To start with a top-line note on the results from Major League Soccer Week Mostly-8 (almost done with that; all of tonight’s midweek games will allow me to round up next week), the results weren’t that wacky. After controlling for odd-ball scores (just one, really), I count only five (5) surprise results. And even the surprises generally continued one narrative or another for the team(s) involved, or they didn’t mean anything at all. I’ll elaborate on that argument, but only after drawing attention to something I just noticed this past weekend.
The Other Side of the Road
As everyone knows, several MLS teams opened the 2019 season with extended stints on the road – e.g., Minnesota United FC (who have returned home), the Montreal Impact (who have returned home), and the Portland Timbers (come home. please?). What I haven’t seen, though, is much discussion of the teams who needed to play a bunch of games at home to make up for those road trips. Not surprisingly, more of those teams play in the Western Conference, but a couple of Eastern Conference teams had to adjust as well, some more than others. The latter category includes the Chicago Fire and the San Jose Earthquakes, both of whom ended the past weekend with five games at home and two games away. Both of those teams move closer to balance with a pair of road games in the (heavy for them) week ahead – games that could easily upset what fragile progress they’ve made in those home games (I’ll get to it; I don’t create an itch without scratching it).
Anyone who wants to see where that left those teams can check this week’s Form Guide ULTRA, which lists every result for every team in MLS, along with…enough notes. Moving on…
Three other teams took the blessing/curse of an easy start: the Houston Dynamo (four home, two away); Toronto FC (four home, two away), and, most of all, the Los Angeles Galaxy, who have played all but one of their first seven games at home. To anyone wondering, I included Houston and Toronto down here because they have another week (or in Houston’s case, two weeks) of games at home; LA, meanwhile, just has the big discrepancy right now, but they’ll start racking up road games from here. (And, just to finish the thought, Toronto will push toward imbalance through their 11th game, at which point they’ll have played seven home games, and four away). Those softer schedules didn’t do Chicago or San Jose enough favors, but how much LA, Houston, and Toronto have benefitted remains a big enough unknown that it’s worth questioning how well MLS observers can know these teams. And that goes double once you consider, say, Houston’s history on the road or, more currently, the fact that Toronto has allowed eight of its last 11 goals over the past three games – and two of those were home games, and against Chicago and Minnesota. The point is, call those more easily pocketed games a detail to file away. With that, it’s time to talk results.
As teased above, I’d argue that Week Mostly-8 had only five surprise results: the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-0 pick-pocketing of Los Angeles FC; FC Cincinnati’s lung-busting 0-3 capitulation to Real Salt Lake (feel free to review my extended notes on that game); the Portland Timbers’ smash-‘n’-grab 3-1 win at Columbus Crew SC (my extended notes on that one); the 4-1 hurt San Jose dropped on Sporting Kansas City; and, finally, D.C. United giving New York City FC its first win of the season in D.C. As also noted above, some of these results continued subtle, but meaningful narratives for some of these teams – e.g., one could argue this was just the latest spin in FC Cincy’s downward spiral (the sharpest turn) and, for all its talent, SKC simply has not gotten started this season (and, honestly, they made a mess of this game early (X2) and late). A similar, if less obvious case can be made for Columbus and D.C., both of whom started the season strong, but who are now in early-(Columbus)-to-mid (D.C.) stumble. That “stumble” narrative doesn’t travel nearly as far for Columbus – who gave up the back-breaking goal very late, and who should be far, far more pissed off at failing to put away both the gifts Portland’s Jeff Attinella literally handed them (they got one of ‘em) – but the beads of sweat should be bubbling for D.C. right now. They built their record/reputation over their first four games – and against either weak opposition (RSL in D.C.), or opposition that later proved to be weak (e.g., Atlanta). They picked up only four points of the last 12 available, despite playing at home, and they got three of those points by squeaking past at Colorado.
Now, a surprise result doesn’t necessarily translate as an important one. That’s where I’d file Columbus’ loss to Portland – i.e., Columbus might have just had a bad night, while Portland, who has had nothing but bad nights, can’t draw any reliable conclusions from what could wind up being a one-off. (Also, please don’t let it be a one-off.) Vancouver showed just how much beating LAFC in Vancouver mattered by getting run over everywhere but the scoreboard against Orlando City SC three, four (five?) days later (not that Orlando didn’t leave it late and lucky; aka, why people rarely talk about either team). The rest matter at margins of varying width – e.g., RSL always needs road wins, and now that’s a two-game winning-streak; or, to make a bigger stretch, do two, multi–goal wins hint that San Jose have figured out how to work Matias Almeyda’s system? That could be a massive deal, for one, a major scrambling of expectations? A lot of the details and micro-trends above can only get proved or denied with more data – but, yeah, Cincinnati should be worried, and Sporting KC has to stop borrowing against that reputation at some point.
