Hany Mukhtar goes MVP mode amid Nashville revival, Dallas find a midfield solution & more from Week 29

0904 NSH Hany Mukhtar

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0904 NSH Hany Mukhtar

A month left. In we go:

Best of You

It was a hot, humid and miserable mid-August night in Nashville. The ‘Yotes had just lost at home – again – so the boo birds were out, and Dax McCarty was pissed.

Not at the fans, but at himself and his team. And he had something to say.

“There’s no reason to sugarcoat anything. Everyone can sit here and see that we’re not as strong at home as we have been in years past,” McCarty said in a postgame presser that is somehow both three weeks and a lifetime ago. “If we’re going to be successful, we cannot have [Hany Mukhtar] shouldering the burden and the load that he’s shouldering right now. It’s unsustainable.

“You have a lot of pissed-off guys in that locker room right now… This is not recreational sports. We’re in the business of winning, and right now we’re not doing that. We’re letting down a lot of people. This is just down to will. A will to just do your job and a will to just win battles. That’s what it comes down to.”

It is the type of thing a captain should say when his team has spent most of the season sort of sleepwalking through the schedule, and it’s a thing a captain often does say in that situation. But there’s no guarantee of any kind of a response – and certainly no guarantee of a positive one.

But, well, Dax got what he wanted out of this one. Saturday night’s commanding 3-0 win over visiting Austin FC pushed Nashville to 4W-0L-0L with 14 goals scored and just one conceded since that postgame presser, which already has a place in Nashville sporting lore. They have climbed from below the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs line into fourth place, a point below third-place Dallas and one ahead of fifth-place Minnesota, and now have every reason to dream about at least one postseason home game.

There are a mix of reasons for Nashville suddenly looking like the team we all thought they could be (bear in mind “play like you mean it” is the biggest reason):

Dax was wrong Hany’s productivity was unsustainable, because he’s actually picked up more of it since that presser.

Mukhtar, who officially swiped MVP frontrunner status from Sebastian Driussi this weekend, has scored seven goals and added three assists over the past 360 minutes, including a late, game-ending brace on Saturday night. He’s now up to 21g – first in the 2022 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi race – and 11 assists on the year, joining elite company in the 20/10 club (it’s been done just four times before). The even more exclusive 25/10 club (membership: Carlos Vela, 2019) is also obviously well within reach.

And Hany, to his credit, is very open about being motivated by the Landon Donovan MLS MVP race.

“I have to give, first of all, credit to Driussi. He’s played an amazing first season, and he’s an amazing player.” Mukhtar said after the game. “I was with him in the MLS All-Star week and he’s a good guy. A very nice guy. Very humble. But in the end, of course, I’m here to win something with Nashville. I think I’ve played a very good season, and of course I also want to win the MVP award.

“So, I give my best. I can just do my homework every weekend. That’s what I can do. There was a special motivation, I’m not going to lie, but in the end, all goals count the same. That’s why in the end, my goals against Colorado count the same as my goals today.”

There are two things I want to pick at there just a little bit. The first is Mukhtar “doing his homework every weekend,” which I love to see. And even though this play doesn’t come to anything because of a loose touch from Shaq Moore, this is what “doing homework” on Austin looks like:

Armchair Analyst: Mukhtar turn and Moore loose touch

It’s the 10’s job not just to produce goals and assists, but to try to orchestrate entire attacking movements. That’s what Mukhtar’s doing here, popping up in the half-space and then driving across the game-channel before spreading the field to Moore. It is textbook “this is how you should try to disorganize Austin when you have the ball” stuff.

The second is “all goals count the same,” and I will put it as simply as I can: the hardest thing to do in sports is to consistently find tap-ins. The fact that Mukhtar does – in addition to scoring the occasional golazo – on a weekly basis is not a strike against him, but a measure of his greatness.

Anyway, it took forever, but Nashville’s finally where most of us thought they’d be. Mukhtar’s the main reason they stayed alive long enough to get to this point, but now, at last, he’s getting a little bit of help.

