This weekend, by my reckoning, marked the start of the stretch run. There’s about a third of the season left, roughly an 11-game sprint to a shot at postseason glory or a very long winter spent trying to figure out what went wrong.
Seems like a good excuse to just go through the entire weekend a game at a time to get a 10,000-foot view of what’s happening. We’ll do it chronologically.
And in we go:
Atlanta United 3, Orlando City 0
Since firing Gabriel Heinze, Atlanta are 5-3-2. That’s 1.7 ppg, which would be good for third in the East overall.
If they just did that they’d be a playoff team. But they’re doing much, much more than that lately. On Friday night they smoked an Orlando City side that was previously second in the East, and did so without Josef Martinez and Miles Robinson — arguably, I’d say, Atlanta’s two best players. They also did it while addressing the gigantic spacing issues that Nashville had so ruthlessly exploited two weeks ago in Gonzalo Pineda’s sideline debut.
“They solved some tactical kinks on their own,” Pineda said of his players, “and that is where I am very happy. Sometimes, we as coaches can really pay attention to the solutions that the players provide to us, not us always providing the solutions. I love to analyze the training sessions because we can see certain behaviors from them that we can continue in the game plan, and they did it fantastically today.”
They really did, and not just defensively. Atlanta’s 3-5-2 with a pair of false 9s caused all sorts of confusion in Orlando’s usually stout defense, and Pineda should take a bow for that. But the bedrock of this turnaround is that the guys the Five Stripes are paying to be really, really good — Marcelino Moreno, Luiz Araujo and even, yes, Ezequiel Barco — are finally being really, really good virtually every week they’re out there. Over the past six weeks Atlanta’s best players have actually been their best players; it’s no longer “just get it out wide to Brooks Lennon and pray.”
What I’m saying is that I think they’re back. They probably won’t achieve A-Tier contender status, but they’ve won five of six and are only four points out of fourth place and the no-doubt-about-it sold-out playoff opener that comes with it.
Hope you all had your fun on social media while Atlanta’s fans were in hibernation for the past 18 months.
This is the Lions’ first loss in seven, so there should be no panic there. But on a longer view, maybe some concern as they’re just 4-4-5 since the start of July, and while some of that can be chalked up to absences, Daryl Dike and Mauricio Pereyra were back for this one, and Nani’s healthy and in the XI.
I don’t think the bottom’s going to drop out or anything, but it’s been a long while since Orlando have put forth the type of performance they’re capable of.
Vancouver Whitecaps 0, Portland Timbers 1
The bottom did, in fact, appear to drop out on the Timbers a month ago at home to Seattle. They’d just taken a record defeat to a rival and were staring at a season-defining five-game road trip. If it went badly, then that was it.
It mostly went very, very well. I’d say it was already a successful trip even before this game, but the win sealed it: the Timbers wrapped up a 3-1-1 road odyssey. By any measure, that’s a fantastic road stretch.
My very simple take is that Sebastian Blanco is back and healthy, and when one of the league’s very best players is back and healthy it can elevate the entire team. I’ll also offer that Gio Savarese has been shrewder in how he’s used Diego Chara in recent weeks, deploying him more as a backline shield who protects the central defense rather than a go-everywhere ball-winner or, as in the disastrous loss to the Sounders, a No. 8 limited to one side of the pitch. The passing network from Second Spectrum is by no means a perfect representation, but it gives you an idea of where to find Chara these days:
The loss is a killer for the ‘Caps, who were unbeaten in 10 and had won four in a row. Obviously they’re not dead yet — they’re just one point below the line — but this felt like an “a playoff team figures out how to win this one at home” type of game.
Colorado Rapids 1, LA Galaxy 1
This game was constantly one good touch from being completely awesome, but both the Rapids and the Galaxy mostly lacked that extra little bit of quality to crack things open, and when they did attackers mostly couldn’t find their finishing boots.
But it was entertaining and, from a Galaxy perspective, it counts as a massive win because Chicharito’s back. He finally returned after being sidelined for about two-and-a-half months, and while he didn’t look sharp he did look fit. That is the kind of thing you want for your stretch run.
