six of the last 21 available. They've already done extensive surgery on that roster both during the winter and into the spring. Expect much more in the summer.

Series: 
Topics: 

LIVE YOUR COLORS: Download the free MLS app - The official MLS app gets a major update for 2020, making it easier than ever to keep up with your favorite club, check standings, watch videos and much more.