We are just about done with Round 1 of the MLS is Back Tournament, with only the Whitecaps yet to take the field (and the Sounders having taken the field twice). Seems like a good time to shotgun-blast some takes on what we've seen, team-by-team.
And here... we... go...
Orlando City SC
It took years and years and years, but Orlando City finally got themselves a legitimate rivalry win. It was not pretty at all, but you pay guys like Nani to be a match-winner in these moments, and he literally was that. I think last Wednesday night was the first time I've ever seen Orlando City Twitter truly happy.
Good Takeaway: Aside from Nani playing so well in the heat (remember, last summer he scored just one goal over 15 games from early June to early September), it had to be the overall solidity of the basic 4-2-3-1 shape Oscar Pareja trotted out. It's a sensible choice, one that lets the DPs and the very underrated Chris Mueller do work without sacrificing anything defensively.
That's what it's going to have to be for this side as they try to coalesce over the coming months.
Bad Takeaway: Even with the solidity, Miami were able to make adjustments and find plenty of gaps in that defense, and had they been a bit sharper in front of the net this could have been a multi-goal lead for Inter at the break.
Everyone justifiably focused on how much different the Union were last year with and without Ilsinho. But arguably the bigger question heading into this season was "will they effectively advance the ball into the final third without Haris Medunjanin?"
Jose Martinez was fairly promising in his 73 minutes, but it's still very much an open question.
Good Takeaway: Andre Blake STRUGGLED last year, but in this game he was the Man of the Match:
This was the Goalkeeper of the Year version of Blake we've seen in the past. If he's back, he will single-handedly win the Union some points — as he did on Thursday.
Bad Takeaway: Sergio Santos was hurt again and without him they simply did not have any pace to puncture the NYCFC defense and threaten runs in behind. Part of the reason Philly struggled to create real danger with any consistency in this one is that the Cityzens were able to keep their lines so tight and didn't have to worry about the space behind them.
The last MLS team to start with three losses in their first three games? That'd be the 2007 Toronto FC side that were pretty famously terrible for a long time.
Miami's not going to be that. They were the better team vs. Orlando for a solid chunk of the game, and managed that despite some key absences and players held out of the starting lineup. I'd actually be encouraged if I was a Miami fan.
Good Takeaway: Even missing starters at multiple spots, and still waiting on two more promised big signings, Miami had the skill and flexibility to just about completely change the complexion of the game with a tactical switch:
For 20 minutes they played truly wonderful soccer, and I'm guessing there will be more of that on the way.
Bad Takeaway: For the second straight game they melted down and lost control of a game they were 1) winning, and 2) clearly the better team for a long stretch. Diego Alonso's not the type to mash panic buttons or anything, but I'm guessing some of his guys got an earful after this one.
This team returned almost all of their roster, and so it was supposed to be a smooth transition into 2020. And early on in the year, in the CCL, it looked like that was going to be the case.
But now, through three MLS games, they have zero goals and Maxi Moralez is hurt. In the long-term I still think they're going to be fine, but in the short-term it's pretty grim.
Good Takeaway: Once they went down 1-0 against the Union they had to open up and take risks to create chances. They managed to do so without exposing themselves, and generated more than enough looks to get the equalizer at the very least.
The fact that they didn't can be attributed to bad luck, random variance and a hot 'keeper. Sometimes you've just got to tip your cap.
Bad Takeaway: What do they do without Moralez? The little Argentine was their best player last year in almost every facet of the game, but most especially in linking together their entire attack — a true pass-before-the-pass maestro. Now he's gone for several weeks, per head coach Ronny Deila.
It's probably now or never for Jesus Medina to show he's worth the DP tag.
New manager, new front office, new approach to acquiring and integrating talent and making it all work on the field. And there's no better example of that than Tuesday morning's performance from Homegrown center back Mauricio Pineda, who dropped into the middle of Raphael Wicky's back three and was a difference-maker on both sides of the ball.
Good Takeaway: Pineda's back there breaking lines like this:
With him at the center of the defense and new DP No. 6 Gaston Gimenez at the back point of the midfield, the Fire are going to have multiple avenues toward advancing the ball into dangerous spots, and that is going to cause major problems for teams in trying to keep them bottled up.
