MLS Weekly, Week 11: The Field Takes Shape (For Now)

However it happened – corporate corner-cutting, a mass arrest of Major League Soccer’s more tech-savvy interns – the highlights team at Mothership HQ …

Photo Credit: Stephanie Romero

However it happened – corporate corner-cutting, a mass arrest of Major League Soccer’s more tech-savvy interns – the highlights team at Mothership HQ opted against splicing together (near as I can tell) even one condensed game this weekend. As such, I’m flying blind(er) with this weekend’s review (and I’m not sure I’m entirely against it; seriously, over-preparation is something people do). The biggest, more relevant caveat I can provide follows from there: I’ve only watched the highlights, checked the box scores and line-ups for all the games this week, then did some math to come up with everything down below. It’s better than guessing – by a fair stretch, I’d argue – but it’s not the ultimate dream, aka, total coverage. That said, even if the coverage isn’t total, everyone will be mentioned. To share a kind of user’s guide, when I use a phrase like “super-active,” what I really mean is, “he showed up all over the highlights.” Also, unless I make a clearly detailed point, assume I’m thinking “it looked like” in front of every sentence that describes a game-state of any kind.

For this week’s review, I decided to start with my hometown Portland Timbers, and not just to proselytize (though, by the earth beneath my feet, and the gods over my head, I will make Timbers fans out of as many people as possible). For anyone who hasn’t heard, the Timbers lost last Friday to the Vancouver Whitecaps all the way up in the very bottom of British Columbia. As noted in the write-up I posted to Conifers & Citrus, the Timbers turned a slow start all the way around, to the point where the ‘Caps couldn’t keep track of where the next punch would come from. Portland ended with the number of shots that one usually only sees in a rout (having reviewed every box score from this past weekend, I’ve got about 15 games’ worth of back to that argument,) only they never scored. 27 shots…27 wild-ass shots, apparently, but that box score provides a decent impression of the totality of that game.

If you take the time to read that post, I felt all right after Friday’s loss – disappointed, but, with Portland playing well over five of the last six games, and winning three of those in a row, all them away, I could still see a fairly clear path forward. With Providence Park still rushing to completion, the Timbers still having two games left to play on the road before returning home…to face Los Angeles FC (srsly? sh*t).

Staring down the cold-steel barrel of those two games – away to the Houston Dynamo, then away to the Philadelphia Union – made me feel like I’d read the script for Friday’s loss to Vancouver upside down. According to recent math, Houston and Philly away are just about two of the hardest road games available in MLS 2019, and then the Timbers face (per one opinion) MLS’s Manchester City in their first home game against LAFC. That’s the sharper clarity you miss by focusing too much on the present. Bottom line, the Timbers threw away its best chance to come out of their road trip with more than 10 points – and they did it while out-playing a team on the road and for 2/3 of the game. As a Timbers fan first, I’d much rather have 13 points right now than try to pry them out of their next three dips into your higher rings of Hell. The point is, you can’t always tell what a yesterday’s loss means until you look ahead to a tomorrow or two down the line.

To pull back and stare at the big picture, MLS Week (by a slim margin) 11 was a busy and fairly talkative mess. During a week where 1/3 of the league played two games, the league’s two, increasingly-clear heavyweights packed their dominance rituals into just one game – and they weren’t the only teams making noise…of whatever kind or sound (see the Colorado Rapids, and cry). Of the teams who played two games during Week 11, four of them more or less carried on in a meaningful direction (three of them, for sure, the fourth less so); and there are smaller trends to track even under all of that. I plan to touch on every team/game in MLS in this review (and we’ll see how I do), but I want to start in the most obvious place – i.e., with MLS two clear heavyweights.

Of Contenders (and Dark Horses)

When Los Angeles FC….more or less pounded Columbus Crew SC in Ohio this weekend, they very quietly slapped down any (or just my) talk of a slow-down. And, yes, Columbus hasn’t been great, but they’d just done a tidy dance atop LAFC’s inter(-ish)-city rivals, the Los Angeles Galaxy, four days before, and that at least opened the floor to some questions. Watching the highlights cleared up at least the present confusion – especially with Carlos Vela looking like a player from another, better league – and then you see the soccer gods show their favor in such transparent, almost heartbreaking ways to anyone who hasn’t been a favorite child. It only gets worse when you see Mark-Anthony Kaye all over the highlights to boot. For those who haven’t checked, LAFC’s goal differential is, for this kind of league, off the charts.

