Armchair Analyst: All 24 MLS teams in review | Week 21 analysis

I enjoyed this exchange:

Alexi had been immersed in Women's World Cup prep and the event itself from about mid-April til two weeks ago. What a brand new world it is he's come back to.

Let's dive into Week 21:

A Long Time Coming

The Revs have not lost in regular-season play since Brad Friedel was the head coach. Their only loss in any competition since May 8 was in U.S. Open Cup play against Orlando City, which they redressed with a vengeance Saturday evening in Foxborough. The 4-1 final was more than a little bit flattering – the Purple Lions created a bunch of chances, and could have kept this thing tighter with a little bit of luck or by being a little bit more clinical in front of net – but them's the breaks. And them's especially the breaks when you're playing from behind from the third minute.

And that's always been the key for Bruce Arena's best teams: They spend a disproportionate amount of time playing from in front, or at least from a position of game-state related strength (Bruce has always been just fine with an ugly road draw, thank you very much). When you're playing from that position of strength, you're not the one who has to take risks; you can let the other guy do that. And when the other guy's out there taking big risks... just stay compact, defend as a unit, and use the opponent's aggression against them.

There is a great scene from an old video called Our Way: The Exclusive Behind the Scenes Story of the USA's 2002 World Cup Journey in which Arena's giving the final talk before the opening group stage game against Portugal. I'm paraphrasing a bit, but here was Arena's speech: "First shot, first foul, first card, first goal."

They scored within four minutes, and were up 3-0 before the game was half done.

And here, 17 years later, is Gustavo Bou in the third minute against Orlando City:

Since taking over as head coach in New England, Bruce has managed eight regular season games, and the Revs have scored first in seven of them. Four times they've scored inside of 10 minutes.

Let me expand upon that: Since dismissing Friedel nearly three months ago, the Revs have trailed only once in MLS play. And that was for all of 26 minutes.

"It’s good," Arena said about his team's propensity for early goals in each half, and thus their ability to control the game state. "I think we’ve been able to do that for a number of games and our guys have a good mentality to start halves and that was good."

Yeah, that's a bit of an understatement. The simple fact is the Revs are winning the early rounds, and thus controlling the fight.

Two other points I want to make here: First, it's stunning how different this "rebuild" of the Revs is from his 2008 rebuild of the LA Galaxy. Arena came to that team in midseason and turned over as much of the roster as he possibly could. With this New England team he's made one huge acquisition (Bou), might make another trade (I suspect one of the wingers will be moved), and other than that... other than that it feels like he has 25 new, better players than he inherited because of that mentality and belief he's instilled into the locker room. 

Second is he had both fullbacks push way, way up throughout the course of this game (that's left back Edgar Castillo with the assist above), which at times left the Revs exposed. Matt Turner was huge throughout and to be entirely fair to New England, Orlando City didn't create any truly good chances until they were already down 3-0. But there has to be at least a hint of concern in the Revs' camp that they weren't able to just kill the game off at that point, but instead let it get pretty wide open for the final 25 minutes.

For Orlando City they're now seven points beneath the playoff line with 11 games left, and it's a good bet this will be their fifth straight year without a postseason. Their story will be one of marked improvement, but fatal profligacy in the 18-yard box.

The Game That Moves As You Play

A lot of the stuff about Arena applies to Matias Almeyda – if you've watched the Quakes this year you know they almost always are the team out there trying to set the tempo and control the game state, and are often successful at it. Such was the case in their 3-1 win over the Rapids Saturday night, a victory that pushed San Jose up to fourth in the West (they're tied with the Galaxy on points and ahead of them on goal differential, but wins is actually the tiebreaker that has LA in third).

There's been a lot written about how the Quakes play, including THIS two weeks ago from my colleague Bobby Warshaw that I'm going to go ahead and recommend. Their all-over-the-field man marking is what has obviously caught the eye, as it's distinct both in MLS and in the wider world of soccer (strict man marking has mostly disappeared over the past quarter century). It creates an aesthetic difference that is difficult to miss.

