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Harrison Hamm

Previewing Philadelphia Union vs. LAFC

Avatar September 14, 2019

Who: Philadelphia Union vs LAFC
When: Saturday, September 14th @ 06:30 pm ET
LinePhiladelphia Union +160 | Draw +300 | LAFC+132

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LAFC and the Philadelphia Union play in Saturday in the most intriguing MLS match of the week.

The Union will have a chance to host LA for the first time ever, after losing 4-1 in southern California in June of 2018, and a win would be huge — Philly are hanging on by a thread in the race for first in the Eastern Conference, trailing NYCFC by three points. First-place gets you a crucial bye in the playoffs.

Philadelphia Union vs LAFC match preview

Against a full-strength LAFC, a Philly win isn’t the most likely outcome. But recent LAFC results give the Union a certain amount of hope. Here are a couple of storylines in the lead-up:

1- This is a very nice opportunity for Philly to go against an elite opponent, and test whether they can win a one-off home game against a very good team. The 3-1 win over Atlanta in their last game before the international break was a positive sign. A draw or loss to LA wouldn’t write the Union off, but a harsh loss would tamper some excitement heading into the playoffs.

The concern with Jim Curtain’s team is a lack of game-breaking talent, specifically attackers. Ilsinho is the league’s most impactful super-sub (possibly of all time), but he isn’t as effective as a starter, and the Union don’t have elite attackers in their XI. It’s hard to compete for trophies in MLS without a reasonable counter to players like Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi.

Philly need Kacper Przybylko to prove he can put the ball in the net at a consistent rate, which he’s shown in the past few weeks — he’s scored four goals in the last five games, scoring 13 on the year and going 90 every game since an April 27 draw in Vancouver. When the Union play Brendan Aaronson, Marco Fabian, and Jamiro Monteiro in midfield (MLSsoccer.com projects them all to start), they lack scorers beyond Przybylko.

2- As ever, the big tactical question in a game involving the Union is whether Curtain plays a diamond formation. Bob Bradley won’t shift from a 4-3-3, but he could adjust his team’s tactical approach to match numbers in the midfield. If Vela plays (and he hasn’t since being removed from the last El Trafico with a minor muscle injury, though he has been removed from the injury report), the Union could attempt to condense his space centrally with the diamond.

One of the more impressive elements of Philly’s rise this season has been their tactical flexibility. Curtain’s Coach of the Year case (which is very real, against Bradley’s and Matias Almeyda’s) is based partly on that flexibility. Playing a diamond against such a dominant and talented team like LA could be a risk. Whatever Curtain puts out, it will be a calculated decision, and Bradley will likely have some counter.

Haris Medunjanin’s mobility will be tested against the fast, ball-moving LA midfield. Medunjanin has been great this season, and his ability to hit exquisite balls out of the back has been huge for Philly, but he isn’t amazing as a ground-covering defensive midfielder. If Latif Blessing and Eduard Atuesta can find a way to isolate him, they could put Philly’s defense on its heels and set Vela up to devour the damage.

3- Rumors this week have had LA as being in contention to sign Mario Mandzukic, the 33-year-old Croatian forward who is out of favor at Juventus. That would certainly be a coup. Mandzukic, as an aerial power and an effective defender from the front, would fit as the head of an LA front three. His arrival would indicate that Rossi is likely to be sold in the summer, to create a front three of Brian Rodriguez, Mandzukic, and Vela. Philly can be glad they’re not going against that on Saturday.

Does LAFC Have to Win MLS Cup to be Considered the Greatest MLS Team Ever?

Avatar September 4, 2019

By this point, it’s hard to argue that LAFC isn’t the greatest team MLS has ever seen.

They’ve won 19 of their 28 games, lead the league by 12 points, and are basically unbeatable at home (unless you’re Minnesota, apparently). They are on pace to squash the single-season points record set last year by the New York Red Bulls. They’re already tied for second most goals in a season, and have only given up 30, the best defensive record in the league.

With surefire MVP Carlos Vela and an astounding team of best XI players and award winners (Walker Zimmerman is the probable DOTY and Bob Bradley is the probable COTY), I’d take LA in a matchup against any MLS team in history.

