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We’re about a month away from “you are what your record says you are” territory – though take that with a grain of salt since teams like Seattle and D.C. last year, as well as FC Dallas (heading in the other direction) the year before kind of put the lie to that particular axiom.
We are much closer to the “you are what your expected goals differential says you are” part of the season, as teams that perform well by the underlying metrics through the month of April tend to keep performing well through the end of the year. For example you could’ve seen at least some of Seattle’s bounce-back coming in 2018 by examining the underlying numbers, as they had one of the best defenses in the league even when they were losing. Dallas’ 2017 fall wasn’t destiny, but there were absolutely early warning signs if you knew where to look (they created few good chances, and allowed teams a ton of high-value passes).
And so on and so forth. With all that in mind, here are the xG differential numbers so far in 2019:
Los Angeles Football Club
Seattle Sounders FC
Columbus Crew SC
Sporting Kansas City
Orlando City SC
New York Red Bulls
Minnesota United FC
Atlanta United FC
New York City FC
New England Revolution
Real Salt Lake
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
San Jose Earthquakes
Lots of eye-catching numbers in there (yes, LAFC are that good, and yes, the bottom of the West has been that… not good).
Don’t take them as gospel just yet, but bear them in mind. Every week they become more useful as a guide through the brambles of the regular season.
Let’s dive into the weekend that was:
The North Remembers
“To be fair, not a lot of teams go there and try to press, so that was pretty ballsy.”
That was Montreal Impact left back Daniel Lovitz talking, on Saturday, about the Impact’s 7-1 loss at Sporting KC a few weeks back. He wasn’t just bringing up the result out of nowhere, he was making the point that Montreal learned the lesson from that game.
The lesson, of course, was that Montreal really aren’t a high pressing team. They’re a sit-and-absorb team, and a selective-pressing team, and by embracing those two things they’ve now strung together three straight shutouts – including 1-0 over Columbus at Stade Saputo in the first Montreal home game of the season – since the Kansas City bloodbath.
“To restructure and recalibrate to what we’ve been good at in the past, especially at home, was easy for us,” Lovitz said.
Here are their successful defensive actions from the first half against Columbus, when Montreal were a sit-and-absorb team:
And here they are from the first 10 minutes of the second half, when they were a selective pressing team:
That’s when they got the goal, forcing a Jonathan Mensah turnover while he tried to play out of the back. And rather than attempt to press their way to another, here’s what they did from minute 56 to the final whistle…
Back to sit-and-absorb!
That’s pretty stark. They either defended way upfield or in Evan Bush’s lap. It worked on Saturday, and it’s worked for most of the season as when they’ve played that way, they’ve allowed just four goals in six games.
Sometimes these maps mean nothing. Other times, including this time, they tell the story of the game, and that’s starting to tell the story of Montreal’s season.
You might look up one section to that xG chart and say “yeah, but shouldn’t a team with a -3.52 xG differential be expected to regress,” and in a lot of ways… yup. But that 7-1 loss (they lost the xG battle 3.78-1.09 on the day) was an outlier and is still skewing Montreal’s underlying numbers, which is why we need more of a sample size before we make real, predictive judgements. Take that one result away, and you have a team that’s at about -1 xG differential on the season despite playing 85% of their on the road, and despite missing their best player for more than half of the year to date.
Factor in that this is largely the same group that played the final two-thirds of 2018 at a 60-point pace, and nobody should be shocked to see Montreal in the early playoff picture. Be shocked if they fall out.
I am actually a touch less bullish on the Crew. Columbus massively underperformed their xG last year, generating 58 but scoring just 46 (including the playoffs). And, well, they’re doing it again – they’ve scored seven times on an xG of 9.71. Pro-rate that for a 34-game schedule and the Crew are on pace for 34 goals on an xG of just over 47.
That means their finishing, according to the underlying stats and the eye test and the box score, has been worse than last season. They’re first in the East now, but you don’t stay in first place by scoring just one goal per game.
I’ll say the exact same thing I said in 2018: If they had an elite, goalscoring winger, they’d be one of the three best teams in the league and an MLS Cup favorite. Currently they do not have that.
Worth noting: All three of their DPs can be bought down with TAM. I think the Crew are way, way up high on the list of teams that could make a big splash either at the end of the current window, or as soon as the summer transfer window opens.
