Looking at the best teams out West, including the Timbers and LAFC, and more from MLS Week 19.
Who’s the team to beat out West?
A recent trend: MLS teams look weaker at the top but stronger down the standings, making it tougher to outline an elite class. Only Atlanta United seem to have truly set themselves apart. The New York Red Bulls and NYCFC saw midseason coaching changes. FC Dallas have lost two in a row. Sporting KC are looking less than invincible. Columbus have potentially fatal weaknesses.
So if ATL are the Eastern Conference’s best, who holds that title in the West? With the recent struggles of FCD and SKC, the case for LAFC is only growing, as are the cases of Portland (unbeaten in 11) and Real Salt Lake. After this week’s results, let’s power rank the West’s four best teams:
1. LAFC: They blitzed Philadelphia 4-1 on Saturday and sit second in the conference, behind only Dallas. They blew a 2-0 stoppage time lead midweek in Houston (someone fix Laurent Ciman, who is resembling a Colorado center-back with his misguided forays out of the backline), but they are playing as well as anyone in the league, and that’s despite the month-long absence of Carlos Vela.
Early in the season, Marco Urena was one of the biggest stories surrounding LAFC — he didn’t score a ton of goals as their number 9, but his intelligence and movement made him one of their most important players. Injury replacement Adama Diomande, capitalizing on Urena’s various absences, has officially stolen his spot, scoring 9g and 2a in 472 minutes.
The dude is producing, doing a lot of the same things that Urena did. He makes good, smart runs, opening space for others by dragging defenders out of place, and he’s an effective passer, just like Urena. Dio’s role as a space-mover isn’t quite as pronounced without Vela in the lineup, but that will change as the Mexican reintegrates.
That kind of goalscoring production alongside Vela, a top MVP contender, and Diego Rossi, an elite goalscorer from the wing in a league that often lacks those, is scary.
2. Sporting KC: SKC are evolving, particularly in their increasingly modern tactics, but simultaneously falling back into old weaknesses. After a clinical spring stretch, they’ve tailed off recently, winning just once in five and withering midweek against RSL, losing 4-2.
They’ve gone a bit stale. Teams are figuring out that you can find success playing fast against them, and Sporting’s lack of high-caliber attacking difference-makers (particularly up front) has again come back to hurt them. Daniel Salloi has been a bright spot, but he’s not someone who can create something out of nothing in the attacking third. SKC lack that.
3. FC Dallas: I wrote two weeks ago, after Dallas’s 3-0 defeat against the 10-man Red Bulls, that their season would be determined by how well they would rebound from that loss. They have a history of bad defeats; in 2015 and 2016, they secured those losses as anomalies, but they collapsed upon themselves after falling 4-0 to Vancouver in July of last year.
Early returns are inconclusive. They’ve sold Mauro Diaz since that New York game, and while they have wins over Minnesota and Atlanta, they lost 2-0 this week to RSL, lacking the creativity that would have come from Diaz. It’s time to start Paxton Pomykal or look for a Diaz replacement.
4. Portland Timbers: Portland are fifth in the West on 29 points, third on points per game. The game plan from Giovanni Savarese is a good one: compact through the spine, making the best possible use of d-mid Diego Chara (he has been so good this year) and letting the triple threat of Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Samuel Armenteros attack on the counter.
Their 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation lacks width on paper, but everything is free-flowing, and right-back Alvas Powell is given the freedom to support higher up the field. Blanco likes to drop deep and burst into space on the ball. The spacial relationship between him and Valeri is fascinating:
The two manage to cover all sorts of ground, shifting and probing all over. Against the Earthquakes on Saturday night, Portland kept 58 percent of possession in a 2-1 win, and Blanco and Valeri were important facets with the ball. The Timbers usually are more willing to concede possession, as they did in their 3-2 win over the Sounders last week, but the attackers maintain active roles.
Portland are direct, in a uniquely balanced way. They don’t often create chances from pressing, like the Red Bulls, or use deeper possession to free attackers, like Columbus and NYCFC. Rather, they can suffocate you in midfield and break out through Chara and Blanco, or they can jump right into attack from possession. They’re versatile.
When they hit a vertical long ball during possession sequences originating in the defensive third, they have 12 key passes (passes leading to a shot), and on sequences without a long ball, they have nine key passes, per Jamon Moore of American Soccer Analysis. Both numbers are in the upper third of MLS.
In a nutshell, the Timbers waste no time getting into the attack, and they’re capable of creating space from a variety of situations.
Armenteros, stealing the starting striker job away from Fanendo Adi, has been a revelation, one of the biggest factors in their recent success. He scored two more goals against the Quakes and now has 6g and 1a in 617 minutes, adding a straight-ahead dribbling ability and willingness to run the channels. No play better sums up the Timbers’ directness than Armenteros’s second against San Jose:
The Timbers don’t waste time charging into available gaps, of which there were many against the Earthquakes.
The biggest concern around Portland is their ability to dictate games against teams that sit back, something that could become more pressing in the postseason. They win many of their games by one goal. At some point, they’re going to have to prove they can run the show.
But they’ve at least proved they belong, and Savarese showed real managerial chops when they grinded out a great 1-1 result in Atlanta on June 24, sitting deep in an organized low block. Portland know how to get results, and in a shaky conference, that is a huge skill.
The best team in the league
Atlanta United cruised to a win in Philadelphia, 2-0, as Josef Martinez added two more goals to his league-leading mark. They’ve adjusted well to Darlington Nagbe’s absence. The 4-2-3-1 with a star-studded front four of Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco and Hector Villalba has been Tata Martino’s best option.
It’s a disappointing loss for the Union, who need to continue to make big decisions at the top of the formation — notably, CJ Sapong shouldn’t be starting, and they should start the search for a new number 9. David Accam has already been benched in favor of Fafa Picault and Ilsinho.
The worst team in the league
Colorado lost 2-1 to the Impact in Montreal. The Rapids, who aren’t even in last place because San Jose keep dropping results, started five center-backs and sat ridiculously deep until they gave up two goals in quick succession to Saphir Taider. Montreal didn’t have much trouble at all.
The Canadians have a nice four-game win streak going. Three of those four came against terrible teams, though, so we’ll reserve some judgement. But credit to Remi Garde for getting that team back to being coherent.
Predictable result of the week
LAFC ripped Orlando 4-1, even though the Lions looked kinda okay in their first game under new coach James O’Connor. The next step for that Orlando team is putting their talented players in better positions, and finding a true identity for the first time in their history.
Random result of the week
I certainly didn’t expect the LA Galaxy to beat Columbus 4-0. Sigi Schmid played a 3-5-2 with both dos Santos brothers in the midfield behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ola Kamara. The lineup worked to pretty good effect, with the brothers handling a Columbus midfield that was missing Artur.
The race between Vancouver, LA and Houston for the sixth Western Conference playoff spot will be fascinating.
Goalkeeper howler of the week
Just days after I put Jeff Attinella on my All-Star team, he gave up this soft goal:
It didn’t ultimately matter, though.