Michael Barrios – FC Dallas – goal celebration
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Warshaw: 24 takeaways from 24 teams after Week 23

13 games in Week 23 around MLS, and a thought on every team. Let's jump in:

Atlanta United 

I tweeted this early in the 2-1 win over NYCFC:

So of course this happened:

And then former MLS defender Chris Wingert tweeted this,

To which I texted him, “You’re the worst.”

Josef Martinez’s two-goal game doesn’t change the premise of my statement. He missed multiple chances that he would usually bury and he looked much less mobile throughout the game. Adductors are a serious concern. It’s the same injury that’s bothered Tyler Adams and George Bello recently. It lingers and is unpredictable. There isn’t a great treatment for it, and it’s tough to know if it’s getting better. You can’t say, “I’ll take three weeks off and be good to go for the playoffs.” It might seem like it’s getting better and then it comes back with a vengeance. In a lot of ways, Atlanta played their best game of the year and this is the best I’ve felt about them all year. But I’ve seen too many players struggled with persistent abdominal problems not to be concerned right now.

Chicago Fire

This game was the perfect encapsulation of the Fire’s season. Gorgeous soccer followed by a slow, steady descent into the nearly inevitable feeling that they would drop points, followed by a mad rush to get a late goal. This time, they actually got that late goal. It’s also probably not a coincidence that they’ve played a 4-2-3-1 formation three games in a row and taken seven points. The Fire still have a chance to get over the playoff line. To take it a step further, it might even be in their hands. They have two six-point games left against New England and Toronto, plus Columbus, Cincinnati, and Orlando. Chicago have the soccer in them to take 15 from the last eight games. They just can’t trip over themselves as they get into the sprint. 

Colorado Rapids

The Rapids are now 7-3-3 in the last 13 games. They have defeated San Jose, the Galaxy, Minnesota, and LAFC, and tied on the road at Portland! That’s some real ish right there. It’s one more point than Minnesota in the same span, level with Portland, and just two less than San Jose. This Rapids squad is in a good position moving forward. Here’s the question I’ve been sorting through in my head: What’s the spot that they need to upgrade? Where should the investment go? You could argue both everywhere and nowhere. It’s pretty meritocratic across the board. Even players who were written off three months ago (Tommy Smith, Danny Wilson, Sam Nicholson, Diego Rubio) have become solid starters. If I were in charge of recruitment, I’d go big after an elite Darwin Quintero-type winger. 

Columbus Crew SC & FC Cincinnati  

☝What Ian said. And the game delivered. It wasn’t well played, it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but it was intense and intense is entertaining.

Also, shoutout to the investigative work at r/MLS. Turns out that the Gyasi Zardes “Omg it was so bad I can’t stop watching” miss was actually a fantastic defensive play from Kendall Waston.

Also also, a little note on FC Cincy: In his first game in charge, Ron Jans flipped Cincinnati’s midfield triangle. Whereas they had been playing a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot, Jans flipped to a 4-3-3 with a single defensive midfielder and two higher box-to-box midfielders.

FC Dallas

The talking point around FCD has been, “How do they start to score more goals?” They went about it exactly the right way in the 5-3 win over Minnesota. They attacked the crap out of the Optimal Assist Zones (or Man City Zones, as I like to call them). Here’s my flow chart for turning possession - something Dallas are good at - into goalscoring opportunities:

  • Use the methodical control of the ball to get to Optimal Assist Zones → Run finishing patterns → Finish.

That’s it. Oversimplified? No. Don’t overthink it. You use the ball to intentionally put yourself in certain parts of the field, then when you get to those parts, you turn the switch in your brain from “possession” to “kill,” and you should have scripted patterns for this “kill” moments. Dallas had been using possession to get into the final third, but not specific areas in the final third. We saw all of the pieces come together for the first time for Dallas on Saturday.

D.C. United

Maybe this team needs their backs against the wall. Last year, when they went on their run, they had to win almost every game to make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. This year, after they started 3-0-1, they entered almost every game as the favorite. As the favorite, they rarely dominate the game. They lose their edge and look cautious. When they are stressed and feel the hand on their throat, though, they play like beasts. I bet I know how Ben Olsen is going to frame his pregame talks the rest of the year. 

