Warshaw: 24 takeaways from around MLS after Week 25

Did you get your fill of the rivalries? There's plenty to chew over from the week that was. Let's jump right in.

Atlanta United

Atlanta demonstrated throughout the last month that their best is very, very good. Beating up on NYCFC good; winning at Portland good; outplaying Club America good. But man was Friday night’s performance at Orlando bad.

Atlanta got pummeled. The Five Stripes won the game, but it was not a “gritty, find-a-way” performance; it was lucky.

Last week, after they beat Portland, I said that I’m holding judgement for a couple weeks. We’re in the same place this week. Clearly Atlanta United have enough to win MLS Cup (and are a favorite out of the East). But you’re being overly optimistic if you aren’t concerned about their inconsistencies, and more so, the reasons for them — how exactly do we know when Pity Martinez is going to be good on any given day? Can Justin Meram and Julian Gressel really defend as wing backs against good teams? On what days does the midfield feel like defending in transition?

I don’t know the answer to those, and there is nothing about the approach/tactics as a group that seems like they are addressing them.

Chicago Fire

I’m going to make a rule in which if I leave you until last three weeks in a row, I get to skip you for a week. I put a lot of faith into Chicago this year and they have always found a way to let me down.

FC Cincinnati

FC Cincinnati tried to press. They conceded two goals while trying to press. If you want to press, you need center backs who can deal with 1-v-1 situations in space; they need to be able to follow strikers into midfield and then turn and run with them into the channel. Kendall Waston isn’t that guy. Maikel van der Werff doesn’t seem to be that guy, either. 

Columbus Crew SC

It was a throwback to the Berhalter era on Sunday. Both goals came from the same pattern of play, one we saw countless of times under their former coach.

Step 1: They set up to build out of the back on a goal kick, and once they felt pressure they bypassed the press with a driven ball into the striker. They recognized that there’s space in front of the opponent’s back four to drop in a pass, and if the pass doesn’t connect, there’s still a chance to win a second ball in a dangerous spot. (This wasn’t revolutionary from Berhalter; it’s something that every professional team should be able to do.)

Step 2: Once they have the ball beyond the pressure, they look for goal. They don’t waste time; they’ve already used the ball to create space, they don’t need to pass all the way to the top of the 18; go for it. Both goals came from early whipped crosses in behind Cincinnati’s defenders. It’s rehearsed and intentional.

It felt nostalgic to see the Crew run it back like that.

Colorado Rapids

We interviewed new head coach Robin Fraser on Extratime.

I’m glad to see Fraser get another head coaching job. He seems like one of the smarter minds in American soccer. And it’s always interesting to see managers on their second job. Most of the lessons you encounter in your first time as manager — Fraser led Chivas USA from 2011-2012 — are about man-management. There’s nothing that can prepare you for some of the weird things that come along (Ex. “Boss, I’m sorry I haven’t been playing well. My wife is divorcing me!”). You enter with all these ideas about how you want to play soccer and then you get thrown off by dealing with the people. Once you get those experiences under your belt, you can actually instill your soccer ideas. Fraser has ideas; Colorado have an exciting roster. It feels like a good move from the Rapids.

FC Dallas

The mysterious case of Zdenek Ondrasek. (First, let me say that I find him to super endearing through the TV set. Even though it’s been a frustrating year for him, signing as a TAM player and then struggling for minutes, the “Cobra” has played with the energy and excitement of a rookie. He also appears to be a genuine leader from the front. It’s so hard to lead as a striker since your back is always to your teammates and you need to listen to their instructions more than give your own, but he always seems to be encouraging the players around him.) Ondrasek didn’t get on the field early in the year because he couldn’t do all of the things that Luchi Gonzalez asked, namely keep possession and press; Ondrasek is an old school in-the-box striker. In the end, it’s that trait that might revive his spot in the team and save Dallas’ season. It’s a similar issue that Philadelphia have experienced the last two years. The striker gets so involved in the chance creation that he’s not there to finish. You can always count on Ondrasek being around the goal.

