Week 17 is in the books. The home stretch is pretty much here.
Let's do this chronologically. In we go...
Inter Miami 1, Houston Dynamo 0: And suddenly Inter have a little bit of life! They survived a lightning delay and survived the absence of a number of key players — mostly Rodolfo Pizarro — and still don't really look like they have truly clicked. But they do look like they've smoothed some things out, as going to the 3-4-2-1 has allowed them to create width on either side while still having three center backs back there in order to solidify things.
Obviously the wingbacks are a key to this formation, but so too is the ability of one of the deeper-lying central midfielders to get forward and selectively add numbers to the attack. That has mostly fallen to Blaise Matuidi and while he has not been effective individually, his movement is exactly the type of high-IQ, veteran stuff you'd expect from a player of his caliber. Between that and Gonzalo Higuain — whose hold-up play continues to be a weapon even as he struggles a touch in front of net — those one-goal losses have now, twice in a row, turned into one-goal wins.
As for the Dynamo, I posited a month ago that they had the depth to survive the loss of Alberth Elis. I was wrong. They've won just once in their past eight, and scored just eight goals in that span.
Atlanta United 0, New York Red Bulls 1: The Red Bulls are still in something of an experimental phase, both in terms of personnel, formation and even tactical approach (they are still liable to draw a line of confrontation at the midfield stripe rather than just pressing like hell for 90 minutes) as they wait for Gerhard Struber to arrive. Interim head coach Bradley Carnell clearly has license to tinker as much as he thinks is necessary, which has been hit-and-miss, but at least feels like it's being done with a purpose.
Regardless, this game really was more about Atlanta making simple mistakes than anything the Red Bulls did:
I honestly don't think it's worth it for most goalkeepers to even attempt that type of pass vs. the Red Bulls, but it's especially dangerous for Brad Guzan, who struggles with his distribution. Just move the line up, blast it upfield and try to win the second ball.
Vancouver Whitecaps 2, Real Salt Lake 1: Vancouver had absolutely nothing in this one for 65 minutes, never quite figuring out how to spread the field and never advancing at pace and never taking advantage of the few moments when RSL were disorganized. The 'Caps are mostly young and fast and should be fun, but pretty often they are just ponderous with the ball and catastrophic without it.
That is starting to change a bit, and it's very rapidly gotten to the point where young Michael Baldisimo should be on the field at all times unless it's a load management situation. Once again the 20-year-old Homegrown regista — he was an academy classmate of Alphonso Davies — cracked the game open with his vision and ability to control the tempo:
He did not record an assist, but he was central to both Vancouver goals. I somewhat question his defensive range, but... that's fine. There are plenty of effective deep-lying midfielders who aren't incredibly rangy or who aren't dominant ball-winners. Just find the right partner for him in a 4-2-3-1 and let the kid move the game around.
RSL, meanwhile, are a mess. It's now three straight losses and only two wins in their past 11, as well as (still) no clear style of play or approach to the game. It has been a trying year in Utah.
NYCFC 1, New England Revolution 2: A dozen years ago Peter Vermes took his Kansas City side (they were still the Wizards!) and started doing something that, even then, felt kind of dated: He began building through the SuperDraft. Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza were the heart of it, but others — CJ Sapong, Dom Dwyer, Chance Myers and a few more scattered throughout the team — also played major roles.
That KC era is winding down now, and multiple times in the past few years I've pointed at them and said "there will never again be another MLS team built like that."
And, well, the Revs are maybe proving me wrong. In Sunday's win, Bruce Arena started 10 players who'd played college ball, eight of whom had come through the draft. Five of them — Andrew Farrell (2013), Brandon Bye (2018), Tajon Buchanan and DeJuan Jones (2019) and Henry Kessler (2020) — had been drafted by the Revs.
I am certain that Arena didn't purposefully set out to build his team through the draft, but New England's success this year (they are 3-1-1 in their past five and have climbed up to sixth in the East) has come in large part because they've drafted so well. It has also come in spite of their imports, who have uniformly underdelivered. The entire Revs backline, which has now allowed just 14 goals in 17 games, were guys picked by the Revs in one January or another.
I will maintain my position that teams who blow off the SuperDraft are committing an unforced error. The Revs have found not just value, but season-saving value where others have decided not to look.
For a good chunk of the second half it felt like an NYCFC equalizer was inevitable, but at the same time kinda not because they were just so reluctant to have a hit. And then when they did have a hit they were either offside or Matt Turner was doing Matt Turner things (or both -- Turner had a pair of stunning saves on shots that were ultimately deemed to be offside).
That said... NYCFC have looked much more dangerous in recent weeks, as their three-game winning streak coming into this one attests. I think there will be some understandable frustration after letting home points get away here, but I also think that if they keep playing like this, they will be better than just "fine."