Their ability in possession, though, is what has given the Quakes this current form. Here are some numbers I think are meaningful:

Team Poss. Passing Accuracy Passes Complete,
Own Half
Passes Poss. Lost Passes per
Poss. Lost
NYC 58.74 80.92 4787 10425 2967 3.51
SJ 57.89 84.24 4883 10957 2875 3.81
LAFC 55.94 83.98 4290 11142 2996 3.72
ATL 55.62 82.86 4656 11671 3187 3.66
TOR 55.03 86.06 4871 12450 2908 4.28
SKC 54.87 83.43 5080 10953 2867 3.82
DAL 53.12 84.09 5723 11471 2912 3.94
PHI 52.82 81.8 4047 11497 3294 3.49
CLB 50.93 81.06 4579 11124 3404 3.27
LA 49.94 82.66 3868 10011 2931 3.42
CHI 49.73 80.71 4193 10854 3285 3.30
SEA 49.63 81.43 4009 10244 3035 3.38
ORL 48.42 79.87 3668 10206 3282 3.11
DC 47.97 80.18 4268 10567 3308 3.19
CIN 47.57 78.15 4316 9776 3204 3.05
MTL 47.56 80.6 4441 10828 3281 3.30
RSL 47.49 79.15 3836 9170 2925 3.14
HOU 47.37 81.17 3818 9300 2802 3.32
RBNY 47.32 68.48 2250 8823 4121 2.14
POR 47.13 80.74 3316 9052 2738 3.31
VAN 46.07 80.92 5087 10476 3075 3.41
MIN 45.12 79.22 3491 9101 3121 2.92
NE 43.64 75.87 2689 8697 3451 2.52
COL 40.96 77.29 3032 7778 2867 2.72

San Jose are second in possession and second in passing accuracy, which is a good foundation to build from. They are fourth in the total number of successful passes in their own defensive half – which means they use the ball to pull you upfield and create space in behind, or at least to spread the field both vertically and horizontally in order to allow isolations for their wingers.

But focus on those last three columns for a sec: They hit a lot of passes in total, and yet are near the bottom of the table in terms of number of times they lose possession. Thus, they 1) don't spend a lot of time chasing down their own sloppy turnovers, and 2) by virtue of all the passes they're completing, they're rearranging where you are on the field, and making you play on their terms.

So somehow the Quakes are both high-tempo and front-foot and aggressive (they generate a TON of shots), and at the same time are... tidy. They don't make mistakes, and if you remove the first month of the season – before Almeyda had time to crystalize his system and make a couple of necessary lineup changes (Florian Jungwirth and Jackson Yueill are each arguably the league's best passer at their respective positions, and neither started a single game until April) – those numbers are uniformly better. 

And so the Quakes make every team they play react to them, which is what Almeyda has always wanted from any of his teams.

"By fortune and a great game, we were able to take the advantage through combinations and control," he said after the win over Colorado (emphasis mine). "From there, the match became different. By controlling the match, being alert on counter attacks, they [Colorado Rapids] can do damage in their aerial play, but we had that under control."

That they did, from literally the second minute. San Jose are 11-3-4, with a +18 goal differential since the start of April. Only LAFC have been better.

Colorado have come back down to earth a bit over the past few weeks with three losses in four, but the core of a competitive team is still there for the rest of the season, 2020 and beyond if they build out correctly. They remain murderous on the break, and their obvious youth comes coupled with obvious up-side.

A few more things to ponder...

10. NYCFC, as expected, handled Sporting with relative ease in a 3-1 win in the Bronx on Friday night.

Heber scored again, his ninth of the year (to go along with three assists) in 11 starts. In those 11 starts the Cityzens have scored 22 goals (2 goals per game), and are 7-1-3 (2.18 points per game). In their other nine games they've scored 14 goals (1.56 goals per game) and are 2-2-5 (1.22 ppg).

This is blunt-force analysis – there are more and better numbers to illustrate the effect he has on this team – but in this instance they paint an accurate picture. Heber is, in my opinion, the current leader in the "Newcomer of the Year" race. He's been superb, and is arguably the biggest individual reason why NYCFC have become favorites in the Eastern Conference.

