An MLS academy product started for Juventus this week. Another started for RB Leipzig, and another for Borussia Dortmund. Alphonso Davies got the weekend off for Bayern Munich, but Chris Richards — sold from FC Dallas to the European champions two years ago — got on for the final 20 minutes of an 8-0 shellacking of Schalke.
Tim Weah spent about 8 months in the RBNY academy once upon a time, and he got on the field for Lille. Zack Steffen, who is at least partially a product of the Philadelphia Union academy, could make his Manchester City debut by the time you're reading this (probably not, though).
A universally accepted fact of being a soccer fan is that most of the best players you have and the best players you produce don't just exist to win your team games and (hopefully) trophies. They exist to push themselves to the highest levels of the sport, which is still across the pond in Europe. And we are seeing, with more and more regularity, MLS-bred players making that journey and making a mark once they get there. It is the sign of a healthy and rapidly growing league.
I suspect that most of you reading this column are doing so because you are, first and foremost, interested in what your team did this weekend while looking for some context as to how that fits within the larger picture of what else happened around MLS this weekend. But I suspect the vast majority of you are also quite interested in how it all fits within the larger picture of global club soccer. Namely: Is there another Davies or Tyler Adams in this league? Is Dallas producing another Weston McKennie, or NYCFC building another Gio Reyna?
MLS is now a league where the answer to those questions is often "yes." It is a league built by and for those players.
The best teams in the world watch MLS every weekend for that reason. That's something I think about a lot.
Onto the games. Gonna do a different format this week -- a little more nuts-and-bolts than usual, and we'll go in chronological order:
Seattle 3, LAFC 0: It has become more than a familiar refrain for LAFC. It is now the familiar refrain: The right side of that reconstructed backline cost them goals and points. Dejan Jakovic gave up a clear penalty to make it 1-0 for the Sounders, and a few minutes later Latif Blessing did the same. Raul Ruidiaz scored a peach for the capper later in the second half.
The Sounders, of course, are both stolid and ruthless. They're beyond being rattled by anything LAFC throw at them, and are happy to just gum up central midfield and dump balls into the channels until any opposing backline (but especially this one) breaks. Sometimes it means a gorgeous open play goal, and other times it means a series of attacking-third set pieces. Both are things that winning teams do.
That is part off what makes them so good. Another part — a really underrated part — is that Brian Schmetzer throws them out there in the same 4-2-3-1 with the same basic approach about 95 percent of the time, and about 95 percent of the time that's the correct approach. Having that level of consistency has also made it easier for Schmetzer to rotate key players in and out, keeping most everyone fresh and surviving some key absences.
Nico Lodeiro is the one exception. The Uruguayan maestro has played 522 of 540 possible minutes since Phase 1 kicked off last month, and I still think it's apparent that Lodeiro's go-everyhere-get-on-the-ball-and-do-everything greatness is, in a lot of ways, the alpha and omega of the whole system.
Schmetzer will have to find some time for him to get a breather or he will break down. That is my only real worry about the Sounders right now (though I'm still not entirely sold on their center back depth chart).
Sporting KC 2, FC Dallas 3: Dallas's spacing has improved a ton in the past month since play resumed. A big part of it on this play is Brandon Servania's willingness to drive forward with the ball and drag the Sporting midfield back, so that when he recycles possession the ball ends up on Tanner Tessmann's foot with plenty of time to pick his head up, hit a switch and create a wide overload:
Then it's Fafa Picault's turn to drive forward, and John Nelson on the overlap, and the cycle repeats itself. The ball ends up on Tessman's foot 35 yards from goal, and he's asked to make a play. He does, and the whole methodical, intentional sequence gets the goal it deserved.
Dallas have won three in a row for the first time in Luchi Gonzalez's tenure. Sporting have won just once in six.
New England Revolution 0, NYCFC 0: The Revs are still scuffling along without much input from their Designated Players, and once again struggled to create much. They have just 10 goals in 12 games this season, and have scored more than a single goal just twice.