Bad Takeaway: For all their skill in advancing into the final third Chicago looked like they had almost no ideas of what to do once they got there, and no individual creativity to break down static defenses. Perhaps this is where Young DP Ignacio Aliseda is supposed to come in, but on Tuesday they were very much an "if you keep them in front of you, you'll be ok" type of team.
San Jose Earthquakes
The Quakes ended last year with a colossal winless streak that cost them a playoff spot, and all of that in spite of playing relatively well. They just found ways to commit individual errors or to fluff wide open chances, and ... yeah, you can't do that every week and expect to win if you're playing at an overall talent disadvantage.
Good Takeaway: For the first 30 minutes they absolutely buried and outplayed the Sounders. A lot of it came from putting two players on each sideline and just making the field as wide as possible, then relying upon Jackson Yueill to ping diagonals out there:
There's been so much talk about what the Quakes do defensively (they're still a man-marking team) that it's overshadowed the very real attacking identity they have. Putting the wingers and the fullbacks that wide either creates 2-v-1s or opens up space underneath, in the half-spaces, and they're very good at getting into those spots.
Bad Takeaway: They are not very good at doing anything with it when the get into those spots, and haven't been since last August. There is an impatience to their play, and that lack of shot discipline hurts them.
Seattle usually start the season slow and just kind of round into form. It doesn't always happen that way, mind you, but it usually does.
And in the regular-season that's fine. In this tournament, it leaves them with just one goal and one point from two games, and staring at what's probably a must-win Cascadia clash against the Whitecaps coming up.
Good Takeaway: Let Handwalla cook!
This is just a devastatingly clinical and focused run from the Homegrown winger. Getting these types of one-touch finishes in the box is how you put up big numbers as a goalscorer year after year after year.
If this is part of his game he will be a starter sooner or later.
Bad Takeaway: The central defense has been overly physical and error-prone. Xavier Arreaga, despite the lovely secondary assist on Bwana's goal above, had himself a genuine nightmare, and Yeimar Gomez Andrade was not much better.
It's a real work in progress.
Sorry 'Caps fans, but y'all haven't played in this tournament yet so I don't have much to say. Normally I'd be interested in whether it's a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, but since only one of the true forwards (Theo Bair) made the trip, seems like it's definitely going to be a 4-2-3-1.
Good Takeaway: Haven't lost a game in four months!
Bad Takeaway: No goals in four months? Clearly the attack is struggling.
New England Revolution
The Revs were maybe a darkhorse pick to win this thing, right? I've had my quibbles with some of their tactical choices (their central midfield can be exposed) and they maybe don't have the top-end talent on the backline, but Bruce Arena wins tournaments and their top-end talent in attack wins games.
Good Takeaway: Their two-man central midfield never came close to being exposed against the Impact, and the Revs controlled the entire match. And then their two best players did what your best players are supposed to do:
The fact that this came from excellent exploitation of a defense-to-offense transition and not just some pure Carles Gil wizardry is good news.
And yes, Brandon Bye seems to have leveled up at right back this year.
Bad Takeaway: Kelyn Rowe was excellent and Scott Caldwell was pretty good, but the Impact never really put out the personnel to exploit a two-man midfield, and there should be some concern that this pairing can get overrun physically.
In the Revs' remaining group games, Alejandro Pozuelo and Edison Flores are going to find the spots that Sam Piette didn't, and when they do, neither Rowe nor Caldwell has the recovery speed to put out fires.
This "one year good, one year bad" thing D.C. did most of the last decade means that 2020 is supposed to be an "up" year for United. It certainly didn't look that way after the first game of the season, but in their second game they put together a come-from-behind win, and in their third game — their first of this tournament — they became the first team since at least 2007 to go a man down and rally back from a 2+ goal deficit to pick up a point.
Benny Ball forever.
Good Takeaway: I can't imagine the boost to team morale they got after those two late goals and precious, wonderful point. This team gave up just 38 goals last year so it stands to reason that they'll tighten things up defensively, and in the attack they have shown now that they can find a way (even if it's not always pretty).
Bad Takeaway: For 80 minutes they just didn't exist in this game, and if not for some poor finishing from Toronto it could've been 4-0 instead of 2-0. Pozuelo and the rest were just in complete control of the game. It was completely one-sided.
