In Week 21 we saw the Union take a huge step towards the Shield, while the Galaxy continued to hit new lows. Elsewhere, an expansion side clinch a playoff berth in its first year against all odds. And it's not the expansion team everyone thought would be first to the postseason.
Philly would be deserved Shield winners
For much of this season, I felt the Columbus Crew were going to win the Shield for the best record in the regular season. They were unbelievably stingy defensively and had enough weapons to always find a couple of goals when they needed. Then the injuries to key guys came — Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan — and they hit a rough patch that gave Toronto an opening.
And up until recently, Greg Vanney’s team looked like the best team in the league. Despite missing important pieces at different times throughout the year, Toronto FC kept picking up results in every way possible and showed an incredible knack for finding three points in close games. Alejandro Pozuelo established himself as the MVP frontrunner and they seemed headed for more silverware.
But in recent weeks, Pozuelo’s level has dropped and so has the whole team's. In the past seven games he’s managed just a single goal and zero assists, and Toronto have won just one of the past four, including two consecutive defeats by a combined score of 6-0. Against NYCFC on Wednesday, the 1-0 scoreline was close, but the game wasn’t. The Reds didn’t manage a shot on goal and badly missed the dynamic skillset of Ayo Akinola and the qualities that both Pablo Piatti and Jozy Altidore bring. They were unrecognizable offensively: We saw very little of the triangle passing patterns they produce at their best, or the desire to get out on the counter quickly. Despite all of that, I do believe they will be one of the favorites in the playoffs, but they need to get fit ASAP. In the meantime, their minor dip in form has opened the door for the very impressive Philadelphia Union.
Since losing to Toronto at the start of the month, the Union have been on a tear, picking up 16 points from a possible 18 while averaging 2.6 goals. They followed up the 5-0 demolition of Toronto last weekend with a professional performance and a 2-1 win against a tough Chicago team. The Fire threw everything at them in search of an equalizer, but the Union stood firm.
I’ve spent a lot of time praising the likes of Jamiro Monteiro, Brenden Aaronson, Sergio Santos, Anthony Fontana and some of the other attacking pieces, but you don’t get to a +23 goal difference just by scoring goals. You have to stop them at the other end as well, and so their back line deserves enormous praise. Mark McKenzie put in another impressive shift alongside Jakob Glesnes in the heart of defense and it's no wonder McKenzie is up for three individual league awards.
I’ve been on teams that have won trophies and the one thing all of those teams had in common was that they were very good defensively. Very few teams can score enough goals to overcome a leaky defense and I credit Union head coach Jim Curtin for building this team the right way. They are easy on the eye going forward, but more importantly, they scrap and fight for everything defensively. The best teams in the world — the Liverpool’s and Bayern’s — are breathtakingly good offensively, but they usually lead the league in fewest goals conceded as well. We must not overlook how good the Union’s defense has been: Their 18 goals conceded are tied for second fewest in MLS this year.
When you consider how they've tried to play the right way all season, without ever neglecting the tackling, tracking back and winning duels, the Union would definitely make for worthy winners of the Shield. And they look hungry for more and poised for a deep playoff run.
Galaxy's core issue has been same for 3 years running
I didn’t know much about MLS as I was growing up in England, but the two things I was aware of were (1) Freddy Adu and (2) the Los Angeles Galaxy. And then for much of my career, the Galaxy were the team I most wanted to beat. The first fixtures I circled when the schedule was released were the games against LA because I knew they were the standard by which a lot of MLS clubs measured themselves both on and off the pitch.
After watching their lifeless effort in the 5-2 defeat to the Portland Timbers, the days of the Galaxy being a club worth envying seem distant. Any team can have a bad season or two as they rebuild or try to replace former players, but this has now extended beyond that, and it feels like a massive overhaul and change in approach is needed. If you have an otherworldly talent like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as has been the case in 2018-2019, then you can cover up a lot of cracks and even entertain the masses to the point that they overlook some of this team's glaring deficiencies.
When Zlatan walked out the door, the spotlight on the Galaxy defense became brighter. This isn’t a 2020 problem: The Galaxy have been poor defensively since 2017 when they conceded 1.97 goals per game. In 2018 it was 1.88 and in 2019 it was 1.73. Despite the poor defensive records in 2018 and 2019, their goal differential was +2 (2018) and -1 (2018) and it was simply because Zlatan scored an absurd amount of goals to keep them competitive. But he is no longer there and so the 2.1 goals against average in 2020 has led to a -17 goals differential.