NYCFC honestly have not been much better, though their results have been fine-to-good. There is a sense of all the attackers running into each other and taking each other's space in the final third; rarely does one pass seem to lead naturally to another, and rarely are the team's best attackers put into positions where they can attack from strength. They are playing a 4-3-3 with wingers, but both wingers are so tight it's easy to just be compact against them and wait until they turn it over.
"We got a result with us in a difficult place," Deila said afterward. "I'm very happy with one point. Of course we want to score some goals. We had some happenings [inside the box]. It [could have been] better chances if we were more accurate, but it was not today. In the end, 0-0 was an okay result."
He's not wrong, even if it's obvious why there's grumbling in the fanbase.
Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 2: Let's start with the one little bit of light in the darkness for the Five Stripes: the ongoing evolution of George Bello. The 18-year-old Homegrown left back got himself another 90 minutes and put together another more-good-than-bad performance:
And thus concludes our "here's the good news for Atlanta" segment.
The rest of it was good news for Miami, who picked up their second win in three and are now 3-2-2 since play resumed in August. Diego Alonso has settled pretty firmly into a 4-2-3-1 over the past month, and it should be no surprise that it's working better on both sides of the ball since the arrival of Blaise Matuidi. He hasn't been dominant, but he just smoothly moves the game to where Rodolfo Pizarro et al can do damage.
Miami are still a point below the playoff line, but with Gonzalo Higuain about to jump into the lineup, are you betting against them?
New York Red Bulls 0, FC Cincinnati 1: Olimpico! They are rare, and they are glorious:
David Beckham— Major League Soccer (@MLS) September 20, 2020
The sixth olimpico in MLS history ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/sj7ZXjtiQ1
Truth is it would've been cruel if FC Cincinnati didn't take three points from this game. They weren't exactly dominant or totally in control, but they were the better team and consistently created the better chances. They are just snake-bitten in front of the net.
The Red Bulls are worse than snake-bitten; they are, at this point, not capable of consistently creating the type of chances that fuel winning teams. They were shut out for the fourth time in six games, and have scored just five goals in 10 games since March.
As I wrote after Chris Armas was dismissed: The things going wrong with this team weren't all or even mostly his fault. Maybe Dru Yearwood or Samuel Tetteh will be part of the solution, but there are no guarantees.
At least interim head coach Bradley Carnell isn't dissembling. He's honest about the job ahead.
"Being diligent with the chances we create, getting into areas and playing the type of balls that we think are our strengths as per game plans," Carnell said afterward. "We’d like to be a little bit more threatening in the wider areas, we’d like more movement off the ball, we’d like people to take more shots, so yeah, there’s a lot on our agenda, there’s a big to-do list, and we just keep filing away at it every training session."
Columbus Crew SC 2, Nashville SC 0: Columbus, like Seattle, play a pretty straight-forward 4-2-3-1 almost every game (though Columbus's is a little more based upon positional play than Seattle's), and like Seattle that is proving to be the correct choice much more often than not. Also like Seattle that consistency with regard to both formation and principles has allowed Caleb Porter to do a nice job of rotating players and keeping his key guys fresh, while at the same time surviving absences from the likes of Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan.
Know who the regular-season MVP is thus far in 2020? That guy. He's got nine goals and three assists in 930 minutes for the, at this point, run-away Supporters' Shield leaders (is there going to be a Shield this year? Feels weird, but anyway...).
And he's not just finishing plays other guys create — though finishing plays other guys create with fundamentally perfect off-ball movement is still his bread and butter. He's setting up defenders, carving out space for teammates, and pressing opponents into mistakes. He came off the bench to drag Columbus to a point last week, and he cracked open a resilient-and-actually-very-good-defensively Nashville team this week.
There are academy success stories like McKennie, Davies, Adams, Reyna et al. Zardes counts, too. He's been wonderful.
D.C. United 2, Toronto FC 2: A sign of the Homegrown revolution in MLS: D.C. finished this game with a 16-year-old (Moses Nyeman) and two 17-year-olds (Kevin Paredes and Griffin Yow) on the pitch while trying to fight back from a 2-1 deficit against one of the best teams in MLS. And the kids were all right, as Yow did in fact find the late equalizer.
