Amidst the consternation about Atlanta United’s stumbling attack, we haven’t given enough attention to their defending. Atlanta have held the opponent scoreless in eight of their last 11 games. Eight shutouts in 11 games. What their defense is achieving this year is more impressive than what their attack achieved last year (though I’m not sure it does as much for the fans). To provide reference points, Atlanta posted eight shutouts in all 34 regular-season games in 2018. The New York Red Bulls, the best defense in the league, finished with 15 clean sheets; the SKC team that only conceded 29 goals in all of the 2017 had 11 shutouts.
How are ATLUTD doing it? I’ve given them a hard time for being too safe in their possession – their conservative choices have limited their goalscoring opportunities. The flip side of that, though, is that they don’t give bad balls away and rarely put themselves in bad transition moments. It also helps that Miles Robinson has turned into one of the best center backs in the league and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is back to his normal self.
This is a weird thing to say about a 26-year-old full international... but it was just one of those Francisco Calvo days. Calvo had been solid since joining the Fire – and scored a huge goal to get the draw at D.C. United on Wednesday! – but he’s good for some stinkers. He made two fundamental mistakes on Saturday that led to both Atlanta goals. On the first goal, Calvo steps out of line when he doesn’t need to – or, more directly, simply shouldn’t have – and Pity Martinez slips the ball into his zone.
On the second goal, he got on the wrong side of Josef Martinez and the Venezuelan turned. It was so bad it was weird to watch. They were so fundamental that they are things professional teams don’t usually need to cover. I still remain a Calvo fan and think he can be a key part of a trophy-winning team, but Saturday put a dent in it.
Of everything that FCC might want to rethink about Year One, not getting Frankie Amaya on the field earlier might be top of the list. Specifically, if he been getting regular playing time, he probably would have made the US Under-20 roster for the World Cup. Now that he’s on the field FCC, his quality is obvious. He’s been the team’s best player in the last month. At the World Cup, Brandon Servania, who has a total of two MLS minutes this year, has started twice in the position Amaya would play.
You can’t blame Tab Ramos for leaving Amaya off the team when Amaya had yet to start a professional game. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine an in-form Amaya wouldn’t have helped the team. Then, if you’re Cincinnati, you have a player coming back into your team who showcased on the global stage and is buzzing from playing for his country. FCC lost sight of the bigger picture on that one.
The Rapids are 3-0-1 in their last four games. In those games, they are next-to-last in the league in possession percentage, and second in the league in expected goals per game. They have been both solid defensively and fun to watch. On a macro level, I want to scream at the top of my lungs, “How many times do we have to see this work before other teams wake up and do it!” If you don’t have the talent and/or ideas to pass at a high level, then drop back, limit mistakes, use pace on the counter and get great at set pieces. It works – three of the Rapids' eight goals in the four-game stretch have come on set pieces, and four have come on transitions. And you don’t have to sacrifice aesthetics.
On a micro level, the Rapids have been excellent at always making sure someone is making a vertical run toward goal. Too often, teams play in front of opponents without even having the option to play toward goal. The Rapids never put that on themselves. Every time they attack, there is always at least one person just sprinting straight toward goal.
Columbus Crew SC
Honestly, give me Pedro Santos central all day (if I’m being totally honest and didn’t mind beating a dead horse too often, Pedro Santos should have been moved to left back 10 weeks ago, but in lieu of that, attacking mid works too). The Federico Higuain injury sucks… Pipa was one of the jewels of MLS. But I also don’t think it’s wrong to say that given the current makeup of Columbus’ roster – with Milton Valenzuela out for the year and Harrison Afful out TBD – the team needed to try something new.
They couldn’t be the same possession powerhouse. They needed to become more direct and aggressive. I personally have a preference for attacking mids like Santos – angry, energetic and disciplined with a splash of attacking creativity – especially when you have a deep-lying passer (Hi, Wil Trapp). I thought David Guzman was the most likely candidate to get the job so that Artur could get back into the lineup. Either way, Columbus looked better in Saturday’s 2-2 tie with NYCFC than they had in a while.
It’s tough to take much from Saturday’s 2-1 win over Seattle. Both teams have lost their swagger, and both teams played in “compete” mode rather than “execute” mode. The total expected goals for both teams was less than one. The most worthwhile tidbit from the game: for the first time in 46 games, Reggie Cannon did not start when available.