The Reds have played three times in 2020. They dominated their first game but gave up a bad late goal for a draw. They dominated their second game but needed a very nice late goal to grab a win. They dominated their third game but utterly collapsed down the stretch to turn a 2-0 lead and one-man advantage into a humiliating 2-2 draw.
Veteran teams with this kind of knowhow are supposed to be able to step on an opponent's neck and just finish them. TFC don't have that so far in 2020.
Good Takeaway: Pozuelo basically couldn't be used in central midfield last year because he didn't defend. It wasn't clear if this was by inclination (some guys just won't do it) or because of workload (he'd gone about 16 months without a break, during which he'd played more than 75 games).
Turns out it was the latter. Pozuelo's well-rested and has turned into something of a defensive weapon, as his pressing was above-average and he even forced the turnover that led to Ayo Akinola's second goal.
For what it's worth: Pipa Higuain is not Usain Bolt.
There is clearly a level of pragmatism to Thierry Henry's approach that wasn't necessarily intuitive given the beautiful, free-flowing teams he played for during his heyday. As a coach the Impact are not that; they are a sit-deep-and-launch-our-wingbacks-into-space side, and when the Revs took that away, Montreal didn't have many ideas.
They've now won just once in six games with Henry as manager. There are growing pains to any new era.
Good Takeaway: Victor Wanyama was able to sit and spray passes to useful spots, and that should make the Impact very dangerous but also very reliable. Wanyama is a tidy distributor, and should be able to consistently move the team's possession into the spots on the field that Henry values.
Bad Takeaway: Do they have the attacking talent to make use of those moments? The answer against the Revs was a solid "no" and I suspect, at some point, they're going to have to go to a 4-3-3 to get two of those true wingers on the field, because those guys are a cut above the attackers who've played the bulk of the minutes in 2020.
Real Salt Lake
RSL were a playoff team last year, and became so by ruthlessly dispatching the lesser teams in the conference. They didn't give up points that they should take, and that's how you get a home game.
Then they won that home game, and it seemed like a promising foundation to build upon for this team. But the start of the season, rife with lineup uncertainty, was not promising...
Good Takeaway: Holy hell was that performance against the Rapids promising! Freddy Juarez played almost everyone in their natural spots (I've decided that Damir Kreilach's natural spot is "anywhere on the pitch" and I love him) and it all clicked literally from the kick. Every player who took the field in Claret-and-Cobalt was simply superb.
Big shout to Justen Glad, who in addition to making multiple third-line passes (like the Pineda one above), made maybe my favorite defensive play of the early round:
isn't an automatic starter pic.twitter.com/RPhs2J3aVx— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) July 13, 2020
This is such a tough play to make. Glad has to stay tight to Kei Kamara because so much of what the Rapids do in transition runs off of the big No. 9, but at the same time he has to be alert to the run in behind from central midfield. Fantastic play to snuff out what was a very promising moment for Colorado.
Bad Takeaway: Uh... none? Seeing Kyle Beckerman limp off wasn't great, but I'm betting on his ability to foul whatever injury he has into submission.
Honestly this was the best, most fun soccer RSL have played in two years.
The Loons earned a few shouts as one of the dark horse picks for this tournament heading into it, but that was before Ike Opara was ruled out. And then with Ozzie Alonso and Luis Amarilla on the sidelines for the opener, it seemed like there was just no chance.
And it turns out the Loons deserve to take a victory lap because, while they were outplayed for most the game, they never collapsed and then found a path not just back in it, but to win it. Nobody outside the locker room saw that coming.
Good Takeaway: Kevin Molino is healthy and it's spectacular:
Same with Ethan Finlay, by the way. If these guys stay healthy throughout the year, that's two All-Star caliber attackers you can pencil into the XI.
Bad Takeaway: They really were overrun for 65 minutes in this one and only became truly threatening once Sporting went down to 10 men. It was a gutsy, "don't forget about us!" win, but one that often highlighted how much work Minnesota still have to do to get to the top tier of teams around the league.
Sporting came out and knocked the ball around, drove Minnesota into a shell and found their new DP Alan Pulido just about every time they wanted. Even without the second goal it looked like the type of performance Sporting fans were waiting for and almost expecting.
Then it turned into the type of 2019 performance they were dreading. Oof.
