Summer's coming to an end. Onward.
Miles Robinson gave Nashville SC some bulletin board material and those of us who live behind keyboards some narratives to focus on ahead of Saturday's Southeastern showdown (do we have a name for Nashville vs. Atlanta yet? Does it deserve a name?).
"We should win this game against Nashville. We have better players than they do."
I think that is debatable at best. While it's probably fair to suggest that Atlanta have a few more high-upside youngsters than Nashville, I think it's equally fair to argue that nobody on Atlanta, young or old, has delivered in 2020. And so the Five Stripes, following a 4-2 loss in which Nashville clearly took Robinson's words personally, are now squarely aimed toward rock bottom.
Nashville, who have at times been an effective pressing team, took advantage of Atlanta's... well, took advantage of their everything. They were all over the Five Stripes from the jump:
Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy had a decent level of chemistry together back in March and that's only grown over the course of this season. If you don't have that chemistry, then the double-pivot causes the very problem it's supposed to solve: leaving the center backs exposed and allowing the opponents to dominate in the most important parts of the pitch. If you do have that chemistry your defense will rarely be exposed (Nashville have shipped just 11 goals in 10 games now) and you will also get the chance to send an extra runner forward later, from deep, as we saw on McCarty's goal.
Atlanta have none of that. It doesn't matter what formation they're playing or who they're playing against. They are a team of strangers.
"The performances need to be consistent as a team. It starts with doing the simple things. For a few games now we haven't done those things," said veteran Jeff Larentowicz afterward. "I'm in the middle of the field. I'll put my hand up."
Larentowicz shouldn't be the only one shouldering blame. And he's not wrong about the little things adding up into giant calamities game after game.
"Just winning first ball, second ball, being on the front foot to start the game," Larentowicz said when asked to explain. "We didn't do it tonight."
This is a team that defends low, takes space slowly and isn't sure how to use the ball when they're on it. Beyond that there's no longer any sense of allelon, either in their play or in their body language. Atlanta weren't just a great team with great players under Tata Martino, they were a team that went out with a collective identity and played for one another*. That is gone.
(*)I know this sounds like a cliche, and I'm not sure how to show it with numbers. But you know it when you see it, and Atlanta fans clearly know it when they're not seeing it, as has been the case throughout 2020.
That is the first thing the new coach (or interim head coach Stephen Glass if he manages to win the job full-time) will have to re-infuse into the entire team. Robinson might be right about the talent level of this side, but talent alone doesn't win games.
With the victory Nashville are unbeaten in four and climbed ahead of Atlanta into ninth place. The Five Stripes are winless in five and have just one win in nine since play resumed in July.
The Way We Get By
Not really. They've had enough talent to win moments against strugglers like FC Cincy, but the overall product is not yet close to what it was the past four seasons, and part of that is just weird decisions about who to use where. I am not big on the Alex Ring-at-left-wing decision despite his nice goal, and most of the NYCFC fanbase seem to share the sentiment:
Head coach Ronny Deila is, understandably, more enthusiastic. His job is to win and he's mostly doing that, with his Cityzens having climbed up to a comfortable and mostly deserved mid-table position in the East.
“For almost 70 minutes we were completely dominant all over the pitch," Deila said after the win. "When [Cincinnati] got it to 2-1, we got a little shaky and they got belief. When you’re two-nil up you try and keep the result and high press and we did most of the time.
"First 70 minutes, you can’t do any better than that. That’s really good."
Fair enough. Even so, though, NYCFC more than anything remind me of last year's Atlanta side at this point. They have enough talent to brute force some wins (though that will become much more difficult if Maxi Moralez, subbed off on the half-hour with another injury, is out for an extended time) and can generally be counted on to handle the Cincinnatis of the world. On top of that their win over Columbus last month was legitimately good, as was the MLS is Back Knockout Round win over Toronto, even if neither were particularly pretty.
