Every team was in action in Week 19 and every team played just one league game. Let's take a look at each of the 24.
A weird contradiction is taking place in Atlanta right now. Frank de Boer is, it seems, trying to build a complex possession machine. He’s being very specific about where the players should be and what they should do with the ball. It’s fine and good and I get it. More teams around the league should be more intentional about their attacking movements. The weird part is that the Five Stripes might be the worst team in the league at the two most fundamental parts of attacking: stretching the field horizontally and vertically (making the field big!). They almost never have someone running behind to stretch the defense — Josef Martinez checks back more than he runs toward goal these days — and they almost never have a player on the touchlines. The wingers move central and the outside backs overlap more narrowly than you’ll almost ever see. Maybe there’s some revolutionary mad science approach to it — you know I’m down with teams breaking conventional wisdom — but as of right now, it just means that Atlanta are predictable and slow.
The Fire earn the depressing distinction of “The Team That Looks Like It’s Having the Least Fun.” Every time the camera cuts to one of the attackers, it looks like that guy would rather be anywhere else in the world. It’s a shame, too. The Fire attack can be really enjoyable to watch when they click. Unfortunately, it looks like they are carrying the mountains of missed chances on their shoulders.
It will be interesting to see where the new manager plays Allan Cruz. He has played mostly as an attacking midfielder or wide player this year. Is that a reflection of where the club projects him, or simply because they don’t have anyone else in those spots? It seems like his best spot would be similar to how Saphir Taider plays for Montreal or Mark-Anthony Kaye plays for LAFC — a ground-covering passer who gets into the box with late runs for the occasional goal. FCC have loads of other players for that role, whereas they have basically zero attacking midfield options, and Cruz is probably the most suited for the most advanced role. I’d still like to see the Costa Rican get a stretch of games in a deeper position at some point this year.
Cole Bassett played defensive mid in Saturday night’s 2-2 draw with Portland. It’s the fourth position that the 17-year-old has played this year for the Rapids. It’s worth repeating… he’s not just a 17-year-old getting regular first-tier starts, he’s started at four different positions on the field. It’s a testament to his soccer brain and base of technique. I hate the business of projecting teenagers, but I really like what I see from Bassett (since it’s my job, I’ll also say that I have him second on my personal list of the top domestic teenagers in the league right now). He thinks quicker and reads the game quicker than I can remember seeing from a player his age.
Columbus Crew SC
I’m still a big fan of the yellow kits.
When a new coach steps into a team, they plan out the first six months or so on what they want to accomplish and what they want the team to be able to do. Training then reflects that plan. The priority of tactical preferences usually goes:
- Defensive shape
- Building from the back and sustaining possession
- Creating and finishing goal-scoring opportunities
Dallas have become very good at the first two. It’s clear where they allocated their time. Luchi Gonzalez has built a solid foundation to control the game. They now need to improve the third. They don’t have the same prepared, replicable patterns in the final 30 yards of the field that they have in the other parts of the field. You can visibly see that they don’t have as much conviction or confidence in the final third. I suspect that’s where the bulk of the training time is going at this point.
DCU put together their best 45 minutes since Week 4 (even before the Wilfried Zahibo red card). Something about the beating that the Revs gave them in the first half created a spark. The biggest difference between the second half on Friday and the previous 14 games: D.C. dominated the mental transitions when the ball went out of bounds. On throw-ins and goal kicks, D.C. got the ball right away and/or sprinted to where they needed to go. They had not been doing that. It’s a little thing, but if you can transition mentally quicker than the opponent, you’re always a step ahead. It set the tone for everything else they did.
If there’s ever such a thing as a lock in Major League Soccer, you would have thought that the Houston Dynamo playing at home, where they were 7-0-3 so far this year, against a team resting eight starters would be the best bet. If it makes you feel any better, Houston fans, Cincinnati have won two straight since being named the “Forget It Happened” Team of the Week.
For as amazing as LAFC have been this year, Lee Nguyen had been struggling. Since returning from injury, he had been unable to find his form. He failed to impact the games at Dallas, Seattle, and Colorado; LAFC dropped points in all three. It looked like he might not be able to play at the ridiculously high pace of the rest of the team. His natural instincts didn’t appear to match with how LAFC play. I had started to wonder if it was just a bad match for LAFC’s style this year, and whether he would become trade bait. That’s been put to bed in the last two games, and especially Friday night’s win at Houston. He looked more clear with his actions both off and on the ball.
The Galaxy are a very mediocre team right now. I have them at No. 11 in my personal Power Rankings, even though they are third in points per game. But if you read this column weekly, I’ve been alluding to that for months. Rather than beating the dead horse, here’s a positive note: Efrain Alvarez has looked quick and active in the last two games, both starts. The 17-year-old’s talent has always been evident, but he had a tendency to drift out of games at the youth level. A lot of youth stars never get out of that; they always expect the game to be easy. Those types of passengers don’t fly in the pro game anymore, and it was always the biggest step Alvarez needed to take. He’s already moving in the right direction.