Sporting have gone hard in the other direction. It'll be interesting to see if the rebuild begins in earnest this week, before the close of the summer transfer/trade window.

9. And yup, it's another Pass of the Week courtesy of FC Dallas:

And yup, it's another FC Dallas entry for "disappointing non-finish of the week." This one was from Santiago Mosquera in FCD's scoreless home draw against Real Salt Lake.

If you look back up at the Quakes' segment, those numbers tell a roughly similar story about how Dallas like to play. The difference is guys like Vako and Shea Salinas (who is having the best year of his career at age 33, and scored a beauty on Saturday) have finished their chances, while Dallas do not have a single reliable finisher on the entire team. If they miss the playoffs – or miss out on home field advantage – that chance above and others like it will be the reason why.

It was a good point for the Claret-and-Cobalt, but they did drop to eighth following the weekend's games. The good news is they have seven home games left, most in the conference...

8. ...except for the team that just jumped past them into seventh. Portland crushed the visiting LA Galaxy by 4-0 Saturday night, and did so without the services of Diego Chara – their first official, 90-minute win without him since 2015. It's fitting, then, that the game's big star was Cristhian Paredes, the 21-year-old Paraguayan international who seems to be Chara's heir apparent as an all-action box-to-box destroyer. Paredes has two caps with the Paraguayan national team already. There will be many more to come.

This marks the second straight week that a Western Conference foe decided to meet Portland on their own terms and risk being exposed in transition. This marks the second straight week that the Timbers taught a Western Conference foe a harsh lesson*. While I understood Seattle's approach last week (they were at home, after all), I really did think the Galaxy were a little bit naive in this one.

(*) Steve Clark deserves some dap here, as he was outstanding.

LA, by the way, are third in the West, but have a negative goal differential and in the Western Conference only the 'Caps have scored fewer goals this season.

7. Credit to those 'Caps at least a little bit for returning to the team they were in March with a scoreless draw at Minnesota Saturday night. They put 11 guys behind the ball and defended hard, and managed not to make any of the sorts of catastrophic mistakes that have been killing them for months.

Still, this game was about dropped points for the Loons, not a brave draw for Vancouver. MNUFC have two straight massive six-pointers coming up, next Sunday against Portland and the following weekend at FC Dallas.

6. As impossible as the turnarounds of the Revs and Quakes are to behold, this is moreso:

Week after week the Fire have done this. This week it was a scoreless home draw to a listless-and-still-treading-water-and-so-so-so-obviously-need-to-make-a-big-summer-signing D.C. United team.

I have no more words to write about the Fire, and no real explanation for this.

As for D.C., I really think they should get another true forward to play off of Wayne Rooney and go to a 3-5-2. Their current 3-4-3(ish) set-up just doesn't generate enough in the attacking third.

United aren't a lock to make the playoffs by any stretch, by the way. Yes, they're technically third in the East, but they're also only four points out of eighth place and almost all of the teams chasing them have games in hand. They've won twice in two-and-a-half months.

5. One of those teams with games in hand who are chasing D.C. are Toronto FC, who tried really hard to give away a result against visiting FC Cincinnati, but managed to hold onto a 2-1 win at home on Saturday despite themselves.

I will go ahead and list all the mitigating factors:

  • Jonathan Osorio only played the final 15 minutes
  • Chris Mavinga, who is still shaking off a knock, played only the final nine minutes
  • Alejandro Pozuelo, who is still shaking off a knock, didn't quite look like himself despite going the full 90
  • New TAM winger Erickson Gallardo isn't available yet
  • The three DPs have only started six games together

All of that is, to one extent or another, valid. But it also says something about how fragile this TFC team is, because a week after that embarrassing home loss to Houston they did not pass the eye test against FC Cincy. And if their excellence is contingent upon all of their oft-injured DPs, or the oft-er injured Mavinga all being healthy... things feel precarious. I thought they'd look better by now.

Flip side of that coin is they're 4-3-1 in eight games since the end of the Gold Cup break, and they're 3-0-0 with two goals allowed in three games when Omar Gonzalez plays. That's all pretty good, and suggests they're heading in the right direction. But I'm not going to bet my life on it.

