Nineteen MLS games in Week 18, almost as many games as teams in the league. So plenty of takeaways from the week that was.
You know one of the weirder parts of MLS the last two years? Atlanta United have perhaps the loudest fan base and garner among the most attention in the league, yet the Ezequiel Barco fiasco last year and the struggles of Pity Martinez, who got subbed in the 60th minute again, this year have gone under the radar. (Granted, I acknowledge that I’m as guilty of this as anyone.) Think about this: Barco, the most expensive incoming transfer in league history, got suspended for scandalous off-the-field activity; then Pity Martinez, the newest most expensive incoming transfer in league history, gets relegated to a rotation role, and they’ve both been relatively small stories in the American soccer landscape.
“We have to win duels, and in my point of view, he did not do enough to avoid giving someone an easy long ball," Atlanta head coach Frank de Boer told reporters after Sunday's game against the Red Bulls on Martinez's substitution. "You saw, Brandon [Vazquez] came in and it was a different story. I want not 10, or nine, or eight men who work very hard, everybody has to work hard, especially in these kinds of games. These are very difficult games."
The Fire’s season probably comes down to this upcoming week. They play Columbus and Cincinnati at home. The six points could launch them into the top seven in the Eastern Conference. More so, it gives Nemanja Nikolic a great chance to score a couple goals and get his mojo back. This team would be a different group if Nikolic was scoring at his 2017 or 2018 levels. If the Fire don’t get six points from those games, however, it could cement their status as a selling team this upcoming transfer window (as recently reported by Sam Stejskal and Paul Tenorio for The Athletic).
The most important answer to come out of Cincinnati over the next few months might revolve around Kekuta Manneh. Is he a star or not? He’s been on the verge for five years now. He has flashes when he’s unstoppable. He’s lightning fast with a low center of gravity. There’s almost no defender in the league who can keep up with him. Too often, though, he stumbles over the ball and runs into trouble. It feels eerily similar to Fabian Castillo in 2014. Castillo was close to fading into oblivion but he turned into a Best XI player. If you have that player on your roster, you don’t want to lose him. But many jobs have been lost while waiting for that promise.
The Revs exposed a flaw in the Rapids’ game right now: Colorado can get pulled apart by lateral passing. As I noted in a column about the Rapids two weeks ago, the Rapids aren’t a well-coordinated defensive team, despite their recent success. Their distances and angles aren’t precise. They work extremely hard and win their duels, but if you’re patient while playing in front of them, you can create gaps that will lead to openings toward goal. Most of Colorado’s opponents, though, haven’t been patient enough to exploit the gaps. It takes a couple seemingly-pointless lateral passes for the lanes to open. If you take the Rapids seriously (and you should take the Rapids seriously!), then it’s something you need to rehearse in training. (Also, worth noting because it’s a fun stat: the Rapids scored on another corner kick in the 2-1 loss last Thursday, making it six of the last seven goals from corner kicks.)
Columbus Crew SC
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse... The Crew have officially hit the “a coin shouldn’t land on tails this many times” zone. Columbus haven’t been good in the last few months, but they haven’t been 1-12-1 bad. Plenty of teams put in performances similar to what the Crew have been doing and get results. Columbus have been within the standard deviation to get a win at some point. Unfortunately, as that luck compiles against you, confidence drops, and the cycle gets harder to break.
This passage warmed my heart. It looks fluid and spontaneous, but it’s something that Dallas have worked on hundreds of times. Let’s play particular attention to the four-player rotation between Bryan Acosta, Brandon Servania, Paxton Pomykal and Michael Barrios. In the Dallas system, it is one defensive midfielder (Acosta in Thursday’s game) behind two box-to-box midfielders (Pomykal and Servania). If the defensive midfielder is unmarked, then the two box-to-box midfielders can stay higher up the field. If the box-to-box midfielders stay higher up the field, then the wingers (Barrios here) can stay high and wide. If the defensive midfielder cannot get the ball, though, then the ball-side box-to-box midfielder (Servania here) needs to drop to help; if a box-to-box midfield drops back, then the winger tucks central and the other box-to-box player shifts to the middle of the field. It’s all automatic, as if the players have strings attached to each other. It all unfolds perfectly in the video above. Servania drops to get the ball, Barrios tucks in, and Pomykal pushes toward the middle. When Servania gets the ball, he barely needs to look for Barrios; when Barrios gets the ball, he doesn’t need to look for Pomykal; everyone can play before the opponent can adjust. I prefer oiled mechanics over magical improvisation, so this is the most beautiful form of the game for me.
This weekend’s disaster at Dallas might have been best-case scenario for D.C. They needed a shock. The Lucho Acosta red card will be good for him. Give him some time to relax and reset and come back with some renewed fire.
An idea I’ve been kicking around lately — could D.C. get Chris Durkin reps at center back? He’s been struggling since the start of the Under-20 World Cup. Frederic Brillant has regressed back to his mean. Donovan Pines might not be ready to be a playoff-caliber pro. Durkin played well at center back at the Under-17 World Cup. It’s a small adjustment that could change the complexion of the team.