Learn to Fly

A couple of weeks ago I pointed out FC Dallas head coach Nico Estevez was mixing up his midfielders – playing the guy who should be his right center mid at left center mid, and vice versa:

This didn’t make Dallas bad, per se (though they certainly were on the night that tweet was sent), just kind of plodding and predictable. It’s not unusual for a team committed to pitch control and positional play to struggle with that exact thing, but los Toros took it to another level this summer given how regimented and static their midfield was. Which, as I said at the top, was exacerbated by Estevez putting his best and most dynamic passers of the ball into spots where they didn’t really have access to the entire field.

This isn’t unique to MLS, by the way. The Athletic’s John Muller wrote a fantastic piece back in the spring about how Jurgen Klopp had made the same mistake with Thiago Alcantara in the Spaniard’s first year in Liverpool, cutting off the right-footer’s most profitable passing lanes by playing him at right central midfield. In Thiago’s second year – last year – Klopp moved him to left central midfield and, lo-and-behold, Thiago was the best central midfielder in the entire world, unlocking a variety of new attacking avenues for his Reds.

Anyway, back to MLS. I’m not going to take credit for this or anything, as I am far too modest for such thinking, but since I tweeted out that clip above Dallas have scored four goals in two games. That includes Saturday’s 3-0 evisceration of Minnesota United up in St. Paul, which was arguably their best performance of the year.

See if you can find the common denominator in these four goals:

Armchair Analyst: Dallas attack since the midfield switch

I bet you see it, but in case you don’t: Rebalancing the midfield, with Sebastian Lletget on the left and Paxton Pomykal on the right, has unleashed both of them. Lletget’s got five assists in 459 minutes since joining from New England, while Pomykal… I mean, just look at those clips. There aren’t many guys in the league who win the ball, orchestrate when building out of the back, drive possession forward off the dribble and hit line-breaking passes like that.

Stationed on the left side of that midfield all year Pomykal had done all of that, but usually only along the left touchline in combo play with Marco Farfan. Flip him to the right side, though – literally just allow him to face more of the field with the ball on his preferred foot – and through 135 minutes, he’s putting up underlying numbers that look very similar to the Best XI-caliber season Jose Cifuentes has been having in downtown LA as per American Soccer Analysis’s all-in-one g+ metric. (Small sample size alert, of course, but Pomykal was also significantly more effective in ball progression and chance creation as a right center mid back in 2019, which was his only other relatively healthy year as a full-time central midfielder).

Putting the midfield into position to be more dynamic has had the happy knock-on effect of allowing the front line to be more dynamic as well. Notice that two of those goals were caused (and one was scored) by Jesus Ferreira making a hard, direct, CB-splitting run right at goal? Nothing false 9 about that. He looked much more like Pippo Inzaghi shooting the gap than like Totti pulling off the line to orchestrate. And given both Ferreira’s nose for finding good chances and his elite speed – as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data he’s the second-fastest player in the league this year – getting him into situations where Dallas can trade positional superiority for dynamic superiority is a very, very good thing.

“In the first half we controlled the possession, but we didn’t create goal-scoring opportunities. We created one with Jesús that was cleared, but all of our crosses, all of our situations where we were arriving didn’t help us to create a clear chance,” Estevez said after the game. “We identified a lot of space in between the lines and if you receive the ball there, you can play quickly in behind. If there’s no space, just make more runs in behind. In the second half we were more aggressive with the runs in behind and we were able to hurt Minnesota.”

For Adrian Heath, who saw his team slide to their second consecutive 3-0 loss, “we identified a lot of space in between the lines” has to set off alarm bells. The Loons fell on their faces midweek at RSL with simple failures to deal with crosses, but this loss, at home, seemed to point to something bigger and more structurally worrying, because as soon as Dallas remembered to run, Minnesota couldn’t seem to keep up.

A few other things to ponder…

11. I got some pushback from friends for putting Gaga Slonina second on my 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR ballot this year, but then Saturday happened and they shut up because Gaga was incredible in Chicago’s scoreless draw at Columbus. He made nine saves on the day and is now in the top third of MLS ‘keepers in post-shot xG-GA, which is probably the best single shot-stopping metric.

Will he ever be good enough to start for Chelsea? I don’t know – I tend to think it’s unlikely. But what he’s done in this league at age 18 is unprecedented:

The Crew, like Dallas, can often suffer from a plodding and predictable attack, but that wasn’t the case on Saturday. They generated 25 shots, including nine from inside the box, and while they weren’t exactly carving Chicago up, they did have the Fire on the ropes for virtually the entire 90 minutes.