When FCD coach Luchi Gonzalez was asked about it after the game, he said, “it’s a moment ... it’s a moment to look at some other things and give a mental rest [to Cannon] and have another perspective to help the team.” Those, to me, are the words of a benching. Not a long-term, you’re-dead-to-me benching, but simply a statement, “you haven’t been good enough. I know you can do better; you need to earn your spot again.” It’ll be interesting to see how Cannon responds.
I don’t have a great theory for why D.C. United have struggled over the last couple months. I’m curious to see what they look like when Joseph Mora returns. I’m a big believer that most teams have a silent irreplaceable – the player who holds everything together even though you can’t see it (Harrison Afful, Diego Chara, Haris Medunjanin, Drew Moor).
Maybe there’s a subtle part of Mora’s game – his ability to put quick pressure on the ball or the type of attacking movements that he offers, for example – that allows everyone else to do other things better. In the moment, it felt like the Mora injury was a minor loss, but perhaps when he returns, it will be clear that it was a major problem.
Every time I watch Tomas Martinez, I struggle to figure him out. He’s in the same bucket, for me, as Albert Rusnak and Lucho Acosta. They are undoubtedly talented, but there are more spans of “he’s supposed to be star?” than “that’s why he’s a star!” It makes it really tough to put them at the forefront of your attack, and I think that’s why we’ve seen Houston, RSL and D.C. be inconsistent over the last few years.
For Martinez specifically, I worry he’s isn't quick enough to be an elite attacker. If you don’t have the ability to run by defenders in today’s game (Miguel Almiron), you better be ridiculously good around the box (Diego Valeri). I wonder how secure Martinez’s spot will be if Wilmer Cabrera gets his full complement of players fit.
Matt Doyle asked me a bad question on Slack during the LAFC game:
Harvey has 315 MLS appearances spread over 15 seasons (fun fact: Harvey played against Chad Marshall in the 2002 College Cup) in Colorado, Vancouver, and Philly before LA. He has been consistently solid at a position that the national team has not had consistently solid. It’s tempting to watch him now with LAFC and look back on his career and say “how has a player this good not gotten more looks with the national team?” The answer: While Harvey has been good throughout his MLS career, he hasn’t been this good. He’s having his best year right now. It’s okay for a player to be a good club player but not right for the national team (I have my personal list in my head).
This would have been the better question: “Why wasn’t Jordan Harvey called up for Gold Cup?” He’s been better than Daniel Lovitz and probably Nick Lima this season, and Harvey plays in a system more similar to what Gregg Berhalter wants. I realize that Harvey, now 35, probably won’t be the guy in 2022. But if we all agree that winning the Gold Cup is key to Berhalter’s attempt to re-energize the fan base, couldn’t Harvey be an asset? (FWIW, I’ll die on the hill that we should have played Michael Parkhurst and Chad Marshall at center back in World Cup qualifying in 2017.)
The Galaxy attack has looked mostly bland this year, aside from when Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores ridiculous goals. There are two fairly simple adjustments they should make. First, the one they seem close to fixing – they need more dangerous runs into and around the box from the midfielders. The Jonathan dos Santos-Joe Corona-Sebastian Lletget midfield made a lot of sense; one of the problems that occurred, though, was that none had a knack for dangerous goal-scoring runs into the box. Flavio Alvarez seems to be a natural fix for it.
Second, the team needs more direct runs behind the opposition’s defense (referencing back to the Colorado note). Too often, the Galaxy get stuck moving the ball side to side in front of a set defense. I’m not suggesting they should play direct to the player running toward goal, but they at least need the option in order to force the defense to make decisions. It looked like Uriel Antuna would play that role on Sunday; the Galaxy listed him as a second striker next to Zlatan in the pregame lineup graphic. But he ended up playing mostly as an inverted winger looking for the ball in the pockets. The Galaxy have the talent on the field, and a little more intentionality about their off-the-ball movements could go a long way.
The Loons should have won. If you replay that game 10 times, with everything the exact same except the shots on goal, Minnesota would win nine times. It was their best performance of the year and it should be noted that they outplayed a team that has outplayed pretty much everyone else this year. But now can we talk about the sub? Down a goal at home, Adrian Heath subbed out Darwin Quintero in the 69th minute. In a vacuum, it wasn’t the wrong decision; Quintero had missed a couple chances in the game, compiled on the fact that hadn’t scored in his last seven games.