Cincinnati are reportedly set to hire a new head coach.

4. Shout out to Gyasi Zardes, who just abused the Red Bulls backline over the top all game long in Columbus's 3-2 win in Harrison. This could have been the Pass of the Week, but instead I'm giving the Face of the Week to a justifiably furious Luis Robles:

**record scratch**

**freeze frame**

Robles, for what it's worth, has an idea of how he (and by extension, his team) got here.

"Going into the season, last year, we were the best defense in the league, we were setting all sorts of records, and maybe there's just a little bit of complacency there," he told reporters after the game. "...The goals against average doesn’t look too well and when you look at our defensive line, multiple All-Stars, guys that represent the national team, top defenders, and yet we're not playing with the same intensity. We're not playing with the same commitment, we’re not playing with the same intelligence as we did last year. And maybe we're not playing with the same sort of chip on our shoulder that we have to prove something. We have to really show so that people around the league take notice. We've become a little too complacent."

I won't disagree with any of that. The Red Bulls neither harry nor track like they did last year, or any of the three previous seasons, and they get punished for it almost every week.

The Crew are obviously playing better as well over the past few weeks, having gone 2-0-1 following that 1-13-1 stretch.

3. Wilmer Cabrera felt his team was hard done by on the game's only goal in a 1-0 home loss to the visiting Seattle Sounders, and let everybody know about it. They are 2-8-1 in their last 11 games after opening the season 7-2-2 in their first, home-heavy 11 outings.

To the Dynamo fans who yelled at me in March, April and May for not treating yours like an elite team: As I said at the time, the schedule was imbalanced and, frankly, a ticking time bomb. It's exploded, and Houston are on the outside of the playoffs looking in (and IMO are likely to stay there).

Big win for the Sounders, who climbed back up to second place in the West. I am surprised, though, at the way some of the individual position battles have played out (at some point Xavier Arreaga has to take over from Roman Torres in the starting XI, no?).

2. By the eye test, LAFC's press has slowed down just a bit, and maybe fatigue has caught up to a few of their key players in certain spots. It's certainly understandable – they've just come through their busiest stretch of the season, which included two soul-crushing losses (to Portland in the U.S. Open Cup quarters, and El Trafico), and they're probably spent on levels both physical and emotional. It happens.

And Friday against Atlanta that was nearly enough to turn a 4-1 lead into a "break everything in the locker room" 4-4 draw... but not quite, as the Black-and-Gold held on a 4-3 win

LAFC still have the best defense in the league (just 23 goals allowed) and their goal differential (+36) remains absurd, but they've pitched just one shutout in 12 games across all competitions and have now conceded six goals in their past 180 minutes. They are not nearly as smothering as they were a month ago, and when pressing teams aren't able to smother you, they become vulnerable.

Atlanta did a nice job of trying to exploit that throughout, but here's the thing: Even when LAFC look tired they can very easily hang four on you. On Friday night they did it in 12 furious minutes.

I'm curious as to how Frank De Boer plans to fit Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco into the same XI. I'm also curious as to what kind of locker room fall-out there was after making a Barco-for-Pity sub on the hour mark when Pity was playing very, very well in this one.

1. And finally, unless you're a Union fan it was so nice to see Ignacio Piatti back this weekend. He and newcomer Lassi Lappalainen – a 20-year-old Finn bought by Bologna and loaned to the Impact last week – just ripped Philly apart in a desperately needed 4-0 Montreal win Saturday. They finally looked like the old Impact, sitting deep as hell, holding little of the ball (36% possession) and doing straight murder on the counter:

That entire highlight reel is worth a watch.

Montreal are still just eighth in the East on PPG, but have six of their final 10 at home and more importantly now have two players on the field who can actually put the ball in the net. That... helps.

The Union, meanwhile, are now 4-4-4 with a -6 goal differential in their past 12 games, and just lost 4-0 for the second time in three weeks. They're still atop the East on points, and second in PPG, but that early-season spark that carried them through the first three months is gone. They need to get it back, starting this weekend at D.C. United.

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