Atlanta refuse to die, Seattle’s playoff path looks grim & more from Week 32
Our post-mortems for teams that failed to make the postseason are starting to trickle out.
Three teams – Chicago, Toronto and Kansas City – were eliminated this weekend, to go with the three (D.C., Houston and San Jose) who’d already seen the curtain ring down.
As with last week, I’m going to focus on games at or near the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoff line, since that’s where most of the drama is right now:
Here’s what I wrote about the Crew last week, after their 2-2 draw at CF Montreal:
As per TruMedia via StatsPerform, Columbus are tied for league-worst (with the Revs) with a -6 goal differential in the 75th minute or later when they have a lead, and nobody’s conceded more than the Crew’s nine goals in that situation. When they’re ahead or tied past the 75th minute, they’re -8 (again, tied with the Revs for league-worst), and all alone with an MLS-worst 13 goals conceded.
Columbus have given up just 20 goals in all other situations all year long. What this tells me is that down the stretch, when games are tight, they are broken.
Want more evidence? The last time these two teams met, it was 11-v-11 in the 75th minute, and the Crew were up 1-0. Montréal won that one 2-1.
Friday wasn’t an outlier. It’s a habit.
Second Spectrum’s tracking data points the finger directly at how deep the Crew drop their line in late-game situations. Whether they’re playing 10-v-11 or 11-v-11, they concede midfield and just defend in Eloy Room’s lap. Everything becomes a box scramble, and when you’ve got that many bodies in the box and that many clear shooting lanes from midfield, strange things can happen…
On Wednesday, Columbus lost 2-1 at Inter Miami thanks to an 82nd-minute Gonzalo Higuain winner. On Sunday afternoon, at home against Portland, the Crew took a 1-0 lead into the 95th minute. The game finished 1-1.
They have now conceded 15 goals when leading or tied after the 75th minute, and just 21 in all other scenarios. They dropped six points in the past eight days thanks to this habit. They are now in eighth place, below the playoff line and looking up at a handful of teams that are, right now, playing much better soccer than they are.
I have no new analysis to add this week because, as the tweet says, it just keeps happening. If you’re looking for a silver lining, I will point out the silver lining of Kevin Molino putting together a pretty good 84-minute shift, including an outstanding goal. They’ll clearly need him down the stretch as they try desperately to climb back above the line.
The Timbers played what has become their typical 3-4-2-1 in this one, though Gio Savarese might’ve outsmarted himself by putting Dairon Asprilla – who’s been their center forward as of late – at right wingback, which then exposed Larrys Mabiala as a right center back. It was those two guys that Molino caught ball-watching on the Crew’s goal, and it was an effort to get Asprilla involved much defensively at all.
Savarese eventually switched Dairon back to forward and put Santi Moreno at wingback, before throwing in the kitchen sink with a 4-2-4 for the final 15 minutes or so.
“I think one thing that maybe we have to give credit to players is that sometimes when the first half doesn’t go the way we want to, we always find the adjustments in the areas that we need to be better in order to find what we’re looking for,” Savarese said afterward, and honestly during this five-game unbeaten run, he’s not wrong.
The point keeps Portland just above the fray on 46 points, good for fifth in the West. But that leaves them just three points above eighth-place RSL, and guess what? Those two teams meet on Decision Day.
Of course there’s no guarantee RSL will still be alive by then, as their 2-1 home loss to FC Cincinnati – one in which both goals were more-or-less gifted to the visitors – means they can be eliminated before Decision Day even rolls around if results go against them.
The Claret-and-Cobalt are just 3W-7L-6D since June 25, and have now lost two in a row. It has been a steady slide down the standings as xDAWG has faded as a determining factor and stuff like field balance has become more decisive.
Take, for example, the passage of play leading up to Brenner’s winner here:
Nick Hagglund’s a useful player, but how many times have you ever seen him hit a pass that breaks two lines and cuts six defenders out of the play? Then even after Pablo Ruiz temporarily slows Lucho Acosta down, Cincy still end up with a 5-v-4.