Simply put: In the last few transfer windows, the Galaxy have done nothing to address their gaping defensive holes. The priority has been to chase the new shiny signing that can sell shirts, put butts in seats and hopefully score a few goals. And it has come at the expense of prioritizing the need for a proven defensive leader who can win the Galaxy games by stopping goals. They are paying the price for that approach.
Is manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto the right man for the job? I don’t know that the very best coaches like Bob Bradley, Brian Schmetzer or Greg Vanney could do much with this Galaxy squad. You have Cristian Pavon and Jonathan Dos Santos who are head and shoulders above everyone else, and then you have Sebastian Lletget who is a solid piece when he hits form, and that’s honestly all that gets me excited when I watch them play. Everyone else, including Chicharito, is expendable at this point.
I don’t think Schelotto has helped himself tactically, as he has inexplicably chosen to play a very high line against opponents whose strength is exploiting the space in behind. But I don’t put this at his feet because the problems existed before him. The front office has got to look in the mirror and acknowledge that a change in philosophy is needed. The Galaxy must sign defenders and begin to build from the back — they need to become a team that wants to win 1-0 rather than 4-3.
Music City's magic formula
If the Galaxy want some inspiration on what benefits prioritizing the defense can yield, they need to look no further than Nashville SC.
Nashville have mathematically clinched a playoff berth in their expansion season and they’ve done it because they concede less than a goal a game — impressive under any circumstances, but absolutely incredible for an expansion team. They have only scored 20 goals in 20 games and will definitely have to raise that average when they face some of the best teams in the playoffs, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you seldom concede, you will always have a chance of winning games.
It’s obvious that Nashville are a good defensive team, but we have to understand exactly what they are doing. There are a few things, but here are just a couple:
- They don’t allow clear-cut chances. In their last three games, they have given up 11, nine and six shots, but only two of the shots have been on goal in all three games. In other words, they don’t mind giving up shots from distance, but they are aggressive about the space around their box. The back line steps as a unit and takes away the space just outside the box. And it also does a great job with positioning when facing crosses from wide areas.
- The Dave Romney-Walker Zimmerman center back partnership has been exceptional in recent weeks. They work well as a pair, but beyond that they hold everyone else accountable not only vocally, but by setting an example with their own play. They are great in the air, and quicker than they look across the ground and they are a big reason why this team has five clean sheets in their last nine games.
And the final spots in the East go to ...
D.C. United’s 1-0 win against the Crew continued their good run of form and leaves them with a very good chance to claim one of the two remaining playoff spots in the East. And because I can see them beating Montreal when the two face off on Decision Day, I believe they will be in the postseason (at New England, vs. Montreal).
I think Inter Miami take the other spot because I can see them picking up at least one win at the very least, and maybe a draw as well, from their final two (at Toronto, vs Cincinnati). Chicago Fire have a game in hand on both D.C. and Miami and therefore more opportunities to grab some points, but their remaining schedule isn’t easy and I think that will leave them as the odd team out (at Nashville, at Minnesota, vs. NYCFC).
Wednesday's big referee decisions
I cannot see why Chicago's Francisco Calvo was sent off in the 36th minute in Philadelphia. Yes, he steps on Alejandro Bedoya, but I’m still not 100% sure that it was intentional. He definitely left his mark, and Bedoya will be sore in the morning, but that simply isn’t a red card for me because it’s not reckless, malicious, dangerous or calculated. At worst it was a silly action by Calvo that should have received a yellow.
And I have no idea what Miami's Leandro Gonazelez Pirez was protesting about against FC Dallas because his foul in the box is a penalty kick every day of the week. It came with his Inter Miami team leading on the road 1-0 and it let FC Dallas back into the game. Any time you make contact in the box, you give the referee a decision to make. And when there is clear contact, there really isn’t any debate. No surprise the penalty was awarded to me:
Race for No. 1 in West going down to the wire
All three of the teams chasing the No. 1 seed in the West had good results and it’s getting harder to pick who will win out in the end.
The temptation will be to talk about how bad the Galaxy were — believe me they were bad — but we have to give the Portland Timbers credit for their 5-2 win. How many times have we seen good teams dominate bad teams but fail to convert? It happens all the time and so the Timbers did what they were supposed to do by putting LA to the sword in impressive fashion.
Sporting KC continued their recent good run and ended the night in first place, but I am going to give the edge in this race to the Seattle Sounders for one simple reason: They have a game in hand. That gives them room for error that the other two don’t have and because that game in hand is against the Galaxy, I can’t see Seattle getting anything but the full three points.
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.