Houston Dynamo

Empty Bucket alert!! With the acquisition of Christian Ramirez plus a 2-10-1 record the last few months, Wilmer Cabrera decided to mix things up. He went to a 4-4-2, with two defensive mids (Juan David Cabezas & Boniek Garcia = Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark at the 2010 World Cup) and two attacking mids playing out wide (Tomas Martinez & Memo Rodriguez = Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan). It didn’t work quite as well as that empty bucket, but it almost stole a point in Philly

(Also, what does it say that Ramirez, who only arrived to the team three days earlier, played ahead of Alberth Elis?)

LAFC 

Bob Bradley told reporters after the 4-2 win over Red Bulls: “We try to be a team that creates chances in different ways.” Well, ✅.

There are five ways to score in soccer:

  1. via Transitions
  2. via Possession
  3. Set Pieces
  4. Moment of Magic
  5. Getting Lucky

The last one can happen for anyone. The other four… how many teams can do all four with consistency? 

In LAFC’s last 10 games, here’s their breakdown of goals scored:

  • Transition: 11
  • Possession: 11
  • Set Pieces: 5
  • Moments of Magic: 2
  • PKs: 4

This week, the difference came via set pieces. The Red Bulls pretty damn near had LAFC on the ropes, then Carlos Vela delivered a perfect free kick to Jordan Harvey. Even when LAFC are getting played even or outplayed, they are still the favorite. 

LA Galaxy

With the arrival of Cristian Pavon, there was a question of whether the Galaxy would become a more functional machine -- Pavon understands how Guillermo Barros Schelotto wants to play after playing for him at Boca Juniors -- or just better at winning individual moments. The first game suggests it’s the latter. They had 69% of the ball but didn’t look like they had a real plan with it. Once again, they resorted to crosses. I’m not that confident that the arrival of Pavon alone will change the Galaxy’s model. For what it's worth, the model hasn’t exactly been working, either -- the Galaxy are 5-10-0 in their last 15 games. It’s time to take a book from their 2018 resurgence and play another striker next to Zlatan. They need someone to do some of the dirty work up front -- pulling defenders out, connecting simple layoffs, pressing -- that will create space for others.

Minnesota United

I continue to be unsure about the Loons as a complete soccer team; two traits are very clear, though:

  1. This team has a ton of fight. They compete like hell and always believe they have a chance.
  2. They can make goals out of mundane moments. In some ways,  it could be described as lucky. But it’s happened often enough, and in certain ways, that it’s not random luck. It’s confidence-created luck. They are getting the type of moments that come when you feel good and take chances. There’s a vibe to their game that’s going a long way. 

Montreal Impact

Forget it happened. It’s the sixth loss in seven games for the Impact. But here’s what they need to remind themselves: If you could have offered Montreal a spot above the playoff line 26 games into the year, especially since Nacho Piatti missed almost all of them, they would have taken it. So despite the putrid last couple months, it’s job done on the year so far. They should feel good about their spot. Six of the last eight games are at home! Reset emotionally and attack the last eight games with optimism.

New England Revolution

First, I appreciated these comments from Bruce Arena:

It was a fun 3-3 game that stemmed from poor quality. Bruce is Bruce because he calls that like it is.

Onto his lineup choices, and his decision to start in a 3-5-2 for the first time this year. 

Thanks to Jeff for getting these comments.

It feels like the ultimate Bruce Arena decision. Logically, the 3-5-2 against the Sounders doesn’t make sense. The 3-5-2 clogs the middle leaves the wide areas exposed. You should do the opposite against the Sounders. Seattle are a bigger threat in the wide areas, both in transition and possession, than down the middle. They love to attack the Optimal Assist Zones on the sides of the 18-yard-box. But sometimes you have to pick the people over the tactics. Arena wanted to get one of his veteran leaders on the field, so he figured out how to get him onto the field. And the result speaks for itself, as it almost always has with Arena in MLS. New England actually forced the Sounders to switch their formation at halftime (to a 4-4-2 diamond) to cope.