But imagine this hypothetical: LAFC does not win MLS Cup in November. Say they make the final but get blitzed by Atlanta United, or perhaps fall prior to the final in a wild El Trafico against their kryptonite, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy. Such a flop would change their legacy, right?

Supporters’ Shield vs MLS Cup

This gets back to an enduring philosophical MLS dilemma: Is it better to win the Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup?

The Shield is for the best regular season team, and the Cup for the winner of the playoffs. While the Shield may indicate the superior team over the entirety of the season, the Cup is the true champion. Players and fans want the Cup more than anything else. The MLS Cup champion defines the season, honoring the team that was able to get it done when it mattered.

You could argue that the Shield is better to win, because it means you’ve played well for a long stretch. But at the very least, perception rests on playoff performance — as is to be expected in American sports, the postseason is the true barometer, no matter the randomness and variability.

So there is certainly an argument that an MLS Cup is necessary for LAFC to say they are the “greatest MLS team ever,” even if they may very well be favored in a matchup against any other historical lineup. Two years ago, Toronto FC won every title they possibly could, and then lost the Concacaf Champions League final on a coin flip the following year. They are the team to beat for LAFC.

2019 LAFC = 2007 New England Patriots

The obvious comparison for the Black and Gold, if they were to finish without a Cup, is the 2007 New England Patriots. The Pats went 16-0 in the regular season and then lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl. Those Patriots were dominant, with a record-setting Tom Brady and Randy Moss. They might well be the best NFL team of all time regardless of the loss to the Giants.

For LAFC, their legacy will come down to their performance in the playoffs — more specifically, the nature of any potential loss. An early flame out, similar to last season’s, would disqualify them. Something more understandable, or subject to variability, would simply relegate them to a status as the team that couldn’t get it done when it mattered, even if they maintain the greatest title in the aggregate.

By the eye test, they are simply outstanding, and come close to making this whole discussion moot. Vela is the best the league has ever seen. The defense is mistake-free and rarely comes up short in emergency defending situations. The midfield is far and away the best in the league, with two legitimate best XI contenders. You could go on and on, and we have. LAFC deserve the plaudits.

When the dust has settled, we’ll probably be thinking of this team as the best in league history. They almost certainly won’t suffer some major playoff upset. Without a ring, they will add only a caveat — albeit a pretty noticeable one — to their legacy.

The Alluring Carlos Vela-Zlatan Ibrahimovic Dichotomy

Avatar August 29, 2019

When Zlatan Ibrahimovic trashes MLS and proclaims himself the greatest, most of the league can only look at him and shrug. He destroys most teams, and he is the LA Galaxy’s entire system. His accomplishments outside of MLS dwarf pretty much everyone else’s.

Only one player in MLS can reasonably look up at Zlatan and claim to be the superior player right now: LAFC’s Carlos Vela, the best player in the league and probably the greatest MLS has ever seen.

Vela heads an LAFC team running away with the league right now, on pace to finish with easily the best regular season in league history. He’s scored 27 goals and 15 assists through 26 games, an insane tally. To put his total in perspective, Sebastian Giovinco’s 2015 season was previously considered the gold standard of all-around MLS attacking seasons, and he only managed 22g and 16a in 400 more minutes.

Zlatan, who has nowhere near the assists that Vela has, is behind the Mexican in goals, though he still has 22 this season. Vela has more positive influence in general, creating chances by cutting inside on his left foot and aiding more in general possession and defense than Zlatan does. The Galaxy hit tons of low-percentage crosses in the direction of their superstar, inhibiting their attack. Galaxy players sometimes play tentatively in fear of upsetting the volatile Zlatan, who has a habit of ripping into his teammates. Ibra plays no defense. Vela only props up his team, and has no such defensive issues.

While the gap between Vela and Zlatan is widening, it is clear that the two are comfortably ahead of the rest of the league, with all due respect to Josef Martinez. No one can match the gravity that the two provide on the field, and their quality on the ball is unmatched. They both would be stars in pretty much any league in the world.

