MLS week 29 review: Crew outclass NYRB, RSL find a solution

COMMERCE CITY, CO - JUNE 03: Federico Higuain
COMMERCE CITY, CO - JUNE 03: Federico Higuain /

MLS week 29 featured an impressive performance by the Columbus Crew, and more.

It was a good week to be a bad Eastern Conference team. The eighth-place New England Revolution, fresh off firing club legend Jay Heaps, beat Toronto FC at home thanks to some late fireworks. Last-place D.C. United had tons of fans out for the penultimate game at RFK Stadium and produced a 4-0 ripping of playoff-contending San Jose, courtesy of four goals in a span of 31 minutes from Patrick Mullins. Ninth-place Philadelphia beat Chicago at home 3-1 on the back of two Chris Pontius goals.

All of these are bizarre in their own ways, even if TFC are kind of phoning it in at this point, and San Jose can’t play on the road to save their lives (unless they’re in LA, in which case they always win). The biggest result of the week, though, was between two actually good Eastern Conference teams who played out a playoff-like thriller amid weird MLS results dropping from the sky around them.

Columbus hosted the New York Red Bulls on Saturday, three days after the visitors suffered a brutal defeat in the U.S. Open Cup Final against Sporting KC. Going in, New York sat two points behind the Crew for fifth in the conference (with two games in hand). The hosts outclassed NYRB in an entertaining 3-2 victory filled with center-back goals, yellow cards, suspicious referee decisions and some good goalkeeping. The VAR even got involved towards the end.

It felt like the postseason at MAPFRE Stadium, at least according to Columbus’ commentators, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the proceedings. Part of the reason for that was probably that their Crew were the better team for most of the night, and showed off both the classic Gregg Berhalter risk-taking and some ability to excel in the smaller elements of the game.

Rather than rigidly stick to their “build from the back at all costs” philosophy, they’ve become more flexible in the past few weeks in an attempt to create more chances in space and decrease the amount of terrible deep distribution errors, which have plagued them since their 2015 cup run. Instead, they focused on possessing the ball in the middle third and developing a more effective re-press, which diversified their chance-creating and helped them hit the gaps of an often disorganized and skill deficient Red Bulls back-five more easily.

In addition to overcoming Jesse Marsch’s vaunted field-condensing press system, the Crew were able to open space for their No. 10, Federico Higuain, to dominate:

Higuain had an assist on all three Columbus goals and, as the tweet mentions, created four chances. But take a look at that passing map. That’s a lot of touches across the Red Bulls’ defensive third. When you let an elite creator like Higuain get the ball that often in those areas, he’s going to kill you, especially when Ola Kamara and Justin Meram are busy confusing the crap out of Fidel Escobar and Michael Amir Murillo. If not for a couple Luis Robles saves and the necessity of protecting leads for as long as the Crew had to, Columbus end up with more than three goals.

The Black and Gold are unbeaten in seven now, quietly holding their own in the conference’s third-tier while high-scoring fun guns Atlanta United take up the spotlight. NYRB need a spark in an attack that has gone stagnant since Daniel Royer went down injured in early August.

Next: The best under-20 player on every MLS team

Rise Up

While chaos reigned in the Eastern Conference, Real Salt Lake continued last week’s Western Conference madness in a 2-0 home victory over Seattle that put them in fifth, three points ahead of ridiculous, crazy, inexplicable, unexplainable slumping FC Dallas and two ahead of Houston and San Jose. That puts RSL at 55 percent to make the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight’s projections. FCD are at 42 percent and San Jose are at 33 percent.

Real are taking care of business at home, winning their last four at Rio Tinto, and watching everyone around them burst into a flaming pile of ashes. They’re also playing a ton of young guys and seeing immediate results, unlike FC Dallas, who continue to roll with Atiba Harris and Maynor Figueroa.

Jefferson Savarino is a joy to watch as a creative winger. Albert Rusnak has been very good at the No. 10. Danilo Acosta has played well as the starting left-back. Justen Glad is a serious prodigy at center-back, and his effect on this team is among the most notable of any player’s on any club in MLS.