But all the indicators are that this team's moving backwards and has become a whole that is less than the sum of its constituent parts, and that "mid table" is actually a pretty fair representation of who and what they are right now. Coming off a 64-point season, it's not surprising that there's some grumbling in the fanbase.
There was some celebration in the FC Cincy fanbase as they scored scored for the first time in 500 minutes, Brandon Vazquez capitalizing on a terrible Keaton Parks turnover when trying to play out of the back. But Jaap Stam's team don't look any closer to being fully functional than they did a month ago, and the inability to execute simple things is a big reason why.
But Locadia leaves too soon, doesn't he?
This is a fairly simple transition opportunity, one that's set up somewhere in the neighborhood of "perfectly."
It fell to Cincinnati's DPs. If it's teenaged academy players or rookie SuperDraft picks, your expectations are lowered. But when it's DPs who can't execute on a moment like this... this is the whole point of having DPs, to take gaps like this and turn them into goals.
Kubo and Locadia have combined for three goals in about 1500 minutes this year, and as you can see the moment turned into nothing. The issues for the Blue and Orange are very real, and it doesn't feel like they're appreciably closer to digging themselves out of the hole they found themselves in a year and a half ago.
A few more things to ponder..
10. This blast from Homegrown attacker Anthony Fontana, his second goal of the night, not only got Philly a 2-1 win over 10-man New England, it also got teammate Alejandro Bedoya to give us the Face of the Week:
For Philly it was another game of forward Andrew Wooten dropping off the front line and sacrificing touches in the box in order to facilitate Brenden Aaronson's through-the-lines play. I have banged on about Philly's 4-4-2 diamond and how I just don't really love it, but practice makes perfect. Or at least makes "better," and the Union definitely are better by the eye test and underlying numbers than they were in July.
The Revs are struggling to put together any sort of attacking identity, still, without Carles Gil. Gustavo Bou's goalscoring has regressed (as xG suggested it would) and DP No. 9 Adam Buksa has not, for the most part, looked like a DP.
"It’s not what the team needs to do, it’s what Adam [Buksa] needs to do," Bruce Arena said. "He just needs to hang in there, do a better job of getting in front of the goal, and we need to do a better job servicing him.”
9. The Red Bulls got their first win of the post-Chris Armas era, mostly outplaying a very short-handed D.C. United team in what finished 2-0 RBNY down in D.C. The game was much more open and attacking than the teams' previous meeting, a 1-0 United win that ultimately cost Armas his job.
New head coach Bradley Carnell went with a 3-4-1-2 that was sometimes a 3-4-2-1, and putting Kaku in spots to hit telling passes sure seems like a good idea.
8. Orlando City looked to be living the same nightmare for the third straight game as they took a 1-0 lead and saw it disappear in the second half. This time, though, they were tougher and more resilient and a little bit luckier in a 2-1 win over Inter Miami, immediately resorting their one-goal lead after surrendering the equalizer.
The Lions were playing without half their starting backline as well as their starting d-mid, and still got the rivalry win. Coming a week after their late disappointment vs. Atlanta, that is big.
As for Miami, they started off in a 4-2-3-1 but went to a 3-4-2-1 at the break. I thought they were better in that second half, and Gonzalo Higuain will almost certainly make them more dangerous in the final third, but the early-season experimental stage should be over at this point and they should know who they are and how they want to advance into meaningful spots.
Instead it feels like they're still facing down the structural issues in central midfield that have been there from day one.
Chicago, by the box score numbers, the advanced numbers and the eye test are generally playing worse soccer than last year, but I feel like I'm seeing more ideas and recognition in terms of pattern play, especially in transition. They really did impose their ideas and execute upon them, save for the finish.
Columbus did well to fight back. Getting a point on the road despite a D- defensive performance and while missing your two best midfielders? That's the type of point only a good team takes.
