We’re five weeks into the MLS season, and we’ve gotten a better sense of who teams are.
For instance, we’ve seen LAFC flounder early, with Carlos Vela missing more time and the attack languishing. The usual suspects, namely the Chicago Fire and FC Cincinnati, are losing results on catastrophic defensive mistakes. The recently-saved (again!) Columbus Crew have surprisingly struggled to score.
Let’s take a look at the teams who are at the top of the standings, and what’s been going right for them.
We’re used to seeing the Sounders playing well. But this feels a little different. For one, they’re dominating early in the year, staking a claim as the early Supporters’ Shield leader. They’ve won five and drawn once in six games. The Sounders are not usually this good early in the year — they have mastered the art of getting hot in the fall.
This especially seemed like a year in which they would fall behind a little bit. Nicolas Lodeiro, their engine and best player, has barely played. They have an open DP slot and won’t use it until the summer, likely on an attacker. They lost some defensive pieces (Gustav Svensson, Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam) that threatened to diminish their backline.
And yet: Brian Schmetzer has been creative with his formations, and the Sounders have not lost a step. In a new three-at-the-back formation, they’ve gotten great production out of relentless wingbacks Alex Roldan and Brad Smith. Even without Lodeiro, Seattle has been able to put the ball in the net against good teams. They score on the counter, on set pieces, and from the run of play. Cristian Roldan has embraced a role as a pseudo creator — he’s second in MLS in expected assists.
They’re now without goalkeeper Stefan Frei for a few weeks, but they don’t look like they’re going to slow down.
Second in the Shield race? That would be the Galaxy, who have 12 points from five games and seem to be clicking like no Galaxy team has for years. Chicharito is the leading candidate for MVP. As a team, LA has scored 10 goals, tied for second in the league behind only Seattle. Chicharito has played a part in eight of them, scoring seven, despite missing his only PK attempt.
Those goals seem sustainable. They haven’t been golazos; Chicharito is getting in the best areas consistently and finishing his chances. He has just 15 shot attempts, nine on target, but is easily second in MLS in expected goals, with 4.55.
The Galaxy could afford to generate more chances and more possession overall. They still lack another high-volume elite attacking piece next to Chicharito that championship teams usually have. But Greg Vanney has been everything as a manager that the Galaxy have lacked. He puts out creative, flexible tactics that give the team an identity, and he plays the younger players that lessen the Galaxy’s reliance on acquired vets who often underperform. Perhaps one of those young guys (Efrain Alvarez? Adam Saldana?) becomes that missing piece.
New England Revolution
The top of the Eastern Conference is a little bit weaker than the west. Of the top six teams in the overall standings, just one is from the east. That team is the Revolution, which has taken 11 points from six games. They have lived up to preseason expectations as a solid defensive team with few obvious weaknesses.
Their concern is in attack, where they rely heavily on Carles Gil for production. Gil has just a goal and two assists so far, as he’s primarily been a creator, but he’s third in MLS in xG+xA. Outside of Gil, they need Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou to produce, and that hasn’t always been a guarantee.
Last weekend, they picked up a 1-0 win over Columbus on an 86th-minute Buksa winner. That’s a good sign. To remain one of the top teams, they’ll need to find elite attacking production somewhere.
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