Good Takeaway: Pulido was awesome even if he, Gadi Kinda and Gerso weren't quite on the same page in the box. As they sort things out (they will in fact sort things out, folks), this will become one of the higher-scoring teams in the league.
Bad Takeaway: That midfield trio is slooooooow, and Molino eventually figured out how to take advantage of it (watch the video above, in the Minnesota section). This is part of what doomed KC last year, as they weren't able to stop attackers from running directly at that central defense.
It is an on-going concern.
Another dark horse contender, as "sit deep and counter, and be good on set pieces" is a tried-and-true tournament strategy. They've been murder both in transition and on restarts for more than a year, and have mixed that with a mostly mistake-free defense and an at times promising ability to build out of possession.
None of that was in evidence vs. RSL. They got mauled.
Good Takeaway: Clint Irwin continues to look the part of a no-frills No. 1 'keeper. And that right there is the entire list of good things about that game the other night from a Rapids point of view.
Bad Takeaway: Everything that happened, but especially their inability to match the tempo that RSL set out of the gate:
If you let your rival do that to you in a tournament you're gonna get murked. And so it was.
Another of the dark horse favorites, the idea with the Crew was that they were a team with an above-average defense, a willingness to sit back and counter, and proven match-winners up the spine in midfield and attack. They were a team that would just wait you out and punish your mistakes.
Orrrr ... they were a team that would just rip you apart, as they did to poor FC Cincinnati.
Good Takeaway: All the pieces in that central midfield seem to fit together seamlessly, with zero redundancies or inefficiencies. Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe and Artur are all already making each other better, and that in turn makes the entire team better.
There's also proven to be some depth on the backline and wings.
Bad Takeaway: The only possible one was the gruesome injury to Vito Wormgoor, which I did not have the stomach to watch more than once. Best wishes to him on a quick and full recovery.
New York Red Bulls
Still the pressingest team in the league, though also still in the process of adjusting a few things and trying to makes sure that they're not just about the press.
RBNY pretty famously couldn't manage that in the 2018 playoffs or last year, but they gave it a shot against Atlanta in the opener.
Good Takeaway: It mostly worked!
Atlanta got through them and around them a couple of times, and the Red Bulls didn't have much possession, but possession was never the point. The point was to make the Five Stripes uncomfortable and limit their ability to impose a rhythm and build chances clinically.
By that measure the mid-block 4-2-4 was a success.
Bad Takeaway: And yet it still took one heroic save and a few comical misses for RBNY to walk away with all three points. With 10 minutes left you'd have struggled to find many Red Bulls fans who believed they were destined for a win.
Which is to say that the result is one data-point, but another is that they still looked very defensively vulnerable when not defending on the front foot.
Death, taxes and Atlanta United losing to the Red Bulls (except for that one time). That appears to just be the way things are, regardless of who's playing what type of defense and what time of year it is and who's available or not. Judging by Five Stripes Twitter, what used to be a source of frustration has turned into resigned despair.
Good Takeaway: Brooks Lennon and George Bello at the wingback spots were constantly able to get forward and create chances, and while Lennon is not the multi-dimensional player Julian Gressel was at that spot, he's one of the few players in the league in Gressel's stratosphere as a crosser of the ball. Both these guys can and will be weapons if the midfield can put their foot on the ball and control the game.
Bad Takeaway: The midfield couldn't put their foot on the ball and control the game despite the Red Bulls spending most of the evening in a mid-block 4-2-4. Atlanta never really overwhelmed them with numbers and got into the half-spaces via combination play — it was always directly from the center backs — and that's a bizarre problem for a team that loaded the starting XI with skillful players.
Team Turmoil from Day 1 in MLS, with a brand new head coach who'd had the team in training for about two weeks, now playing against their well-drilled and cohesive rivals in a tournament game?
This had "bloodbath" written all over it from the jump.
Good Takeaway: None. Nothing about this was good from a Cincinnati perspective. I'm sure Jaap Stam has relayed similar thoughts to the players and staff.
Bad Takeaway: The defensive issue I've been banging on all year — that you can't play Medunjanin and Siem De Jong in the same midfield since Medunjanin can't really defend and needs two destroyers to protect him — was the defining fact of this game. Columbus went right at him with the intent to draw him upfield and skin him.
