Just three weeks left. Let's go:
You Might Think
It has happened under the radar and north of the border and, for a team that won everything they played for in 2017 and almost won the one thing every MLS team wants most in 2018, somehow out of the spotlight and against expectations. The short version is this: reports of Toronto FC's demise have been greatly exaggerated. That is never more true than it is right now, following this week in which they took a point at Yankee Stadium midweek against NYCFC, then played 30 scintillating minutes in what eventually became a 3-2 home win over Colorado.
TFC are now 7-3-5 with a +8 goal differential since the end of June (basically: since they got their US and Canadian internationals back). It should actually be better than that – Quentin Westberg gifted New England a point two weeks ago, and Sean Johnson saved the Cityzens a point on Wednesday. Even with those lost moments, Toronto are unbeaten in seven, have climbed to fourth, will be playing for their fourth straight Canadian Championship midweek and are a fairly good bet to host a playoff game.
They're also a fairly good bet to do something like this at least once per game:
That is an absurd one-touch throughball from Michael Bradley, which led to Toronto's only goal in Yankee Stadium. It also set the tone for a game the Reds largely dominated – in the second half especially they battered the hosts in a way teams haven't really battered NYCFC all season long (the xG total of 2.80-.45 was the most lopsided of the season for NYCFC, even more than the 4-0 beating TFC put on them back in March).
I came off that midweek game, even after Alejandro Pozuelo's missed PK near the end, thinking that Toronto had finally found the accelerator. And then they played the first 30 minutes against Colorado at an even higher level, going up 2-0 with complete ease. If you'd told me at that point that the game was going to end 7-0 to Toronto, I'd have nodded and said "yeah that makes sense."
But this group isn't the 2017 TFC side. That team was almost as good defensively as they were in attack, and damn near impossible to play through. This 2019 group, even when they're mostly healthy and even when they're playing at home, still lets a lot of stuff like this happen:
You can see the clock and you can see the scoreboard. You can also see how easy this was, and how it really should have ended up in the back of the net. TFC went up 2-0 and 3-2 and were still somehow very, very lucky to come away with a win.
"There are some days that feel like it is going to be an easy day and I think things went pretty easy at the beginning but then it looked like we got a little bit relaxed," is what head coach Greg Vanney said afterward. "We started to interchange too much and lose our positions and structure that got us the 2-0 lead."
You can actually see that happening in the clip above. It's right winger Erickson Gallardo tracking Diego Rubio (on the wrong side), while right back Richie Laryea is pushed way up. Both teams had trouble managing risk/reward scenarios in this one, to be perfectly honest.
"Managing everything and taking the game to ourselves, the second half we were just hoping for the result and we scored on that great chance," Westberg said. "It's good that we keep creating chances, but we get too caught up in our emotions defensively, I think, and this we definitely need to work on."
They do. The good news for TFC is that while 2017's version of normal service hasn't quite been restored, they'll once again be playing for silverware – both this week and next month. If they can do for 90 minutes at a time what they showed for 45 against NYCFC, and then for 30 against Colorado... well, maybe 2017 won't feel so far away after all.
As for the Rapids: This game capped a stretch during which they played seven of eight games against likely playoff teams. They went 4-3-0 against said playoff teams, including Wednesday's 2-1 win over LA.
Colorado's season has been over since April, but they have played spoiler with zeal.
Good Times Roll
Minnesota United aren't officially in the playoffs yet, but they should start printing the tickets. Following Sunday evening's it-felt-like-a-playoff-game 3-1 home win over Real Salt Lake, our friends at 538 have the Loons at 97% likely to play their first-ever postseason game. It is the culmination of a three-year journey that head coach Adrian Heath and GM Manny Lagos promised, and while the trip was rarely smooth and never linear... here they are.
It is probably fitting that the star of this landmark win, which not only pushed Minnesota to the brink of qualification but also made them solid favorites to get a home game (which matters a lot – MNUFC are 9-1-5 at Allianz Field, which has become a bit of a fortress), was the guy who epitomizes "rarely smooth and never linear," DP attacker Darwin Quintero.
Quintero had set the league alight when he arrived a year ago, but 2019 has been much more of a struggle. How bad? He was benched for the U.S. Open Cup final in Atlanta, which is and will remain the biggest game in club history right until they kick off in Round 1 of the Western Conference playoffs. And truth be told, he deserved to be benched.
