There are now just two weeks left, and I'm not seeing many/any big tactical wrinkles these days, even from teams who still have a ton to play for. So let's just go in order:
Before we get into the two big stories – and they are potentially season-defining for both teams – let me ask you this question first: Why don't teams do more of this?
This came off a goal kick! There was nothing fancy about it at all, just an opening to play the ball into space and make Justin Meram try to win a 1v1 defensive battle. To Meram's credit he's mostly been winning them throughout this season's second half, but I think even he would admit that making open-field defensive plays isn't his forte. And yet, generally speaking, teams haven't been asking him to make them.
It's become at least a little bit clear that they need to start, because when Meram gets forward Atlanta's attack has jumped to another level. You have to pin him and make him a defender. The Quakes did that – mostly through long balls, but also a little bit via build-up, even playing 10-v-11 – fairly often on Saturday.
Somehow that's only the third-biggest story out of this game. The second-biggest story is San Jose's red card-fueled self-immolation, as first Cristian Espinoza was rightly sent off for for stomping on an Atlanta defender 34 minutes in, and then both manager Matias Almeyda and legend Chris Wondolowski were both sent off from the bench in the late going (the first red card in Wondo's 360-game career, for what it's worth).
The Quakes are fighting for their playoff lives. They'll now have to do so for at least one game (Wednesday, at home vs. Philly) without their best playmaker, their only reliable goalscorer and their head coach. With this three-game road trip, and then three straight games against playoff teams, they were already playing the stretch run on hard mode. Clearly they wanted a greater challenge.
Even that is a small story compared to the health of reigning MVP and MLS Cup MVP and guy-who's-probably-second-in-this-year's-MVP-race Josef Martinez. He went down in the 71st minute and was stretchered off a few minutes later after laying on the turf and clutching his knee for a good, long while.
"I'm afraid that he has something serious, but we have to wait," is what head coach Frank de Boer said afterward. "They're evaluating him now."
As of pub time there was no official update. Martinez, whose 15-game regular-season goalscoring streak came to an end in this one, has 26 of the Five Stripes' 53 goals. If he's injured long-term... well, someone will slot in for him in the starting lineup, but there is simply no replacing him.
Columbus saw their season officially (all but mathematically), suddenly end in the same way it's been slowly ending for the past two months: by conceding an unnecessary late goal to gift a result to their opponents. The Crew didn't do anything pretty, but they've gotten good at hitting on the break and then locking things up for 89 minutes.
What happens beyond that is a problem. This was the third time in the last six games they lost themselves a result by conceding a goal in the 90th minute or later, and it shut the book on their year. Here's the obit:
Vancouver's season was done long ago. The point they earned was fortunate.
Let's take these next four as a group, since we're now talking about the team in possession of the final playoff spot in the East (New England) and the three that had fairly a fairly realistic chance of closing the gap heading into the weekend (Chicago, Orlando City and Montreal).
The Revs are determined to leave the door open, and over the past couple of weeks it's leaking goals that had been the problem. They had their chances to bury Orlando City last weekend; they did not. They had their chances to collect at least a point at NYCFC; they did not. They have had an opportunity, since late July, to take the momentum they'd accrued through mid-summer and run away from their pursuers.
They have not. And they did not on Saturday in this game against a heavily rotated RSL squad (Freddy Juarez started eight reserves). This week the problem was finishing chances rather than leaking goals, and as I was watching this game, this blurb from Bobby Warshaw's column last week was running through my mind:
The tinkering caught up to them. We saw something similar last year with NYCFC — Dome Torrent got to New York and tried multiple new formations and started 5-1-0, but then it crumbled pretty quickly. Since Bruce Arena has taken over in New England, he’s deployed a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-2 diamond, a 3-5-2, and a 4-4-2 with an inverted right midfielder. It was fun and cool, and maybe a little too much. As the games have gotten tougher and tighter, the Revs don’t have anything to settle into.
New England are now 1-2-5 in their past eight games. Their final three are at Portland, home vs. NYCFC and at Atlanta. It would not be a shock if they took zero points.
Juarez, for what it's worth, did the right thing by resting most of his main guys, and the back-ups gave a good account of themselves.
FC Cincinnati are out here breaking hearts. Last week they did for Montreal, and this week they pitched their second-straight shutout and put a dent in Chicago's playoff dreams. Of course, they've also won once in two months and clinched the Wooden Spoon in front of their home crowd, so there are a few lenses to view this one from.
For Chicago there is only one lens: This is another missed opportunity, just like their 2-1 loss a month ago at New England, and just like their 1-1 draw at Columbus a week after that. This one had to be particularly painful, though, given that they were coming off probably their best performance of the season in that 4-0 destruction of FC Dallas last weekend.
The Fire do have five shutouts in their last nine games since settling back into the 4-2-3-1 pretty much full-time. But even when things are going well, there is still some bizarre tinkering. Against FC Cincy it was the decision to sub off Nico Gaitan in the 58th minute – just the second time all year he's been subbed before the 67th minute.