D.C. fans should find happiness in that (and many are, to be clear). They still have just 11 points from 12 games and seem a long shot to make the playoffs even though they're only a point below the line. They've won just twice all year, and it seems unlikely that they'll make any sort of run.
But they're putting their future on the field in a position to succeed. That is important.
Toronto are in a different position. The need to win now, and to that end Greg Vanney has done well to get the best out of 20-year-old Homegrown center forward Ayo Akinola, who's finally healthy again and rewarded his coach with his sixth goal of the season. But the slop that has characterized this otherwise veteran team was apparent on both D.C.'s opener and Yow's equalizer.
“We give away an absolute howler, which is never the way you want to start a game. Then we come out in the second half, a little more structured, switch some things around, and a little bit better for the first 25-to-30 minutes – better shape and with the ball more purposeful,” Vanney explained. “Created a few more chances, got in deeper into their half, but we started to fatigue."
It is weird. I'm not betting against Toronto finding a way to be the last team standing in 2020, but these are explicitly the types of errors veteran teams with championship experience aren't supposed to make.
“We have this sense right now that we have to win every single ball and every single pass and so our defensive shape is, at times, very impatient,” Vanney said. “And because of that we expend a lot of energy chasing balls.”
Orlando City SC 4, Chicago Fire FC 1: This one was closer than the score indicated, but after weeks of scuffling along and failing to put teams away, Orlando City finally managed it in the final 15 minutes, making a 2-1 look like a 4-1 cruise.
If Zardes has been the league MVP thus far, the guys in the immediate chasing pack are Lodeiro (apologies too Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris), Toronto's Alejandro Pozuelo and Orlando City's... Chris Mueller. He had another goal and another assist, and is among the league leaders in both categories. He has evolved from a worker into a clever and crafty all-around winger, able to puncture static defenses with his movement off the ball and equally able to pick his head up and dime the last pass (as he did to Nani on the game's second goal).
The best part of Mueller's game is that he is decisive in his movement and, well, almost everything else. That means if he gets going against a scrambling defense — and the way Orlando use the ball, they naturally pull defenses apart and make them scramble — he doesn't let them get set and close the gaps that have been pried open. He hits those gaps and takes advantage of them, and that's how goals are made.
I'm giving Face of the Week to his teammate, though. Benji Michel's got three goals in his past four games, and his improvement on both sides of the ball has allowed Oscar Pareja to rest Mueller and Nani without losing a ton:
Plus... yup. Another Homegrown.
Chicago actually played really well. They had a goal ruled out for offside, and missed a penalty. They hit a post and a crossbar. Pedro Gallese made one of the best saves of the year on a Gaston Gimenez one-timer.
Single-game xG is finnicky, but this is not a lie:
They repeatedly cut Orlando up with their primary attacking pattern: Putting Djordje Mihailovic on the left touchline as a playmaker, then throwing the left back forward on an underlap and getting Robert Beric to occupy the center backs. In consecutive weeks they have arguably outplayed two of the best five teams in the league.
They have taken one point from those games. Play like this against most of the rest of the league, however, and they'd have taken six.
Houston Dynamo 2, Minnesota United 2: Three points separate Houston (10th place) and Minnesota (4th place) in the West standings. Nothing separated them on the evening, as they produced a fun and open, back-and-forth match in which a draw was probably the correct result.
Houston were still dangerous and daring even without Alberth Elis, who is his way to Boavista (put my name down in the "dominates Liga NOS and moves to Lille next year" column), and even with Mauro Manotas continuing to struggle. They still have the opportunity to be a top five attack in the league, and should often be able to dictate the game even against good sides.
Minnesota are a good side, but at this point in a grind of a season that has cost them Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso for prolonged stretches they are just out there trying to hang on. They have just two wins in their last nine, and have conceded multiple goals in six of their past eight. In this one they let a 2-0 lead get away. The compressed schedule, the injuries and the inability to exert real control over games via possession is taking a toll.
They can still do murder on the counter, though.
