Armchair Analyst: All 24 MLS teams in review | Week 25 analysis

Bob Bradley: "Be Messi."

Carlos Vela: "Oh, ok. Good idea!"

That's from Wednesday, and is one of the 10 best goals in MLS history. It might be one of the five best, or even the very best – I'm not sure yet. I need more distance from it before I can adequately assess where it belongs in the pantheon of MLS's greatest goals.

For more from Wednesday night, read my guy Tom's rundown of the action. The weekend itself began Thursday, and that's where we'll start:

Which Side Are You On?

For 70 minutes Sporting Kansas City's 1-0 win over Minnesota United was tight, and ugly, and bereft of quality chances on both sides.

Minnesota United looked as they mostly have since about May – a compact defensive team that makes it hard to generate quality looks in the final third. Sporting looked something close to their old selves in how they took away space in Zone 14, and Graham Smith has continued to be a pleasant surprise in a suddenly-less-error-prone central defense. Smith traveled the Aaron Long route: He was an oversized midfielder who was good enough to dominate at that spot in college, but not good enough to scratch the surface there in MLS. So Peter Vermes drafted him and stashed him in USL with Swope Park for a year-and-a-half, taught him to be a defender, and it now looks like the 23-year-old has earned the starting job next to Matt Besler.

This is a talent collection-related market inefficiency available for exploit in the SuperDraft. Smith might never reach Long's heights, or Nat Borchers' (another midfielder-to-MLS Best XI-caliber-CB) before him, but this happens often enough that it shouldn't go unnoticed by other teams. If you have a good in-house developmental process you can do what the Red Bulls did, and what Sporting are doing.

And it's not like Smith is beating out scrubs, mind you. Andreu Fontas is in his prime and has almost 150 appearances as a La Liga center back. Botond Barath is also in his prime, and is a Hungarian international. Both are now behind Smith on the depth chart.

Anyway, for 70 minutes the game was tight, ugly and bereft of chances, and then Adrian Heath subbed Darwin Quintero in. At the next available moment, Vermes subbed Ilie Sanchez in. And 17 minutes later, Sporting got the game's only goal.

Here is the start of the sequence that lead to the goal:

I have used very sophisticated analytical tools to circle Quintero, who's just sort of jogging at the midfield stripe instead of closing down Ilie, and Heath, who probably wants to know why Darwin is not closing down Ilie. I call this piece "Darwin Doesn't Defend."

There was more work to do from there, of course – Johnny Russell's check-and-throughball was exquisite, and Erik Hurtado's goal was well-taken. But this is the genesis of a play that could and should've been stopped before it ever started. After Hurtado put the ball in the net MNUFC goalkeeper Vito Mannone ran all the way out to the midfield stripe to scream at Darwin.

"When Quintero came on, he started to buzz around a little bit and cause a little bit of problem. But we also made a few changes at that moment to get some fresh legs on the field in a couple positions. I would say for about 3, 4, 5 minutes that we lost our rhythm a little bit but then we got back into it," is what Vermes said afterward. "And then the game got spread out."

Yup.

Nobody's asking Quintero to be a Latif Blessing or Paxton Pomykal-level defensive presence here, but you've just got to stay on Ilie's hip and take away his best option. He didn't do that, and too often this year he hasn't done that, and if you go all the way back to his time with both Club America and Santos Laguna... this is why he was usually a winger. 

Here's the issue for Heath: His team has not shown the ability to create anything consistently if Quintero's on the bench. Even in this game they were instantly better going forward once he got on the field, and I'd say they pretty clearly need him out there in order to have a playoff-caliber attack. But when he is out on the field they're waaaaaaay more likely to give up goals like this, so it's a pick-your-poison situation. Heath knows this, I'm sure, and I'm equally sure it's why Quintero hasn't been a written-in-pen starter for the past two months.

My guess is Quintero begins on the bench once again in the U.S. Open Cup final on Tuesday (8 pm ET | ESPN+). I don't think they can risk playing him from the kick down in Atlanta.

The Loons now have just two wins in their past seven league games, and a woodchipper of a schedule from here on out. They need to find an answer. Sporting, meanwhile, have a puncher's chance at sneaking into the last playoff spot. FiveThirtyEight pegs them at 24%.

Vaulter

  • NYCFC when Heber starts: 11-2-3, +18 goal differential
  • NYCFC when he doesn't: 2-3-5, -3 goal differential

They are a poor team without him. With him, they level up a ton and collect points at damn near the same clip as LAFC.

The Brazilian striker was the Man of the Match in Saturday's 2-1 win over the Red Bulls, and now has 13g/4a in 1,437 minutes. In terms of goals+assists/90, that puts him up amongst the non-Vela-level league leaders. He's been able to function at the point of the spear as a true No. 9, as a false 9, and as part of a two-man front line (as was the case on Saturday). He is, without question, the Newcomer of the Year so far in 2019.