6. Well, Andres Ricaurte wears that No. 10 for a reason, doesn't he? Forget his stunner of a goal — and it absolutely was stunning — just look at how many of his touches were in and around Zone 14 for FC Dallas in their 2-1 win over Houston:
Dallas were able to ping passes to him in the pockets on either side of Matias Vera, and Ricaurte was able to do real work there. He didn't dominate the game, but Dallas did finally look like they had real ideas out there.
"There’s a good possibility that he goes overseas," head coach Tab Ramos said afterward. "I know that overall that’s what he wants."
I do absolutely think Houston have the depth to survive Elis's departure without fading into oblivion. But there will be many games like Saturday's in which they are just ground down by a disciplined defensive gameplan.
5. Sporting and Minnesota both had to go way down their respective depth charts on Sunday, as the injuries and absences are mounting. From the kick to the whistle it was Sporting in total control, creating chance after chance, and the only real question was whether or not they'd get one.
It was a very rotated squad from Matias Almeyda on that evening. He went back to a more normal — but still kind of different — squad in Sunday night's scoreless draw against the Galaxy.
The biggest adjustment was putting Florian Jungwirth in for Judson in order to push Jackson Yueill and Tommy Thompson into more advanced central midfield roles in a 4-1-4-1. The goal was to make the spacing better and to be honest, I'm not sure it worked. They still miss Magnus Eriksson — a player whose absence I vastly underestimated. Eriksson was rarely spectacular and often waaaaay too slow and frustrating, but he kept the midfield works from getting gummed up. They have been much less dangerous without him.
A point apiece was probably fair.
3. Thierry Henry has had his team settle into that off-balance 4-4-2-diamond-with-4-2-3-1-principles that I described a few weeks back. They were able to just carve Vancouver apart in Sunday night's 4-2 win, which featured Samuel Piette — still playing an attacking role — getting his first-ever MLS goal.
The win, Montreal's fourth in six games, puts the Impact in control of their own destiny in the Canadian Championship. A win by any score sends them
back to the CCL into Voyaguers Cup Final vs. the CPL Island games winner. .
2. LAFC and Portland are both reeling defensively, so it makes sense that they played a wild, wide open and entirely entertaining one on Sunday night. LAFC — who seemed to have some of their swag back and also got Eduard Atuesta back for a segment of the second half — got the 4-2 win, and with apologies to Portland, whose first of the evening came off a gorgeous, 16-pass sequence, here's my favorite of the night:
The spacing issues I talked about for the Quakes above? LAFC are all about it here. Watch Mark-Anthony Kaye repeatedly check his shoulder and back into space so that Dejan Jakovic's third-line pass actually cuts two of the Portland attackers out, and watch how Francisco Ginella actually starts taking space before Kaye even plays the pass.
I don't think all of the weaknesses we've seen from LAFC over the past month are fixed, but this was a useful reminder that if things start clicking, they'll be able to just outscore almost anyone on their day.
1. Colorado won 5-0 against RSL on Saturday night. Not only did they win 5-0, they won 5-0 in Utah — the first Rapids' win there since 2007. Kyle Beckerman scored in that game — for Colorado. It's also their first-ever win at Rio Tinto Stadium, which came into MLS a year before the Seattle Sounders did. Thierry Henry was still at Barcelona. Sporting KC were the Wizards.
It has been a long, long time.
On top of all that, they also won the Rocky Mountain Cup for the first time since 2015 and for just the third time since 2007. And oh, by the way, they overturned a 4-1 loss in the first leg of the Cup (only the Phase 1 games count for Rocky Mountain Cup purposes this year), a win so large that RSL went ahead and tweeted this at the time...
It's not super easy finding a tweet that's aged worse than that one.
It's also not super easy to find a rivalry as historically one-sided as this has been. The Rapids needed some sort of spark to rediscover the magic of last year and put them back into the playoff hunt, a performance so resounding that it provided not just three points, but proof of concept on the whole endeavor.
Feels like this might've been it.