LA Galaxy – LAFC rivalry heightens Vela-Zlatan tensions

The Vela-Zlatan reign over the league is fascinating in itself, but the matchup of the two in El Trafico enhances it all. LA-LAFC is by far the league’s best rivalry. It is the playoff matchup everyone wants. Every game between them feels like a championship. Zlatan owns LAFC, given his incredible record of goals in those rivalry game. The fact that LAFC have never beaten the Galaxy, despite always being the better team, drives some of the intensity. Zlatan’s epic dominance adds more layers.

Enjoy any chance you get to see those teams play, because it’s going to be hard to recreate this rivalry. They won’t play again in this regular season, but we can hope and pray for a playoff match-up, and by all indications we should be seeing another Vela vs. Zlatan round next season.

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MLS’s version of Messi vs Ronaldo

These El Trafico games are MLS’s version of the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo match-ups that used to happen in La Liga. It’s the two clear best players starring for two bitter rivals, playing highly competitive and intense games. Vela is Messi, the Latin American maestro who has a magic left foot and scores heaps of goals despite playing as a creative right winger. Zlatan is Ronaldo, the physically-imposing striker with deceptively soft feet and an incredible ability to score in any situation.

The left-footed maestros remain a good couple of miles ahead of the goal-happy strikers, but the distance between the strikers and the third-best overall player (in MLS, in Zlatan’s case, and in the world, for Ronaldo) is a wide, wide distance. These comparisons are easy to make: Ronaldo and Zlatan are arrogant and polarizing, attempting to look down on a smaller-stature, yet superior, star. Messi and Vela are more introverted and do considerably less chest-thumping than their larger-than-life counterparts.

The comparisons are perfect. Battles between great players, and a chance to see them on the same field, can be rare. We will hopefully get to enjoy more Vela-Zlatan battles, just as we saw the two greatest soccer players of all time go at it for years.

An MLS best XI at this point in the season

Finally, if Ibra and Vela are the clear top two in the league right now, it’s worth noting who the best of the rest are too. Here’s the best XI in the MLS to date. Expect a full post with detailed explanation on the best XI once the season ends.

Previewing the Latest Edition of LAFC vs LA Galaxy

Avatar August 24, 2019

Who: LAFC vs LA Galaxy
When: Sunday, August 25th @ 10:30pm ET
Line: LAFC -200 | Draw +360 | LA Galaxy +450

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The fifth edition of El Trafico, MLS’s most exciting rivalry, is on Sunday. The LA Galaxy are undefeated against their cross-town rival, winning twice and drawing twice, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring six goals and in the process staking an ownership claim on LAFC.

The best part of these two teams playing against each other is the battle of the two best players in the league: Carlos Vela, who is the best this league has ever seen, and Ibrahimovic. Zlatan has consistently won the battles but lost the war — LAFC is and has been a significantly better team than the Galaxy, yet the Black and Gold can’t beat them.

LAFC vs LA Galaxy Tactical Preview

Let’s take a look at some tactical elements as LAFC look to assert their dominance and the Galaxy look to continue their reign over the rivalry:

— Last time they played, the Galaxy found success by focusing their entire attention on winning the midfield battle and shutting Vela out of the game. Guillermo Barros Schelotto wanted to limit the midfield threesome of Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Eduard Atuesta, swarming them and tilting to the right to cut off service to Vela.

It was less a tactical masterclass and more a testament to the defensive endurance of the Galaxy’s midfield. They bent but they did not break, and they frustrated Vela to the extent that is possible — the Mexican still managed two goals.

At the time, LAG’s ability to minimize Vela’s involvement and win the midfield battle was the story of the game. Their approach always felt unsustainable, though, and there is a perfectly good chance that LAFC throw GBS’s strategies out the window and exact fierce revenge. LAFC have a lot more talent and an actual system. The Galaxy have Zlatan, and a deeply flawed system built around him. Ibra has been good enough on his own beat LAFC in the past.

— If the Galaxy succeed in making things difficult for Vela, Diego Rossi will have to step up more than he did in this year’s first edition of the rivalry. Rossi couldn’t carry the load despite LAG devoting a comical amount of attention to Vela. LAFC need more from their Uruguayan star.

I could see Bob Bradley giving Latif Blessing a freer role to infiltrate the space the Galaxy’s pressing midfield leaves open. Atuesta and, especially, Kaye struggled at times in the first meeting. Blessing excels as a versatile ball-winning pseudo No. 10 — the perfect ambiguous role for him — and it would be fascinating to see how he performs when given a heavier attacking role.