His replacement, Kevin Molino, scored eight minutes after entering. But there’s also long-term implications to the moment. Most coaches would leave the star player in because they don’t want to deal with the aftermath. Heath constantly leans into tough decisions. He traded fan favorite Christian Ramirez; he traded captain Francisco Calvo; and now he’s willing to step into a tough situation with Quintero. TBD on whether this was the right decision – Quintero’s face didn’t hide much – but I always respect when a boss is willing to make the move of most resistance.
It was a bad, bad loss. The Impact now have three bad losses in their last five. The natural thing would be to say, “What’s wrong with the Impact?” But I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to fall into that trap. We’ve been down this road before. Just when you want to say, “Okay, the Impact have been figured out,” they run off four straight shutouts and you remember why they were in the playoff hunt in the first place. For content’s sake, I wish they were more consistent – one way or the other! – so we could find patterns to discuss.
New England Revolution
Bruce Arena looked lighter and happier heading into New England’s game than I remember seeing him in a long time. It was nice to see him (while I recognize people have different opinions about him) seem to be excited to get back into the game.
New York City FC
NYCFC have become one of the more “thrilling” teams in the league to watch. I wouldn’t categorize them as one of the more fun teams to watch at the moment, but they are capable of some of the most thrilling moments. As a group, they change speeds extremely well – one moment the game can feel like it’s in a lag, and then they play forward and break lines and have three or four players fly forward.
As individuals, too, they have multiple guys who can pick up the ball in a seemingly mundane sequence and then dash forward and fire off a ridiculous shot. It can get a little too individual at times, but from a viewing perspective, it certainly has a ton of moments that make you put your phone down.
New York Red Bulls
Kaku back? Kaku better than ever? Most of the conversation around Chris Armas has been about his tactical decisions, but he’s also had some major man-management situations to handle. The biggest one was Kaku’s... whatever it was. Armas was on the verge of losing his club’s biggest investment. But Kaku has come back into the team and had some of his best performances in an RBNY uniform the last few games. The situation seems to have been resolved, and potentially even got Kaku to progress as a player.
Could it be that Cristian Higuita’s potential is finally coming true? Orlando had been playing well for the last month – the last four games, in particular, they’ve been awesome. (Seriously… if you haven’t watched Orlando since the start of May, they are very much not the Orlando that you remember.) It also just so happens that Higuita has been in the lineup for four of the five games (and the one he missed was their least impressive performance).
He hasn’t necessarily stood out as the star. But his skill set works perfectly for what James O’Connor wants in his midfield. Higuita is equal parts combative and skilled. If you ask him to do one more than the other, he struggles. But when he’s in the high-tempo, energetic, yet possession-minded style that Orlando are running, he can thrive.
Also, this might be the goal of the season so far:
I can’t decide if Sunday’s win over Minnesota was a positive data point or a negative one. They got outplayed, that much I feel sure of. But is the takeaway that the Union's attractive soccer got overrun in a tough environment on the road, thus confirming the worries that they aren’t made to survive in tough situations? Or is the takeaway that they figured out how to win against a good team on the road, thus disproving the last remaining concern about their title aspirations? I’m holding judgement this week, especially with a big matchup against the Red Bulls looming next weekend.
First, congratulations to Portland and Merritt Paulson. The city made a statement about the demand for the soccer team, and Paulson responded. It’s a wonderful example for the rest of the league. Providence Park has always been amazing, and the new addition takes it to the next level.
On the field, Saturday’s lineup was Gio Savarese’s “going for it” lineup. He played Jorge Villafana and Jorge Moreira at outside back instead of Zarek Valentin, and Andy Polo instead of Jeremy Ebobisse. It’s difficult to deny that Moreira and Villafana, at their best, are more talented than Valentin; same for Polo and Ebobisse.
But it’s also become clear that Valentin and Ebobisse are safer, more reliable bets (you could probably put goalkeepers Jeff Attinella and Steve Clark into this category as well right now). I wouldn’t be surprised to see Savarese keep trying the “going for it” lineup given the stretch of home games, but I’d bet that he settles on at least Valentin, if not Ebobisse as well, in the starting lineup by the end of the summer.