Interesting note here: Greg Vanney’s usually had his team line up in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 this year. He chose a slightly lopsided 3-4-1-2 for this game, which was a way of mirroring Robin Fraser’s now default 3-5-2 for the hosts.
That is not my favorite kind of tactical decision, since formational mirroring is usually meant to kill the game instead of opening it up. But it’s a very understandable decision and a point at Colorado is a damn good result this year.
As for the Rapids, this team is already one of the best in the league. How good would they be if they had a Chicharito or Josef-level center forward?
Seattle Sounders 1, Minnesota United 0
The Sounders got Stefan Frei back, got Nouhou back and pitched their ninth shutout of the year. They’ve now won four of five following a mid-summer blip during the Gold Cup, and are back atop the West on both points and points per game.
The slight catch is that seven of their final 11 are away from home. But then again they’re 7-1-2 on the road this year and are generally more comfortable in games where they get to counterattack, so … they’ll probably win a bunch of those, and probably finish the year atop the West. Which means nothing but home games in the playoffs.
Do they want that? I don’t know. Maybe they shouldn’t.
It’s a weird situation for the Sounders as they still have to solve their “we’ve only got one guy who regularly scores from open play” conundrum. Joao Paulo pinged it in from the top of the D this week to save some blushes, but this game marks the eighth time in their past 10 that Seattle have scored one or zero goals. It’s usually been Raul Ruidiaz or bust, and the risks they were taking to create goals at the start of the year — both wingbacks flying forward, constant overloads on the right, etc — have progressively been more measured.
I think the Loons will be fine once those two guys get fit and back into the lineup, by the way. There aren’t many bells and whistles or tactical adjustments, but the 14 (or so) players Adrian Heath entrusts with minutes are very good, and Reynoso is a warlock who conjures tap-ins.
New England Revolution 2, NYCFC 1
We’ve been caught up in a lot of big stories around the Revs this year, right? Matt Turner being this good for the US men’s national team (told you) has taken up a lot of air, and Tajon Buchanan being this good for Canada (and getting a subsequent big-money switch to a Champions League side) has taken up its fair share as well.
And of course there was Carles Gil sprinting to a massive lead in the Landon Donovan MVP race… before disappearing for a month with a still undisclosed injury that required some sort of rehab in Spain, going by reports and Instagram stalking. Then, just this past week, it was revealed that Adam Buksa is the next Robert Lewandowski*. That’s one big story followed by another big story followed by another, and we’ve justifiably spent a lot of time talking about all of the above.
(*) Not really, though Buksa was excellent for Poland during the international date and my guess is that Tajon is not the only Rev who will be departing this winter.
Through it all the Revs just kept winning, which is a story that’s felt almost tangential to everything else happening with this club. But here’s where they are now: A 10-point Supporters’ Shield lead with nine games to play. It would take a collapse of epic proportions for them to blow it, and this New England side have shown no propensity for such failure.
Understand that this is one of the O.G. MLS franchises, and in their entire existence they have only one major trophy (the 2007 US Open Cup) to show for it. A Shield is monumental for them, and by definition would make this the most successful season in club history.
But even that undersells the pace these Revs are on. Our own Jonathan Sigal did the math: New England need 2 ppg (18 points total) in their last nine games for most single-season points in MLS history. LAFC had 72 in 2019, New England are on 55 through 25 games.
They are 10-1-1 in their past 12 games, and most of that has come without Gil. They avenged their loss to this same NYCFC side from two weeks ago, and did so with a heavily rotated squad that now gets seven days to rest before finishing September with four rapid-fire games.
Bruce Arena’s coached some of the greatest teams in MLS history — the 1997 & 1998 D.C. United sides, and the 2011 & 2014 Galaxy sides all come to mind. These Revs are absolutely cooking those sides on PPG. Think about that.
Also, think about this Taty Castellanos Pass of the Week:
I was going to be snarky and joke that this was actually a squibbed shot but Taty gets none of that from me this week. This pass was brilliant and he’s been the best player on this very, very good team.
