At the start of September it felt like the race down at the Audi MLS Cup Playoff line in each conference was starting to thin out, with the top seven teams creating a bit of separation.
We’re not even at the end of September and that already feels hopelessly naive as, instead of creating separation, the stretch run has infused a whole bunch of teams with desperation. The games have subsequently gotten more intense, and the results less predictable.
Let’s dive in:
Emanuel Reynoso hit MLS last year like a thunderbolt. The Argentine maestro got to Minnesota in late summer, took a week to settle in and then just started dealing. Want a little combo play at the top of the box? Have some. Want a clever dart into a bit of open space in the optimal assist zone for a cutback? Got that. An inch-perfect set piece delivery? Of course that’s there, too.
And then, of course, there were the through-balls. Reynoso stepped onto the pitch and instantly became the league’s best through-ball artist, carving open opposing defenses to spring the Loons’ attack time and time again. Everything Minnesota ran through him, and that was a pretty smart way to play given that he was the driving force behind an 8-game unbeaten run down the stretch. That, of course, was the opening act for his playoff performance: A goal and seven (!!!) assists in three games.
By the time it was all said and done the folks at American Soccer Analysis reckoned Reynoso had put together the second-best chance creation season in their database, which goes back a decade. Only Robbie Keane’s 2013 topped him*.
(*) New England’s Carles Gil will be the new No. 1 at the end of this regular season.
Reynoso hasn’t been quite that good in 2021, but he’s been pretty close. The underlying numbers are all mostly there for him -- 0.33 xA/96 in 1600 minutes this year vs. 0.41 xA/96 in about 900 minutes last year as per ASA, while as per Opta’s numbers he is the league’s second-best chance creator per 90 behind only Gil. If Reynoso came in and performed at an MVP level in his first year, in his second year he’s regressed to merely a Best XI-caliber playmaker.
The boxscore numbers have not been as kind as the underlying numbers, though. Entering Saturday’s fairly massive home game against the Galaxy, Reynoso had just 2g/6a on the season. The tl;dr version is that he has been setting his teammates up, but they have not been knocking them down.
So this time, he did it himself. Reynoso lasered home two long-distance strikes in the first 20 minutes that made the subsequent 70 academic as the Loons thumped a suddenly reeling Galaxy side 3-0.
It was Reynoso’s first game back after missing four weeks -- four largely barren weeks for the Minnesota attack, it should be noted -- due to injury. It was also the kind of performance manager Adrian Heath had been hoping to see out of his midfield’s king for the past 12 months.
“I keep saying he should score more goals. He has so much talent. He takes as much pleasure out of making goals, assisting goals, as he does scoring,” Heath said afterward. “He’s got to change that. Because he’s always been able to find people and pick passes, but he’s a really, really good finisher. And he should take more shots. And that’s something that we’ve been encouraging him to do.”
It worked on the night, obviously. But part of the reason it worked wasn’t just that Reynoso was out there firing away. Part of it was that, for the first time in months, Minnesota had something close to their first-choice lineup available: Robin Lod made his first start since early August, and Franco Fragapane joined Reynoso and Lod in the XI for just the third time all year.
They effectively opened up space for each other, and subsequently cracked the Galaxy defense wide open. Watch, via Second Spectrum’s tactical cam, how Lod draws the attention of three Galaxy defenders before laying off for Reynoso:
This starts as a nothing play, just a hopeful long-ball. But Lod is exceptional at being a “right place, right time, put some pressure on the defense with your movement and see if they break” type of player and Reynoso is Reynoso. Guys like that have a habit of turning moments like this into goals.
“You know, good players like playing with good people,” Heath said. “And, them two, when they’re together, when you look at the record, they’re excellent when they play together, Robin and Rey.”
Watch as Fragapane takes advantage of his half of the field having been emptied out because Reynoso and Lod are anchoring the Galaxy defense to the spot, 30 yards away:
These are the types of chances that Minnesota created down the stretch and into last year’s playoffs. Reynoso was at the heart of it obviously, but Lod was there too, as was Kevin Molino. Now Reynoso and Lod are finally back, and Fragapane’s in a Molino-ish role as a secondary playmaker and attacker of scrambled defenses. If Adrien Hunou finally comes good as well (my money’s on “Yes” even though he’s been hugely wasteful in front of goal), Minnesota are actually better equipped to make a deep playoff run than they were last year -- and remember, it took a legendary Seattle comeback to keep the Loons from winning the West.
The key, though, is Reynoso. Seattle proved how they could manage earlier this year without Nicolas Lodeiro, and the Galaxy largely stayed afloat without Chicharito. Sporting Kansas City have largely done the same without Alan Pulido, while the other team in the West’s top four, Colorado, has been mixing and matching all year long. And that’s to say nothing of how the Revs stayed rampant all summer, even when Gil was hurt.