NYCFC

I liked that quote from Dome Torrent. NYCFC’s inability to build possession in their own half hurt them in Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Atlanta. It’s been a lingering problem throughout the year, and their last deficiency to address.

They definitely need to be more courageous in their decision making -- to add to Torrent’s point, though, they also need more rehearsed movements and passing options. Building from the back is like running an NFL play. You should know what you’re doing, with audibles built in, before you make the first pass. You don’t improvise buildouts; you execute what you practiced in training. I haven’t seen those rehearsed patterns from NYCFC in their own half. They have developed some pretty lethal patterns in the attacking half. (You know them -- the long diagonals to outside backs and/or the smooth one-touch combos off Heber down the middle.) They aren’t nearly as well oiled, however, in their own half. The inability to build controlled possession in their own half limits their ability to get the ball into good spots moving forward.

New York Red Bulls

I have no idea how the Red Bulls’ fans should feel today. On one hand, they looked even with LAFC for 60 minutes, forced a bunch of turnovers with their press and flipped those turnovers into chances. On the other hand, and you’ve followed the Red Bulls at all in the last five years you know what’s in this hand, they flubbed the chances. In that first hand, they absolutely could have won at LAFC, and should feel confident about winning anytime, anywhere. In that second hand... how many times could we have said that in the last few years?

If Chris Armas wants to try something new, I’d like to see them go with the 3-3-3-1 formation they’ve used in the past. It gets Bradley Wright-Phillips on the field with Brian White and allows Kemar Lawrence to get farther forward.

An ideal current Red Bulls lineup.

Orlando City SC

Keep an eye on Kamal Miller to develop into the next elite domestic center back. The rookie is calm on the ball and reads the game well. He’s already one of the better center backs in the league at breaking lines with his passes. He played left back in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Toronto, but he has a higher ceiling in the middle. Everyone’s looking for a slick-passing left-footed center back. My main ask for his development is that he becomes a little cockier and meaner on the field. Even Walker Zimmerman, one of the nicest guys in the league, has edge between the lines. Imagine the Canadian national team if Miller turns into Zimmerman or Aaron Long... 

Philadelphia Union

Yes, the Union won again. Yes, they continue to fend off everyone else in the East to stay top of the standings. Jim Curtin has done just about everything right this year. But I want to raise the bar, just as I think he would want us to. It’s a pivotal moment in Union history, beyond trying to win a championship. 

Brendan Aaronson and Auston Trusty have both fallen out of the lineup (not to mention Mark McKenzie’s drop to the USL Championship). It’s one thing to get young players on the field to start; it’s another thing to nurture them through their growing pains. MLS has been a graveyard for young domestic players who hit that first obstacle and couldn’t get over it. The world supply of soccer players is so big that it’s so easy to skip the hard part of development and find a replacement. But the Union can’t do that. Their long-term model needs them to develop Aaronson, Trusty and McKenzie as far as they can and then sell them for profit. Curtin has said as much. Right now, Curtin has to walk the line between a championship -- Philadelphia fans don’t tolerate less -- and development. For his club’s chances of winning trophies in the future, the club needs him to bring along their young assets. It’s stressful, but also exhilarating. The Red Bulls are the only club to have won a trophy and sold a Homegrown player in the same year (twice, with Matt Miazga and Tyler Adams). This is how American soccer moves forward -- the urgency and craft to do both. 

Portland Timbers

(Warning: Do not take this statement to suggest that I don’t love Diego Chara, or think he’s not one of the best defensive mids in MLS history).

Chara, for his all-time MLS talent, isn’t great at possession passing. He rarely thinks a pass ahead. He moves the ball along, but it seldom sets up the next couple passes. (The best defensive midfielder in the league at possession passing right now is Eduard Atuesta.) As a result, the Timbers don’t move an opponent to set up openings. It’s probably the only gap in Chara’s game, so it’s nitpicking, but it could be a real talking point as the Timbers have nine straight home games coming up, and they will need to be the aggressor in most of them. 

Real Salt Lake

What a friggin’ month for RSL.