Slonina was the only reason this one ended scoreless.

10. It didn’t end scoreless in Cincy, as the Garys took care of business with an ugly 2-0 win over visiting Charlotte on Saturday night. This game, played in something close to a monsoon, was ugly as sin and required the hosts to truly scrap for all three points. The fact they managed it – without any of the late breakdowns that have crushed them all year – lifted them above the playoff line and left them officially in control of their own Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs destiny with six games left.

The Crown at least got to see a 22-minute cameo from summer signing Nuno Santos at the end of this one, but at six points below the line with only five games left, it’s hard to see a reasonable path into the postseason for them.

9. I’ve been banging on all summer long about how Philly’s attack has a different dimension – a different tempo, really – with Jack McGlynn on the field. McGlynn’s got the kind of soccer brain that understands exactly how to arrange the pieces on the board to let the killer run unfold, and then the right kind of technique to hit the killer ball to match it:

Armchair Analyst: McGlynn to Uhre

He’s left-footed, by the way.

Anyway, the Union hung on, then wore down, and then eventually pulled apart a very good Red Bulls team in Harrison en route to a 2-0 win in what was, on paper, their toughest remaining match this season. Their goal differential of +42 is, as of now, the second-best in league history, while their 21 goals allowed gives them the second-best defense in league history. And they’re the only team in league history to, at this point in the year, have scored three times as many goals as they’ve conceded. Nobody else has ever even come close.

By the way, Mikael Uhre has been better than advertised (that’s him scoring that goal), which is saying something considering he’s the Union’s record signing. Uhre has 11g/6a in just under 1350 minutes, and his on/off numbers are absurd. When he starts, Philly are 11W-3L-3D and score 2.7 goals per game with a +33 goal differential. When he doesn’t, they’re 6W-1L-6D, scoring 1.3 goals per game and a +9 GD.

8. Aljaz Ivacic and penalties. That’s been a great combo for the Portland Timbers this year, and was once again on Sunday as Ivacic pulled off a massive early save to keep it scoreless, and then Portland got two more penalties (they’re now up to 10 goals from PKs this year, which represents more than 20% of their total goal haul) en route to a 2-1 win over a mostly static and idea-less and all-but-eliminated Atlanta United side.

The Timbers, after being Jekyll-and-Hyde all year, are working on a three-game winning streak. It feels like they do this every season – just masters of getting hot at the right time.

7. D.C. United and Colorado – two teams that aren’t mathematically eliminated yet, but c’mon – played to a scoreless draw at D.C. It wasn’t a bad match, though! Just some desperate defending and a little lack of sharpness in front of goal from Christian Benteke, who spurned a couple of great chances in the second half – including a missed PK and a towering header off a corner that was cleared off the line.

There is significant offseason work to come for both of these teams.

6. There’s significant offseason work to come for Toronto as well. Like D.C. and Colorado their season isn’t truly done yet, but Sunday night’s wild 4-3 home loss to Montréal pushed the playoff line up to “it would take a miracle” territory for a Reds side that 1) can not stop making catastrophic individual errors, and 2) compounds that propensity by playing wildly aggressive, front-foot soccer.

For the first 10 minutes that approach looked amazing, as both Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne got on the board to put TFC up and get BMO Field rocking. But Montréal are tactically well-drilled mentality monsters, and they responded by releasing their wingbacks upfield early – always a good plan against a team with two real high, real wide wingers – and just pummeling the hell out of the hosts.

Armchair Analyst: Full Montréal build-up to Johnston goal

That’s a wingback heading home from inside the six like a center forward. Against Toronto, everyone’s a striker.

Montréal finished the weekend second in the East, five points clear of third-place RBNY. TFC’s down in 10th, just four points below the line. But literally every team they’re chasing has at least one game in hand, and many have two. As I said, it’s “gonna take a miracle” territory now.

5. The Revs are one of those teams ahead of Toronto, and officially climbed into seventh place thanks to a 3-0 home win over an absolutely cratering NYCFC side. New England got their first goal off a corner, their second – courtesy of 17-year-old Homegrown Noel Buck, who looks legit – off a bit of counterpressing, and their third via a quick and direct build from the back, up the flank and across the face of goal for a one-time finish from Tommy McNamara.