Minnesota don’t have that luxury. Even Heath allowed for that possibility.
“You could go through all the teams in the league, when the best players are not available and fit, you know, it affects the rest of the group,” Heath said afterward. “Maybe, are we too reliant on Rey? We’ll see.”
Hopefully, for Minnesota’s sake, they won’t.
As for the Galaxy, they’re now 0-3-3 over the past month and things are starting to spin a little bit out of control. To be entirely fair they actually did a nice job of limiting Minnesota’s attempts (just nine shots total) and box entries (the Loons completed just one pass into the box), but they’ve spent most of this year living on the edge defensively and relying upon Jonathan Bond to make more than his fair share of spectacular saves.
Bond’s regressed to merely “pretty good” and Jonathan Klinsmann -- who was in net this weekend -- has not exactly made a case to replace him on a permanent basis, and the thin ice the Galaxy had been skating on is beginning to crack. They need to get back to getting on the ball and controlling games with it, and even more than that, they need to get back to turning that control into goals.
Since the start of August they’ve played nine times and scored more than a single goal just twice. They managed that nine times in their first 16 games of the year.
“We made the tough decision to part ways with Luchi after a great deal of thought and deliberation. We believe a coaching change is in the best interest of the club at this time to help us achieve our goals,” said FC Dallas president Dan Hunt. “I want to thank Luchi for everything he has done for this organization. We wish him all the best.”
What Luchi had done, most notably, was be the guiding hand behind the league’s best (I would actually argue it’s North America’s best) academy from 2012 to 2018. Gonzalez became the FC Dallas academy director after Oscar Pareja had left to take the head coaching job with the Rapids, and he turned it into the juggernaut it is today. It was then natural for Gonzalez to get the promotion to the first team job once Pareja -- who had subsequently left the Rapids to come home and take over as Dallas head coach -- left that role, ahead of the 2019 season.
It was a very clear fit. Anyone who’d watched Gonzalez’s academy teams play had high expectations, even if there were some folks who felt Luchi had gotten the first-team gig a little bit too soon.
Obviously things didn’t work out as hoped, and Gonzalez did not have anywhere near the same type of success as a head coach that he had as an academy director. Yes, Dallas made the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, but following Saturday night’s sloppy 3-2 loss at Houston, the door is juuuuuuuuust about shut on Los Toros Tejanos’ 2021 campaign.
It was a fairly typical Dallas performance: they had good ideas going forward, but didn’t execute in the final third and were messy at the back, leaving themselves open to a quick-hitting strike from the wings to tilt the game. Dallas fans have seen that pattern of play a lot over the past few years.
“It’s a tough one to swallow because we talked about how we wanted to impose early,” Gonzalez said afterward, in what became his final postgame presser for the team. “We didn’t like the way we started here last time when we tied 2-2 and we had to claw back into the game”
Gonzalez more than just obliquely brushed against the point -- if you look at that quote, he actually made it: The mistakes keep repeating themselves. I’ll argue that this was a quick hook given the fact that Gonzalez won a playoff game last year, developed multiple big-money sales to European teams and that the vast, vast majority of the imports the front office have provided him with have underachieved. That is not on Gonzalez.
More to the point, Gonzalez was a huge part of the lifeblood and culture of an FC Dallas team that has largely been very successful over the past decade. Canning him for one tough season in the middle of pandemic after selling nearly $20 million worth of starters, most of whom he'd developed, and opting for the unknown behind Door No. 2 is a big bet. And, frankly, it's a surprising one. Whoever's next should consider themselves warned.
At the same time it’s hard to argue there’s been any appreciable, teamwide progress. Individuals have improved -- hence all those record sales -- but as a team they just keep starting slow, making poor adjustments and making the same mistakes. I mean…
That’s a pretty tough goal to give up four minutes into a derby match, even if it largely comes down to a 17-year-old fullback on one side and a converted winger on the other kind of getting lost in the moment. But that’s the way it goes.
Houston, meanwhile, have followed their 16-game winless skid -- a single-season league record -- with a three-game unbeaten run (two wins and a draw). Darwin Quintero has started all three of those games, which happen to be his only three starts of the year.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Quintero is, uh, “limited” defensively but the Dynamo front line of Fafa Picault/Maxi Urruti and either Tyler Pasher or Griffin Dorsey is one of the best defensive front lines in the league, while Matias Vera and Darwin Ceren are adequate ball-winners/bodyguards deeper in midfield. The personnel fits a bog-standard 4-2-3-1 with Darwin providing the creativity and the rest of the guys carrying the water, and now that that’s what Tab Ramos has finally settled into, the Dynamo are picking up points and putting together their most consistent attacking performances of the season.