Real Salt Lake 1, Vancouver Whitecaps 2: One of the hottest teams in the league? The Whitecaps. They've now won two in a row and three of four, and in this one scored two very nicely worked goals. The first came when they attacked the space Nedum Onuoha vacated after his ill-advised Beckenbauer cosplay, and the second after Michael Baldisimo — from the same 'Caps academy cohort as Davies, and a season-changing weapon with his ability to switch the field of play and connect high-value passes — lasered a diagonal to Fredy Montero, who squared to Lucas Cavallini for the bundled finish.
Vancouver's playing with real intent in attack. Defensively... defensively they are still a sieve, and were lucky Thomas Hasal (another Homegrown) had another big game and that the RSL attack have slid into something of a rut over the past four games, that big win over LAFC excepted.
I've mentioned this before, but it's wroth saying again: I don't think it's responsible to play Onuoha and Marcelo Silva together, as their lack of recovery speed is something literally every team that sees that pairing immediately exploits. Plopping Kyle Beckerman — never fast, now obviously slow — down in front of them was just asking for it.
RSL have now won just once in their past six and are second-to-last in the West. The good news is that they're only one game below the playoff line, and nothing is written yet for anyone.
San Jose Earthquakes 1, Portland Timbers 6: It's not even written yet for the Quakes. Not in permanent marker, anyway. But it does seem to be written in pen that the improvement this team showed in the middle of last season, and then again through the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament, is a thing of the past.
Since play restarted at the end of August they're 0-3-4 with seven goals scored and 23 conceded. For context, the single-season record for fewest goals allowed in a year is 20, set by RSL in 2010. San Jose required less than a month to crush that mark.
It's grim. Portland didn't clear out central midfield and run routes the way Seattle did a week-and-a-half ago in that 7-1 demolition, but they didn't have to. They scored on set pieces and pullbacks and through the air and over the ground. They were the more talented team, so they went out there, won their individual battles and showed it.
LA Galaxy 0, Colorado Rapids 2: This is how the Rapids try to play under Robin Fraser, forcing the defense to compress and then making the field big and punishing them either in the channels or up the flanks:
The key here, as the video shows, is that Younes Namli has begun dropping deeper in order to get on the ball more in build-up, which forces the left back into a dilemma: stick with him and risk having him thread a pass to a runner into the space you just vacated, or hold back, hold your shape and let him spray, undisturbed.
The other key, which the video doesn't really show, is that Fraser has committed to placing his left winger (usually Jonathan Lewis these days, as it should be) way up high and wide, and using him as a constant threat to run in behind. Again, it forces the fullback to make a decision: push up in attack and help tie the midfield together and/or add numbers on the overlap, or stay deep and make sure Lewis doesn't get a run-out.
In this one Julian Araujo mostly stayed deep, and Lewis gave him such a torrid time that Perry Kitchen had to come back and help, which unbalanced the Galaxy midfield. It wasn't a free run for Colorado — the Galaxy are better than that now — but LA were spending a lot of time desperately rotating to patch up holes that don't usually exist. And when they didn't rotate... again, watch the video.
Montreal Impact 1, Philadelphia Union 4: Romell Quito scored a banger and then, for some reason, elbowed Mark McKenzie in the head and got himself a red card (not before flashing "1-0" at the Union bench; a very bad time to unleash a "scoreboard!" taunt). It is the third straight game that the Impact have taken a bad, totally unnecessary red card, and it is the second straight game they melted down with 10 men.
Philly, up a man, were awesome in the exact way you'd expect one of the best teams in the league to be awesome: They got on the ball a ton, sprayed it from side-to-side, and took advantage of the extra man by flooding the box. Alejandro Bedoya scored the first by being in the right place at the right time with no one around him; Kacper Przybylko scored the second by just beeline-ing it to the back post as everybody on Montreal was pulled to the front post. The third was Przybylko and Brenden Aaronson getting in behind after Montreal started to chase the game. The fourth — laced by Anthony Fontana (yup, another Homegrown) — was academic.
The Union are one of the best teams in the league and have now won five of six. It's not a good idea to give them a man advantage for 75 minutes. They don't need that to beat you.