So NYCFC did win this one on talent, but they also won this one because they've just gotten better at slowing the game down for longer stretches when they meet the Red Bulls, and from about the 20th through 75th this game still had a "this is definitely a Hudson River Derby" feel to it, but not a "this is a Hudson River Derby and the PATH Train is skidding off the tracks so the Red Bulls are absolutely going to win" feel to it.

“We practiced a different system, we played a 4-4-2, with [Alexandru] Mitrița and [Maxi] Moralez between the lines," is how Dome Torrent talked about his team's look after the game. "We won the second balls which is very important against Red Bulls. I’m especially happy because we were able to show good build up in our stadium against these kind of teams. When I talk about the personality, it’s about that. Sometimes we can play long ball, we have signals for that, but we play much better when we play short.”

That is true. And when they play short, they've gotten better – much, much better – at coordinated movement and creating dynamic superiority in addition to their typical numerical superiority. What I'm not sure of is whether their ability to control the tempo and play short and win second balls is what knocked RBNY out of their press, or whether RBNY dialed the press back to midfield of their own accord after 20 minutes and suffered the consequences.

What I am sure of is that NYCFC have rediscovered their ability to press over the past few months, which is what you're seeing here in the build-up to the penalty. Mitrita picks off a poor clearance from Long and Moralez exploits Michael Murillo's failure to step with the rest of his backline:

(This kind of sleepy, disengaged defending is the big reason Murillo has kind of lost his starting job, for what it's worth.)

The Cityzens were just the better, more talented team, and showed it for a huge chunk of the game. From the 19th minute through the 75th they took 13 shots, drew a penalty, scored two goals, hit the woodwork twice and forced a couple of spectacular saves out of Luis Robles. During that same span RBNY took three shots and their press generated nothing. It could've been 5-1 with 15 minutes left.

Of course, it wasn't. Robles was huge and RBNY still got their chance to steal a point at the end after Chris Armas made a couple of personnel changes and adjusted the formation a bit. Tim Parker should've done better on an open header and Tom Barlow's gonna be seeing that flubbed chance in his nightmares.

RBNY aren't up there with the top three teams in the East, but they're still a good bet to get a home game in the playoffs provided they take care of their three remaining home games in the regular season.

Celebration

In what was the final game of Conor Casey's interim head coaching career, the Rapids thoroughly outplayed RSL in Utah in the first half but then got run off the field and conceded two late goals for a 2-0 loss. Casey's brought Colorado to respectability (they're 7-7-4 with a +1 goal differential since he took over) and sometimes beyond that (they've beaten both LA teams, San Jose and Minnesota – that's some playoff scalps). He's done a good job.

Another interim head coach, RSL's Freddy Juarez, has probably done even better. The Claret-and-Cobalt are 4-1-1 since he took over for the initially suspended, then fired Mike Petke at the end of last month, and he made a match-winning sub/adjustment in this one. With 22 minutes left he took off his starting center forward, Sam Johnson, for winger Joao Plata and moved from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3. Damir Kreilach, pushed up out of midfield to be a linking No. 9 who brings the other attackers into the play, functions much differently from Johnson. Johnson only hunts space and struggles in combination play.

Here's Kreilach's pass map from the final 22 minutes:

It's not a lot, but it's indicative of how he plays. Kreilach doesn't try to run off the back shoulder of the center backs; instead he comes upfield to receive the ball with his back to goal and tries to coax one of the CBs to come with him. If/when that happens, RSL's wingers hit the gap Kreilach's movement has created and the entire attack uses a series of quick, short passes to try to find those guys with a head of steam charging into the area.

Rinse, repeat. So far this season it's been a better formula than having a pure goal-scorer up top.

And so that unlocked both RSL's attack (they generated 10 shots in the final 22 minutes after just nine in the first 68), and Colorado's defense. RSL won the Rocky Mountain Cup for the fourth time in a row and the 11th time in the last 13 seasons. They were clearly the better team and I bet they end up with a home game in the playoffs (and when that game comes, I bet Kreilach is the starting center forward).

I mentioned this in Wednesday's mailbag, but I'll go ahead and resurface here: Justen Glad has made a leap (maybe not quite "the" leap yet) and has been one of the best CBs in the league in 2019. RSL are now 12-3-3 with a +21 goal differential when he plays this season, and 1-7-1, -15 when he doesn't.

His best asset – he is able to just single-handedly end counterattacks – and his biggest improvement – he's strong enough now to more than hold his own against most center forwards, especially on restarts – were both on display in this one.

A few more things to ponder...