Pablo Mastroeni changed his team’s shape in this one from their typical 4-4-1-1 to a 3-5-2, and to be honest, I don’t think it was the wrong idea. In the first half especially, they forced Cincy ‘keeper Roman Celentano into a hell of a performance. But subbing off Jasper Loffelsend at the break, and then Diego Luna on the hour, robbed the midfield of both bite and creativity, and it really started to show over the final 20 minutes of the game.
So after months and months of winning on the margins, that’s now where RSL are losing games, and for the first time in a long time it’s left them below the line.
Cincy, meanwhile, finally jumped above the line into sixth place. Celentano and Brenner were huge, obviously, but credit to Pat Noonan for keeping his wingbacks low in order to protect against those big, field-opening diagonals RSL love to hit.
Orlando City’s US Open Cup title hangover lasted one game, as they bounced back from a 1-0 midweek home loss to Atlanta with a 4-0 evisceration of Toronto on Saturday evening, pushing the Lions up to 45 points and putting the Reds out of their 2022 misery.
A pair of mid-season arrivals, winger Ivan Angulo and d-mid Wilder Cartagena, have been crucial to Orlando’s turnaround over the past month after a mostly miserable first half of the summer, and have given Oscar Pareja newfound flexibility. Angulo is relentless on both sides of the ball – he’s always running, and I love him for it – but he’s also got enough skill to play the final ball.
Still, it’s that first part, the “always running” part, that really matters. His point-of-attack defense is a massive weapon, as Sacramento found out to their displeasure, while his ability to create depth opens up room for, and provides a target for both Facu Torres and Mauricio Pereyra. They are getting to be more varied in their playmaking because Angulo is just a massively different look from what Orlando’s had out there for most of the year.
Cartagena, meanwhile, is a pretty no-frills d-mid, one who Pareja even trusts enough to play as a single pivot, as was the case in this game.
All of this worked as a perfect counterpoint to how high-risk TFC’s approach is, and how it’s not translating right now because they can’t win the ball back immediately after turnovers in valuable spots. The thing with Bob Bradley’s LAFC teams was that they’d try these super-hard, super-high-value slip-passes in Zone 14 that, if they got cut out, could turn into really bad breakaways going in the other direction.
But LAFC were so great with that re-press they’d just win the ball and do it all over again, often generating three or four chances from what was essentially one sequence.
TFC’s re-press is, uh, not as good:
Six defenders immediately cut out when the ball is lost, Michael Bradley trying to defend 1-v-3 in central midfield, Pereyra allowed to count the minutes as he steps into a through-ball… that’s nightmare fuel for anyone who coaches front-foot soccer.
That midweek win in Orlando clearly gave Atlanta some life, and the truth is that they deserved three more from what eventually became a scoreless home draw against visiting Philly on Saturday.
The simple truth is that the Five Stripes got Andre Blake’d, as the UConn legend (no chance I wasn’t going to slip that in there) put in a time-capsule performance to keep the clean sheet. It was Player of the Week-caliber, not just Team of the Week.
While Blake stole the show and stole the Union a point, let’s take a moment to appreciate how utterly dominant Atlanta were defensively against a team that’s scored 7,000 goals over the past couple of months. Philly barely got a sniff:
Here is a good and lengthy Gonzalo Pineda answer about how he’s had to juggle both personnel and tactics throughout the year, and what’s going right now for a Five Stripes team that is suddenly three unbeaten and just two points below the line.
“We used two fullbacks, really three in Andrew Gutman, Brooks Lennon and Ronald Hernandez almost at the same time,” Pineda explained about how his side played on Saturday. “You have to improvise a little bit and find different shapes, different formations. Again, I’m not big on formation, if you look at the 4-2-3-1, but where on the field. What part of the field is important. That’s more of the defensive shape at times that we use, but after that we have so many structures within the team.
“It’s the structures that matter to me against certain opponents. I felt that today was more of a 4-3-3 in attack or even a 2-3-2-3, trying to put Amar [Sejdic] and Thiago [Almada] in between the lines, and when their midfielder was going to our fullback, we were finding those players and trying to switch the point of attack. I felt the players did a great job with that.”
Getting guys like Gutman, Lennon and Hernandez healthy has been crucial for this recent push (Gutman has been Atlanta’s best player since returning to the lineup), while at the same time, Almada and Santi Sosa have both leveled up.
I really thought, a month ago, that Atlanta were done. But the door’s been left open, and if there was more season left, I think I’d bet on them figuring out how to walk through it. But they’re chasing teams that all have a game in hand, so it feels too little, too late.
For the Union the draw, combined with LAFC’s win, put control of the Supporters’ Shield race back in Black & Gold. In MLS the first tiebreaker is total wins, so if both teams win out and finish on 70 points, LAFC will get the trophy despite Philly’s record goal differential.
Ok, I did not see this coming from Inter Miami, but they rebounded from their three-game losing streak – which seemed like a season-ender – with a six-point week thanks to a home win over Columbus and a wild and wide-open 3-2 win at D.C. on Sunday night.
There was so much of this on Sunday:
Sloppy midfield turnover leads to a numbers-up break leads to a low cross along the six-yard box. It felt like eventually one of those would pay off, and, well, you can see the clip.
I’m not sure I have anything to say about this game from a tactical perspective. It was so up-and-down that it was like neither midfield really existed (for the record, Miami played a diamond 4-4-2 while D.C. were more of a 4-1-3-2), and it just ended up being an exercise in executing upon transition moments. Miami’s actually been very good at that this year – they’re 18th in the league in transition xG generated as per Second Spectrum – but, well, D.C.’s defense in transition states is 26th in the league.
In other words, if you turn them around and make them run at their own goal, they will find a way to give you a look. I suspect that was at least partially the line of reasoning from Phil Neville, who improbably finds his team in seventh place and in control of their own playoff destiny after an absolutely enormous week.
I am going to be charitable and put Charlotte in this section following their come-from-behind 3-2 win at Chicago, which officially buried another Fire season. I think it’s unlikely that the Crown, in 10th place on 38 points, can climb above the line, especially given their remaining schedule – vs. Philly, vs. Columbus, at RBNY. I’m pretty sure they’d need a clean sweep of those games, and that’s not going to happen.
But Christian Lattanzio deserves a ton of credit. He’s been inventive without resorting to just throwing stuff at the wall, and he’s been more than willing to develop guys who have otherwise found themselves on the scrap heap.
The latest rehab project is Derrick Jones, the 25-year-old former US U-20 midfield partner of Tyler Adams. Jones has bounced around MLS for years, never quite settling in with one team or in one spot.
Over the past month, though, Lattanzio has decided to use him at the base of Charlotte’s midfield, which has allowed fellow reclamation project Brandt Bronico to be more of a free-roaming destroyer. You can see it in the Second Spectrum pass map:
And to be clear: while this game was very much about Chicago once again falling apart, it wasn’t only about Chicago falling apart. Charlotte gave up a couple of bad goals early, but they regrouped, got on the ball a ton and started using it to create the type of gaps that attackers like Karol Swiderski turn into goals.
They were smart and well-drilled enough to turn that into three points, and to keep their season mathematically alive for another week.
The Portland and RSL results opened the door for Minnesota to create a little separation and oh dear lord did that not happen. The Loons, on Saturday night, went down I-35 and got curb-stomped 4-1 by a Sporting KC team that’s not going to make the playoffs – they were officially eliminated this weekend despite their win – but are dead set on ruining everyone’s day.