D.C. United

Some good news! Lucho Acosta looked sharp in his 20 minutes against Red Bulls midweek and then his subsequent start against Philly on Saturday. A small detail that hopefully bodes well: He’s regained the burst in his pass-move-get it back actions. You know what I’m talking about. They are what make Acosta so dangerous. He plays the ball forward and follows and runs beyond a line of defense and get it again. He had looked a little sluggish in those accelerations and it looked to me like he had some pep back this week. 

Houston Dynamo

Forget it happened.

LAFC

Bob Bradley often uses the line “we need to find the football” or “we need to find a way to play our football.” It stems from the premise that a lot of soccer games turn into soccer ball kicking competitions. They don’t make a ton of sense, there aren’t any patterns, two teams go back and forth and the winner is whoever makes the big play. Good teams find a way to make a game make sense. They find a way to instill their ideas and their patterns. 

Against LAFC, a lot of teams, especially the Galaxy, have tried first and foremost to disrupt LAFC’s ideas, then win the chaos. The Galaxy accomplished their mission for the first 35 minutes on Sunday night. Their pressure and intensity made LAFC uncomfortable. Eduard Atuesta, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Latif Blessing and Walker Zimmerman all looked on tilt. It wasn’t anything tactical; LAFC just looked uneasy. The uneasiness led to erratic errors.

Once LAFC calmed down, they started to play their game. When they started to play their game, they started to dominate the game. On top of that, they added a wrinkle in the second half. The Galaxy had been compressing their back four to take away LAFC’s lethal split passes through the gaps. In response, LAFC started holding the wingers wider so the center mids could play outside of the Galaxy’s outside backs. Because the Galaxy were so compact, LAFC’s wingers were still central enough to attack goal. 

LA Galaxy

  • Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez
  • Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan
  • Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco
  • Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins
  • Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips
  • (Steven Lenhart! and Alan Gordon!)

Those are the top-five attacking duos in MLS over the last 10 years. I had two questions on my mind during El Trafico on Sunday:

  1. Where can Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristian Pavon get on that list?
  2. Where do the Galaxy need them to get to if the Galaxy want to win MLS Cup?

In the first half, it looked like the Galaxy would score every time Pavon got the ball. It was incredible. It’s also clear the Galaxy’s gameplan is to get the ball to Pavon and Zlatan and see what happens. 

Minnesota United

I always worry I’m making too much of nothing (yes, I notice it), but sometimes something comes along and it’s weird how little people are freaking out about it. Is it really possible that Darwin Quintero, the club’s first DP and undoubtedly their best attacker, doesn’t start the club’s first chance at winning a trophy as an MLS team? Minnesota have the U.S. Open Cup final on Tuesday (8 pm ET | ESPN+) and Quintero didn’t start the previous game -- a game with four days off before the final. I can’t remember a bigger lineup decision heading into a major MLS game. (Tommy Meyer over AJ DeLaGarza over in 2012 MLS Cup?) Quintero has to start, doesn’t he?

Montreal Impact

I’m interested to see Montreal play when they don’t feel the weight of holding onto the last Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs spot. It’s a different feeling to chase than to protect. They’ve looked sluggish the last few weeks. Maybe dropping below the playoff zone will lift a weight off their shoulders and give them more energy.

NYCFC

Dome Torrent used an old Red Bulls’ trick on the Red Bulls this weekend. He played in a 4-2-2-2 (that morphed into a 3-5-2 at times), with Keaton Parks and Alex Ring behind Maxi Moralez and Alexandru Mitrita behind Heber and Valentin Castellanos. The starting positions provided two advantages:

  • NYCFC always had numbers around the ball to connect short passes. Some teams get tempted to spread the field wide against a pressing (RBNY) team; that works in RBNY’s favor because a key principle of a press is that the player on the ball can never pick his or her head up to connect a long ball. Leading us to number two…
  • NYCFC always had players around second balls. If you spread the field wide and don’t connect your driven balls then you’re screwed on second balls; RBNY kill you in transitions. NYCFC didn’t have that issue, as they always had five or six players up the gut to compete for 50/50s. With it, they turned the Red Bulls plan against them and dominated most of the game.

