The single-season record for goals by an MLS team is 85, a mark that was set waaaay back in 1998 by the LA Galaxy. The second-highest single-season total was also from that year, as D.C. United scored 74 goals. Since then, only one team (the 2012 Quakes bagged 72) has topped 70 goals in a season. League-wide, 1998 also remains the highest-scoring season in league history, clocking in at 3.57 goals per match.
The Portland Timbers are, after three games, on pace for 113 goals, and Atlanta United are on pace for 124. They have nine points from nine and six points from nine, respectively.
Obviously their scoring output will revert to the mean at some point – it’s not sustainable (remember when Houston had 11 goals after three games last season?). But it’s worth noting that there are at least a couple of teams going out there and aiming for the jugular, and are generally finding paydirt. Usually the story early in the season is that defense wins and thus far in 2017, it’s been at least a little bit the opposite of that.
This weekend alone there were 36 goals in 11 matches, without any wild nine- or 10-goal outliers to bump up the total. Something, I think, is happening.
I wrote about Atlanta United’s attack following their 4-0 win over Chicago on Saturday. Below is what I’ve seen from Portland thus far, as well as the rest of the league:
You Can’t Catch Me
Portland’s 4-2 win over Houston on Saturday night was emblematic of what they’ve done for most of the season. Fanendo Adi’s hold-up play was spectacular; Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Blanco buzzed in and out from the wings; the midfield structure was good thanks to Diego Chara and David Guzman; and Diego Valeri was Diego Valeri.
He is awesome, and somehow still underappreciated.
“Valeri pulled a lot on the left to link up with Darlington. So we kind of created an overload on that flank,” is what Caleb Porter said afterward. “We felt with Darlington we could keep him a little bit wider. Pull Valeri out there and those two guys would link up quite a bit. A few times in that first half we were content to just play wide, and there were times on the switch where we could have found some forward passes through the lines, and that was one of the other points we made and I thought we were better at finding little gaps central as we looked to change the point of attack.”
The point of this is that Valeri, first and foremost, creates danger with his constant movement off the ball. Is he camped out on the left side with Nagbe? If so, then you have to send extra defenders out there because if you don’t, they’ll just start combining until they get into the box and create a chance. If you do, that opens up those gaps for driving the ball directly into Adi’s feet.
Except… you have to leave an extra man to help on Adi, don’t you? There’s no central defender in the league who can dislodge him when he receives the ball in a good spot – his feet are too good, and he’s too physically dominant.
This is what the above looks adjustment looks like on the Opta Chalkboard:
Timbers passing 1st half vs 2nd half. Speaks for itself. #PORvHOU #RCTID pic.twitter.com/25hgfe7LCe
— Drew Olsen (@DrewJOlsen) March 19, 2017
Red arrows are incomplete passes, green are complete, blue are assists, and yellow are key passes (passes that lead to a shot). By moving Valeri wider and to the left, Portland became more dangerous directly up the middle. They forced Houston to try to extend their defense, while at the same time punishing them for not contracting it and protecting Zone 14.
This is what that looks like on film:
The composure, @fanendo. THE COMPOSURE. #PORvHOU https://t.co/vnq60jJG03
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 19, 2017
What does it look like in the standings? First place and a +7 goal differential despite missing a cadre of starting defenders since Day 1 of the season. The Timbers have been able to shoot and score their way out of trouble, and until somebody figures out how to catch and corral Valeri, or cut off service to Adi, or convince Nagbe to resume his previous, frustrating passivity, I don’t think that’s in real danger of changing.
No Particular Place to Go
Orlando City have been a one-man show in the goalscoring department. Cyle Larin’s got three in two games after his brace led OCSC to a 2-1 win over Philadelphia, and he’s doing it in a variety of ways. Jason Kreis is pleased.
While the “one-man show” moniker applies to the actual scoring of the actual goals, it’s his partnership up top with Carlos Rivas that’s defined the purple Lions thus far. Rivas has been stretching the field vertically, and horizontally, and when he drops back into the midfield he does so with a purpose.
I loved this check into midfield to open space for Larin’s run:
Take this halftime break to enjoy Cyle Larin & Carlos Rivas working together. This is fun. pic.twitter.com/z3gNzcJNFg
— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) March 20, 2017
Rivas didn’t used to do that – he was a one-trick pony when he got into the league. But now he and Larin are syncing their runs, and his decisions on the ball are way more thoughtful, and if you’re looking at the two of them and kind of thinking “Hey that’s like Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola but way faster,” you’re not alone.