Real Salt Lake
It feels safe to say that RSL are the most inconsistent team in MLS at this point. They can be wonderful and dominant one week and then get run off the field the next. Dealing with an inconsistent team is one of the toughest tasks for a manager. You don’t want to change too much – you have the whole wonderful and dominant thing going for you. And sometimes the same infuriating unpredictability is also inherent to the wonderful thing. I wonder, at times, if it's worth trying to fix the inconsistency, or if it's better to roll the dice and hope the magic comes on the right nights.
Real Salt Lake are so much fun for neutrals. This is their run of results since week 2:— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) June 3, 2019
4 straight losses
Just once in those games have there been less than 3 goals scored.
San Jose Earthquakes
Imagine if someone had told you at the end of March that the Earthquakes (0-4-0, -12 goal differential) would be outplaying and beating D.C. United (3-0-1, +8 GD) at Audi Field eight weeks later. D.C. fought back for a draw, but San Jose were the better team on Saturday.
There’s a point that I alluded to last week that I want to state more explicitly: If you think of San Jose as just a defensive team, you have them wrong. I watched an interview with D.C. manager Ben Olsen before the game and Olsen talked about the need to win duels against San Jose. It’s true, you have to win duels against San Jose’s man-marking system. But I think teams are getting too distracted by their defensive plan. This Quakes team can ball, too! They are fourth in the league in possession percentage and fifth in expected goals per game since the start of April. It’s like Matias Almeyda stole a move from Rocky Balboa – you wear them down with the right jab, but it’s actually the left hook that knocks them out.
I’m interested to see how the Sounders approach the next month, specifically their plan to score goals. Cristian Roldan, Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz - the engine, the creativity, and the finishing – all depart for the next month.
Full official list of Sounders called into international duty this month— Ari Liljenwall (@AriLiljenwall) June 3, 2019
The Sounders have been down this road before; when they’ve been missing key players over the last few years, their normal style has not worked. They need to adjust. Does that mean pressing? Does that mean counterattacking? The first place I would start is planning to attack almost exclusive through the wide players. Kelvin Leerdam and Brad Smith are their two best players now; feed them.
UPDATE: Brad Smith has been called up by Australia for a friendly on June 7 and will miss the Sounders' game on Wednesday against Montreal so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ .
Sporting Kansas City
Sporting seemed to address one of the issues that had been hurting them. SKC play with a single defensive midfielder (or single “pivot”). The other two midfielders start higher up the field. In that type of system, one of the two higher midfielders needs to be able to read the game and drop when necessary to get the ball. LAFC have been the shining example of it this year, with Mark-Anthony Kaye or Latif Blessing dropping to help Eduard Atuesta.
Roger Espinoza is usually that versatile option for SKC. Since Espinoza has been out, though, nobody has assumed the responsibility; Ilie Sanchez has been disconnected from the other two midfielders. When Ilie has been marked, nobody has dropped to get the ball, leaving a giant gap and passing void. But Felipe Gutierrez seemed to take on the responsibilities much better against LA and Houston this week. When Ilie was marked, the Spaniard could rotate forward and Gutierrez would take the space to get the ball. SKC only took one point from the two games, but they dominated both.
First, I love the 3-4-1-2 formation that Toronto used in the 1-1 draw with Vancouver. From a pure “What’s the point of soccer?” standpoint, it it makes the most sense. Three center backs to protect the goal + two strikers around the goal to score + three players to dominate the middle of the field. Obviously, soccer is much more complex than that, but from a board-game starting position mindset, it checks the boxes. One wrinkle about it that I hadn’t noticed before (largely because so few teams use it) is that the set defensive shape turns into a 5-2 set – five defenders with just two center mids in front of them. I don’t have a normative judgement on the 5-2 set, but it’s funky to look at on a screen.
It’s not the perfect week to say this since he gave up a fluky goal this weekend, but I want to say it before he heads off to international duty… Maxime Crepeau has had a hell of a year. Crepeau has been in MLS for six years now (which I didn’t realize until I looked it up). He didn’t play a single minute for the first four of them. This year, he’s been one of the top 10 GKs in the league (and maybe top five if I was feeling more bold today). He’s been one of the breakout players of the year. It’s another reminder, in the year of the Wondo, what some professional perseverance can garner.
...To have some fun, here’s my list of players who have made the biggest step forward after not playing the year before: