MLS

MLS Week 3 breakdown: Orlando’s identity problem and more

A look through Week 3, featuring Orlando’s struggles, the goalscoring mentality and improvements in Minnesota and Montreal.

Coming off a high of Concacaf Champions League success on Tuesday, MLS jogged into the March international break with a slate of nine games, eight on Saturday. Let’s take a look:

Orlando, tediously terrible

New York City FC, perfect after two games, beating Orlando City SC at home was the sure bet of the weekend. It stayed that way even when David Villa and NYC’s starting right-back Anton Tinnerholm were ruled out with minor injuries shortly before kick off. Those who took that sure bet went home happy, as the hosts skated to their third straight win.

Orlando, amiably touted by many (including yours truly) as “new-look Orlando” before the season, have one draw and two losses to start 2018. They barely escaped with a home point in Week 1 against lowly D.C. United after playing most of the game with 10 men. Last week, they suffered a 2-1 home loss to Minnesota United despite firing 20 shots. (They put just four on target). They were in it for a time against the shorthanded Light Blues, but at the same time, they never really were. NYC always looked in control.

Jason Kreis’s seat is the hottest in MLS. He has not yet put together a coherent tactical identity in his time with the Purple Lions, and while he’s been given a pass for 2017’s mess, he won’t escape another failure in 2018. This is his team, one that he built with his Real Salt Lake glory days in mind. The Kaka conundrum is finally gone, and not only have they solved their No. 10 problem, they have three or four starting-caliber creators on the roster.

They should be showing considerable improvements from three years of looking up at the red line, but it hasn’t happened. While Kreis has been able to implement his favored 4-4-2 diamond formation (one that he used to win the 2009 MLS Cup with RSL), Orlando have looked stagnant and apathetic, struggling to effectively connect in attacking third and experiencing the same, franchise-old problems in defense.

Injuries and suspensions hurt in the first couple of games, but they got Sacha Kljestan back against NYC and approached a full-strength starting XI, other than the absences of forwards Dom Dwyer and Stefano Pinho. Even with the notoriously-high-usage Kljestan in the lineup, they spent precious little time with the ball at their feet in the attacking third. Their spacing, an innately delicate part of the diamond formation, was compressed and counter-intuitive.

The 4-4-2 diamond’s natural flaw is its lack of width and its reliance on heavy midfield rotation. In order to spread the field horizontally, teams have to choose where they are willing to shift players out of position due to the lack of dedicated wide players. Sending a striker wide generates a gap that has to be filled by a center midfielder. Shuttling one of the two “outside” midfielders out to the touchline spawns undesirable space through the middle, and leaves teams vulnerable to counter attacks.

For a lot of those that adhere to diamond philosophies, the solution to this problem is to bomb the full-backs forward on the overlap. Toronto FC, who have used the formation secondary to its 3-5-2 under Greg Vanney, do this with Justin Morrow, a natural wing-back. Outside defenders capable of doing productive stuff in the attacking half add needed numbers and variety to diamond offenses.

Sending them forward is a gamble, because unlike in three-at-the-back formations, only two center-backs are available to cover the exposed space. But it’s a necessary gamble, risked by every successful team that employs the formation. Orlando have been decidedly mediocre at it.

Full-backs Mohamed El-Munir and RJ Allen spent time farther up the field, but neither were really active:

Notice how little green and red lines appear in the final third. El-Munir and Allen were not aggressive enough at providing options for Kljestan and Chris Mueller down the flanks, and as a result, OCSC’s attackers bunched together in various locations. It’s hard to create and run into channels when you can’t get out of your own way.

Most often, the attacking four of Mueller, Kljestan, Justin Meram and Yoshimar Yotun tried to break through the right side of NYCFC’s defense, which was missing Tinnerholm. Their passing map featured blotches of red arrows on the right and left sides of Zone 14, a painful indictment of their inability to manage space:

As your dad taught you in youth soccer, it’s difficult to pass when all of your team is in the same place. Kljestan couldn’t create, Meram looked locked in a box and Mueller didn’t have anywhere to run.

Sure, this took place on the condensed field of Yankee Stadium. But that doesn’t mitigate the lethargic-ness and lack of creativity that marked their attack, and it doesn’t speak well to Kreis’s ability to manage a 4-4-2 diamond.

It would be impulsive to fire Kreis so early in the season, just weeks after we were hailing his rebuilding work during the offseason. He’s on a short leash, though. He needs to show problem-solving qualities, and more importantly, he needs to show he has a vision for this team.

Angry strikers

Josef Martinez scored another hat-trick for Atlanta on Saturday, leading the Five Stripes to a 4-1 shellacking of 10-man Vancouver. He’s now one behind the MLS record for hat-tricks, with four, having played just 23 games. He’s scored 23 goals in those 23 games. That’s an insane goalscoring pace.

He’s never satisfied. He has a burning desire to score and he can get pretty agitated when he doesn’t. Here’s what he said after the game, per Dirty South Soccer:

“As a forward, it’s my passion but it’s also my job. I get frustrated when I don’t do my job. When I don’t score, I feel sorry for my mom!”

