Five games on Saturday. Let's just jump in:
Jesus Medina brace!— Chris Wittyngham (@ChrisWittyngham) September 8, 2019
Dome Torrent has done good work this year in the Bronx, to the point where it would now be fairly surprising if either Atlanta or Philly pipped them for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Part of it has been formational flexibility (they've mostly toggled back and forth between a 3-4-2-1 and a 4-2-3-1), which has allowed him to use his vast array of talented attackers in different spots to good effect.
Part of it is that, within said formational flexibility, NYCFC really have a defined style of play: They hold the ball deeper in midfield than most teams, and then play either long diagonals to the overlapping wingbacks/fullbacks, or play slip-passes to wingers diving inside and finding the half-spaces.
And thus they get out on jailbreak after jailbreak, which is what they did to the 10-man Revs in this one.
Dome also deserves credit for getting the most out of a bunch of young players on his roster. Keaton Parks has won a starting CM job, and James Sands was arguably the best young CB in the league before his injury, and Taty Castellanos has had a breakthrough season in the attacking third. Through all of this, Jesus Medina had been the forgotten one – he'd played 465 minutes and had scored just once on the season coming into the weekend. He finished Saturday's game with 30 good minutes and a brace.
Dome definitely took something that was working last year and broke it. He's definitely taken what he broke and fixed it, and given the Pigeons' PPG and expected goals differential as well as the way they've coped with injuries, absences and expectations, I think it's fair now to say he hasn't just fixed it: He's probably improved it.
They have Atlanta at home on September 25, and finish away to Philly on Decision Day. I'm looking forward to both of those games.
Pass of the Week to Andrew Farrell here:
That's one of the very best passes of the season from anyone, breaking two lines and cutting out nine defenders in the process. Farrell has been revitalized since moving to CB.
The Purple Lions aren't exactly flying high with a 2-4-4 record in their last 10 games, but here's the rest of their schedule: vs. New England, at Houston, at Cincinnati, vs. Chicago. It is entirely possible to take 12 points out of those four games, and if they do that they will make the playoffs.
I'd also argue that if they play as well on the ball in the next four as they did against LAFC on Saturday night, they actually should win those four games. Some of the goals they've scored in the second half of this season have been works of art, including the second one this weekend:
The hockey assist on that one went to Cristian Higuita, who is back in the lineup and balled out the past couple of weeks. This is yet another point in the "Cristian Higuita is essential to Orlando City's hopes" column. Alex Brown, who hosts an OCSC podcast, crunched the numbers and they are stark: since 2015 Orlando are +6 with Higuita on the field. When he's not out there, they're -75.
The interesting wrinkle was that James O'Connor had Higuita, who's usually a box-to-box player, pushed up further as a Latif Blessing-style destroyer/ball-winner/facilitator at the No. 10 spot.
Of course, that's all the silver lining. The hard truth is that Orlando let yet another result get away, and did so against an LAFC team missing about half their starters.
LAFC go to Philly next week. If there's even the slightest shred of doubt about Carlos Vela's hamstring they should rest him for that game. I know that goes against the ethos of a team that's still intent upon setting some regular-season records, but they've had the Supporters' Shield wrapped up since May and their eyes have to be on the playoffs at this point.
At this point if you're not dropping multiple goals on FC Cincinnati, you're doing something wrong. Cincy's now at 72 goals conceded through 29 games. The single-season record is 74, set last year by Orlando City over the course of 34 games. Every team that faces them from here on out should take the full three points.
That's obviously what the Reds did, going up 3-0 inside of 30 minutes and effectively ending the game. It was an "OK, exhale" result.
TFC are unbeaten in five and have gone 5-2-3 in their past 10 games now. It's not exactly a "Seattle in 2016" type of run, and even in this game they had long stretches where they were just tuned out, or a little bit soft. But they've just about done enough, and if they win two of their final five, they'll make the playoffs. Win three of their final five and they might even get to host a game, which seemed unthinkable a few weeks ago.
This tweet, basically:
The Rapids are kind of a poor man's version of NYCFC in that they've gotten very, very good at playing downhill, though with Colorado it's usually more from a pure counterattacking stance. They are now 9-7-4 since dismissing Anthony Hudson, which is a playoff-worthy 1.55 PPG, accompanied by a playoff-worthy +5 goal differential. Jonathan Lewis has 5g/3a in his 800 minutes since arriving from NYCFC, and Andre Shinyashiki right near the top of the Rookie of the Year race with his 7g/2a in 1303 minutes (I'm also giving Shinyashiki our Face of the Week because he looks like a bleached-blonde pirate right now).
Both of those guys are 22, and Sam Vines is 20, and Lalas Abubakar is 24. You can just keep on going down the list of guys who've surpassed expectations this year and should be expected to improve next year. After the previous, miserable two-and-a-half seasons, Rapids fans should be pretty happy with their club's direction.*
(*) One worry for next year is that their set-piece productivity is unsustainable, and a regression on restarts is something in the neighborhood of inevitable. Ask Toronto FC in 2018 (Sebastian Giovinco went 1-for-42 on direct free kicks in his final year) or Houston this year (ooof) about how much that can hurt if you're a team that had been winning on the margins.
Seattle fans should be no more or less concerned about this result and performance than they were heading into the game. The Sounders have three of their final five at home, and none during roster-draining international dates. If they just take care of those, they will probably finish second in the West and almost certainly no lower than third.
Portland have two forwards, in Jeremy Ebobisse and Brian Fernandez, who have scored double-digit goals across all competitions this season. Portland have two midfielders, in Diego Valeri and Diego Chara, who are justifiably team and league legends for their ability to make themselves felt in match-winning moments.
And thus went the story of the final 10 minutes of this game. Sporting did what almost everyone's done for the past eight weeks against Portland, parking the bus, playing for a counter and daring the Timbers to beat the bunker. For a very long time – and especially in the 15 minutes after Benny Feilhaber's shross of a goal – it looked like the right plan.
And then the moment Sporting came upfield just a little bit, Chara spotted this chance to turn a 4-v-6 into a 3-v-3:
That run is spectacular. It basically makes Marvin Loria's pass for him.
The other very obviously key part is Ebobisse being in the right spot to finish. He'd come in for some justifiable criticism in recent weeks about his lack of "belief beyond reason" that the ball will reach him at the back post. I'm not sure, a month ago, that he'd have been there for the tap-in. Being there in this game ended up changing the scoreline, the momentum, and eventually the outcome.
Portland climbed up to sixth in the West with the win, and given their home-heavy schedule they are a good bet to keep climbing despite the fact that they're still working through the "how to break a bunker" kinks.
In the process of jumping above the playoff line they at least provisionally knocked the Galaxy down to 8th – once again on the outside looking in – and basically ended Sporting's faint playoff hopes. This would be the first time in a decade SKC have missed the playoffs, but my hunch is they'll come back relatively strong next year. The structure of this team is still sound, the underlying numbers still like them, and even a league-average center forward would've been worth six or eight more points over the course of the season. Replace "league average" with "actual DP quality" and we'd be talking much, much more than that.
If they clear some of the bad contracts off their books (which is far from impossible) they have a very obvious path back above the playoff line. But that's going to have to wait until next year, because the Timbers closed the book on Sporting's 2019 season this weekend.