Kissed By Fire
It took only a few weeks for MLS to turn Marc Dos Santos into a pragmatist. The ‘Caps head coach traded in a good chunk of his back-to-front, possession-heavy soccer of early March for what we’ll call ultra-defensive, 11-men-behind-the-ball wars of attrition in April.
I get it. The ‘Caps couldn’t defend when they were stretched out, and they showed as much over the first few weeks of the season. So in the last three they’ve done their damnedest to close up shop, push everything to the flanks, and coax teams into sending in a million crosses. They’ve been rewarded with two draws in three outings, and while I’m not going to say they’ve righted the ship, I will say that it’s probably a relief to have points on the board.
I will also say this: Vancouver’s schedule thus far has been pretty, pretty tough. And yes, I’m including this game – Chicago have the talent of a very good team. Dos Santos was probably correct in assuming that his team’s best bet was to try to push the Fire out wide and keep them there.
Turns out they’ve been doing a lot of that, and it’s kind of worked:
Only one team forces teams into more crosses per game. Vancouver know what they’re doing out there.
Part of this, though, falls on the Fire. A team with their talent and experience and skill shouldn’t be so easily pushed out of central midfield. “It was too easy for Vancouver to get them out of their game” is what I thought to myself, but then my colleague Alicia Rodriguez and I had a conversation, and we both ended up asking the same question: What even is Chicago’s game?
Head coach Veljko Paunovic made his name coaching the Serbian U-20s to the 2015 Youth World Cup title (a great accomplishment), and he’s continued coaching like a tournament coach week-in, week-out in his 3+ years with the Fire. There is no week-to-week build to Chicago’s season; rather, every single game is treated like a one-off.
I struggle with that. I’m a big believer that every team needs a thing that they can go back to when games get choppy or the opponent throws a wrinkle at them, and impose that upon the opponent at least 50% of the time. Since the start of the Paunovic era in 2016, have Chicago ever had a thing?
I don’t think so, save for about two-and-a-half months in the middle of the 2017 season when they were a dynamic, break-you-down-with-the-ball possession team. They haven’t been that since then, though, and they’re not a great counterattacking team, and they’re not a pressing team, and they’re not superb on set pieces… What even are they at this point besides “talented?”
That’s exactly what I saw.
Paunovic has to figure out a way to bring all that attacking talent to bear. The fact that they didn’t do so at home against a winless, rebuilding, bunkered-in side… Chicago have one win in six despite playing four of those at home. It’s too soon to panic, but it’s not too soon to worry a little bit.
A few more things to ponder…
10. The best game of the week was in Seattle, as the Sounders and Toronto FC played an open and entertaining 90 minutes in what eventually became a 3-2 Seattle win. They’re now 20-2-3 across their last 25 home games, taking 63 of a possible 75 points – the best 25-game stretch in MLS history behind the ’97-’98 LA Galaxy side.
Extend the timeline and Seattle are up to 71 points and a +28 goal differential across their last 34 regular season games, which basically equals the record-setting regular-season the Red Bulls had last year. What I’m saying is that the Sounders are really good!
So are Toronto, but they still have major issues in defense and defensive midfield:
Nothing that Michael Bradley or Chris Mavinga do in this sequence makes any sense.
Something to consider after this week’s trade between TFC and the Galaxy: Toronto still have the top spot in the Allocation Order, and they wanted to hold onto it for a reason. Players like Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez or Fabian Johnson could/would help this team.
9. Dynamo fans should be happy, as their team did pretty much exactly what it should’ve done over the course of a pretty soft early schedule. Their 2-1 win over the visiting Quakes meant Houston have taken 13 of a possible 15 points, and have looked pretty good doing so.
They’ve survived multiple injuries (Juan David Cabezas, DaMarcus Beasley, Romell Quioto, Memo Rodriguez) with aplomb, and their two stars, Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas, are playing like stars. It is a very good start, and they are a better, deeper team than last year’s U.S. Open Cup champions.
But don’t get too far ahead of yourselves, and be concerned if this group takes the foot off the pedal. Four of Houston’s five have been at home, and five of the next eight are at BBVA Compass Stadium as well. They need to keep collecting points and building up that cushion ahead of a summer Odyssey that sees them play 13 of their 20 games between mid-June and the end of September on the road. And yes, Elis’s potential sale casts a shadow over all of it.