A free Blessing could force Zlatan to stop loafing and play some defense. It seems unlikely that Ibra will relent to running around with Blessing, so LAFC could create some good chances if Blessing becomes an attacking difference-maker.

— LAFC have to find a way to not let Zlatan score a bunch of goals. I don’t know what Bradley can really do, though, because Zlatan gets up for these games. When Ibra is really trying, he is unplayable, and he will be trying.

Perhaps Walker Zimmerman will track Zlatan specifically and try to take him out of his rhythm, or force him to drop deeper.

— One enduring concern for the Galaxy is the defensive personnel, specifically Jorgen Skljevik at fullback. Vela and Rossi can both tear Skljevik to shreds. The Galaxy have stabilized the backline for the most part, but they still give up goals. Last week against the Sounders, LAG would have had a 2-1 win against Seattle had Skljevik and goalkeeper David Bingham not screwed up mightily and conceded a disastrous own goal.

LAFC should be able to take advantage. They haven’t been able to before.

An Updated List of the Five MLS Coaches on the Hot Seat

Avatar August 21, 2019

Back on July 2nd, I wrote about five MLS coaches who could be on the hot seat.

At the time, three managers (Brad Friedel, Anthony Hudson, Alan Koch) had already been fired. Since, two more have been let go. The Dynamo fired Wilmer Cabrera, who didn’t even make my hot seat top five. Real Salt Lake cut ties with Mike Petke, who did make the list, but was fired for his outburst against a referee in the Leagues Cup.

Plenty has changed in the month and a half since the last edition was published. Adrian Heath, whose seat boiled at the time, has started winning with Minnesota United. Caleb Porter’s Columbus have stabilized some.

Let’s take a look at an updated top 5 MLS coaches on the hot seat.

1. Veljko Paunovic, Chicago Fire

Chicago are surprisingly just a point out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, but they’re 10th and have played one or two more games than every team ahead of them. They’ve won three of four, but before that they had won just once in 12 games.

Paunovic doesn’t seem quite sure where he wants to take this Fire team. Personnel and tactical looks shift too often. Bastian Schweinsteiger is still playing center back. Chicago will make significant off-field changes this offseason, and they may want a new manager to carry them into the future.

2. Greg Vanney, Toronto FC

The story for Vanney’s TFC is still underperformance. Toronto can’t seem to figure out how to win, despite a certain amount of talent and depth. Even Omar Gonzalez’s competence on defense hasn’t pushed the Reds forward. 

TFC signed two Targeted Allocation Money wingers in the summer transfer window, but we haven’t seen much of either player yet. As it was back in July, the clock is ticking for Vanney.

3. Remi Garde, Montreal Impact

Garde’s seat is a few ticks cooler than Paunovic and Vanney, who are boiling right now. The Impact are in the playoff race with an inferior roster to Vanney’s TFC. But Montreal are quietly free-falling right now, losing six of their last eight games and transferring their best defender, Zakaria Diallo, back to Ligue 2.

The defense has struggled, despite Garde’s compact, counter-attacking tactical approach. They’ve given up a total of 12 goals in their last three games, including six against the Rapids in a wild loss. Garde can blame some of those struggles on the personnel, but he has to find a way to tighten the ship and grab some results.

UPDATE: Remi Garde has been fired and replaced by Wilmer Cabrera. That was fast.

4. Adrian Heath, Minnesota United

Heath retains a spot, though Minnesota’s recent positive run of form has cooled his seat considerably. I don’t think Heath is a difference-making manager, and I have questions about whether Minnesota can legitimately win with him at the helm. However, he has used his pieces well of late. MNUFC have lost just once since June 8, and that loss came in Dallas with multiple players rested.

He’s bought himself some time. With Minnesota enjoying second place in the West, he’ll get a chance to coach in the playoffs for the first time.

5. Caleb Porter, Columbus Crew 

Porter is the only other coach who is even vaguely on the hot seat, and I don’t really think Porter is fearing for his job right now. Columbus managed to stop their incredible stretch of losses and now have started looking a little better. He will have a chance to oversee the Crew’s presumed revamp coming soon.