That said, a month ago I wrote that NYCFC were staring at a stretch in which they play five of seven away, and how they fared would determine if they’re just “very good” or actually great.
So far they have lost all three of the road games they’ve played on the trip.
New York Red Bulls 1, DC United 1
In the first half of this game, I felt like both these teams reached through the TV and punched me in the face. It was just 45 minutes of one car crash after another. I’m gonna let the numbers do the talking:
Whether you want to call it energy drink soccer or maximum overdrive, what it comes down to is attrition via second balls. I understand why teams play this way even if I’m not a Klopp Maximalist and D.C., to their credit, can and have spruced it up at times with some aesthetically pleasing ball movement.
But good lord, man. It is relentless.
Anyway, that was a devastating miss from Yordy Reyna at the end. D.C. should’ve walked away from this with all three points, and given how the playoff race in the East has suddenly tightened, they might look back on that wayward header as the season’s most unfortunate moment.
FC Cincinnati 2, Toronto FC 0
Cincy ended their 12-game winless skid and finally got their first win at brand new TQL Stadium!
The fans even got the added bonus of Brenner looking pretty good. Lucho Acosta, meanwhile, continues to be worth every penny they paid for him. He goes out and battles every single week, gets all over the ball and does his damnedest to try to elevate everyone around him. He’s not going to make Best XI as he did three years ago, but the leadership, competitiveness and maturity (not to mention the skill) he’s shown during this hopeless season speaks well of the decision to make him a centerpiece.
For TFC it’s fair to assume that the offseason teardown is coming. Nobody on this team is playing good soccer right now.
Inter Miami 1, Columbus Crew 0
At the end of July, Phil Neville made Gregore the solo captain of Inter Miami, changing from the captaincy-by-committee approach with which they’d started the year (poorly). They have gone 6-1-2 since then, and are just two points below the line in ninth place.
It’s past time to start paying attention to Miami. Neville really has done a very good job of not just figuring out the locker room hierarchy, but of developing some of the young players and keeping the tactics simple enough to work. It’s not often all that pretty from Miami, but when opposing defenders are just going to pass the ball to Gonzalo Higuain in the box, well, ugly wins are still wins.
Re: stuff to pay attention to, here is why we pay attention to underlying numbers like expected goals differential (xGD) and goals added (g+): Most folks (myself included) are surprised at how hard Columbus have cratered this year, but the nerds over at American Soccer Analysis had at least something of an inkling that last year’s playoff push wasn’t the real version of the Crew.
As per ASA’s John Muller, “Columbus was a below average team last year by g+ and xGD … the worst Cup winner in the ASA era.” They were “the only [Cup winners in the database] with negative g+.”
ASA’s data goes back a decade. The reason they (and other groups like them) collect and catalogue data, and try to synthesize it into something greater than just individual events, is because those underlying numbers are often way better predictors of future success — or failure, in this case — than simple W/L/D.
Still, the bottom here is deeper than even the numbers predicted. Columbus are 1-8-0 in their past nine games dating back to late July, and while they can point to injuries and international absences … everybody’s had those. This is shocking.
CF Montréal 0, Nashville SC 1
Wilfried Nancy’s done really good work squeezing as much as possible out of Montréal but it feels like they’re just about running out of talent. Djordje Mihailovic has done truly impressive work as a focal point, but he’s better suited to a secondary role as a sort of floating creator rather than the attacking hub (he’s more Cristian Roldan than Nico Lodeiro, in other words). The wingbacks get forward, but not with the same effect they did earlier in the season. The defense has been solid, but they cannot afford the type of breakdown they had on Walker Zimmerman’s game-winner.
And on the flip side, they don’t have the ability to brute force a win like Nashville did, where a Best XI-caliber playmaker dimes in a perfect set-piece delivery to arguably the league’s best defender. Hany Mukhtar — who is now officially living up to his DP billing no matter where he lines up — and Zimmerman make it easier for Nashville to just absorb whatever gets thrown at them and be opportunistic when the moment arises.