LAFC 3, Seattle Sounders 1: And now it seems like they really have woken up, right?
This was not a vintage LAFC performance. How could it be when Carlos Vela is still out, when Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez were both on international duty, when Mark-Anthony Kaye went down with a gruesome-looking ankle injury, and when Andy Najar come on for Kaye and lasted just eight minutes before going off with an injury of his own? Bob Bradley loves to bang home the point that LAFC's ethos is about the type of football they want to play, but this wasn't about that: this was about being tough and surviving.
And for the first time all year against a good opponent (Seattle are no worse than the second-best team in the league)... LAFC were really, really tough. They weren't perfect; they got bailed out by a bad Will Bruin miss just before the break, and survived an early onslaught. But they also survived Nico Lodeiro's golazo and instead of folding and conceding an equalizer, they buttoned up and found a third of their own.
They've now won four of six and have climbed up to fourth in the West.
Seattle lost because they were sloppy and LAFC were ruthless, but also Seattle's fine. If anything Brian Schmetzer is probably secretly a little bit happy since this can serve as postseason motivation should these teams cross paths.
Chicago Fire FC 2, D.C. United 1: The Fire predictably labored a bit in moving the ball around without Gaston Gimenez, who's on international duty with Paraguay. Micheal Azira is a good, heady, veteran back-up, but he's not going to conduct the game like Gimenez does. And so a lot of the flowing attacking play that had characterized Chicago through September was nowhere to be found on Sunday vs. D.C.
And that is why it is important to be good at set pieces. The Fire are, and they scored on two of 'em. They finished the weekend above the playoff line, and they have earned it by going 3-1-1 in their past five.
D.C.'s first game of the post-Ben Olsen era will not be going into the time capsule.
He is brilliant and is a workhorse to boot, covering Lodeiro-esque amounts of ground and hitting a Lodeiro-esque number of passes. He is, game after game, the guy that everything runs through for the Reds, and plays that role no matter who he's on the field with. In this one it was largely the back-ups for TFC, and while they left the door open — I think they were bailed out by that VAR'd off penalty in second-half stoppage — ultimately they got the three points.
Toronto have won five straight.
FC Cincy have now lost four straight and have just one win in 11 since play resumed in August.
This was a clinical win from Sporting. They gave up a set-piece goal but basically nothing else, and were able to comfortably wear Nashville down and start carving out chances over the game's final hour. It took a golazo to get it, but they did deserve the full three points.
Nashville have gotten a lot of love in this column this year. They have been one of the best defensive teams in the league, have been nails on set pieces, and have a promising core.
Also, they have scored only 12 goals in 16 games, which is second-worst in the league. They have scored more than a single goal just once all year. They rarely use the ball to create good chances, and are weirdly reluctant to press often enough to become a team comfortable creating chances without the ball.
This loss, on the road at a very good team, and while playing most of the second half a man down, is not the time to read them the riot act. But it's close.
Philadelphia Union 2, Montreal Impact 1: The Union, with Jose Martinez on international duty, have moved away from the 4-4-2 diamond and gone back to a 4-2-3-1 (for the most part) over the past two games, allowing them to spread the field and annihilate teams in transition. It has pretty obviously worked, and what's more, Ilsinho has started to come alive.
Remember, coming into 2020 the biggest question facing the Union was "can they consistently beat teams if Ilsinho descends from godhood and becomes merely a pretty good winger?" They were +23 with him on the field in 2019, and -15 when he wasn't. It was stark, and given that he's 35 (today's his birthday! Happy birthday, Ilsinho!) it was a worry.
Well, Ilsinho's been ordinary this year and Philly have nonetheless been one of the best teams in the league. In the past two games, though, he had a goal vs. Cincinnati and two assists in this one. He's starting to look like last year's version of himself, which should be terrifying to the rest of the East.
Montreal, to their credit, really scrapped in the second half of this one and put Philly under some pressure. They just don't quite have the horses.
Portland Timbers 3, San Jose Earthquakes 0: The Timbers had some speed bumps coming out of Orlando after winning the MLS is Back Tournament. I think it was pretty clearly an in-season championship hangover. Add in the loss of Sebastian Blanco and it would've been easy to imagine them just going into a funk for most of 2020 and then just kind of fizzling out.
They have not done that. They have adjusted, they have improved and they have evolved. They have also now won five straight, and sit tied atop the West with Seattle.
Portland capitalized in this one on individual errors, but also were smart about letting Diego Chara be smart and pick his spots. It was a masterclass from the 34-year-old veteran, who picked up two assists on the night and now has six on the season — a career high despite logging only about 1250 minutes so far in 2020, or roughly half his usual workload.
The loss halted San Jose's modest three-game winning streak, and was their sixth (!!!) loss by three or more goals this season. But guess what? They're still above the playoff line. For a lot of reasons, this has been a season unlike any other.