That is one heck of a quote. This mentality, while maybe a bit extreme, is a big reason for his video game scoring level, and it is something that every great goal-scorer possesses. Watch Chris Wondolowski and Bradley Wright-Phillips the next time they miss a chance or a teammate doesn’t get them the ball. Think back to Kei Kamara’s feud with Federico Higuain in 2016, when Higuain took a penalty kick instead of Kei, who was on a hat trick. Kamara was livid with Higuain, to the point where the striker had to be traded.

At one point against the Whitecaps, Martinez angrily kicked an advertising board after his header went wide. He had already scored by this point:

The ever-changing mental state of strikers is often one of the most interesting side storylines to follow during games.

Awards

The best team in the league

That would be NYCFC, who showed some of their underrated depth against Orlando. Ismael Tajouri started up top in place of Villa and scored the 62nd-minute winner, taking advantage of Joe Bendik’s mishit pass. Saad Abdul-Salaam, acquired in a straight swap from Sporting KC for Khiry Shelton before the season, capably stepped in at right back for Tinnerholm.

Patrick Vieira’s side is beating teams with methodical possession and clinical efficiency in the final third. They move the ball safely in the back through midfield and then use their considerable attacking skill to create slivers of space near goal, often playing through their No. 9 in combination play. Villa is the centerpiece of their possession in the final third, holding up play and expertly dragging defenders to give Jesus Medina and Maxi Moralez opportunities to run. That’s why it was so impressive that they won with Tajouri up front.

The worst team in the league

The Colorado Rapids did not play this week, so we’ll use this space to discuss a team that seems to have grown out of this “award”: Minnesota United. The Loons picked up their second straight win on Saturday with a 2-1 home victory over Chicago. This comes a week after star attacker Kevin Molino, their nominal No. 10, went down for the year with a torn ACL.

Adrian Heath deployed Miguel Ibarra in the central creator role, and while he is not really a true No. 10, he helped MNUFC connect their lines and sustain attacking possession. He moved into various spots to combine with the rest of the front four and allow wingers Sam Nicholson and Ethan Finlay to play to their strengths — cutting in off the wing for Nicholson and getting to the touchline for Finlay. Fifty Five One’s Alex Schieferdecker put together this helpful heat map:

Darwin Quintero could be arriving imminently from Club America to fill this role, but there’s something to be said for what Ibarra was able to do against the Fire. Minnesota have needed more connectivity in the attack for a while, and while Ibarra isn’t exactly Nicolas Lodeiro, he served that purpose.

Don’t look now, but the Loons may be better than a lot of people expected. They’re playing with a defensive midfielder and they’re actually passing and pressing. Look out, Western Conference.

Unheralded player of the week

The Montreal Impact played a 3-4-3 formation and beat a tired Toronto FC team at home, their first points under Remi Garde. Leading the new-look midfield was Saphir Taider, their latest Bologna import. Taider played in a box-to-box midfield tandem alongside Ken Krolicki, and he was the workhorse for a Montreal team that looked much better (and by the transitive property are now better than Tigres).

Taider was all over the field, winning the ball and preventing Michael Bradley and Ager Aketxe from distributing. He also was important for Montreal’s midfield possession, barely missing a pass:

Montreal can’t get too happy about a 1-0 home win against a Toronto team coming directly off a hard-fought win in Mexico. But beating your rival is always fun, and they needed three points after they started the season with two losses. Hopefully Garde will continue playing that 3-4-3.

Random result of the week

For lack of a better choice for this award, D.C. United’s 2-2 draw against Houston slots in as the random result of the week. The Dynamo blew a 2-0 lead amid snow flurries at tiny Maryland SoccerPlex, which hosted an intimate atmosphere of 5,000 loyal fans as DCU’s Audi Field continues construction.

It’s the same old problem for Houston, who sat too far off the ball and lacked intensity after jumping out to a 2-0 first half lead. D.C. should be doing better than narrow home draws, especially during their heavy slate of away games caused by Audi Field’s unavailability, but they should be playing Chris Durkin more. He made a difference after coming on as a second half sub.

Predictable result of the week

There were reasons to predict Vancouver to bunker out of Atlanta with a scoreless draw. But when Kendall Waston was given a phantom VAR red card and Martinez converted the ensuing penalty, the ‘Caps never had a chance. Atlanta beat Vancouver 4-1, and could have had a lot more goals if Miguel Almiron had finished better.

Julian Gressel, playing wing-back in Atlanta’s 3-1-4-2 formation, was excellent again, just missing out on the Unheralded Player award. He isn’t flashy, but Gressel has an impressive ability to make the right decision every time he gets on the ball. His vision is underrated, and his sense of the players and runs around him is remarkable — he times his passes perfectly, recognizing when he should hold the ball and when he can afford to play quickly. Young players should take notes on his calmness and thoughtfulness on and off the ball.

Combine those qualities with athleticism and stamina and Atlanta have a player that can play anywhere from deep in central midfield to up front as a striker. The reigning Rookie of the Year has been trusted by Tata Martino from day one last season, and it will be very hard to push him out of the starting lineup when Ezequiel Barco returns.

Goalkeeper howler of the week

This one has to go to Joe Bendik, who gave up the winning goal to NYCFC with messy distribution out of the back:

Have to feel for Bendik, who was given a terrible backpass by Yoshi Yotun. But that was a pretty bad howler.