Armchair Analyst: Your Q&A for the stretch run | Mailbag

There are mere weeks left in the 2019 MLS regular season, and a pretty compelling race for the final playoff spot in the West. So let's start there:

It's... not great for either team. The Quakes played well in both games last week – tough road games at RSL and NYCFC – and came away with zero points. In their previous three-game road trip, they played well twice and came away with zero points. They play at Atlanta this weekend, and at Portland on Decision Day presented by AT&T, and in between have two not-at-all-easy home games against Philly and Seattle.

FC Dallas were kind of rolling heading into this past weekend, with a 3-1-1 record over their previous five; 4-2-2 over their last eight; 5-3-2 over their last 10. They play good, cohesive, aesthetically pleasing and compelling soccer. And with Zdenek Ondrasek up top they actually score every now again.

But within the context of that good 10-game stretch, they were just 1-3-1 away from home, with a -3 goal differential. And then they played the Fire, and it's now 1-4-1, -7 in their last six road games despite how well they've been playing at home. Dallas play at Seattle tonight and then at Colorado on the season's penultimate weekend, and host NYCFC this coming Sunday and then host Sporting on Decision Day.

The Galaxy have been one of the three worst teams in the league in terms of PPG since the start of May, but they are going to tear through Montreal this weekend and Vancouver on the 29th. That will get them in.

Portland have been bereft of ideas and made almost zero use of their home-field advantage in the second half of this season. But I don't think a team with this much talent and a game in hand is about to miss the playoffs.

So yeah, it's almost certainly going to be either Dallas or San Jose. Right now I'm giving the edge to the Quakes, but that's just a coin flip.

Remember this, though: On Decision Day last year we all thought it was a given that the Galaxy would make the playoffs, and especially so when they went up 2-0 to the already-eliminated Dynamo. And then the most spectacular choke in MLS history happened.

Weird things can and will happen in this league.

There is also still a very outside chance that Seattle could miss the playoffs. If they lose to Dallas on Wednesday night they are in at least a little bit of trouble, especially since that game will be followed by a short-rest, cross-country trip to D.C. this Sunday, and then at San Jose on the 29th.

Will Seattle lose all of those? Highly unlikely. But there was about a 40-minute stretch of their game against the Red Bulls this past weekend in which they looked like they might never win again, so you never know.

As for the question itself: Morris (who has been awesome for the past three months) stays in the starting lineup, as should Cristian Roldan on the other wing. Brian Schmetzer can't, at this point, trust Rodriguez to 1) stay healthy, and 2) defend. And they need defense from that front line because the midfield and back line aren't what they were a year ago. You can definitely knock the ball around against the Sounders for a good long while.

Having a guy like VRod to come off the bench isn't a bad thing, anyway. In this era of Ilsinho we should all appreciate the value of an attacking super-sub.

I can't decide if I'd really want to face the Galaxy (I can score five!) or really don't want to face the Galaxy (I can concede seven!). This past week, the 7-2 win over Sporting and the 2-1 loss at short-handed Colorado, gives you an idea of the highs and the lows. From a certain point of view – just raw, get-money talent – the Galaxy might actually have a higher upside than LAFC. But as mentioned above they have one of the league's worst records over the past five months.

Anyway, I think they're my answer, but I'm honestly not sure.

Ok let's do one more on the West...

Not as head coach, and that's as it should be. Sporting have taken it on the chin this year as a bunch of the on-field gambles Peter Vermes has made have failed to pay off, but the underlying numbers still like them a lot, they still often pass the eye test, and I honestly think they're only one or two good moves away from being a playoff team again next year.

I'm not sure I trust Vermes the GM to make those moves, though. Shipping out Ike Opara in favor of Andreu Fontas will go down as one of the worst moves in recent league history, but that might've been topped by handing the center forward job to the combo of Krisztian Nemeth and Erik Hurtado. The lack of a hard-man d-mid hurt bad, as did a flagrant lack of pace at both fullback slots. Add in some regression from Tim Melia (I thought he was the best 'keeper in the league from 2015-18, and he is definitely not that this year), and that is... pungent.

The bad news is that a lot of those guys and a few other high-paid non-factors are on contracts through next season at the very least. The good news is that contracts can be bought out; players can be sold or traded; players can be cut. The GM will have to work some magic, but we've seen magic done in the past in this league.

But should Vermes still have sole control over player personnel decisions? I'm not sure that he should. Most of his big signings have not worked out, and this winter, if they make two big signings, they have to get both of them right.

They can. They'll have to open up the checkbook a bit, and Vermes will probably still have to go back to his roots and start nailing the draft again (which is absolutely still a tool you can use to become a playoff team – just look up the road to St. Paul) in order to create depth. I believe in Vermes the coach's ability to get a bunch of new, high-end talent and work it into a team on the field.

He just can't be undercut by Vermes the GM again.

My money is still on eighth. I know the Revs have been awful for two months now, and the Red Bulls just don't have it anymore, but Chicago play two of their final three on the road. So far this year they are 1-10-4 on the road. Their only other game left is home against a TFC team that generally smashes physically weak backlines, and, well... it's a climb for the Fire. They're three points back and are chasing two teams that each have a game in hand.

On balance I actually think Orlando City might have a better shot at getting there, but the Purple Lions are just 2-4-5 over the past two months so it's not like they're charging down the stretch. If they'd beaten New England this weekend I'd feel differently, but... they didn't.