But in this game... in this game he had a brace, and repeatedly got out on the break against a defense that's made their living, all year long, on not letting teams get out in transition. Quintero was able to get that space by playing almost as an old-fashioned second forward in what was listed as a 4-2-3-1, but was much more of a lop-sided 4-1-3-2:
That's a network passing graphic made using Opta data. Each circle represents the location of the corresponding player's aggregate touch, while the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes exchanged.
Quintero (25) played right underneath, or sometimes off the shoulder of center forward Mason Toye (23), while nominal right winger Kevin Molino (7) tucked inside to playmaker and gave right back Romain Metanire (19) responsibility for the whole sideline. Molino and Metanire both had assists, and RSL were never able to effectively overload that MNUFC side in order to drag Molino away from central midfield.
I don't know whether this was something Minnesota specifically targeted, or if this is just how the game unfolded. What I do know is that they need to see this version of Darwin on the regular, and it was especially important on the heels of the demoralizing 2-0 midweek loss at Houston.
"If we're gonna make a push from now on in, we need our best players to come alive," is how Heath put it. "You know, Darwin is a difference-maker. We know that. But we need to see that on a consistent basis, we need to see him now push on from that.
"If he does, that will be really, really valuable for us going forward."
RSL will go forward as well (they'll still make the playoffs, and still have a very good shot at hosting a game), and this isn't a "back to the drawing board" moment. Rather, it should serve as a reminder of how they got here:
That's from Jamon Moore of AmericanSoccerAnalysis, and what he's saying – with math – is that RSL were damn near off-the-charts good at preventing counterattacks/breakaways. On Sunday, their defense collapsed underneath a hail of exactly that.
A few more things to ponder...
10. Nothing says "massive offseason overhaul" like losing 1-0 at home to FC Cincinnati while in the midst of a playoff race, but somehow that's what Montreal managed on Saturday night. The Impact gave up a first-minute goal to Allan Cruz and never found the keys to Cincy's bunker.
And yeah, FC Cincy bunkered. Head coach Ron Jans really needed to get that first win out of the way, and now that he's got it I'm interested in seeing if he can build something a little bit more coherent and robust than what we've seen from this team thus far in 2019.
9. Vancouver once again got pummeled – they were out-shot 18-6 by Houston on Saturday night – but this time they held the scoreline tight long enough so that Fredy Montero had a chance to sneak in a late winner for the 2-1 final.
8. D.C. United, like Toronto and Minnesota, didn't quite punch their playoff ticket just yet, but they're just about there following a 1-0 win at Portland on Sunday. That is their second win in a row, and their second shut out in a row, and when they do make their postseason appearance it will be because of that defense because they remain a mess going forward:
Paul Arriola makes a wonderful run to clear out Diego Chara, but the pass never comes. And then D.C. twist themselves into knots before eventually playing the ball right into that same pocket of space... except this time Chara's there to pick it off and turn it in the other direction.
Portland, of course, weren't able to punish the guests. They once again faced a bunker and couldn't come up with any ideas besides "cross a lot," so that's exactly what they did – 39 of 'em, to be precise.
Also, the Timbers dressed only 16 players. Last week's hero, Brian Fernandez, had a recurrence of his stomach bug; Sebastian Blanco is still nursing a leg injury; Zarek Valentin was on baby duty; and Dairon Asprilla... I think we may have seen the last of Dairon in Portland.
For a team with a stacked, expensive roster and a string of home games, all within the context of trying to build on last year's MLS Cup appearance, Portland sure are in a weird spot.
7. Nani came out of his summer-long slumber with two goals and an assist in Orlando City's 3-3 home draw vs. New England on Saturday night, a performance that was too little (a win would've put the Lions just one point back of the Revs for the final playoff spot in the East; instead they're four back with three games left), too late (he had just 2g/4a in his previous 13 appearances over OCSC's last 15 games).
Orlando City needed more from everybody this year – Nani doesn't deserve even a plurality of the blame for another season likely spent without a playoff place. Everybody in their attack needed to be better. But stars are measured by where they lead their team, and so far Nani's only been able to lead Orlando back to their usual place.