The other coach who I thought about putting here is Ben Olsen, whose D.C. United is in a very precarious position at the moment, but DCU don’t seem like they’re ever firing him. Vancouver will (and should) give Marc dos Santos more time to figure things out. 

Frank de Boer’s Misguided Comments on Equal Pay

Avatar August 14, 2019

Atlanta United coach Frank de Boer made headlines on Tuesday for saying that equal pay between male and female soccer players is “ridiculous.”

In an interview with The Guardian, he compared the situation to tennis and asserted that women’s soccer is significantly less popular, and thus federations should not pay players equally. Here is his full quote:

“I think for me, it’s ridiculous. It’s the same like tennis. If there are watching, for the World Cup final, 500 million people or something like that, and 100 million for a women’s final, that’s a difference. So it’s not the same. And of course they have to be paid what they deserve to [earn] and not less, just what they really deserve. If it’s just as popular as the men, they will get it, because the income and the advertising will go into that. But it’s not like that, so why do they have to earn the same? I think it’s ridiculous. I don’t understand that.”

– Frank de Boer to The Guardian

He went on to say that he supports equal pay in the workplace, but not in sports. His comments angered a good number of fans, many of whom are supporters of the USWNT, which is currently arguing for equal pay on the heels of a second consecutive World Cup win. Atlanta United president Darren Eales didn’t seem pleased with de Boer’s thoughts on the matter.

De Boer’s clumsy comments miss the mark

At the front of any equal pay argument is that women’s soccer (or sports in general) is not as popular as men’s sports. In the case of tennis, which de Boer brought up, that case is patently false. Female tennis players players alongside male tennis players and garner similar attention and fame. Soccer is different, in that it’s difficult to argue that women’s soccer is currently as popular as men’s soccer in the aggregate.

But saying that women’s soccer isn’t popular is obviously wrong. TV ratings were high for the 2019 World Cup. At times it was even higher than the 2018 WC, particularly in the United States, where the USWNT were the talk of the town. Crowds were big and a lot of people paid attention:


Pay should of course be determined by how popular the team is, and how much revenue it generates. In the case of the USWNT, it is very popular and generates a pretty good amount of revenue.

Soccer federations should keep perspective. As Tutul Rahman noted in his Twitter thread on the subject, women’s soccer is growing rapidly. Think of equal pay as an investment — by rewarding the very popular players fairly, you incentivize more such stars to come through the system and continue to spike the popularity of the game.

Growing women’s soccer should be embraced by FIFA

For organizations like US Soccer and FIFA, who are correctly perceived as at best misguided and at worst damagingly corrupt, the decision to pay the superstar women’s soccer players shouldn’t be especially difficult. Women’s soccer is a unique opportunity for these federations — particularly FIFA — to grow the game significantly. It’s a chance to reach new populations, to construct a new cash cow to go right alongside the current cash cow that is men’s soccer. Why wouldn’t FIFA want to do that?

If all of that is not enough, consider it from a moral perspective. These players would be a lot more popular if FIFA marketed them capably, and if national federations invested more in academies and domestic leagues. Women’s soccer players face a ton of disadvantages globally.

US Soccer would clearly not be as profitable as it is without the USWNT. The men’s national team is less successful in its arena, due to the base of global talent it has to compete with. The USWNT are pioneers, and go out and win trophies. America loves winners, and thus loves its successful women’s national team. US Soccer would do well to give them their due.

De Boer could afford to be a bit more sympathetic (and maybe a bit less ignorant) in this case. 

How the Revolution Have Improved Under Bruce Arena, and a New York Red Bulls Preview

Avatar August 13, 2019

The New England Revolution can be presented as a case study on the effect of coaching in soccer.

Incredibly, they have lost just once since Brad Friedel was fired in early May. They experienced a slight new coach bump, as many teams do, but once Bruce Arena took over full-time in June, they flipped a switch and became legitimately competent. 

Friedel was a demanding manager, and Arena appears to have provided a refreshing break from his predecessor’s intensity. Players look more confident as Arena has played them in the correct positions and in a compact, flexible system. The acquisition of Gustavo Bou, in theory symbolizing a new Revs outlook, helps an attack that looks much more threatening.