That’s not all they are by any stretch, of course. Daniel Lovitz is fun as an inverted right wingback, and the deep-lying central midfielders can really spray the ball around. That has been their Plan A all year long.
But Plan B, which was last year’s Plan A, still works. Nashville are now alone in second place in the East and have lost just twice all year long. Gary Smith, Mike Jacobs et al have done a wonderful job.
Back to Montréal for a second: Here are their on/off numbers with Mason Toye, who was injured about a month back:
Correlation/causality warnings apply, but yeah … not quite enough talent in Montréal to hang with the big boys these days. Instead it’s now a question of hanging onto a playoff spot.
FC Dallas 1, San Jose Earthquakes 1
Someone asked me on Twitter how FC Dallas can play so well and still lose. Let's use the Second Spectrum tactical cam to illustrate an enormous recurring issue:
Jader Obrian can either 1) slip Jesus Ferreira in directly or 2) play a 1-2 with Ricardo Pepi that would, in theory (also likely in practice) end with Obrian near the corner of the six-yard-box, able to shoot directly or slide across the 6 to an onrushing forward.
Or he can — hear me out — uncork a 22-yard heat check, because why feed either of the two hottest attackers on the team when you can just grip it and rip it instead?
Great players get the ball in great spots and use that positional and/or dynamic superiority to leverage higher-value chances for their team. Obrian got the ball in a great spot and leveraged a much lower-value chance than the build-up deserved. That is the Dallas way, and explains how a team that so often plays such attractive soccer through midfield can struggle turning all of that skill into goals.
The Quakes didn’t play particularly well, but this was a good point for them and the truth is they should’ve had all three thanks to the looks they generated all night on set pieces.
Still, the window feels like it’s sliding closed for both of these teams.
Houston Dynamo FC 3, Austin FC 0
The window has slammed shut for the other two teams in Texas, but at least the Dynamo avoided some ignominy in finally getting a win here. That stopped their club-record winless skid at 16, two shy of the league-record streak of 18 held jointly by RSL (2005-06) and Colorado (2014-15). They did, however, set a record for a single-season winless streak, so at least that's something.
On this night, though, the Dynamo just annihilated Austin in transition. Austin are the slowest team in MLS — of their regulars only Nick Lima cracks the top 100 in the league in terms of fastest sustained speed as per Second Spectrum, and he’s 95th. It has become shockingly easy for teams to just blow them up, and Houston's got an attack full of sprinters. Fafa Picault in particular had a field day.
Sporting KC 2, Chicago Fire 0
Sporting snapped a four-game winless skid and got at least a little bit right with an entirely comfortable win here. Bobby Shuttleworth gifted the hosts the first goal in the fourth minute and Johnny Russell made it 2-0 two minutes later, and that was pretty much that.
Here’s how that looked to Fire head coach Raphael Wicky, who I’m giving our Face of the Week:
Chicago are tied for the league lead in errors leading directly to goals (6), and are second in the league in errors leading to shots (10) behind Austin, as per Opta.
Their season’s not done yet, but it’s getting close. And it looks like they’re going to miss the playoffs for the 10th time in 12 years, which is just remarkable in a league with as much parity and as many playoff slots as MLS.
LAFC 3, RSL 2
Very good #MLSAfterDark energy from this one, which was a true six-pointer and had both teams playing like their playoff lives were on the line. The reason, obviously, is that they very much are — the result leaves the two teams tied on 30 points, with RSL in 7th via their superior goal differential and LAFC in 8th.
It was SLOPPY, though, a game characterized by midfield turnovers and an all-timer of an own goal from Toni Datkovic. This one’s gonna sting if RSL miss the playoffs by a point or two:
Pablo Mastroeni, by the way, switched the Claret-and-Cobalt to a 3-5-2 in order to mirror the 3-5-2 that Bob Bradley’s been using. It didn’t work, obviously; RSL’s lines were stretched and the defensive rotations were off from literally the first kick.