And that's what led to the first two goals of the night:
Here's play No. 2. Watch Medunjanin get dragged out and skinned in midfield... pic.twitter.com/lcwIAEZa4s— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) July 12, 2020
This is the very first problem Stam has to solve.
A high-spending playoff team that loaded the hell up this offseason with major signings just about everywhere on the field and has a match-winning 'keeper? Portland, on paper, had/has a lot of the things you'd look for in trying to pick a potential winner.
The problem is that Portland, on the field, too often settled for (or even outright looked for) speculative, low percentage crosses from fullbacks anchored to the touchline. It was a problem that defined 2019 for them and was readily apparent in the first two games of 2020 as well.
Good Takeaway: They still crossed a lot in their win against the Galaxy, but did so after working hard to get the ball into better areas and with more runners in the box. There is a difference between a pull-back from the side of the 18 after some neat interplay and a moonball from the touchline against a packed-in defense.
There are two crosses on this highlight. Both of them are good:
If I was a Timbers fan I'd be pretty pleased with the ideas the team showed in the build-up.
Bad Takeaway: The central defense, which was badly exposed in transition in the first game of the season, was once again badly exposed in transition in this one. If Chicharito had brought his finishing boots this finishes at least 2-2, if not 3-2 to the Galaxy.
"The best team in the league" as I and so many others have called them over the past year, playing in a tournament (yikes) without Carlos Vela (YIKES). This was obviously going to be a true test of LAFC's team-wide capabilities, with a particular spotlight on Young DP winger Brian Rodriguez.
And hey, it was a rough start for him. But it was also something close to a perfect ending (I'm sure they'd rather have had the three points, but you get what I'm saying), and one that will have everyone feeling like the glass has been shattered and the kid can start looking like an $8 million attacker.
Good Takeaway: Three goals without Vela? Ok that's pretty, pretty nice.
While Rodriguez's goal was the nicest part about it, don't overlook Bradley Wright-Phillips' performance. He got the opener, constantly found space and generally looked like he'd been born to play in that system. BWP was injured and in pain all of last year, and now says he's fit and able to go starter's minutes.
Against Houston he looked it. Don't be all that shocked if he puts up Peak BWP numbers for the rest of 2020.
Bad Takeaway: The right side of that defense needs lots and lots of work. Getting newly arrived Andy Najar healthy enough to play big minutes at right back should help, but then there's a question with regard to right center back. Perhaps Tristan Blackmon slides over to that spot.
Even with Najar in the fold and a possible CB upgrade, this team is always going to be vulnerable to counterattacks. It's just how they play, and everyone knows it.
Houston's been down for a while, but I'm pretty sure everyone in the league likes their attacking talent. The question, of course, was whether that attacking talent could do enough to offset the questionable defensive part of their roster.
One point against LAFC is a pretty good argument, though obviously it's very, very early. And in 2020 they've now conceded eight goals in three games, so...
Good Takeaway: Memo Rodriguez is a natural at that No. 8 spot:
The Homegrown, who was a winger last year, did everything you could want out of a No. 8 in the scheme Tab Ramos is using. It looks like a snug fit with a ton of promise.
Bad Takeaway: The defense needs so, so much work, especially on the left side. They held up as best they could in the first half, but in the second half they were almost entirely overwhelmed.
The league's most successful team has been one of the league's least successful teams of the TAM era, winning nothing and never really competing for anything, either.
Which is to say that there's a lot of pressure on this new era of the Galaxy to put the past five years of underachievement behind them and start playing winning soccer again. They seem to have the personnel to do so.
Good Takeaway: While it didn't seem to come from concerted, purposeful build-up play, the Galaxy were in fact able to consistently create chances against Portland's ragged backline. The wingers on both sides were dangerous, Chicharito's runs were predictably magnificent, and both Sacha Kljestan and Sebastian Lletget had their moments in the midfield.
It's all pretty individualistic, but when you have talented individuals, that can get you some results.
Bad Takeaway: Despite those talented, technical individuals, the Galaxy still settled for far too many hopeless crosses to no one and aimless long-balls out of the back.
But really, the issue was their defense. The individual battles they lost right in front of goal are the kinds that lose you games and lose people jobs.