And, on Saturday, Glad and Acosta and Sebastian Saucedo’s US U-20 teammate Brooks Lennon made his debut as a False 9, starting at the top of RSL’s 4-2-3-1. He made different movements and different runs than a traditional No. 9, preferring to drop deeper to drag center-backs out of place and take the ball in varying gaps across the half-spaces and channels, sometimes holding it up, other times running with it and occasionally latching onto a through-ball in behind.

Here’s an example of one of his main functions, when he pulled Roman Torres out of position and opened the flank for Savarino:

The false 9 is not a popular position in MLS right now. For most teams, a player with these qualities would be considered a second forward or an inverted winger necessitating a specific formation and surrounding personnel. But RSL have recognized that they do not need a traditional hold-up center-forward (a la Cyle Larin, Fanendo Adi, etc.) or a channel-running poacher (Bradley Wright-Phillips, Josef Martinez, etc.).They can function just as well with a different kind of player up top, as we’ve seen to a lesser extent with Luis Silva and now fully with Lennon.

More clubs should do this kind of constructive experimentation and in-house problem-solving. RSL may not have to go out and spend big on a No. 9 this summer given Lennon’s success in this position, and now they might have some extra cash to use on central midfield and other needs.

And they seem to have found a potential playoff starter as well.

Weekly awards

A quickie run through the league’s best, worst and weirdest:

The Best Team in the League

It will be Toronto FC for the foreseeable future, even though TFC lost twice this week. They went down at home midweek against Montreal 5-3, and then failed beat the Revs on the road on Saturday. Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore watched both games on TV, Victor Vazquez missed Wednesday, and they were without three of their top four center-backs (Eriq Zavaleta, Chris Mavinga, Nick Hagglund) in Foxborough.

They’ll be fine, in short. Do not worry about the Reds.

The Worst Team in the League

The Colorado Rapids fell in Vancouver while watching last-place competitors D.C. United and Minnesota United put up four in dominant wins. LA, who were worked by Sporting KC in a 2-1 loss, had a shot at this as well, although Giovani dos Santos always beats out Dominique Badji no matter how badly Gio’s playing.

Random Result of the Week

A lot of games are in contention here, but it’s impossible not to hand it to Montreal’s domination in Toronto on Wednesday. The Impact went up 3-0 and 5-1 on a series of fluky goals, snapping TFC’s 11-game unbeaten run and six consecutive multi-goal win streak. That is a perfect example of a classic MLS blowout to end a dominant run, which is exactly what this award is made for.

But shout out to New England, Philly, D.C. and Minnesota, all of whom came out with good wins against teams they probably shouldn’t have beaten.

Predictable Result of the Week

Sporting KC’s 2-1 win over LA takes it here. SKC are absolutely clinical at home and they were absolutely that on Sunday, cruising past a purely experimental Galaxy side.

Sigi Schmid tried Gyasi Zardes at right-back in this game. Interesting.

Attacker of the Week

I debated hard between Yamil Asad and Patrick Mullins for this award. Asad put up two goals and two assists on Wednesday against the Galaxy, while Mullins, of course, scored four for D.C. Mullins sneaks out with it after Asad failed to add to his box score tally in Atlanta’s 2-0 win over Montreal on Sunday.

Biggest Result of the Week

It has to be Atlanta’s win over the Impact, as it put games-in-hand-holding ATL four points off the red line and kept the Red Bulls’ slight advantage over Montreal for sixth intact. Columbus’s win goes hand in hand with this, though, and RSL’s home win against the Sounders was huge as well.

Goalkeeper Howler of the Week

One of Montreal’s fluky midweek goals at BMO Field came from some laziness at the back from Alex Bono:

Andrew Tarbell, who makes a lot of appearances in this space, had himself a bit of a howler on one of Mullins’s goals, as well:

Elsewhere in MLS goalkeeping news, a healthy Bill Hamid sat in D.C.’s win despite the reported presence of a Bundesliga scout at RFK. Steve Clark, the former Crew keeper recently signed back from Scandinavia, started for Ben Olsen presumably in an effort to see what they have in this backup goalie. But with Hamid, probably the most talented MLS keeper and a top USMNT contender, out of contract this summer, this is a notable development.