9. I'm less certain that Portland will get a home game in the playoffs following their 2-1 Cascadia rivalry home loss to Seattle on Friday night. It followed a familiar script:

Brian Fernandez scored in each of his first five league games for the Timbers. He has scored in two of the following nine since then as MLS teams have figured out how to stay compact and deny the little Argentine any sort of space in and around the 18.

Fernandez at his best is not a Josef-type of center forward who leads the line and repeatedly hits the A gap, splitting your center backs. He can do that at a high level if the game's being played in transition, but when it bogs down and the game's played out of possession he either gets pulled towards the ball or drifts away from the center backs and out toward the fullbacks. Necaxa solved this by making him a goalscoring winger playing off a true center forward. Gio Savarese, for whatever reason, isn't there yet.

Seattle, meanwhile, officially pulled themselves out of a crisis with this one, and did it by going back to that left-hand side as Jordan Morris put in what was IMO his best performance of the season.  

The difference between this version of hammering the left side and the version we saw in the first couple of months of the season is that this version was all about clearing out and letting Morris go 1v1. Earlier in the season it was about creating overloads with Nicolas Lodeiro flaring out and the left back pushing up all the way to the endline and maybe even the No. 8 coming to join them as well. In this game Lodeiro spent nearly as much time on the right flank as the left and left back Joevin Jones had all of one touch in the attacking quarter of the pitch.

It was the right approach. The Sounders still got pretty lucky (Stefan Frei was huge), but by packing it in and being way less aggressive than usual with their fullbacks, as well as playing two true d-mids, they kept Portland out of transition and forced the Timbers into 45 total crosses (second most in the league this year) and 34 from open play (the most).

8. Orlando City were the better team, who had the better of possession and created the better chances. And more of them. Atlanta were the team with Josef, so Atlanta won 1-0:

Yeah, it's a callback, but I'm still giving that our Face of the Week.

If you're an Orlando City fan who wants some consolation from this, here you go: They were able to play a fairly aggressive lineup (only one d-mid, a true No. 10, two real attacking wingers and a box-to-box midfielder who got forward a bunch but can't hit the broad side of a barn when he shoots) and hardly got exposed by the Five Stripes. Most of Orlando's improvement this year has come from being ultra-conservative and uglifying the midfield, but this performance suggests they can be more than that down the stretch and into 2020.

7. I don't know what to say about Toronto FC beyond "when they find the accelerator they're really, really good, but so far they only find the accelerator for about 20 minutes a game." Against Montreal on Saturday night at BMO Field, that was the case as they found the accelerator at about the hour mark, and kept it down long enough to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win, one that gets them back above the playoff line for the first time in months.

I was surprised at some of Greg Vanney's lineup choices in this one – they went with a 4-3-3 from the start, with Nick DeLeon starting as a kind of No. 10, and both Alejandro Pozuelo and Jonathan Osorio on the bench. Bringing both those guys in goosed the attack a bit in the second half as it shifted into more of a 4-4-1-1, but it seems like Pozuelo's going to have to work to earn his starting job back.

"He can, if he is committed to the defensive work," is what Vanney said when asked about that attacking midfield role. "I think over the course of time he was on the field he split the defensive work with Nico [Benezet]. That comes with accepting it and just doing it."

Message sent. Also, it's worth noting that long-time TFC assistant Robin Fraser departed the club to take over the head coaching job in Colorado on Sunday.

Montreal also have a new head coach but appeared to be the same old Impact, and have now three of the last 27 points on offer.

6. Philly absolutely crushed D.C. United in the first half and cruised to a 3-1 win in Chester. The Union have now won four of six, and they desperately needed this one given how brutal their schedule is from here on out.

Jim Curtin made a good shift in this one, flipping out of the 4-4-2 diamond they've preferred this year in order to go with the tried-and-true 4-2-3-1 of last season. The idea was that to spread the United backline out a little bit, as D.C. have scrapped any sort of pretense toward anything but being a bunker-and-counter team. So by playing two wide attackers (Ilsinho on the right side and Brenden Aaronson on the left), the Union were able to do stuff like this:

The other key was obviously the movement of center forward Kacper Przybylko, who scored the first goal with a textbook near-post run, and then created the next two as a playmaking, drag-the-center-backs-everywhere modern center forward. That's him picking the ball up in central midfield with D.C. CB Frederic Brilliant trailing him all the way out to the stripe. On Ilsinho's goal, Przybylko dragged Steve Birnbaum all the way to the touchline. United's rotations to cover the vacated space was poor, and the Union just crushed them.

Philly will make the playoffs, but I think they're outright favorites in only one of their final six games and are facing the toughest part of their schedule, as well as the toughest schedule in the league. It will help mightily if Aaronson starts to produce because it seems likely at this point that Marco Fabian is just not up to it as a two-way player, and it's equally clear that Philly's defense isn't elite enough to post shutout after shutout (even in this one, with Alejandro Bedoya next to Haris Medunjanin in a double pivot, they struggled in the second half). They need goals.