Arena’s tactical improvements

Tactically, Arena has simplified things, but also crafted enough of a tactical understanding to allow the Revs to alternate between formations and playing styles without sacrificing familiarity.

New England have used both four-at-the-back and five-at-the-back looks, playing high lines and deep lines, sometimes possessing the ball and other times playing more defensive. Other teams that have tried that sort of approach in MLSVeljko Paunovic’s Chicago, notably, as well as prior versions of Dome Torrent’s NYCFC — and failed, tinkering too much and never establishing an identity. Arena is a good enough coach that he does not fall victim to the flaws of Paunovic and Torrent.

The personnel haven’t improved dramatically. Players are just better. Carles Gil has lived up to his DP status. The defense — while there are legitimate concerns — has stayed afloat. A notably less error-prone Wilfried Zahibo has paired well with Luis Caicedo in a double-pivot midfield. Second-year SuperDraft pick Brandon Bye has proven to be a legitimate contributor on the flank, both in his primary job as a right back and as a wingback.

Arena knew these Revs needed a shake-up, and he’s provided it. Juan Agudelo and Diego Fagundez, who have long been under-utilized as cogs in a broken Revs system, have played all over the field. Striker Teal Bunbury, known for his streakiness, scored five goals in six games in the middle of New England’s 11-game unbeaten streak. 

All of a sudden, the Revs are sixth in the Eastern Conference and will likely make the playoffs, despite winning just two of their first 12 games. That is a pretty astounding turnaround. Competent coaching goes a long way.

To finish, let’s take a look at some interesting aspects of their upcoming match against the New York Red Bulls.

Revolution vs. Red Bulls Preview

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We know what to expect from the Red Bulls by this point. They’ll press out of a 4-2-3-1 and play a high line, trying to coerce turnovers out of their opponents. It will be interesting to see how the Revs respond, and how conservative Arena is willing to get with his game-plan.

In Seattle last weekend, New England put out a three-at-the-back and played a relatively high line. It was an effort to put an extra defender on the field, knowing that the Revs had traveled cross-country to face an elite attacking opponent. At times they appeared stretched in midfield, but they never looked too disorganized, and they succeeded in generating chances on goal.

The Sounders match turned into a wild goal-fest, finishing 3-3 with a few video reviews and end-to-end action. Arena called it a s—show. It actually was a fairly quality game, though many of the pivotal occurrences ended up being products of luck — Arena called it a “game of accidents.” In spite of the craziness of the game, it is a testament to the Revs’ improvement that they were able to hang with Seattle on the road.

Their next task is hanging with the Red Bulls on the road. They will be up for it. NYRB lack the level of attacking firepower to overpower teams, and no longer are able to dominate the middle of the field the way they have been in the past. Bradley Wright-Phillips is a super-sub. Kaku openly wants out. They just sent dynamic young winger Derrick Etienne on loan to Cincinnati. They will continue to need a difference-making winger.

New England can create chances. Arena could set them up in a deeper block with the intent to attack on the counter, to mitigate the effect of the Red Bulls’ pressing. Cristian Penilla, a speedy winger who came off the bench in Seattle, could return to the starting lineup as an option on the counter. We’ve seen the Revs find success in this style (and others), so it’s reasonable to think they can put fear into NYRB on the road.

A Complete List of MLS Players Who Could Play in the Premier League

Avatar August 10, 2019
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In thinking about the Aaron Long transfer saga, I came upon an interesting question: How many MLS players could step into the Premier League right now and handle themselves? I’m sure Long could. We’ve seen players like Miguel Almiron and DeAndre Yedlin do it. 

But MLS is obviously a few ticks lower in quality than the Premier League. MLS is more physical, focused less on passing and a bit more on athleticism. The primary difference between MLS and top leagues is the speed of play, and how fast the ball moves. Top players think the game at a higher level and possess the ball skills required to execute their ideas.

The key for any player from a lower-level league entering the Premier League is finding a way to hang in with the increased pace. Not every star in MLS would be capable of stepping into the EPL. Houston’s Alberth Elis, for example, has a good scoring record for the Dynamo and can run past players anywhere, but he struggles to stay consistent and isn’t much of a passer. Elis’s abilities off the dribble, while at times effective in MLS, are based less on ball skills and more on pure acceleration.