It’s not a way to win trophies, but it’s a way to avoid something like a 16-game winless streak and maybe even make the playoffs.
It’s too late for that now -- they’re eight points back of the final playoff spot, and virtually everybody in the mix has a game in hand on them -- but at least they got to drive what seems like the final nail into the coffin carrying Dallas’s 2021 season. That’ll add some good spice to a largely dormant rivalry.
11. Philly played well midweek against Club America, got a little bit unlucky and took a multi-goal loss. Philly played well on Sunday afternoon against Orlando City, got a little bit lucky and took a multi-goal win. It finished 3-1, which was just about a fair representation of the balance of the game.
As frustrating as midweek had to be -- the Union played really, really well against the biggest and most successful team in North American history and had a chance to make it 2-1, but blew it -- it had to be invigorating for Jim Curtin to see his side take that form with them back into the regular season. He said after the America loss “If we play like this, we’ll make the playoffs” and he is very, very right.
Orlando City’s going to make the playoffs as well, but right now they’ve got three straight losses and are poop-scooting into autumn.
10. The weekend started with some typical MLS: Inter Miami, 7-1-2 in their past 10 and having worked themselves up into the fringes of the playoff race, hosted a Red Bulls team that’d won twice in three months and are on pace to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2009, and whose head coach had been describing his squad with phrases like “it is like a youth team against adults” and “it is very painful at the moment to say something. I am a little bit speechless.”
Naturally, RBNY won 4-0. Just blew them the hell out, though to be fair, Miami were really asking for it:
That is not how to defend a long throw, kids!
I’m gonna toss it to our own Tom Bogert, who threw a bit of cold water on this 10-game stretch from Miami in a recent column:
It's important to add additional context on this run:
• Miami’s last five wins are all against teams below the playoff line
• Four of those five have come against the bottom three in the Eastern Conference
• Three of those four wins against the bottom of the East have come from game-winning goals scored in the 90th minute or later
That is not a sustainable, predictable measure of success over a large sample size.
Since the blowout loss to New England, only the Revs have earned more points in MLS than Miami, though the soft schedule and underlying numbers show warning signs.
Miami have still been below average in expected goals against (14.12) though have conceded just nine goals, the fifth-fewest over the span. Their xGA minus goals conceded is -5.12. Only Sporting Kansas City (-9.89!) have outperformed their xGA to a greater effect. It’s a similar story in attack. Even buoyed by some penalties, they are outperforming their xG by 2.17, the third-most in the league over that span.
Tommy Scoops called that one. I’m curious to see what kind of response Miami have lined up as the next five games -- home to Nashville, then a four-game road trip through mid-October -- are a bit of a buzzsaw.
9. NYCFC have not been playing quite so well over the past month -- injuries and workload looks like it’s caught up to them -- but they went to Cincinnati and took care of business, winning 2-1 despite going down a goal early.
8. Toronto stopped a six-game losing streak and got just their fourth win of the year, beating Nashville 2-1 thanks to a late Omar Gonzalez goal off delightful service from Yeferson Soteldo. The Reds are still bottom of the table, but I imagine the veterans don’t much mind the prospect of costing the team SuperDraft positioning.
There’s obviously much more than that on the line for Nashville, who did well to fight back after conceding early but weren’t able to turn their possession and positional dominance into more than just the equalizing goal. And -- concerningly -- they generated nothing over the final 15 minutes after TFC retook the lead.
7. The Revs outshot Columbus 33-6, matching their single-game club record for shots. Just look at this masterpiece:
They put only seven of those 33 shots on target, and were especially wayward with their aim down the stretch as multiple players blasted good looks into row 30 instead of testing a clearly hobbled Eloy Room. It finished 1-1.
“That’s a game we should win, no question about it,” said head coach Bruce Arena. “That should’ve been a three-zero game.”
For the record xG had it at 2.9-1.1, but we know how Bruce feels about analytics.
As for the Crew, a point’s probably not enough given they’re four points below the line and everybody in front of them’s got at least one game in hand.
6. Make it five unbeaten for the Timbers, who hung on to take all three points at home by a 2-1 margin over a feisty but ultimately profligate LAFC side on Sunday night. There have been two big changes that have spurred the Timbers on this run:
• Personnel. In particular, getting Sebastian Blanco back to 100% fitness has been huge.
• Set pieces. As in, they're no longer conceding goals off of those -- and haven't, now, in seven games.
It feels like a return, at least a little bit, to the formula they used last summer en route to the MLS is Back Tournament title. That formula was simple: Portland were dominant on restarts, and Blanco was the best player in the league for a month.