New England Revolution

After Teal Bunbury left Saturday’s win over Chicago in the 12th minute, Bruce Arena subbed in Cristian Penilla to partner Gustavo Bou at striker. One of the more interesting conversations in MLS is how teams use their strikers. Specifically, do you go for talent or functionality? This was Arena going 100% for talent. Juan Fernando Caicedo would have been the functional option, as he understands the position and can do some of the little things to make the game easier for Bou. Penilla has seldom played striker and you couldn’t exactly call his game disciplined. He is, however, talented and dangerous. Arena has always had a knack for piecing together attacks that don’t make perfect sense but end up balling out. I’m excited to see if can do the same with a Carles Gil-Bou-Penilla central trio.  

New York Red Bulls

I don’t know what to say about RBNY in the big picture other than to repeat last week’s thought: They are going to thoroughly dominate a 20-minute stretch in the first half — they did it against this week against both D.C. United and NYCFC — and they have to walk out of that stretch with a multi-goal lead. They haven’t figured out how to stop the momentum coming straight back into their face, so they absolutely have to figure out how to capitalize on the early chances. 

One reason they dominated early on Saturday was they mixed up their pressing scheme. Everyone knows that RBNY press, but their coaching staff has not received enough credit over the years for how they mix up their pressing schemes from game to game. Their defensive movements are rarely the same two weeks in a row. This week, it was particularly unique. They used Daniel Royer as second striker with Bradley Wright-Phillips to close down NYCFC’s center backs; Kaku took the first defensive mid; Alex Muyl closed down the left back. It would be natural for think that their right back, Anton Tinnerholm, would be wide open, except RBNY used defensive midfielder Vincent Bezecourt to slide all the way over. NYCFC couldn’t figure it out and couldn’t get out of their half for the first 20.

An example of the Red Bulls' rotation to press NYCFC

Orlando City

It’ll be a shame if Orlando don’t make the playoffs. They have become one of the smarter, better organized teams in the league. Orlando might be the best team in the league at taking away from the other team wants to do, and especially at negating opposing playmakers.  But, as a wise man once said, you can’t win if you don’t score. The Lions have only scored more than one goal once in their last 11 total games. 

Philadelphia Union

It was good to see Mark McKenzie back in the lineup. I mentioned this last year but it seems worth bringing up again a year later — McKenzie is different than the rest of the center backs developed in MLS. Justen Glad, Walker Zimmerman, Matt Miazga, Auston Trusty, Erik Palmer-Brown, Matt Hedges, Aaron Long and Miles Robinson are all similar players. McKenzie is more of a passing center back. He’s comfortable on the ball and has a feel for pass selection. He understands when to go side to side and when to break lines down the middle. He’s the type of player who could offer something different to the US men's national team down the line. And he needs to navigate this point on his career -- experiencing growing pains, losing his starting spot, growing as a professional — without losing his confidence and swagger.

Portland Timbers

I apologize that this theme is becoming a broken record, but… What’s the plan when they have to break down a compact defense? If we were to ask Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, Julio Cascante and Steve Clark how they are going to score, would they all give the same answer? It doesn’t look like it to me. It looks like they all go one play at a time, hoping whoever has the ball can find the killer action. They need to be more patient, make a few lateral and bump passes to set something up, and then go for goal.