Minnesota deserve credit for their four-game MLS win streak, and seven straight wins overall. But I shall take this moment to point out that Minnesota’s win streak comes on the back of a three-game losing streak, and two not-even-close-to-the-playoffs seasons. I don’t feel particularly bad for maintaining a high burden of proof for Minnesota United. It took everyone more than two months to give San Jose any credit. This isn’t a conspiracy to remain skeptical about Minnesota; it’s common sense.
Saphir Taider has started the last five games, including Saturday’s Canadian Classique loss to Toronto, at left wing (or whatever you would call his position in the attacking band of a 3-4-3). It makes sense; Taider provides more marginal value over the replacement options on the wing than he does in the middle. The Impact won the first two times, too, over Seattle and Portland… except Seattle and Portland played their reserves. It’s become clear in the last three games, all losses, that Taider needs to be in the middle. Montreal can only win games when they disrupt what the opponent wants to do. Taider is one of the most all-around dominant center midfielders in the league. Montreal improved greatly when he shifted central in the second half. The experiment made sense, but if you’re Montreal right now, you need him in the middle of the field.
New England Revolution
We will probably remember Friday’s draw at D.C. as the end of the New England Revolution as we knew them. Sometime this upcoming week, either Wednesday or Sunday, Gustavo Bou will take the field. Bou is one of the 15 most expensive transfers in league history. (I’ll have more on Bou, including a scouting report and what it means for how the Revs will play, later this week). The flag has been planted. Let the new life of the Revolution begin.
NYCFC & RBNY
We are combining these two this week after the New York Derby.
Red Bulls games have become the most consistently interesting tactical battles in the league. Everyone has a game plan for playing against their press (because it’s become clear that if you don’t, you will lose). This week, NYCFC dominated that battle, and thus the game, in the 1st half. When Red Bulls got the tactical advantage in the 2nd half, they took over the game. What changed?
In the 1st half, Red Bulls started their line of confrontation all the way at the top of NYCFC’s box. In response, NYCFC launched everything long out of the back. That was to be expected. The specific wrinkle that NYCFC used, in Chris Armas’ words: “On goal kicks, they are putting guys 10 or 15 yards offside into your half, it makes your backline uncomfortable. It forces you into a little bit of a passive mode; so they were setting our line instead of us seeing our line and we are at our best when can compress spaces and be aggressive. We weren’t as aggressive at stepping out of the backline; they were parking three players centrally...and this makes it difficult.” The Red Bulls got extremely stretched and couldn’t win second balls, a deadly sin in the Red Bulls’ Way.
In the 2nd half, the Red Bulls dropped their line of confrontation and conceded the first 20 yards. RBNY’s defenders couldn’t move forward off NYCFC’s attackers — you can’t exactly leave those three players open — so RBNY had to drop their three strikers to stay compact. This coerced NYCFC to pass out of the back. When NYCFC tried to play from the back, RBNY sprung out of their shape and initiated their press. When Red Bulls can press into the opponent’s half from a compact starting point... well, we know what happens. They make the game chaotic, which makes the opponent uncomfortable, which, as Armas explained after the game, is really the whole premise of what RBNY try to achieve. When the game got fast and chaotic, Red Bulls were able to find their own calm and take over the game.
Why NYCFC took the bait and tried to play from the back in the second half is the big mystery in all of this.
Orlando City SC
How ‘bout the Lamine Sane resurrection project of 2019? There’s no polite way to describe Sane’s performances in 2018; they were bad. And there was no reasonable reason — no signs, no moments — to suggest that the 31-year-old could play at an MLS level. This year, though, he’s been excellent. He’s organized the players around him and won his duels and been smart with his passing out of the back. He and Robin Jansson now form one of the more reliable partnerships in the conference. As a result, Orlando have conceded the fourth fewest goals in the East, an incredible turnaround from 2018. I gave Sane a lot of grief for his performances last year, so he deserves equal praise for his rebound this year.
The Union have slipped into the problem that troubled them earlier in the year. They’ve shifted away from pressing side of the spectrum and closer to the possession side. It’s a natural shift for a team that has dominated opponents; they grew in confidence, and confident teams want to keep the ball. And possession certainly isn’t a bad approach for Philly, because they are good at it. They have become a little soft, though. The Union climbed to the top of the East because they were both calm and angry, able to pass and able to dominate second balls. They stopped playing with “pressing” intensity, and they need to find it again. Best case scenario is that it simply comes down to missing two of their most athletic, aggressive players, Kai Wagner and Jamiro Monteiro.