Their summer window signings of forward William Agada (who had a brace) and central midfielder Erik Thommy (who had a golazo) are the biggest part of why Sporting are suddenly a bulldozer. Look at this:
Notice it’s not just an attacking improvement, but a defensive one as well. Yes, Agada’s been a Cucho-level attacking threat who just constantly puts pressure on opposing backlines, but he’s been a very good defensive forward on top of that. Hence Sporting are getting more defense at the point of attack, which has made it more difficult for opposing teams to just ping passes into KC’s midfield shape and start ripping them up.
Thommy, meanwhile, has been excellent on both sides of the ball, but the most important part is that he’s the closest thing they’ve had to Benny Feilhaber in terms of his ability to receive and orchestrate in the half-spaces, while also being goal dangerous himself.
And so KC’s possession percentage over the past eight games is back at close to 55% which, in Peter Vermes’ system, means they’re actually controlling games. They were down below 50% over the course of the season before that.
They’re using the ball on both sides of the field now, which really matters for them. And obviously Minnesota, who were without Emanuel Reynoso, never wrestled the game away at all.
There has also been no replacing Bakaye Dibassy. I don’t think there’s been a more significant injury during the stretch run, as they are now 0W-4L-1D with 12 goals allowed in the five games since he went down for the season. And a lot of otherwise manageable stuff like this…
…has been turning into goals.
The Loons are still in sixth place, two points above the line with two games left. Two of the teams chasing them – LA and Seattle – have games in hand.
Minnesota are in real danger.
It’s the Galaxy who present the most immediate danger, as they climbed above the line into seventh after ripping apart Colorado with a 4-1 win.
Samuel Grandsir provided our Pass of the Week with his primary assist on the opener, which came off a lovely sequence of the sort that has often led to big chances, but not often enough led to big goals for LA:
Greg Vanney’s been changing the Galaxy’s shape every week. This time out it was a pretty standard 4-3-3 (though you can see in the clip above there were some interesting rotations with Mark Delgado and Gaston Brugman, who somehow had a brace as a d-mid), which is what I think the plan was from the start of the season. It just hasn’t worked out as they wanted because the wingers have been so non-productive.
How much do we read into this excellent performance? I really don’t know, because the Rapids – who should’ve been playing for their lives – were a disaster. LA cut ‘em up.
For what it’s worth, the Galaxy are in complete control of their own playoff destiny with three games left: at San Jose, home vs. RSL and at Houston on Decision Day.
Colorado, on 39 points with two games left, are technically still alive. But it’s hard to see it happening.
It is one point easier to see it happening for a Vancouver team that is finally close to full health and are finally playing with the type of pace and attacking gusto that served them so well at this time last year.
As the tweet says, this represents both Vancouver’s best goal of the year (sorry, Julian Gressel, but I prefer a long, precision build-up over a long-range golazo) and our Face of the Week:
The ‘Caps were dead and buried a week ago, but taking six points this week from home games vs. the Galaxy and the Sounders has sparked them back to life. They will likely need to win both (home vs. Austin, then at Minnesota on Decision Day) in order to get in, and while I’d usually end that sentiment with “but crazier things have happened,” I’m not actually sure that’s the case here.
For what it’s worth, health has been a big part of this two-game surge, as guys like Gressel, Ryan Gauld and Tristan Blackmon are finally, after 30-odd games, 90-minutes fit. But so too has been a defensive change, and the ‘Caps have been defending out of a mid-block 4-4-2 for the past three games.
Seattle didn’t really look prepared for that, and weren’t able to ever get out on the break, or to drive possession into the half-spaces. So they resorted to cross after cross after cross – 21 of them in all, which predictably generated lots of low-percentage looks and plays that almost came off.
Seattle are on 39 points, but with three games left they still have a path, as seven points would give them a pretty good chance, and all nine would, in most scenarios, get them across the line.
Anything less than that, though, and it’s lights out on a 13-year playoff run.