The Timbers have climbed up to fifth in the West, just one point behind the Galaxy and with a cozy four-point cushion between them and the visitors, who are below the line in eighth.
LAFC, as usual, have no one to blame but themselves. The chances they've contrived to miss this year boggle the mind.
5. Here’s the good news for Austin FC: They were absolutely dominant on Saturday night in the first 45 minutes of Moussa Djitte’s first start, often using the big Senegalese No. 9 as a focal point for what has been an attack in desperate need of exactly that all season long. Djitte didn’t score one himself, but he created constant danger, rattled the crossbar and was always occupying San Jose’s center backs -- which in turn opened up more of the game for the Austin wingers and attacking midfielders.
Here’s the bad news: Djitte came off at the half, the Quakes made a sub of their own and Austin utterly collapsed. They turned a 3-1 lead into a soul-crushing 4-3 loss in front of some very unhappy home fans. El Verde are in the race for the second overall draft pick (Charlotte’s got the first), and not the playoffs.
It has been, in other words, a reassuringly typical expansion season. There was no Miami-esque drama, Nashville-esque overachievement or Cincy-esque catastrophe. Just a roster that wasn’t quite complete, and whose shortcomings became more apparent over the course of the year. And so 2021 won’t be “back to the drawing board,” but more a case of trying to build on the things that did work and dampen the negative impact of the stuff that didn’t.
Eduardo "Chofis” Lopez, meanwhile, has gone supernova over the past week in a bid to keep San Jose’s season alive. He had two more goals in this one after a spectacular midweek hat-trick. The Quakes are in 10th place, four points below the line in the West.
4. Our Pass of the Week goes to CF Montréal’s Djordje Mihailovic who is, by virtually every metric, one of the very best chance creators in MLS this year. That includes assists, where he’s second behind Gil with 11 on the season. His latest came in a 2-0 win over Chicago Fire FC on Sunday afternoon:
He was a mortal lock to figure into the scoring one way or another in this game given his acrimonious offseason departure from Chicago. Djordje’s definitely getting the last laugh here -- he has been worth every penny Montréal paid for him, while the guys the Fire braintrust preferred either aren’t starting (Alvaro Medran), aren’t playing (Ignacio Aliseda) or aren’t producing (Stanislav Ivanov).
I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying the Wilfried Nancy experience, by the way. Check out this postgame quote:
"I made a tactical adjustment at halftime. I told Samuel \[Piette\] that I was going to take him out. And I want to thank him for his reaction. He's our captain. I told him I was making a tactical change and he understood the reason,” Nancy said. “His spirit was beyond reproach. He galvanized the team and I’m grateful for that. That's why we won the game.”
No wonder every player on Montréal’s roster battles for him like their lives depend upon it every time out.
3. RSL have now won three of four, following up a wild 4-3 midweek win over San Jose with a professional and buttoned-up 1-0 home win over the punchless Sounders. Damir Kreilach got an open back post header and gave a memorable postgame interview, and the Claret-and-Cobalt look… really, really good. I didn’t see this coming after Pablo Mastroeni took over on an interim basis in the wake of Freddy Juarez’s departure.
“There were a lot of gutsy performances tonight. We kept a clean sheet for the first time with three in the back. The desire and drive from Albert \[Rusnak\] along with Damir [Kreilach] was remarkable when they haven’t had a break in three games,” Mastroeni said afterward.
”We had Everton \[Luiz\] and Pablo \[Ruiz\] in there, breaking everything up. The wingbacks also broke forward and offered us some dangerous crosses. It was just a total effort and I could not be happier for the group after a really hard week.”
Those wingbacks getting forward out of a 3-4-1-2 -- specifically Aaron Herrera, who’s now third in the league with nine assists, bombing up the right side -- is something that has worked really, really well for RSL during this mini-streak.
Nothing is working particularly well going forward for the Sounders right now, as they’ve scored just once in their past three league games.
2. You might've missed it, because it kind of happened after people had stopped paying attention, but the Vancouver Whitecaps are quite good. They drove that point home on Sunday night by going to Colorado and earning a 1-1 draw not by going smash-and-grab, but by going for it. They put the Rapids under a ton of pressure, and I think it's fair to say that either team could've walked away with the full three points over the final half-hour.
That "going for it" ethos has become the 'Caps way of playing in the aftermath of the parting of ways with Marc Dos Santos. They are playing fast, front-foot soccer -- and it is working.
Colorado have lacked a bit of sharpness recently and now have just one win and four draws in their past five. They missed a chance to leapfrog Sporting KC and Seattle back up into first in the West.
This was without question the most entertaining game of the weekend, and Atlanta are utterly terrifying now that Gonzalo Pineda has unshackled that $40 million attack to push forward.