This was one of those moments that makes you remember why team sports are cool. After the Timbers’ goal, the team went to celebrate with their head coach Gio Savarese, who lost his father earlier in the week.
On the field, Colorado did exactly what most teams should do at Providence Park. The Rapids sat in a middle block and made Portland pass through them. This scenario was the Big Question for Portland coming into the second half of the year. Can they win when they are forced to be the protagonist on the ball? It’s difficult to really assess given Portland rotated half their team, but the first quiz came back as a fail. They couldn’t trouble Colorado with their possession. It’s going to keep coming up, too. Orlando, LA and Vancouver, all defensive-minded teams, travel to Portland in the next five games. If I’m Portland’s coaching staff, I’m making that the main priority in training.
Real Salt Lake
It was one of those Jefferson Savarino games. When Savarino plays like that, RSL are really tough to stop. It’s the same situation as Alberth Elis in Houston. Savarino and Elis are the two most mercurial players in the league. When they play well, it’s game over. Their pace, dribbling ability, and quick shot release are a nightmare for teams. Unfortunately, though, you never know when those days are going to come. You can’t help but wonder if this performance was related to the reports linking Savarino to Europe. Every player has a defining stretch in his career, the 10 games when the scouts are watching and the lighter is next to the burner. This could be Savarino’s — and that could be a very good thing for RSL, both in the short- and long-term.
San Jose Earthquakes
Vako is getting into the Ilsinho territory of video-game moments. It’s been satisfying to watch. It was clear that Vako always had skill, but any conversation about Vako ended with the line, “if only someone could teach him how to pass.” He always used his skill two touches too long. It looks like Matias Almeyda has hit the right note. My guess is that the Spanish-to-Georgian went something like: “When it’s tight, you need to pass. But when you can face forward and run at a defense, go for it, enjoy it. I don’t care if you mess up.” It’s simultaneously reined Vako in and freed him up. The world is a better place when players like Vako are hitting their stride. On the ESPN broadcast for Seattle vs. Atlanta, Taylor Twellman said Vako should be in the your-name-isn’t-Carlos Vela MVP conversation. It feels a little early, but I don’t mind the suggestion.
There were a lot of ways to describe the Sounders over the years. I don’t think “they will outcompete you” was ever one of them. Not because they didn’t outcompete teams, it’s just not how people thought of them. The “outcompete” part, though, was more evident than ever in Sunday’s win over Atlanta. Neither team played pretty soccer; the Sounders simply won more battles and dominated the midfield.
Now, the tricky part. It’s tough to know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Is it a situation of “Oh crap, this juggernaut can also kick the crap out of you!” or, rather, “They aren’t as talented/good as they used to be so they have to kick the crap out of you.”? Last year, they had 1A players all the way up the spine. This year, sans Chad Marshall and Ozzie Alonso, there are question marks there. If the Sounders want to compete with LAFC and Portland (and maybe San Jose and Minnesota?), do they have to be the “physical and angry” team rather than the free-flowing Sounders of the past?
Check out these two passing maps. In the first picture, you can see Botand Barath’s passing chart from Week 18 against Chicago; the second picture comes from Saturday’s win at Vancouver. Notice how Barath’s passes on Saturday trend from a more central area.
That’s because SKC brought back their three-center back possession set this weekend, with Barath in the middle. If you remember, the three-center back attacking formation was SKC’s new wrinkle this year, using Graham Zusi as the right center back and Matt Besler as the left center back to create unique passing angles into the attackers. SKC used it to annihilate Toluca in Concacaf Champions League. It got scrapped, however, when Andreu Fontas and Zusi went out injured. It returned this weekend, with Barath getting his first crack at it.
TFC earned the lede in Matt Doyle’s column. My add: Saturday’s 2-0 win at Montreal was, as far as I could find, the first time that Toronto had played in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 with Jozy Altidore on the field since at least 2015. They had always used a two-striker setup (with Giovinco or Alejandro Pozuelo) in a 4-4-2 diamond or 3-5-2. It’s not exactly news for a team to switch to the most used formation in the sport, but it does feel like the end of an era in some ways.
I didn’t know what to say about the Whitecaps — now winless in six and 1-4-5 in their last 10 — so I texted a friend about them to see if it could spark an idea. I thought his message hit the mark, so I’m pasting it directly:
“[Marc Dos Santos] got a bunch of strangers to accept the sort of 'collective responsibility' that he clearly requires as a baseline for his teams. That should be lauded. Their low-block style (aimed at tempo disruption) was always meant to be a start, not the goal. Even if he still lacks the ideal personnel to implement his ideal soccer, the MDS Whitecaps have become easy for teams to prepare for. That also means teams feel comfortable with what's going to happen on the field and the trust that they can break them down.”