The talking point for Houston is very simple at this point: They win at home and lose on the road. They have the second most points at home (after LAFC, obviously), and the joint fewest points on the road. If you want to be considered more than “a team that loses on the road,” you need to at least beat the very last place team in the league. Houston couldn’t do that. Their road struggles are even more baffling given they are constructed to be a counterattacking team — they have combative center midfielders and fast attackers. They rarely set up to counterattack on the road, though, so it’s a moot point.
lol. What is there left to say?
The main memory from Saturday's big win against Vancouver might have been the Mark-Anthony Kaye goal. When Kaye scored a couple months ago on what couldn’t be distinguished between a perfect shot or mishit pass, one MLS coach texted me and said, “Definitely a pass. Everyone knows he doesn’t shoot.” Scoring goals has been the last frontier on his game. He can pass, cover ground, win tackles, win headers — but he’s yet to become a goal contributor at the top level. Saturday, though, he looked perfectly comfortable and confident ripping that shot from 20 yards.
Glass half full: The Galaxy have become a stout defensive team that bends but doesn’t break. The lack of fluidity in possession is intentional; they don’t need complicated movements that could leave them exposed to counterattacks. They can rely on Zlatan’s individual dominance whenever they want. It’s not free-flowing soccer, but it’s effective and suited for the playoffs.
Glass half empty: The Galaxy got outplayed by Toronto at home. Zlatan didn’t help defend at all, and the team looked confused in possession. It’s now 19 games into the season and the team hasn’t really looked good. Just like Columbus, Houston, and D.C. fell like a piano after a decent stretch of games, the Galaxy are standing on the ledge.
Minnesota had the best week in the league. They secured a midweek six-point win over red-hot San Jose, then went to Montreal and rotated their entire team and returned with a win. Kevin Molino looked like the Kevin Molino that Adrian Heath thought he was getting when he made Molino the most expensive trade acquisition in league history. It was great to see Molino, who’s been unlucky with injuries, drop two perfect dimes. The more interesting takeaway from the game for the Loons, though, is Mason Toye’s two goals. I don’t expect Toye to turn into a double-digit goalscorer immediately, but he offers something different than Angelo Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a static striker who likes to post up center backs; Toye likes to run behind or fade to the weak side. He gives Minnesota a different look, and opposing teams a different problem to solve. I wonder, too, if Darwin Quintero is better suited to pair with someone who stretches the field for him.
I’m concerned about the Impact right now. They are 3-5-1 in their last nine games. Two of the wins came against entirely-rotated Seattle and Portland sides. They’ve lost to Orlando at home, a fully-rotated Minnesota team at home, and FCC on the road. Those are bad points to drop. With New England rising, Orlando steadily getting points, and Chicago still looking like a monster under the bed, someone in the East will fall from the top seven. Montreal’s seven-point cushion won’t be enough unless they improve. They need to do the thing they do where they only defend-and-counter for the next few games and get a couple shutouts to right the ship.
The loss to Portland was only NYCFC’s first loss at Yankee Stadium this year. I don’t know if that makes it a good time or a bad time to note this observation: We generally think of Yankee Stadium as a fortress for NYCFC, but they’ve played better away from home this year. They aren’t the well-oiled machine they used to be; they are more free-flowing, figure-it-out-as-you-go. Yankee Stadium’s tight confines make it difficult to make decisions on the fly, since it’s harder to find space. Patrick Vieira’s rehearsed patterns accounted for the field dimensions and gave the players pre-set answers. Dome Torrent tried to play his more attacking formation this weekend, the 4-3-3, opposed to his more static, defensive 3-4-3. It seems to me that they should stick with the 3-4-3 at home and grind through results, and let the exciting, free-flowing soccer come out on bigger fields on the road.
New York Red Bulls
In this week’s Matchday Central, we discussed the question: Who should start up top for Red Bulls, Brian White or Bradley Wright-Phillips? My answer (and if you read this column regularly, you can probably guess the answer): Use White as the starter, and use BWP as the super sub. Use White’s tireless running and physicality to wear teams down, and let 34-year-old BWP to finish teams off in the last 30 minutes. White has been good (maybe very good?) since BWP went out, so the Red Bulls shouldn’t be in a rush to replace him. Plus RBNY still don’t have a difference-maker off the bench. Allow BWP to be that guy down the stretch and in the playoffs.
New England Revolution
In just a few weeks, Bruce Arena has turned the Revs into one of the more flexible teams in the last league. Last weekend, they used a 4-4-2 diamond. This weekend, they went back to a 4-2-3-1. It was a true 4-2-3-1, too. One of my pet peeves is when people confuse 4-2-3-1 formations and 4-3-3. Formations often don’t matter, but the distinction between the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 is important. In a 4-2-3-1, the two defensive midfielders always stay home. They form a box with the two center backs, and build a true fortress in the middle of the field. In the 4-3-3, one of the two defensive midfielders drives forward. For New England, the 4-2-3-1 was particularly cute this weekend. The Revs have gone on their seven-game unbeaten run largely on the back on their counterattackers. The 4-2-3-1, though, and it’s two holding players, protects against counterattacks. It’s a small detail, but the Revs are the first team use the two true defensive midfielders (Wilfried Zahibo and Luis Caicedo) since the Rapids got hot, and it worked.
This Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal at Exploria Stadium (7:30 pm ET | ESPN+) against NYCFC is the biggest game in Orlando’s MLS history, right? I’m going to say yes, since I’ll be doing the ESPN+ broadcast with David Gass. I have the Lions billed as the favorite. Orlando have been playing much better than anyone’s giving them credit for, and Exploria Stadium should be rocking. The matchup should suit them, too. I’ll be paying particular attention to how James O’Connor sets up the middle of the field. I would go with their five defender set-up, and Chris Mueller in the middle with Will Johnson and Sebastian Mendez. Clog up the middle with as much energy and athleticism as possible, and counterattack the space that NYCFC’s outside backs leave.
I like the tone coming out of Philadelphia right now. They are holding themselves to “we are elite” standards. Some teams would have put a positive spin on the late comeback to snag a point on Sunday. It’s almost certainly what Jim Curtin would have done in previous years. Now, however, they expect more. Curtin told reporters after the game: “Overall, not good enough on the day… we aren’t happy about it. It wasn’t a sign of a first-place team.” That’s what I would want to hear as a Union fan. The old adage is true — you need to feel like a champion in order to become a champion. You need to train every day like you’re the best and you need to step onto the field everyday like you’re going to get a result. The Union seem to be at that stage, and it’s a good sign.
Larrys Mabiala has slowly slid into the top echelon of MLS center backs. The Timbers’ star attackers get all of the attention, as they should, but the Timbers also have a 1A option in the back now. When we think of the elite center backs in the league, we should probably have Mabiala in the conversation.
Also, if you haven’t paid attention to the U.S. Open Cup yet, make sure you tune in this week. Portland travels to LAFC on Wednesday (10:30 pm ET | ESPN+) in what could be the game of the season so far.
Real Salt Lake
Man oh man. It was a great performance ruined by five seconds of lost focus. After putting in 90-plus minutes of sharp, disciplined defending, RSL checked out for a corner kick and got punished. It’s a sickening way to lose for the players. With that said, Mike Petke’s group should feel good about their performance as a whole. RSL only had 36% of the ball against the Quakes, but they controlled the game. They used tight, disciplined defensive lines to keep San Jose in front of them, and always maintained a threat when SJ pushed their outside backs forward. RSL have quietly become one of the more defensively organized teams in the league (when they want to be, at least). Alex Vejar wrote a nice article in the Salt Lake Tribune that helps explain the team’s evolution this year.
San Jose Earthquakes
If I had to buy stock in one player that I could only hold for six months, I might pick Danny Hoesen. He’s more talented than he’s been able to show. Matias Almeyda’s high-paced, stretched style fits him, too. Hoesen has the aggression and agility to man mark, and the pace and movement to stretch defenses vertically. We started to see glimpses of it before he went out injured early in the year. I’d assume the striker spot is still Wondo’s to lose, but if Wondo goes cold, I’d invest in Hoesen, Inc.
It was cool to watch 16-year-olds Danny Leyva and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez learn on the fly in Saturday’s game. There were moments when Ocampo-Chavez, who started as the lone striker, would move off the ball and about halfway through the run he would recognize that it wasn’t a good run; the same actions that work at the U-17 level don’t work with the pros. Same for Leyva — he would pick up his head to make a pass, the same pass he’s made over and over in his youth career, and it wouldn’t be there. Both players struggled, if we are holding them to professional standards, but you could visibly see the lessons they took from the game. Now when they train, whether it’s with the youth teams or the professional team, they know what the professional answers would be and can hold themselves to professional standards. The Sounders stole three points from Columbus, but the bigger win could be what the game means for two of the brightest teenagers in the MLS system.
Was Saturday’s win over Chicago a turning point a tease? Remember when Toronto beat Philadelphia 2-0 last June and it seemed like they had gotten their season back on track and then they lost four of their next six? I’m not going to get caught by that again. It was a very nice win by Sporting, but I’m keeping my guard up. They have Vancouver and Dallas in the next two weeks, and they probably need six points from those games. SKC don’t just need to make up five points to get the No. 7 seed, they also need to leapfrog Portland, Houston, and RSL.
The Reds played well in Thursday’s loss to the Galaxy, and probably deserved more. The Alejandro Pozuelo-at-center-striker over the last three matches has been a clever move from Greg Vanney. One issue that Toronto have had over the last 18 months is that they try to play the same way with and without Jozy Altidore on the field. They would sub someone into Altidore’s spot at striker and go about the game the same way. It’s not a poor approach, but it didn’t work. Terrence Boyd and Jordan Hamilton couldn’t do the job. Lately, Vanney has adjusted. He played Pozuelo at striker with a completely free role and used Tsubasa Endoh as a wide forward cutting in from the right. It’s something Vanney should continue to use when Altidore isn’t on the field.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
The Whitecaps are the “Pretend It Didn’t Happen” Team of the Week.