Taking your No. 10 off in a scoreless, must-win game against the worst defense in league history with a potential playoff spot on the line? I do not understand it.
Chicago are 2-2-2 in their last six games. They've had their chances to turn this home stretch into a genuine push up the standings, but have spurned it.
Orlando City did a lot of what you'd want to see from them in the first 25 minutes. They got an early goal, they possessed with intent, they defended compactly but not too deep, and they didn't give up any clear-cut chances.
And then, for the final 20 minutes of the first half, they started defending deeper and only reluctantly sending players forward. Houston began pushing up and generating looks.
Coming out of halftime this wasn't fixed. It was exacerbated, and it was ugly:
Orlando City completed four passes in the attacking third from the 45th to the 75th minutes. They didn't even really try to put Houston under pressure, and Houston responded by pushing numbers forward and taking "risks" – those are air quotes – they knew they wouldn't get punished for. Alberth Elis got the equalizer in the 70th minute, and Christian Ramirez got the winner three minutes later.
Elis's came off a 17-pass build-up, just punishing Orlando for being in a shell. The second came as the Lions, waking from their coma and trying to push up, did so sloppily and got carved open after a turnover. They had been doing nothing but defend for an hour, and once they tried to do something else, they just couldn't.
As with Chicago, this was a win sitting there for the taking. As with Chicago and the Revs both, Orlando haven't figured out how to take those moments when they came, and are now 0-3-3 in their last six games.
First, the Galaxy: This was a game they absolutely should have won, and so they did. Zlatan should've had his second straight hattie, but he didn't. And in the end it didn't matter because LA were just good enough to do what they were supposed to.
Montreal left their stars at home, likely to focus on the second leg of the Canadian Championship midweek. The rationale was likely that they had lost their chance at returning to the playoffs last weekend when they lost that home game to FC Cincy, and it would've taken a miraculous confluence of results on Saturday and through the rest of the season for the Impact to climb into the seventh spot.
Miracles have happened in MLS before, but not this time. This time Montreal played well, but 2-1 to the Galaxy was the right scoreline. Over the past three months, with a playoff berth in view, the Impact have gone 2-10-1.
So this is the "race" (I feel bad using that word) for the final playoff spot in the East:
- New England have gone 1-2-5 in their past eight
- Chicago 2-2-2 in their past six
- Orlando City 0-3-3 in their past six
- Montreal 2-10-1 in their past 13
Just for the sake of continuity, we can boil it down to the past six games, dating back to August 14. Combined, these teams have gone 4-10-10.
One of them will be a playoff team.
The Rapids went down two goals, then Sporting went down a man, and then the Rapids scored three goals. Two of them were, as usual, on set pieces. They do that a lot. They are absurdly good on restarts:
With his 2 assists tonight, @jacko_8 leaps to 11 assists on the season. He's the first @ColoradoRapids player to hit double-digit assists since Omar Cummings (12) in 2009.#Rapids96 also extended their league-high record of goals from set pieces to 17.#FearTheBeard pic.twitter.com/J2wTdbMvEt— Richard Fleming (@FlemingSport) September 22, 2019
One of the biggest questions I will have heading into 2020 is if they can keep that up.
Here is The Chad Marshall Theorem™, as coined by Bobby:
The Chad Marshall Theorem has two parts.
1) Center back is a position that lifts everyone else on your team. If you have a good player there, it opens up your options to do other things. You can’t press without a center back that can run; you can’t sit deep without a center back that’s commanding in the box; you can’t possess without a center back that can pass. So while that player is not obviously vital, they generally provide the base/floor for what you can do.
2) Center back is the weakest position in MLS right now, so it’s an opportunity for competitive advantage. If you don’t have a bad center back – or even better, if you have an elite one – you have a talent advantage. And because some teams have center backs that are so bad, it’s a bigger margin to gain.
I'll actually boil it down even further: If you can get a proven, high-level, MLS veteran CB in his late prime (as Seattle did with Marshall in 2014), you should do it. Atlanta did this with Michael Parkhurst in 2017 (they won MLS Cup in 2018); Toronto did this with Drew Moor in 2016 (they won MLS Cup in 2017), Seattle did this with Marshall in 2014 (they won MLS Cup in 2016); Portland did this with Nat Borchers in 2015 (they won MLS Cup that year).
Two teams took that to heart this year: Minnesota United when they paid up to $1 million xAM for Ike Opara – it seemed like a lot at the time, but it turned out to be a steal – and Toronto, who brought Omar Gonzalez home after a few years in Liga MX.
Toronto are 6-1-5 in Gonalez's 12 starts. They are 6-9-5 in their other 20 outings. Gonzalez has been a season-changing addition.
LAFC's season, meanwhile, has changed in the past five games. They are no longer the thundering juggernaut they were going forward, and on the other side of the ball teams have gotten both braver and smarter about finding space to take when their fullbacks push up (Tsubasa Endoh had acres).
They are going to win the Supporters' Shield, they are going to have homefield advantage, and even if they don't get Adama Diomande back they will still probably be serious MLS Cup favorites. But teams have adjusted, and it might be time for Bob Bradley to deploy some counter-measures.