There are plenty of MLS players who could do well in the Premier League, though. To complete this thought exercise, let’s go position-by-position. 

I’ve listed 22 players who I am fully confident in, plus numerous others who I’m a bit more skeptical about, but who are still worth mentioning.

Goalkeepers

Stefan Frei, Seattle Sounders

Frei will have to play for a lower-table team that doesn’t keep a ton of possession, because his passing skills are not really at PL level. But he rarely makes errors and can make big saves.

A lot of the players on this list are here because they could play well in theory if plopped in England. But only a few might actually be candidates for transfers. Frei is 33. He’s not going to the Premier League any time soon.

Any others? Brad Guzan and Tim Howard used to play in the PL, but they’ve both declined in the years since they left. Tim Melia from 2017 could do it, though he hasn’t been as good in the last couple of years. You could talk me into Luis Robles. Outside of that, I’m not willing to put any other keepers here. Maybe a guy like Maxime Crepeau or Jesse Gonzalez develops.

Zack Steffen, of course, was transferred to Manchester City this summer and is now on loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf in the Bundesliga.

Defenders

Aaron Long, New York Red Bulls

Walker Zimmerman, LAFC

Ike Opara, Minnesota United

Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez, Atlanta United

Long and Zimmerman are consistent US national teamers. Zimmerman is the runaway favorite for the Defender of the Year award. 

Opara can pass and is the best in MLS at defending in space. His ranginess would be very useful in the Premier League. Gonzalez-Pirez has a stronger build than Opara and can muscle players off the ball. LGP can dribble and take his space, too — if he were to play in the Premier League, his manager would have to make sure he doesn’t go rogue on dribbling exhibitions too often.

Any others? Philly’s Jack Elliott almost ended up on this list. He’s played every minute for the Union this season and has continued to excel. 

TFC’s Laurent Ciman used to be a Belgian national teamer, so a few years ago he could have played well in the Premier League. (He is worse now.) Graham Zusi and Matt Besler could have in their primes, but Zusi only converted to right back a couple of years ago. Matt Hedges is a borderline pick.

Midfielders

Julian Gressel, Atlanta United

Paxton Pomykal, FC Dallas

Eduard Atuesta, LAFC

Maxi Moralez, NYCFC

Alejandro Bedoya, Philadelphia Union

Diego Valeri, Portland Timbers

Diego Chara, Portland Timbers

Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle Sounders

Alejandro Pozuelo, Toronto FC

There are a lot of good players on this list, many of them attackers. Gressel is best as a wingback — that’s the job I’d love to see him do in the Premier League — but can play pretty much anywhere in the midfield. Chara is still the best d-mid in MLS, and Atuesta is elite as a ball-mover and ground-coverer for LAFC.

Bedoya has been very good as a diamond shuttler in Philly. He was the one who required the most thought on this list, but watching him in the Union’s win over D.C. United last weekend convinced me that he deserves to be here. Pomykal is young (19) and will probably be transferred to a top league sooner rather than later. His field vision is his best asset.

Lodeiro, Moralez, and Pozuelo are game-changers as forward-thinking midfielders. Lodeiro — a World Cup vet with Uruguay — and Moralez might be the two most important players in the entire league, based on how much their teams need them. Valeri is a bit older now, but he remains a cerebral player.

Anyone else? Michael Bradley was the biggest snub here. The 2017 version of him would play well in the Premier League, but I found it hard to look at Toronto FC this year and put MB on this list.

Cristian Roldan, Alex Ring, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Latif Blessing, Sebastian Mendez, Sebastian Blanco, Darlington Nagbe, Jamiro Monteiro, and Jackson Yueill were all contenders. I really thought about putting Kaye and Ring on there. They are very close. I’d still be confident in them if they showed up in the starting lineup of Bournemouth.

Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco are not there yet.

If we could bring back 2017 Jonathan Osorio, he would be a shoo-in here. (Sensing a theme with TFC players?)