One longer-term concern: While he and new DP playmaker Mauricio Pereyra hooked up on nice corner kick goal, the entire team's inability to defend with both of them out there was glaring. Pereyra was rightly sacrificed at the half to stop the bleeding.
Getting a point on the road is well done from the Revs, except for the fact that they gave up both a one-goal lead and a two-goal lead, and turned three points into one. They're now staring at four straight games against playoff-caliber opponents to close the season, and given that they've won just once in their past seven and that they're hemorrhaging goals thanks to a midfield that can't get pressure to the ball, the door is still very much open.
6. Will Chicago walk through it? The Fire had what might've been the club's best week since 1998, between confirming the move back to Soldier Field, introducing new owner Joe Mansueto and then giving him the game ball after just ripping FC Dallas apart 4-0 on Saturday afternoon.
It is always a good plan to "make the field big" when you have the ball, and make it small when you don't. When you have players as skilled as Schweinsteiger and Gaitan, you can make it bigger faster than most teams can deal with.
Chicago need to win their last three games and hope the Revs continue to flail. Those aren't great odds.
Dallas are in trouble. They finished the night in eighth place and have two hard road games (where they're awful) and two hard home games (where they're very good, but still) left. Wednesday's trip to Seattle could be season-defining.
How much does it help Philly that they're able to compete physically with LAFC in midfield?
I've been watching that since the way the opening goal developed. It's interesting because there was so much discussion around them trying to be a pressing team or a more mobile team this offseason. Paying off in this game that they got guys like Jamiro Monteiro and gave minutes to Brenden Aaronson who blends the physicality with the ability to actually play soccer.
Aaronson's elevation over the past month has allowed the Union to go back to a 4-2-3-1, as well as allowing them the leeway they need to keep Marco Fabian off the field. Fabian still has a rocket of a shot, and his pedigree speaks for itself, but he's lost off the ball, he doesn't defend at all and his team suffers for it.
LAFC got Carlos Vela back for this game, and naturally he scored a goal. They've got four games left and need eight points to set the single-season record.
Why? Because they no longer have a secondary goalscorer – it's Wondo (158 and counting) or nothing at this point.
The Joao Plata-ness of Vako's year has to be particularly disappointing, because for a while there it really did look like he'd turned a corner. Over nine games from June 26 through August 10 he had 7g/2a; in his other 19 games he has 1g/3a.
San Jose have a very tough remaining schedule, including next weekend at Atlanta. A point – even four points, to be honest – was possible out of these games. That said, full credit to NYCFC for finding a 1-v-1 battle they could win (anyone vs. Marcos Lopez) and just hammering it:
The road to MLS Cup in the East will likely have to go through Yankee Stadium.
3. The Red Bulls continued their habit of dropping late points, this time conceding twice in the last seven minutes as a useful 2-2 road draw turned into a dispiriting 4-2 loss at Seattle. They are an order of magnitude more error-prone defensively than they were a year ago.
Seattle still look like they're trying to figure stuff out – they had a 2-0 lead that they blew in this one – but they're getting healthier and Jordan Morris continues to be excellent. Since returning from the Gold Cup he has 5g/6a in 10 games.
2. Look back up at that counterattack/breakaway chart. Bottom left, in the BAD quadrant? That'd be Sporting KC. True to form, Sporting let the LA Galaxy get out on breakaway after breakaway, and suffered the consequences in a 7-2 defeat in Carson on Sunday night. They have some underlying structural issues to iron out.
This was just LA's second win in two months. It sure looked like they got it right, but 1) nobody else all year is going to let them counter like that (other than LAFC if they meet again), and 2) this could've ended 7-6. Sporting generated chance after chance after chance after chance...
The Galaxy are going to have to score their way to the playoffs, because the defense has not shown much improvement to speak of.
Every cut produces a better shot than the one before it, and it all culminates in Josef's lament. I've seen Best Picture winners with a less compelling third act. Face of the Week by a mile.
Columbus, like Colorado, have relished playing spoiler (though their season didn't end as early and their form is not quite so compelling as of late). Atlanta, meanwhile, have lost two in a row, and have lost touch with NYCFC at the top of the East. It's now them or Philly for the second spot.