Totally unrelated, but I learned a little more about xG theory today, and I’m a fan, but mostly because it feels incredibly messy and human. Moving on…
As for the results that shouldn’t have surprised people (more or less), four of those felt like big deals – arguably, the biggest deals of the weekend. To start with the obvious, LAFC turned “Week 8’s” (averaging D.C. seven games against LAFC’s nine) Clash of the Titans into the Seattle Sounders getting brutally noogied (crap, sp?) on the rec room floor, and for 90 excruciating minutes. I have to pause here, 1) to mock arrogant, brittle Sounders fans, and 2) to tout the value of the Form Guide ULTRA. Earlier this week (gotta be Monday, yeah), Matt Doyle screen-captured a comment from a Sounders fan that, basically, argued LAFC has built its record by beating up wimps. The Form Guide ULTRA lays bare the “oh, the irony” desperation of that statement by showing that Seattle has had it pretty damn easy as well (Cincinnati, Colorado and RSL at home, Chicago and Vancouver away were literally their first five games), and showing how much more vigorously and largely LAFC has played through what’s probably a tougher schedule. To get to details (and stop crapping on Sounders fans), LAFC really did kick the crap out of Seattle. Carlos Vela steals the headlines, but the more important thing to do is watch the series of blue–plate specials Mark-Anthony Kaye and Eduardo Atuesta served up (“plate” was the hardest) – as well as where and how they recovered the ball to get those blue-plate specials ready to serve. This recalled LAFC’s win over D.C. United (yes, I know what I just wrote about D.C., but note the score in both games), and people are high on this team for the right reason.
As for the rest, I’ve already alluded to Toronto’s late bleeding of goals – and allowing Minnesota three playing at home probably adds up to their worst defensive performance of 2019 (yay?). Part of that follows from Darwin Quintero playing to the high end of his usual (1 goal, 1 assist), but TFC won’t go anywhere important until they figure out how to manage stronger attacking teams (and also Chicago). Minnesota, meanwhile, both had, and has, bigger problems. In an attempt to run down the mystery, I checked to see how many games Ike Opara missed…and it was just this one. That mattered, though, because, whether or not he was a direct replacement, Michael Boxall managed The Defender’s Hat–Trick. Yes, he was directly involved and/or beaten on three goals and, no, championships aren’t built on that. That covered “had,” now onto “has”: the Loons saw Jan Gregus (rightly) sent off on a straight red, and then Francisco Calvo a few minutes later (ditto). A team that allows enough goals to hurt simply can’t afford that. That detail, if nothing else, made this game consequential – especially given Minnesota’s upcoming schedule.
To wrap up the important games, Philly’s 3-0 win over Montreal at home very likely means I low-balled their loose ranking in the Form Guide ULTRA, because they’ve won four of their last five against real teams and/or in real situations. That said, I haven’t seen a more inexplicable box score since I last went to the track (I’ve never understood The Racing Form, honestly). The Union does like to keep the ball in bounds and under control, though, and that’s how they score goals like this one (and I am a straight-up Haris Medunjanin stan). Last but not least was FC Dallas’ utterly shameless 2-1 act of larceny at Atlanta United FC. They built the win on a soli…or, rather, resilient defense, and good stories, both old (Michael Barrios) and new (Jesus Ferreira, who’s just 18, but also, that’s Barrios on the assist). Atlanta picked up a consolation goal that probably felt like a turd in a fancy box, but they came close in this one, what with Ezequiel Barca going off the post twice and all. And there’s a bigger detail in there that makes a nice segue to the third and final segment of this post…
Things to Watch For
– Just to mark the occasion, Atlanta will play Colorado in the Toilet Bowl I, 2019, aka the worst in the East versus the worst in the West. For what it’s worth, Colorado is far closer to the drain.
– On the polar opposite side of the spectrum, the Seattle Sounders have a golden opportunity to make their fans’ mewling hold up when they host LAFC. I doubt they’ll return the favor, but I do expect Seattle to win this one. And if they don’t…oh, yeah.
– To wrap up what’s going to happen next weekend, a healthy chunk of the league has two game swings ahead of them, and some of these could finally re-write some narratives. I’ll talk about what actually happened next weekend, but here’s the full list of the relevant teams, their opposition, and the number of points I (loosely) expect each team to get out of both games:
LA Galaxy (@ MIN, v RSL; 4 points minimum)
Columbus Crew SC (v DCU, @ HOU; higher than 3 would be great)
Minnesota United FC (v LAG, v DC; as many as they can get, but it better be 4)
Chicago Fire (@ NYC, @ MTL; 2 points would impress me, and that says a lot)
New York City FC (v CHI, v ORL; all 6; this is one of the bigger deals of the week)
Montreal Impact (@ NER, v CHI; 6 would say a ton, but anything 3 and north is fine)
New England Revolution (v MTL, @ SKC; I can see 0, I can see 4; 2 would be good)
San Jose Earthquakes (@ SEA, @ FCD, aka, getting tested; anything above 2 is real)
– To rescue the lead I utterly buried, things are looking bright in both Texas (Houston and Dallas) and Los Angeles (LAFC and the Galaxy). All those teams look good-to-great right now – and Houston’s solid showing against LA underscores their real potential – but all four of these teams are firing on enough cylinders.
– Finally, I left two results unmentioned, and I have this thing about being thorough, so: the best thing about New England beating the New York Red Bulls was the players involved in the game’s only goal. After that, this is more confirmation that the Red Bulls just aren’t good right now, so why give that time? (wait…) Chicago kicked the crap out of Colorado (personal highlight), and it’s good to see the Fire’s attacking pieces come together. At the same time…Colorado. No part of those 23 goals allowed was handed to them as some kind of handicap.
That feels like plenty for one week. See all y’all in Week 9! I’ll get in more cultural references then!