Since May of this year Matt Turner has been the best American goalkeeper, and I'm including Zack Steffen in that equation. Bruce Arena has gotten (and deserved) a lot of credit for their turnaround, but a ton of it has just come down to Turner standing on his head week after week after week. The fact that he didn't start the first two months of the year still has my mind solidly boggled.

Now, just because he's been better than anybody else in the pool recently doesn't mean I'd start him if the US had a World Cup qualifier tomorrow (I'd still go with Steffen), and I'm not going to raise hell if he's not on the roster for the Concacaf Nations League games. But we should absolutely see him in January camp.

Like pretty much all US 'keepers not named "Rimando" he needs to work on his feet and his distribution. If he does that – puts in the kind of work that Steffen and Sean Johnson have put in over the years – he will get, at the very least, a long look and a few friendlies.

Turner is the Goalkeeper of the Year. Everyone on the Revs owes him a bottle of the good stuff.

First: NYCFC supporters have nicknamed Parks "Big Bird," which I think is the best nickname in the league.

Second: Correlation isn't causality, but NYCFC are 10-2-1, +15 when he starts, and 6-3-6, +4 when he doesn't.

Third: He has moments where he just makes everything look so. damn. easy.

That's butter.

Parks has mostly played as a box-to-box midfielder this season, though Dome Torrent has slowly loaded more of a defensive burden on him. He is not great 1-v-1 defensively, and often struggles to dig the ball out of a scrum, which would make me nervous about playing him as a No. 6. And as long as Alex Ring is there, it's not like he'll get most of the minutes at the 6 – that position belongs to Ring.

Meanwhile, he's probably not quite creative or goal-hungry enough to play as a 10. So by putting him in as an 8 for most of the year... I'm with Dome. That is (for now) where Parks belongs.

That's also where I'd put him for the USMNT (or the US U23s for now), and long-term I see him competing with, say, Weston McKennie for that position. But I wouldn't be surprised if Gregg Berhalter saw him as more of a 6 for the current US system. Parks' skillset seems to lend itself to what Berhalter wants out of that spot.

Union fans already asking offseason questions tells you everything you need to know about the Philly sports mindset. You guys are having literally the best year in team history! Live in the moment!

But since you asked... Fabian's not going to be back. I doubt he'll be a factor down the stretch, and if I were the Union I would just use the money saved on not bringing him back to pry Monteiro – who's been one of the best newcomers in the league this year – away.

I do know that they'd sell one/two/all of their Homegrowns if they got the right offer for any/all of them, though that offer hasn't come in yet. But if I was a Union fan I think I'd be rooting for this roster to come back next year mostly intact, and to count on 1) improvement from within, and 2) Ernst Tanner digging up another under-the-radar signing like Monteiro, Kai Wagner or Kacper Przybylko.

I'm not sure they should fear anyone, but if I were an NYCFC fan I'd be praying for anybody but Toronto. Jozy just dominates that backline, and does so with a sort of delightful meanness that seems to get into the Cityzens' defenders' heads.

Against all other teams, NYCFC's xG differential is +16.72 (51.81 xG – 35.09 xG allowed). Against TFC they are -4.36 (1.16 xG – 5.52 xG allowed).

And Toronto, for whatever reason, don't have any fear of playing in a baseball stadium. They don't get worn down by it, and don't get thrown off by the dimensions. Most other teams definitely, definitely do.

I won't say that TFC are the only Eastern Conference team that could win at NYCFC in the playoffs, but I will say that for every other team in the East, it would be a straight-up shock if they won in NYC. With Toronto, it would only be a mild surprise.

And wrap it up by making like Philly fans and looking ahead to next year. Here are the contenders for the first part of the answer:

  • Chicago have literally the second-best xG differential in the league this year, behind only LAFC
  • Sporting are top 5 in xG differential, and have a coach who's won almost everything there is to win in MLS
  • San Jose's xG differential in the first month of the season was -10. Since then they're +13.5

Now, there are perhaps good reasons why none of these teams truly break out in 2020 – Chicago are likely to turn over a ton of their roster, and maybe their staff; there is no guarantee that Vermes makes the right signings this time, or that they stop being flammable on the counter; Almeyda's a winner, but San Jose's man-marking won't be a novelty anymore next year and there's increasing evidence teams have figured it out. Maybe it'll be Dallas, RSL or Orlando City instead. The underlying numbers (more than just xG, though xG is the big one I pay attention to) all like them to a degree, though not as much as they like the Fire, Sporting and the Quakes.

On the flip side, tell me that Portland, RBNY and Seattle all miss the playoffs next year and I might believe you. RBNY are just too far underwater by both the underlying numbers and by, you know, how they play, since they don't really have a thing anymore; Portland can't figure out how to do anything but cross, and history says Steve Clark is not going to be Superman again next year; and the Sounders are looking at a negative xG differential and a defensive approach that allows you to complete passes EVERYWHERE.

Somehow Seattle, with Roldan, Morris and Raul Ruidiaz up top (all three work their asses off defensively), two true d-mids and the hardest-working No. 10 in showbiz still haven't figured out how to get any pressure to the ball anywhere on the field. I'm not talking about high pressure, either – I'm just saying please be tough to play through. Right now they're not, and they're not making progress against that lack.

I'll also say that for all three of those teams: Keep an eye on this for the playoffs. Maybe they'll flip a switch. We've seen teams do that in the past, and we remember those teams, because doing that is special. It is distinct. It is unexpected.

But the much more likely outcome for these three, and the Revs and the Galaxy and D.C. United, is that they don't. Teams that are mediocre in the regular season tend to be mediocre in the playoffs, and "mediocre" usually doesn't get you past Round 1.

Enjoy the games tonight, folks.


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