What happened and what it means in MLS Week 17, highlighted by a Philly win and FC Dallas loss.
The World Cup is taking most of our soccer attention at the moment, but MLS, always perfectly willing to play through international windows, perseveres. Ten games took place this weekend.
Here’s what happened in all of them:
Philadelphia smash Vancouver, 4-0
Don’t look now, but the Trust the Process Union are locked into sixth place in the Eastern Conference for the next week, at least. With Orlando City SC falling into turmoil and the Chicago Fire seemingly far off from true contention (Nemanja Nikolic has taken a step down; more on them in a bit), things are looking up in Philly.
The Union, as has been covered extensively, have been trash at finishing this season. David Accam and CJ Sapong have had difficult seasons, particularly Accam — with zero goals and zero assists in 10 starts, he was glued to the bench against the Whitecaps.
Scoring four goals in a single game should prove a cathartic experience, despite Sapong going scoreless in another rough 66 minutes. Borek Dockal, who scored a brace, has grown into DP-caliber player after taking a few weeks to settle into MLS. Ilsinho was productive again. Fafa Picault picked up a PK goal in second half stoppage time.
Philly controlled the game with possession and broke down Vancouver’s shell, a task that has eluded better teams in the past. Haris Medunjanin, normally their midfield facilitator, was suspended, but Dockal and Alejandro Bedoya were clean with the ball and made good decisions near the goal.
They built through the right side, going directly at Whitecaps’ left-back Brek Shea and pinning Alphonso Davies deep. The pass map of the Union’s right-sided players — Dockal, Bedoya, Ilsinho and Keegan Rosenberry — is crowded, to say the least:
The Union finished with 59 percent possession, attacking the bunkering ‘Caps like a big World Cup team facing a minnow. They were patient in build-up and effective at creating numbers in specific areas, usually that right side.
As they’ve grown more content to have the ball — and thus take some pressure off of that young, developing backline — Accam’s role has become obsolete, just like it did last year with Veljko Paunovic’s possession-happy Fire.
Accam thrives when given the opportunity to run at defenders in space. Ilsinho likes to run at defenders too, but he tends to do it in more condensed areas, often as a way of opening small gaps in better spots. The Ghanaian doesn’t fit the system.
Sapong’s role also has become less important. Philly have relied less and less on his hold-up play and ability to draw defenders; with actual good passers in midfield, they face the goal in possession much more often, and hold-up play is most valuable on counter attacks anyway. Cory Burke will continue to push hard for minutes.
The Union are slowly discovering their identity and building a core that should last for years. The playoffs are not the immediate goal, although they surely would like to play in November.
Orlando City lose in first game post-Kreis to Montreal
OCSC, 10 days after losing 3-0 to the Impact in what turned out to be Jason Kreis’s final match in charge, lost to Montreal again in their first MLS game after Kreis was fired. Predictably, they looked bad; the Impact had most of the chances and won 2-0.
Interim coach Bobby Murphy played a 3-4-3 and had Oriol Rosell sit next to Sacha Kljestan in central midfield, a look Kreis had not used. The regista-playmaker partnership is an interesting concept, and it was at least somewhat productive:
Those passing maps (which were both from the first half, by the way) are what you’d expect from a Rosell-Kljestan pairing. That is a positive. There’s an argument that Kljestan’s best position is in fact a number 8, and when given the opportunity to orchestrate things from deeper positions, he’s proven to be effective.
Problems occurred elsewhere, especially in that three/five-man backline. Orlando simply don’t have the personnel to play a formation like that without sitting deep, like they did a 3-6-1 midweek in the U.S. Open Cup, due to their lack of true wing-backs.
They have enough pure talent to challenge for the postseason, but they need to hire a coach asap, and they need that coach to get something more out of Kljestan, Justin Meram and Josue Colman. The attackers they expected to produce have not done that.
Montreal, meanwhile, have not looked as much like a tire fire of late, which is progress. In fact, they’ve won three of four and are only three points off the red line.
They also have not drawn a single game all season. They’re 6-0-11, the only MLS team to have not drawn a game. That may or may not mean anything.
RSL-SJ and SEA-CHI draw 1-1
Real Salt Lake somehow didn’t score more than once against San Jose, hitting the post multiple times en route to a home draw they really could not afford. Nick Rimando’s spill secured a point for the Quakes, who should play Jackson Yueill and Tommy Thompson every week.
Seattle were held at home by the Fire. They played Cristian Roldan at right-back, which is decidedly not his best position, but he has looked competent there (he is amazingly versatile). The Sounders need to wake up or the Western Conference is going to leave them behind.