The Revs aren’t mathematically done, but the book on their season is shut following Saturday’s 1-0 home loss against Montréal. New England are on 38 points, four below the line with just two games to play. FiveThirtyEight.com’s got them at less than a 1% chance to get across the line (Charlotte, on the same points total, are on 4% because of their game in hand).
In the interest of projecting out into next season, I found this sequence from DP center forward Giacomo Vrioni to be concerning:
It’s one of the worst Supporters’ Shield defenses in league history. While they got the Matt Turner replacement right, they didn’t do anywhere near as well replacing Adam Buksa or Tajon Buchanan, and injuries and regression took care of the rest.
“The players have been fine. We’ve just not been able to field our team this year,” said head coach Bruce Arena, who hasn’t been able to juggle all the injuries and absences. “We’ve been behind the eight ball the whole time. … I think, my own personal opinion, I thought last year we played well over our heads and I think some of our players never understood what made them successful last year, and it caught up with them a little bit.”
Montréal’s win clinched them a top two spot in the Eastern Conference as they continue the best year in their MLS history. They are 9W-1L-2D since mid-July, and to me they look like apex predators, damn near the same tier as Philly and LAFC.
I have Austin and Nashville in a tier below that, as those two sides battled to a 1-1 draw in Austin on Saturday night. Both MVP candidates, Hany Mukhtar and Sebastian Driussi, got on the board to keep that race and the 2022 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi race humming.
I don’t mean to make this the “let’s pick on center forwards” part of the column, but this right here is why Nashville aren’t in a higher tier:
C.J. Sapong can’t let himself just drift out of the play like that after releasing Alex Muyl. He’s got to book it to the back post for either that exact pullback, or for the potential rebound if Muyl takes a shot that’s saved.
Sapong’s had a great career but he’s not a natural goalscorer and, well, he hasn’t scored a goal since May. Nashville continue to need more from him at that spot if they’re going to close out the season strong and make another serious playoff push.
Austin, meanwhile, need new DP winger Emiliano Rigoni to start creating danger. Thus far, in 200 minutes, he doesn’t appear to be an upgrade over either Diego Fagundez or Ethan Finlay.
The Hudson River Derby was decided inside of a minute as Alex Callens got on the end of a recycled corner kick to give NYCFC a 1-0 lead that subsequently turned into 2-0 – also off a recycled corner kick – and stayed there for the rest of the day. Between this rivalry win and the really impressive midweek demolition of Atlas in the Campeones Cup, interim head coach Nick Cushing had his first truly good work on the job, I’d say.
He celebrated in style:
The win left the Pigeons just one point back of the Red Bulls, who never really generated the types of looks that suggested a comeback was possible. And about those recycled set pieces… as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, RBNY are one of the best teams in the league defending the initial set piece as only the Union and Sounders have allowed fewer goals.
But they’re in the bottom third of the league at defending against recycled set pieces. Of the 39 goals they’ve allowed on the season, 11 of them have come in the 40 seconds after a restart.
Dallas went to San Jose to grind out a point thanks to a 1-1 draw behind a goal from Jader Obrian and a second half of some grim defensive work. They actually seemed really gassed, and I imagine they’re glad to have two weeks of rest before their final two games of the season.
They finished the week third in the West, while the Quakes are down in last.
And finally, as mentioned above, LAFC took control of the Shield race with a fairly workmanlike 3-1 home win over Houston. They were just relentless about attacking at pace up their left, which constantly rocked the Dynamo back on their heels and led to multiple goals for the Black & Gold.
In the second half LAFC, for the first time in a while, were able to toggle between defending competently in a compact mid-block and occasionally putting their foot on the ball with long spells of possession to take the sting out of the game.
They weren’t perfect – Coco Carrasquilla had them chasing ghosts out there – but they looked much more like the team that was on a record pace up until mid-August than they did like the team that’s gone straight into the toilet since then.