Daryl Dike (above) is the real deal, Houston continue to impress, San Jose must defend better, and Toronto have nothing to show for another dominant display after losing to Vancouver.
Orlando City hit the jackpot
It’s getting harder and harder for SuperDraft players to make an impact in MLS. Don’t get me wrong, the leap has always been difficult, but I always felt that if you had something special to your game, you’d find a spot on a team.
In addition to myself, my 2009 draft class alone gave rise to Omar Gonzalez, Sam Cronin, Chris Pontius, Rodney Wallace, Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Kevin Alston, AJ DeLaGarza, Stefan Frei, Darrius Barnes, Quincy Amarikwa and more — all guys who either became important starters, solid contributors or club legends. Today clubs around the league are better than they've ever been at acquiring talent from all over the world and it's tough to see one draft class making that kind of impact. With that said, every now and then, someone is bound to hit the jackpot and in 2020 that team would be Orlando City SC. Daryl Dike is the real deal.
Three goals and three assists in five MLS games — his latest assist coming in Saturday's 1-1 draw against Atlanta — is enough of a sample size to indicate that there’s some real talent there. However, it’s more than the goals. He plays with a maturity many young players need several years to develop. What I mean by maturity is decision making — when to lay the ball off one touch and when to hold it and wait for support.
Even when he has his back to goal, Dike doesn’t necessarily settle for playing the simple backward pass. Instead, against Atlanta there were several times when he was able to play a forward pass into space for a surging teammate. That takes vision, awareness, and of course, maturity. His impact has been such that they might be able to use a Designated Player spot in a different area of the field, as Matt Doyle suggests:
I'll go ahead and say that Orlando don't need to go out and get a DP No. 9 b/c they already have one. pic.twitter.com/9IeViFcAGN— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) September 6, 2020
But the biggest endorsement of Dike’s impact may be that Orlando haven’t skipped a beat without their best attacker, Nani, when Oscar Pareja has started him on the bench. Orlando have been down this road before in 2015 when the striker they selected in the SuperDraft, Cyle Larin, went on to score over 40 goals in three seasons. I have no idea if Dike will come anywhere close to that level of production, but the early signs are very promising.
The real significance of Houston’s win
In my last column I praised the new-look Houston Dynamo under Tab Ramos. I love the way they counterattack and react in transition, and, of course, how they high press. That high press in particular, is what has caused their opponents a lot of problems. They press you, force a turnover, and then they are off to the races with any combination of Darwin Quintero, Christian Ramirez, Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas. Good luck!
On Saturday night against a very organized Sporting Kansas City, they displayed a different quality, and maybe the most important quality all successful teams have: the ability to win when you are not at your absolute best.
To come back and win from behind against the top team in the Western Conference, beating them for the second time in two weeks, when Houston were not at their free-flowing best is only going to reinforce the growing belief that Tab Ramos is building something worthwhile in Houston. Don’t misunderstand me: Houston played well enough to win. But unlike in recent weeks when they’ve looked like scoring every time they attack, Sporting KC made smart adjustments, such as playing the more defensively disciplined Graham Zusi at right wing instead of Johnny Russell. That allowed them to contain Houston well at times.
The best way to play against a team that presses well is to have excellent ball retention. That is to say, you need to connect sequences of eight or more passes consistently and play around or through the press. This accomplishes two things:
- It tires the pressing team out as no one can chase for long stretches all game;
- And it disorganizes the pressing team by dragging players out of position as they desperately try to win the ball back.
For large parts of the first half, Sporting did well to string longer pass sequences and perhaps the Erik Hurtado goal was the best example of this. On Hurtado’s goal, SKC moved Houston all over the pitch, lured them into areas they didn’t want to be in, and through quick passes they bypassed the press and found themselves inside the Houston penalty box after 11 passes. It’s the type of goal I love watching as a fan:
Based on what we’ve seen so far, being excellent in possession in order to overcome the press is one of the ways you can really hurt Houston because as they aggressively hunt, spaces will open up. Teams that can’t keep the ball well, will play right into Houston’s hands with costly turnovers. And so credit to Sporting for at least giving a small blueprint on how to contain Tab Ramos’s men, even if it ultimately wasn’t enough.
The Quakes' missing ingredient
The San Jose Earthquakes were my dark horse to win the West at the start of the season. Matias Almeyda came in and transformed the team with his unorthodox tactics and I loved it. Man-marking in the midfield — something I’ve never seen anywhere else in MLS, a possession-focused system, and dynamic play in wide areas. They were fun to watch last season and they were fun to watch at the MLS is Back Tournament. It’s tough to figure out exactly what has gone wrong since that tournament, but it’s safe to say that their defending hasn’t helped — especially on set pieces, as Kei Kamara can attest to:
There’s a popular saying in sports: Good teams find ways to win games, bad teams find ways to lose them. San Jose didn’t lose, but the lackluster way in which they defended the corner that led to the Rapids' goal was a further sign of a team that has lost their way defensively.
San Jose had two clean sheets in three group games at MLS is Back, and now they have conceded nine goals in their three games since leaving the bubble. They weren’t stellar defensively last season, but this season they are significantly worse and are conceding 2.3 goals a game compared to last season’s rate of 1.6. In a 34-game season they’d be on track to concede 78 goals.
As for San Jose’s goals scored per game: That’s in line with what they did in 2019. So in order for my dark horse pick to get back on track, it’s at the defensive end where they need to sort themselves out.
Toronto should be atop Shield race
Toronto should have gained six points this week. Instead they lost two games and I am not quite sure how it happened.
Against Montreal (1-0 loss) and also against Vancouver Whitecaps (3-2 loss), they had at least double the total shots and double the total shots on goal as their opponents, and around 65 percent of the ball.
All credit to the Whitecaps who got a much needed win on Saturday, but this was once again about Toronto not taking their chances. Had they done so, they’d be leading the Supporters’ Shield race. I’m not concerned for them long term because I’d be more worried if they weren’t creating chances. But you can only dominate and fail to reward yourself for so long before that frustration seeps into other areas of your game.
Along with the missed chances, Greg Vanney was also not pleased with how they defended crosses. Between the poor set-piece defending and the misfiring in front of goal, what should have been another dominant win will instead leave Toronto fans hoping that this past week will prove the exception rather than the norm going forward.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.