Opara (and Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus) has had, as I mentioned, a profound effect on Minnesota's defense. So has goalkeeper Vito Mannone, and he deserves the bulk of the praise as the Loons went to Portland and picked up their 10th shutout of the season. They had seven total in their first two years in the league, combined. Mannone was outstanding, and has been outstanding throughout most of this season.
But Sunday's game was less about him, or Opara or that central midfield, than it was about Portland's (lack of) finishing. Brian Fernandez and especially Jeremy Ebobisse seem to have used up all their magic two weeks ago in that come-from-behind 2-1 win over Sporting:
I actually thought Portland did a much better job of moving the ball around and not settling for hopeless crosses in this game, and played with real intent. It was, in a lot of ways, the best they've looked since a 4-0 win over the Galaxy at the end of July.
They still crossed the ball a lot – 37 total crosses is too much – but fewer of them were from the touchlines, and more of them were either early or after a pull-back that had gotten the defense pushing up. It looks more "this is by design" and less "we're just totally out of ideas."
Nonetheless, they'll spend another few days (at least) in eighth place. I still don't think they'll finish the season there (it'll be Dallas or San Jose who miss out), but if the Timbers figure out how to drop yet another result on Wednesday when the Revs pay a visit, I might change my tune.
It's unfair to pick on Hollingshead too much – he's been an invaluable attacking force for them on the overlap, and has been a more reliable finisher than most of the forwards on the team. But moments like these are season-enders. Dallas have to go on the road to Colorado and then host Sporting on Decision Day presented by AT&T, and they probably need four points from those two games. They might, in fact, need six.
NYCFC were incredible in the first 25 minutes, but lost the accelerator after that. I don't think it's much of an issue, as a road draw was perfectly acceptable and 538 has them 71% likely to get the top seed in the East. They are unbeaten in eight, got Maxi Moralez back and can basically wrap it up with a home win on Wednesday over Atlanta.
Here's a list of reasons why I think the #FireArmas brigade have it wrong:
- They lost their best player – literally an irreplaceable, Champions League-caliber d-mid
- Their legendary goalscorer finally lost to Father Time
- He's been juggling a locker room full of guys with their eyes elsewhere for at least part of the season
- His leading scorer got hurt just as the stretch run started
- Despite all that, they're still en route to the playoffs (their 10th straight trip)
- They might have at least one home game
- They need three points to claim their ninth 50-point season in the last 10 years
Here's why I understand, at least in part, where those fans are coming from:
- This team still looks like it hasn't recovered from how they lost to Atlanta in last year's playoffs
- They are outperforming their advanced metrics to an unsustainable level
- His personnel choices have too often tilted far too conservative, which has led to a ton of blown leads
The frustration is real and at least a little bit justified. The Red Bulls haven't really looked like the Red Bulls for huge chunks of this year, and it's worn the fanbase down.
This week they got their team back, first with a 2-0 win at Portland on Wednesday, and then with the big 2-0 home win over Philly on Sunday. The game-winning goal on Wednesday was scored by 22-year-old Homegrown right back Kyle Duncan, who had just shy of 700 minutes on the season entering this week. The game-winning goal on Sunday was scored by RBNY II superhero Tom Barlow, who's torn it up in USL Championship to the point that he's now pushed his way into meaningful MLS minutes during a playoff push.
Armas is far from perfect, and like any coach he'll continue to make mistakes. But his team's rebounded from three soul-crushing losses with gutsy back-to-back wins, and at least in part, the Red Bulls are the Red Bulls again. We'll get to see if that means the usual in the playoffs.
Philly, meanwhile, stumbled badly here in their push for the No. 2 seed in the East. The No. 2 seed will likely play New England (or maybe Chicago, Montreal or Orlando), while the No. 3 seed... it's going to be either Toronto, D.C. United or these Red Bulls. That's significant.
D.C. were 7-3-2 to start the season. Then they went 3-7-7 from mid-May to late August, and have now gone 3-0-0 in their past three games. They weren't appreciably better than the Sounders in any of the "this team plays pretty" ways, but they were significantly better than the Sounders in all the "this team is dying to win" ways. They flew into tackles, won every second ball, were much more awake on set pieces, dominated duels for the first 70 minutes, and then closed up shop for the last 20. Then with Seattle throwing numbers forward, D.C. were a constant threat to get in behind and add the coup de grace on a breakaway.
Wayne Rooney is back to playing with what I would consider to be a joyful swagger rather than the sullen frustration of summer, and – just as important – Paul Arriola as a destroying No. 10 in front of two skillful, deep-lying central midfielders has made United a nightmare to try to play through. And then when they push up and press, they are more likely to do stuff like this:
Win the second ball and have another rip. Then do it again. United have kind of found their ethos.
Seattle, as expected, lost every bit of their identity without Nicolas Lodeiro. He is their alpha and omega, and they need him to be healthy to have any chance in the playoffs, so I don't blame Brian Schmetzer in the slightest for giving him the game off to nurse a knock that my guess is he'd otherwise have preferred to play through.