Hold your Dynamo stock, and maybe buy a little bit more. Don’t go all-in on this team just yet, though.
San Jose couldn’t follow up last week’s destruction of Portland with another win, and truth be told they were lucky this one was only 2-1. But they were more competitive than they’d looked at any point in March, and for a team whose system is built on no-holds-barred, 1v1 competitiveness, that is at the very least a useful building block.
8. Atlanta United put in their best performance of the year with a 2-0 win at New England – it could easily have been 4- or 5-0. They played a straight-forward 4-3-3, and Ezequiel Barco had what they’ll hope is a breakout performance, and the defense pitched their first shutout of the season. All very nice, and all very reminiscent of the 4-0 CCL win over Herediano a month-and-a-half ago.
You may have guessed, from the way I framed that, that I’m not buying it as a signal of things to come just yet. I gave Atlanta a mulligan for some of their early-season performances (injuries, new system, short rest, biblical rainstorm), and now I’m considering this a distinct and possibly non-repeatable data point in the other direction because the Revs are STRUGGLING. They conceded 2+ goals for the fourth time in their last six, were shut out for the fourth time in their last six, and still have a season-long total of zero shots on goal from any of their center forwards.
So I just can’t force myself to take a ton from this game re: Atlanta’s form. If they repeat this showing (or come anywhere close to it) next week against FC Dallas, then we’ll talk.
7. Speaking of FCD, for the second straight week they took a lead and for the second straight week they struggled mightily to hold onto it. Ultimately they won 2-1 over the visiting Timbers, but my goodness, did the home side get some fortunate whistles. I rarely write about officiating in this column – the call is the call – but I think Portland’s got a gripe.
They might also have a new shape, as they played a pretty classic 3-5-2 on the day, and put in their best performance of the season:
That’s a network passing graph made using Opta data. Each circle represents the location of the corresponding player’s aggregate touch, while the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes exchanged.
The idea was obviously to make things difficult on Dallas when they tried to build through the middle – that’s why Diego Chara (21) is a sitting d-mid and not in his more typical roving destroyer role – as well as to just get another body back there in central defense. The Timbers have not been able to stop anybody when they’ve used two center backs, so I don’t blame Gio Savarese for trying with three.
6. Mike Petke changed up some of his personnel on Saturday night and the payoff was a 2-1 RSL win over visiting Orlando City. RSL needed that – badly – after getting beat up pretty bad in their previous four games, and with three of the next four on the road.
They’ve got some work to do, though, as this was by no means a dominant performance. The Lions poured the pressure on in the second half, and if Nick Rimando didn’t put in a vintage performance this could easily have been 2-2 or worse.
I mentioned last week that Orlando City have an identity now, and here it is:
- 3-5-1-1 with a “free” forward underneath a center forward
- A midfield playmaker underneath both of them (Sacha Kljestan, or perhaps eventually Josue Colman)
- Two destroyers behind them
- Muck up the middle
- Defend in a low-ish block
- Attack via direct play either to the center forward or straight up the wings
Ruan might be the fastest player I’ve ever seen. He needs to occasionally slow down and find the right touch, but given the way this team is playing right now, he’s an asset. He unbalances opponents and creates more space for the likes of Nani, Kljestan et al. I’m not sure this approach makes them a playoff team (though that possibility is on the table), but they’re no longer an easy out.
5. Give some credit to D.C. They went to Colorado short-handed, on short rest and playing a few players out of position. They went down early, and ran out of gas late, but they still came away with a 3-2 win. This is the kind of result that teams who eventually pick up silverware find a way to get.
That said… what is going on here, Rapids?
No one pressures the ball on the original pass – Diego Rubio just doesn’t try, and Kellyn Acosta gets caught in no-man’s land. Jack Price, who is definitely not a defensive midfielder but plays there a lot, checks his shoulder, sees Lucas Rodriguez in the gap behind him, and… just stands still. Sam Vines is late to recognize the danger of Chris Durkin’s run, and is thus late to abandon the flank in favor of emergency defense in the channel. And Tommy Smith over-commits to the potential threat of Rodriguez, which opens the whole thing up for the actual threat Durkin represents.