Real Salt Lake

Matt Doyle said on Extratime on Monday that he felt RSL are a better team with Damir Kreilach, not Sam Johnson, at striker. They definitely looked better against Colorado on Saturday once Johnson got subbed off and Kreilach moved up top. I would say it comes down the opponent, though, and Freddy Juarez miscalculated his lineup for the Colorado game. Johnson is the better option when there’s space to attack beyond a backline; it’s tough to run behind when a team starts their line of confrontation at midfield and plays direct (ie., Colorado). When RSL need to break a team down, they should play Kreilach at striker. When RSL plan to be the more defensive, counterattacking team, however, they should play Johnson up top.  

San Jose Earthquakes

They were amazing against Vancouver and set multiple records, but let’s focus on the LAFC game from Wednesday. What lessons can the Quakes take from the drubbing?

The obvious answer is, “stay more compact.” LAFC dragged San Jose around and created a ton of space between the lines. San Jose looked naive to play that aggressive and allow LAFC that much space around the field. The usual corresponding answer is to drop the line of confrontation to near midfield -- that’s what almost everyone does when they have defensive problems.

But it’s clearly in the Quakes' DNA to be aggressive, so I’d be surprised if they stop trying to press opponents high. As a result, their back four need to be brave and stay higher. There were times when the two strikers would press and the back four would still be 10 yards behind midfield. That’s too much space, and takes too long for the back four to track into the space between the lines. Whenever you watch great pressing teams around the world, their defenders are so high. It’s almost jarring to see and causes anxiety just to watch. It’s completely horrifying as a defender to stay that high, but you have to be brave. The whole plan depends on it. If you overcompensate for the space behind you, you get toasted by the space in front of you… then you end up having to recover toward your goal anyway. Case in point, the 4-0 loss to LAFC. If the back four could steal five yards forward when their strikers press, it would make a huge difference. 

Seattle Sounders

Brian Schmetzer got everything right on Friday night. He entered the game with a clear plan. He started Jordy Delem in midfield, moved Cristian Roldan to the wing, and dropped their line of confrontation to midfield. They didn’t feel a need to control the ball; they controlled the space, and trusted Jordan Morris, Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz to grab goals. I’ll be interested to see moving forward if Schmetzer sticks with this mentality or only used it for a tough away game to reset after a winless streak.

Sporting Kansas City

It’s been a different Sporting the last two weeks. They’ve used the more athletic Felipe Gutierrez at defensive mid instead of Ilie Sanchez and played more direct. In the last two games, they have decreased their numbers for:

  • Total passes attempted
  • Pass completion percentage
  • Time per possession
  • Passes per percentage
  • Percentage of passes going forward

But they’ve looked solid in their compact 4-5-1 shape, limited their mistakes and dug out two wins to get back into the playoff race. 

Toronto FC

The coaching decision of the weekend goes to Greg Vanney. With his season on the line, he benched one of his stars, Alejandro Pozuelo. Toronto needed a kick in the butt… since April 2018. I understand why Vanney waited so long to make the statement, but it had to happen. There’s no level of talent that makes up for lack of focus. The last resort for a coach, and the biggest gamble, is keeping a star off the team sheet. Nothing makes a group of players feel alert like putting their jobs in question. Vanney kept the card in pocket until he couldn’t wait any longer.

The next question for Vanney will be to configure his lineup puzzle. Assuming Pozuelo gets back into the team, and Toronto looked better in the second half with him on the field, I’d say he needs to play wide. He’s more of a Victor Vazquez than a Sebastian Giovinco; Pozuelo prefers to float into space created by others. Jozy Altidore needs someone busy next to him so he doesn’t have to occupy the center backs all game. 

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

The strange part of Vancouver’s nightmare season is that a group of players have stepped up and shown value. Derek Cornelius and Doneil Henry have both taken a step forward this year; Ali Adnan and Inbeom Hwang seem to be good MLS starters; Yordy Reyna has revived some of the excitement around him; Andy Rose has shown he can be a valuable squad player; Maxime Crepeau is a top-10 goalkeeper; and Theo Bair has real promise. I feel better about six or seven pieces of this team than I did about Minnesota or San Jose last year.

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