Toronto keep dropping points
NYCFC, with Domenec Torrent making his managerial debut, overcame a first half David Villa injury and a beautiful Victor Vazquez chip en route to a 2-1 home win over Toronto FC. The hosts looked like they had under Vieira: they passed out of the back, won second balls in midfield and combined heavily in the final third. It really is amazing to have Pep Guardiola’s right-hand man coaching in MLS.
TFC are in a funk of epic proportions. They’re slow to the ball, mistake-prone and lack the cohesiveness that has defined Greg Vanney’s tenure. Michael Bradley, especially, embodies this; he has not been himself in MLS this season, and against NYC, he did not play with his usual intensity and leadership.
Bradley is still the best defensive midfielder in MLS, and he was very much himself throughout TFC’s CONCACAF Champions League run. But like the rest of the team, he needs to figure out whatever’s been ailing him. Toronto can’t afford to dilly-dally in the depths of the Eastern Conference for much longer.
The best team in the league
The Portland Timbers held Atlanta United to a 1-1 draw at Mercedes Benz Stadium, sitting deep in a 5-3-2 shape and marking Josef Martinez out of the game with three dedicated center-backs. Portland’s midfield was sometimes gappy — Diego Chara can’t do everything — but they were stout defensively, and Giovanni Savarese should be happy with their performance.
Tactical flexibility is a necessary feature of every good team in MLS, so being able to walk into Atlanta, switch to an unfamiliar five-at-the-back and grind out a result is impressive.
Atlanta, as has been one of their biggest flaws under Tata Martino, lacked ideas against Portland’s deep-sitting shape. They sent in too many crosses:
Julian Gressel (who scored the goal and was great in this game) delivers a great ball, but Atlanta aren’t at their best if Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Ezequiel Barco aren’t running into space.
For a brief period in the second half, they kept possession deeper in midfield to draw Portland out and were more direct spreading the ball between lines. That halftime adjustment did not stick, and by the end of the game, they were back to congesting themselves in the attacking third and whipping low-percentage crosses to their 5-foot-7 striker.
Tata’s substitutions did not help anybody. He made a straight swap at left-back in the 73rd-minute, pulling Mikey Ambrose for the more defensive Sal Zizzo, and for whatever reason, he took off Gressel with four minutes left in regular time in favor of Kevin Kratz, a number 8. Hector Villalba got 30 minutes off the bench, but leaving 18-year-old sparkplug Andrew Carleton on the bench was a mistake.
The worst team in the league
The Colorado Rapids scored a stoppage time winner at the death to beat Minnesota United 3-2, in an absolutely bananas game. Colorado are no better today than they were when they got the win, but good for them — they needed the boost of confidence.
Predictable result of the week
When the Houston Dynamo went up 2-0 going into halftime in Kansas City against SKC, you just knew they were going to sit back and invite pressure, like they always do on the road. Predictably, they gave up three second half goals and lost 3-2.
Houston have just two road wins since the beginning of 2017, and a big reason for that is Wilmer Cabrera’s lack of confidence in his team’s ability to maintain a proactive style for 90 minutes away from BBVA Compass Stadium.
Cabrera seems to be under the impression that pressing and limiting a team’s possession options is only something a team can do early in games or when they’re chasing a goal. He has to realize that his team is better when they set a high line and try to force turnovers in good spots.
Random result of the week
FC Dallas have a tendency to blow up at random points during the season and take particularly rough losses. During their 60-point Western Conference-winning 2015 season, they inexplicably lost 4-0 to the last-place Rapids in April, and they lost 4-0 again to Sporting KC in May of that year.
They won the Supporters’ Shield-US Open Cup double in 2016, but in Week 2, they lost 5-0 to the Dynamo, who went on to finish last, and they lost 3-0 to Vancouver and 4-0 to the Red Bulls in a brutal two-game April stretch. They shrugged these losses off and won trophies.
Last year, they were enjoying first place in the Western Conference when they got whacked 4-0 by the Whitecaps at home in July, signalling a death-spiral that saw them fall out of the playoffs. They never did shrug that loss off.
They’ve revamped themselves this year, to the point where they’re back to second in the west and look something more like that 2016 team. Their loss on Saturday, 3-0 to the Red Bulls despite a first-half Daniel Royer red card, feels similar to those previous drops in form. They have to make sure this loss stays an anomaly, not a turning point.
There’s also this:
Acosta was not happy about being pulled in the first half, ostensibly for more attacking numbers to take advantage of New York’s red card. Locker room discontent was huge part of last year’s collapse. Oscar Pareja, who’s done a wonderful job of creating internal competition this year, can’t let that happen again.
Goalkeeper howler of the week
Nick Rimando, you have to hold onto this:
That spill cost RSL three points. The struggles of being a goalkeeper.