I’m going to go ahead and call the original entry pass from Lucho Acosta our Pass of the Week not because it’s hard, but because it’s textbook. This is exactly what you should do – what you have to do – any time you catch a team in a moment where they’re screwing up their defensive rotations. When you see a player like Rodriguez pop up in the pocket like that with nobody around him, you have to punish that defense. You have to make the pass (and if you’re in a deeper-lying position, as Durkin was, you have to make that run through the lines).
Be brave and be decisive and be ruthless. D.C. were, and that’s why they’re atop the East despite a pair of up-and-down performances this week.
4. Zlatan is brave, decisive and ruthless, and was unhappy after LA’s 2-0 win over visiting Philadelphia on Saturday night. Both goals came in the first half, and the second half… was a much different story.
“After two seconds we almost conceded one goal, so either everybody wasn’t on the same side or we relaxed, and that cannot happen, because when you go out and relax, you get punished,” Ibrahimovic said after the game. “And when you get punished, it’s difficult to come back. Lucky we were two up this time, but this cannot happen. We cannot relax like this, and we have to keep going.”
Philly looked sluggish and, to be honest, a little bit intimidated in the first half, then got shook when Marco Fabian went down with an injury. It was a tough lesson that should serve them well – presuming they take the right things from it – with three of their next four at home against Eastern Conference foes.
3. LAFC have been handing out lessons (and Ls) all year long, and delivered another on Saturday night with a 2-0 home win over FC Cincinnati that was both gritty and pretty.
The pretty parts came from the usual free-flowing, attacking movements via nice build-up play, and mostly featuring some Carlos Vela wizardry. The gritty part was because Cincy just dropped their line deep and did everything they could to keep players behind the ball, make it physical and prevent LAFC from playing between the lines. Doing that kept it at 1-0 until second-half stoppage, when Vela finally nailed the coffin shut.
LAFC will definitely be facing more of this, probably on a pretty regular basis (including Wednesday at Vancouver). The good news for them is that you can’t just beat them up ’til they give up anymore – they’re both tough and good now.
As for FC Cincinnati… man, did they miss Victor Ulloa for most of this one. It’s hard for them to be dangerous on the break if he’s not in central midfield spraying the wingers into space.
2. Peter Vermes is ride-or-die for his starters, and I get it. In the aftermath of that humiliating loss to Monterrey on Thursday night, you want to give the guys who’ve been so great for so long a chance to redeem themselves in front of the home fans.
But Sporting were out of gas, and RBNY head coach Chris Armas capitalized with some good, on-the-fly tactical changes (switching up who was where in the 4-3-3, then going to a 4-2-3-1), and a brave sub. For a minute there, Brian White – the 23-year-old local, second-year striker who was subbed on for a clearly unhappy Bradley Wright-Phillips – looked like the hero. Then Gianluca Busio rode to a very late rescue for the hosts, grabbing his third goal in three games for the 2-2 final.
And then Kaku stole the show. Yikes.
I have no idea how much of what played out on Sunday night was due to SKC fatigue, or RBNY hunger, or a bit of desperation on either side, or what. I am confused by almost everything that happened and need to rewatch the game before I can form a more coherent thought than “wow, that was something else.”
1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to a couple of dorks at the Allianz Field opening in Minnesota United’s ultimately disappointing 3-3 draw against NYCFC:
NYCFC can probably take something from this just in terms of how they played, which I’d classify as “the best they’ve looked all season long once Dome Torrent put players into their actual positions.” In a vacuum that performance resulting in a point on the road would be a good thing, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened in a stretch that’s now seen the team win just four times in 22 games across all competitions and has them winless in six to start the season. Mutinous grumbling from the fanbase will not have quieted after Saturday evening’s affair.
The game itself was fun for a neutral – open and fast, full of great goals and inexplicable howlers, and the fans were incredible. The passion and joy of the moment came through the screen.
The frustration of the result did as well. The Loons were stretched and disjointed defensively, and failed to lock down a first-half lead or hold onto a second-half lead. This is not what should be expected of a team that’s now officially loaded with veterans at the back and at d-mid, and had won three of five on the road to start the season.
This is the kind of result that costs you home-field advantage, if not a place in the playoffs entirely. The fans and the team should celebrate the fact that their new stadium is open for business, but there’s a lot of work needed to make sure it stays open into November.