Larin, for his part, recognizes it. “He opens up the space,” Larin told OrlandoCitySC.com after the game. “He is very strong and quick and good with the ball. He attacks the defenders. When he goes down the line to cross the ball, I make sure I am in the box.”
This partnership is fun, and it’s giving Kreis time to figure out the balance in midfield and at the back. This doesn’t feel like a Kreis-style team as of yet – there have been no dazzling, long spell of possession, nor the fluid back-to-front build-ups that have characterized his past stops. Will Johnson is learning right back on the fly, and Joe Bendik is making ridiculous saves every week, and Cristian Higuita is just getting healthy again, and Kaká is still hurt, and they’ve finally carved out a little bit of cap space, and in spite of all that they’ve got two wins from two games.
That’s the luxury of having a forward duo who are making each other better. Let Larin & Rivas win games for you, and it’s everybody else’s job to just not lose them.
A few more things to ponder…
8. Brek Shea’s red card for dissent on Saturday capped off a miserable week for him and for the Whitecaps. Vancouver fell 2-0 down in Monterrey against Tigres in midweek CONCACAF Champions League play, and then fell 2-0 at home against Toronto FC as Jozy Altidore notched a goal and an assist.
7. Columbus dragged themselves out of a potentially disastrous start with a 2-0 win at D.C. United (who are officially suffering a disastrous start). Gregg Berhalter trotted his side out in a 3-6-1, or a 3-4-2-1 if you want to be prescriptive. Their connections from the back and through midfield were less solid than usual:
They hit more long-balls and generated fewer chances than usual. They had less of the ball in dangerous spots, and less of the ball overall. They are the league’s foremost “process over results” team early in the season, but this was very much a “we need a result, so let’s pause the process” outing.
6. New England were really, really good for 60 minutes at FC Dallas and deserved their lead. Then they were completely undone by a couple of basic long-balls from the Dallas backline to the left flank, and lost 2-1.
A pair of one-goal losses at Colorado and Dallas to open the season isn’t disastrous for the Revs, especially since DP d-mid Xavier Kouassi looked good before running out of gas. The individual defensive errors, though, are very reminiscent of the recent-and-not-so-happy past, and the fanbase is understandably a little shellshocked at the moment.
5. Speaking of Colorado, they conceded multiple home goals this weekend for the first time since October of 2015. And naturally it came against a Minnesota team everyone in the world had decided, at this time last week, was a corpse.
MNUFC got their first MLS point by virtue of a 2-2 draw. Adrian Heath made the correct personnel adjustments, and putting more faith in guys brought “up” from the NASL as well as scrapheap pickups during the MLS offseason paid dividends. Don’t expect Brent Kallman to lose his starting position any time soon, and the same obviously goes for Christian Ramirez, who has two goals in 201 MLS minutes.
“We were better, I think Brent Kallman had a fantastic first MLS start,” Heath said after the game. “He did really well, I was pretty close to starting him before the season, but he did very well today and he can be very proud of his first ever MLS start.”
4. Our Pass of the Week goes to everybody from Sporting KC who was involved in this sequence during their 2-1 win over San Jose:
All due respect to the Sounders but this was my favorite passing sequence from @MLS this weekend. (h/t @AndyEdMLS) pic.twitter.com/QSuSElp1VI
— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) March 20, 2017
They’re still not getting any sort of finishing from their wingers, though.
3. For the third straight week, New York started in a 4-2-2-2, and for the third straight week, they switched to a 4-2-3-1 after things didn’t quite work out in the new look.
Things didn’t quite work out in the old look, either, as Seattle took home a 3-1 win at CenturyLink Field. That broke RBNY’s 18-game unbeaten run one shy of equalling the league record.
Truth is that neither team has looked as sharp as I’d expected to start the year, but they’ve each gotten enough results to stave off any sort of panic.
2. RSL fans are panicking, though. Their captain saw red, and their saw multiple chances pushed wide or over the bar, and nobody in Sandy has seen a win of any sort since August of last year following Saturday’s 2-1 home loss to the LA Galaxy. It’s now 11 straight in all competitions, and they’ve failed to score more than one goal in each of the last 10.
1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to David Villa from Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Montreal:
— Andy Edwards (@AndyEdMLS) March 18, 2017
For the second time in three games NYCFC were the better team, but couldn’t get the result they wanted. Patrice Bernier, meanwhile, continues to be ageless and wonderful for the Impact.