In other words they look like a team that’s becoming more comfortable with their 4-2-3-1 shape and more versatile working from within it, even as they’re trying to make do without a number of crucial pieces (the two guys who I think will be the starting wingers, Dylan Borrero and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, are still on the mend, as is right back Brandon Bye).

And on top of that… look, I’m not yet ready to say Djordje Petrovic is an upgrade from Matt Turner, as part of what made Turner special is that he was consistently elite year after year after year with no down patch. But man, Petrovic has been absolutely amazing. I think the Revs are going to make the playoffs and will be terrifying once they get there.

NYCFC will also make the playoffs, but I don’t think they’ll be staying long. They’ve now lost six of seven, which is their worst stretch since April of 2015.

4. To be honest, Chicharito had had an excellent game to this point. He’d buried the opener in the first half and then, with the Galaxy in desperate need, he’d buried a clutch penalty to bring it back to 2-2. That’s not nothing for a guy with a not-great history from the spot.

But this, folks, is our Face of the Week:

Armchair Analyst: Chicharito face of the week (1)

And that is how the Galaxy only managed one point when all three were there for the taking. A 2-2 home draw against Sporting KC – a much-improved Sporting KC over the past month, it should be said, but still – on a flubbed Panenka like that in the middle of a playoff race is just… my god.

I don’t think I’m breaking new ground when I say this Galaxy team should be better than they are, but Greg Vanney’s kind of throwing darts every week to try to find something he thinks is worth sticking with. This time out it was a 4-4-2 diamond with Riqui Puig kind of as a shuttler, but mostly just dropping deep to pick the ball up off the backline and spray.

The issue with that, of course, is a new shape with new guys in new roles exacerbates an already fatal problem – that the Galaxy’s inconsistent shape makes them really vulnerable in transition. And so… yeah. 2-2.

3. The Sounders kept their very dim and flickering playoff hopes alive by rallying for a 2-1 win over visiting Houston, getting goals from Nouhou (!!!) and Fredy Montero, sandwiched around a Nico Lodeiro PK miss – the first of his MLS career.

I think this might’ve been Nouhou’s best-ever attacking performance even without the goal, as he absolutely dimed the cross to Montero’s head for the assist on the game-winner. Watching him do that, and watching how badly the Dynamo struggled to deal with actual threatening play up both flanks, kind of laid bare how badly the Sounders need attacking contributions from their fullbacks (and how much they missed that all season long).

Which is to say that it’s just been an incredibly weird season for the Sounders, who remain six points below the 7th-place Timbers.

2. LAFC absolutely handled RSL on Sunday night, out-playing them and out xDAWG’ing them in what eventually became a 2-0 win that felt like a statement game, given the losing streak the Black & Gold rode into this one.

I am going to very gently point out neither Carlos Vela nor Gareth Bale started, and the energy their replacements brought to the pitch was noticeable as hell. We all know how LAFC want to play by now, right? In terms of what they want to do from a tactical perspective, it’s pretty well documented and understood.

What’s less documented and less well-understood is whether the guys on the field are going to be up for it or not, and the guys who took the field on Sunday were definitely up for it.

RSL… kinda weren’t. And this is not the type of team capable of getting away with that.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to Jackson Yueill for this lovely little flick on Jeremy Ebobisse’s 15th goal of the season:

Armchair Analyst: Yueill pass of the week

The ‘Quakes are an entirely respectable 9W-9L-6D with a -1 goal differential under interim head coach Alex Covelo this year, and new CB signing Rodrigues, who made his debut, certainly had the look of someone who can help solve some of the defensive issues that have carried over from the Matias Almeyda era.

In other words new head coach Luchi Gonzalez will have some good stuff to work with next year, and the three guys involved in that play above – Yueill, Ebobisse and Cade Cowell – are likely to be at the heart of it.

I’m not sure I feel the same way about the ‘Caps, who’ve regressed in their first full season under Vanni Sartini despite bringing in some very good new talent. There are tons of red flags with the way this team has played, but on a macro level the biggest and brightest one is that none of the young guys (many of whom are very talented!) have improved.

Hany Mukhtar goes MVP mode amid Nashville revival, Dallas find a midfield solution & more from Week 29

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