United might miss the playoffs. They still have a cushion – they're up five points on Montreal and Orlando City, and six on Chicago – but they're 1-5-1 in their last seven and have three wins in the past four months.

5. Speaking of the Fire, they could've done themselves a real solid by holding onto a result in New England, but a late, inexplicable turnover from Francisco Calvo turned into a Gustavo Bou game-winning rocket in Foxborough.

The Revs deserved their 2-1 win, and now control their own destiny. But the rest of their schedule is very, very difficult, and if they lose next weekend's home date against TFC, things will get very, very dicey.

Chicago's not dead yet but they probably need to win four of their last five to have a chance. And that might not be enough.

4. A friend of mine sent me a snarky message last week about the Quakes after Vela eviscerated them, which came on the heels of disappointing losses at Colorado and at Sporting, as well as an even more disappointing home draw against Columbus: "Who's the new flavor of the month now that San Jose's unsustainable run wasn't sustained?"

And he was kind of right – San Jose weren't going to outshoot teams forever the way they'd managed to throughout July. But still, the LAFC loss on Wednesday was an outlier. In those previous three games they'd generated more shots than the teams they'd faced, and won the xG battle two out of three times. Then they got a lesson in downtown LA. Then they internalized that lesson and seethed for a couple of days. Then they took their rage out on poor Vancouver, who they beat by 3-1 at home on Saturday night.

Here are the records San Jose set in the win:

  • Most shots, total (43 – breaking the record of 38 set in 1998 by the MetroStars)
  • Most shots on goal (19 – breaking the record jointly held by three teams, most recently by LAFC last year)
  • Most shots, one half (25 – breaking the record of 23 set by KC last year, also against the 'Caps)

They did not set the record for possession. Their total of 75% was merely the 13th-highest total, as per Opta, out of the nearly 7,000 games we have in our database going back a decade. Something to shoot for next time, I guess.

Regardless the 3-1 final was much, much closer than this game had any right to be. In the midst of San Jose's onslaught Vancouver 'keeper Maxime Crepeau set a record of his own with 16 saves, breaking Tony Meola's 22-year-old record. He's got an argument for Player of the Week and I'm not even kidding.

The 'Caps have so much work to do I'm not even sure of where to begin. So enough of that game, and instead turn the clock back to Wednesday night in the aftermath of their loss to LAFC:

That's the breakdown of how to play against a man-marking scheme. You have to have coordinated movement and use San Jose's aggression against them. Obviously nobody does that better than LAFC, and right now nobody does it worse than Vancouver.

3. The Hell is Real derby was decided in the first half, as Columbus were able to repeatedly create overloads down their own right-hand side and then curl early crosses into Gyasi Zardes. Gyasi scored two of them before FC Cincinnati figured out what was going on, and then Luis Diaz added a third just before the break. Game over.

It finished 3-1. Cincinnati's midfield shape is supposed to look like LAFC's, for what it's worth. Which, after this game, isn't much.

They've got a ways to go.

2. The Texas Derby was open as hell early, and FC Dallas dodged a bullet when Alberth Elis earned a yellow for simulation when he got in the box. They took the reprieve and ran with it, earning an early penalty of their own after Jose Bizama brought down Dom Badji, and then getting into transition for this Jesus Ferreira stunner en route to an eventual 5-1 victory:

I'm giving Zdenek Ondrasek our Pass of the Week for that lay-off. In part it's because that was just a sick lay-off, picture perfect in that it played Ferreira into the space the Dynamo midfield vacated by chasing Ondrasek in the first place, and in part because of what a suddenly hot Ondrasek means for the stretch run. The question for FCD over the past five years has been "will they have a No. 9 who can put the ball in the net – or at least help a teammate do it – in big moments?" The answer over the past two weeks, courtesy of the big man from the Czech Republic, has been "yes."

They need him to keep playing like this if they're going to make the playoffs.

1. Nothing delivers like El Trafico, which produced yet another all-time classic. I'm not going to pretend to have had time to analyze it in detail, but I will say this: The first 20 minutes were defined by the Galaxy's central midfield sonning LAFC's central midfield, gobbling up the loose balls and winning all the 50/50s that LAFC's triumvirate usually dominate. You can't push your fullbacks way upfield if you don't win those balls, and LAFC didn't, and thus the Galaxy got out on the break, and thus the Galaxy got three goals.

That third one, instead of knocking LAFC out, it woke them up and they were the better team from then on out. They deserved to win.

The fact that they didn't – it finished 3-3 – and that they haven't yet, makes a potential playoff meeting so, so tasty. I truly hope these teams meet again in October.

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