  • 4-0 over Philly
  • 3-1 over NYCFC
  • Ties against Dallas and Minnesota
  • 2-1 over SKC

They are now 5-1-3 in their last nine games. Once again, this weekend’s win started with their defensive shape. Once again, and this used to be something you’d never say about RSL, it was the same defensive shape -- a compact, hard working midblock. RSL used to be an attacking team who did a little defending. Now they are a defensive team with talented attackers. And they are one point from the top four. 

San Jose Earthquakes

San Jose looked gassed at points in the game, more gassed than they’ve looked all year. It could have just been an off night, or

  1. All of that running they’ve been doing, and they probably do more high-intensity actions than anyone else in the league, is catching up to them 24 games into the year. (As Chris Wondolowski said on “BS the Podcast” with Benny Feilhaber, Sal Zizzo, and Ike Opara, the ‘Quakes train early in the week just as hard as they play in games.)
  2. Their style doesn’t work at altitude, and they better hope to avoid traveling to RSL in the playoffs.

Also, once again, the teams that do well against San Jose are the ones that sit at midfield and wait for them (New England, Minnesota, Columbus and Colorado all took points from the Quakes).

Seattle Sounders

I have a few thoughts I’d like to expand on (they are a different team without Brad Smith and Kelvin Leerdam; why isn’t Joevin Jones starting at left back right now?; 4-3-3 or Diamond?) but the most important point about the Sounders right now is probably this: They should feel stressed. They might be 2nd in the West but... 

  • They have the toughest remaining schedule of the Western Conference teams fighting for a home playoff game. 
  • Nine of their last 10 games of the season are against playoff teams. Six of the last 10 will be on the road. 
  • Their next three games are all on the road against Western Conference teams -- RSL, Galaxy, Portland. 
  • And the Sounders are 6-7-3 since they started the season 5-0-1. 

It’s been over four months since they looked like an elite team. There are a lot of intervening variables/excuses, and in some ways the Sounders have done well to have as many points as they have. But they are probably under 50/50 to get a top-four seed at the moment. 

Sporting Kansas City

Sporting were Sporting and made the playoffs for eight straight years and won four trophies because they competed like maniacs and did the little things well (on top of the excellent soccer they started to play in recent years). This year, they haven’t done either of those things. Even though they’ve still played mostly impressive soccer, but they’ve had lapses in focus that have cost them. It’s both very minor/simple and all encompassing.  Peter Vermes finally sounded off about it after the 2-1 loss at home to RSL:

Toronto FC

They have to improve their offensive marking (the preparation that a team does while they have the ball so they are in a position to win it back when they lose it). TFC attack with both outside backs driving forward at the same time, plus one of the two defensive mids. It leaves Michael Bradley and the two center backs as the only players behind the ball. It’s a counterattack waiting to happen at all times. Bradley and Omar Gonzalez can’t cover that type of ground anymore (though I’m not sure if it’s “can’t” or “won’t”). It cost them a goal against Orlando. Toronto have three options to make sure it doesn’t keep happening:

  1. Hold the second defensive mid, Marky Delgado or Jonathan Osorio, deeper next to Bradley.
  2. Allow only one outside back to attack at a time. 
  3. Pray Gonzalez, Bradley, and Chris Mavinga come up with big tackles (which was the route Seattle took the last couple years with Chad Marshall and Ozzie Alonso).

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

I’m into the idea of the ‘Caps using the 4-3-2-1 formation moving forward. First, it’s new and different; new and different have been working this year in MLS. San Jose’s man-marking system and NYCFC/Atlanta’s 3-4-3 formations have caught teams off guard (not to mention what the Red Bulls have done over the years). If you have the ability to coach something different, then there’s an automatic advantage to be gained.

Second, it could fit Vancouver’s key players. Ali Adnan gets the room to fly forward; Inbeom Hwang’s passing ability gets muscle and numbers around him in the middle (Patrick Johnston goes more into Inbeom as a defensive midfielder here), and Fredy Montero gets released of his target duties and can float to find the ball. Theo Bair has been playing in the line of two off the striker, but his long-term spot is probably as that stampeding, handful center striker who makes the game for his teammates. Marc Dos Santos has tried about a dozen different starting formations this year, but I hope he sticks with this one.

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