That same factor – e.g., an eye-catching goal differential – sells me on Philly as well. LAFC’s differential is wider (29 gf, 8 ga versus 23 gf, 12 ga), but the Union’s still lives on a distant (small sample) planet from the rest of MLS with that +11 spread. After mopping the floor with the opposition at home over the past two games (not to mention padding that goal differential), the Union traveled Toronto FC, a reportedly tricky, definitely big venue, shivved the home team, and went home with all three points. From the highlights alone, the brightest spot I saw was them getting a solid ROI out of Kacper Przybylko. Better still (from Philly’s point of view), it looked like Philly smothered them all the way until they choked the game-opening goal out of them. At this point in the season, LAFC and Philly look like something like global gatekeepers, teams doing well (enough) in any venue.

Before I forget Columbus and TFC, one of them had a reasonable week (Columbus), while a disaster hit the other one (TFC). Defensible as it may be to get (numerically) played off the park by Atlanta in the Dirty South – TFC’s other, arguably worse loss over Week 12 – handling the Union at home was TFC’s real litmus test. While TFC played under the same profile in both games, the loss to Atlanta highlights the chilling, semi-unexpected hint at what’s eating TFC: they’re both dominating and dicking around with possession, and have the non-results to show for it. Not one shot on goal against Atlanta. The story is brighter in Columbus – Gyasi Zardes woke up (and that’s one hell of an assist), and they got half the points from Week 11 – but it feels notable all the same to see them play themselves into the space between the Galaxy and LAFC (as in, is that their level?). To get back to Atlanta, though…

While I think anyone with eyes can see that Atlanta’s enjoyed a bit of an upswing lately, I’m not sure everyone noticed that they’ve allowed just one goal in their last six games. Those same six games haven’t been the toughest stretch by any means – e.g., four games at home, and against some of MLS’s dimmer bulbs (at present! dream, guys!), the New England Revolution and Sporting Kansas City away and the Colorado Rapids and, in their other game this weekend, Orlando City SC at home. In other words, those are games they should be winning. The point is, they are, Hector Villalba looked dangerous across both games, and Josef Martinez got two assists against TFC and, again, teams aren’t scoring against them.

Another team rising from the depths is New York City FC, who have lately mastered the art of turning Ds into Ws. NYCFC wrapped up their fourth win in five games all the way in Los Angeles, and they (again, from the looks of it) played pretty circles around the Galaxy. When people ask what makes a team better, it can be something unexpected as having a fullback like Anton Tinnerholm on the roster (who was involved in both goals). To wrap up the Galaxy, as cranked up as I’d be the goals they allowed against Columbus (i.e., up the gut), they have bigger fish to burn – e.g., that’s 3 straight losses, yes? On the plus side, losing to a surging NYCFC side at home isn’t the same as losing to a lot of teams right now.

That leaves only one dark horse in the stable, the Chicago Fire. To draw an arbitrary line, Chicago has allowed just five goals in its last seven games – and, to those wondering, I used that cut off to keep the math useful and to isolate the period where Chicago collected a helpful number of points. 3-2-2 might not win a team any titles, but it’ll probably get them to the playoffs – a reasonable step forward for a team like Chicago. More to the point, that defensive solidity (also, the formation is notable) has let them build the kind of reliable results that help give faith in a team – e.g., tight losses away to NYCFC and LAFC, and thrashings of teams they should thrash at home (e.g., Colorado, New England, and, this past weekend Minnesota United). With that defense clicking and Aleksandar Katai prowling, Nicolas Gaitan leading lethal counters across two games, and Frankowski’s incredible speed, I’m just saying that sleeping on Chicago suddenly looks like a bad idea.

An Interlude, The Maddening Tweener

Before moving on, there’s one fringe, deeply deceptive candidate who has very quietly improved its recent record: the New York Red Bulls, a team that has become hard to track precisely because it keeps losing some freaky-ass random games with stunning regularity. Now comes the fun: look at the line-ups the Red Bulls started in each of Week 11’s games. If I gave you a blind taste-test as to which of those line-ups lost in Harrison, NJ and which won in Frisco, TX, I’m something like 75% certain you’d get it wrong. The funnier thing is that the Red Bulls have now won three of their last four games, and they probably got unlucky against Montréal. While they’ve looked more like they used to in recent weeks (i.e., one- or two-touch passes and lots of movement, like this), the one thing that keeps me from rising them to the land of the living is the low numbers I keep seeing them produce. When you’re already at the margin, it doesn’t take much to knock you off the edge.

Should We Fire Our Coach? (Signs Point to Yes!)

Of the two teams who fired their coaches this week – FC Cincinnati and the New England Revolution – both of them won the game immediately after the defenestration. In Cincinnati’s case, the most visible change came from either shuffling around personnel or commitment to a new way of playing (NOTE: both could be valid; the second one is mine, the other one is more precise). The decision to put their foot on the ball a lot more in the post-Alan-Koch era paid off for FC Cincy, but I would also never call the Montréal Impact an easy read – not least because they aren’t all there. On the one hand, sure, if they translate that (now) 4-4-2 record to the end of the season, they’re deep in the playoffs. At the same time, none of what I saw around their win over RBNY nominated them for powerhouse (this was a gift, but not an egregious one), and, as noted in my longer write-up on their road loss to FC Cincy, they hardly graced Ohio with their presence. To close with Cincinnati, the concept looks good, but keep a lid on expectations till further notice (and may they come soon).

I know less about the Revolution, I mean besides the brutal (savage? war-crimes-esque?) divide between their evisceration on the road at Chicago and their eye-catching win over the San Jose Earthquakes. At the same time, the eye test might have some wrinkles in it. First, the Revs got pushed around a bit in every even loosely attacking metric except goals scored. On the one hand, it’s great they caught San Jose with their pants down, but can they build a season around it? Also, I didn’t make much of this in the paragraph above on Chicago, but, holy sh*t, the comedy of deeply-unfunny errors that end with Nemanja Nikolic scoring on the third gift the Revs gave him. They’re still terrible defensively, and that’s going to amount to a burden. That said, were I a New England fan, I’d draw comfort from seeing Mike Lapper re-imagine the team and get results. If pressed, I’d play Lapper’s XI against Brad Friedel’s last XI every day of the week.

Well, that’s it for everything I can fit into a topic. To close out the rest of the results I haven’t mentioned yet, the Colorado Rapids…reverse conjoured a loss at home to Real Salt Lake, one that included the tragic, immediately-caveated phrase right after the Rapids scored their (thoroughly decent) equalizer, “and how important can that one be?” Note how they hung the thought, waiting for the inevitable failure; Kei Kamara missing the PK only amplifies the case that this team is cursed. To go a little more global, Colorado ranks among a bunch of teams that I’ll never call decent until they utterly convince me. It’s going to take six weeks’ worth of wins before I take them seriously (or even just stop mercilessly measuring any result they get against something that debunks it). And, to use a handy example, RSL hangs from the same hook: sure, they’re in the playoffs at time of writing, but only by the grace of punching every convenient team that’s available to them.

To well and truly close out, I didn’t see anything that exonerates Minnesota’s loss to Chicago (if nothing else, you’re worried about Katai beating Ike Opara like that). I think…wait, crap! I forgot the late, late show – i.e., D.C. United’s narrow 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City. My only thoughts there are, 1) feels like more of the same (e.g., an SKC loss); 2) Wayne Rooney serves up a mean set-piece; 3) most importantly, and as much as I try to avoid it (and I need a therapist for this), as much as I keep trying to dismiss D.C. United, they’re 6-3-1 in their last 10 games. If I can’t get as excited about D.C.’s three wins in their last four as I get in the Red Bulls, what good am I?

Finally, and I think this is the last one, the Seattle Sounders beat the Houston Dynamo at home 1-0 late on Saturday, and a second consecutive bomb from Cristian Roldan feels like the only surprise there. (Also, Alberth Elis should have done better with this one).

Please, God, let that be everything. Overall, I think it’s safe to argue that, until further notice, MLS has two clear contenders: LAFC and Philly. Some “hot” teams exist between them and the grasping pit below – e.g., Atlanta, NYCFC, (missed it, but) and DC; and maybe Chicago and the Red Bulls (all Eastern Conference teams…hmm) – but the rest probably feel stuck in a permanent loop of “how do we make things better, I mean without spending money?”

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