Forwards

Josef Martinez, Atlanta United

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, LA Galaxy

Carlos Vela, LAFC

Diego Rossi, LAFC

Jozy Altidore, Toronto FC

Wayne Rooney, D.C. United

Out of these players, I waffled only on Rossi. I still want to see him create stuff without Vela doing everything, but if Rossi walked into a team with one or two other very good attackers, he is the perfect complement.

Zlatan and Vela are obvious. Rooney is older, but still very good. Josef is undersized, but he is persistent, and goal-scoring translates. He puts himself in good positions and he finishes his chances. Jozy Altidore is evidently not undersized, and he’s been a stud of late for TFC. I know he had a not great stint for Sunderland in 2013-2014, but I think he’s too good not to be here. In a better situation, he would score goals.

Anyone else? Similar to Josef, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Chris Wondolowski are good enough as scorers and poachers to succeed basically anywhere. BWP and Wondo are getting older, though, so I decided to leave them off.

Mauro Manotas deserves a shout here. He could have a future in a good league. Ignacio Piatti would have been amazing a few years ago in the PL, and even now he could be effective. Portland’s Brian Fernandez was close, though his recent cold spell was enough to exclude him.

Here’s the final XI:

HPS MLS Podcast Episode 8: Mesut Ozil and Re-Examining the MLS Single-Entity System

Avatar August 9, 2019

Another episode of the HPS MLS Pod is up!

Joining host Harrison Hamm this week is site-runner Chops.

Discussed…

  • The potential impact of Mesut Ozil joining D.C. United
  • How many MLS players could step into the Premier League right now?
  • The Aaron Long transfer saga and MLS as a selling league
Listen to “HPS MLS Podcast Episode 8 – Mesut Ozil and Re-examining MLS’ Single Entity System” on Spreaker.

Why the Aaron Long Transfer Saga Is Still Going On — and Will Probably Continue Through the Winter

Avatar August 5, 2019
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With both the Premier League and MLS transfer deadlines nearing, it feels unlikely that Aaron Long will be heading to England this summer. Long will be forced to at least play out the season in New Jersey after the disappointment of nearly going to Europe. His 27th birthday is in October. His window will not be open for a long time.

The New York Red Bulls apparently asked for $15 million in exchange for their prized center back. That figure is intentionally outrageous — it seems to signal their hesitancy to sell in the middle of the MLS season. Only a huge offer would be enough to convince NYRB to sell now, and they’re unlikely to receive such an offer.

Long’s agent got salty on Twitter over the situation, probably a calculated move to show his and Long’s dissatisfaction with the process. These MLS transfer sagas are often difficult for the players, who want to take whatever opportunity they can get to play in a big European league, only to be held back by their club, who lack incentive to immediately sell.

MLS single entity system is a problem

Unless you have a truly high-priced prodigy (think Alphonso Davies or Miguel Almiron), you may be better off milking your star for wins and attention domestically before selling at first opportunity. As Taylor Twellman talked about on an ESPN broadcast this weekend, the single-entity system means MLS takes significant portions of clubs’ transfer profits. The Red Bulls would prefer to see out the playoff run with their defensive rock rather than ship Long to West Ham and only recoup half of the fee.

It’s hard to argue with the Red Bulls’ thinking.

With Long in the lineup, they will have a legitimate chance at navigating a weird and inconsistent Eastern Conference in the playoffs. For years they have missed out on MLS Cup, and as this season trudges on without a whiff of the usual Supporters’ Shield contention, it feels like 2019 has been building up for a playoff run. Even in this post-Tyler Adams transition season, NYRB are gunning for their missing trophy as they edge toward the end of the Bradley Wright-Phillips/Luis Robles era. 

Losing Long could sink their MLS Cup chances. Selling for $4 or $5 million and forfeiting $2 million of that to MLS is not nearly enough of a trade-off. 

By winter, they probably will be more willing to sell, given the opportunity to scout and sign a Long replacement, as well as integrate that replacement into the team.

For Long, though, heading to Europe in the January window is obviously worse than going in August. He would have to break into a Premier League team midseason directly after a long MLS campaign. Injury or bad form in August, September and October could diminish his value or even cancel the sale, a potentially damaging development for both the player and the team.

Cautionary Acosta tale

The recent Luciano Acosta saga is something of a cautionary tale.

D.C. United came close to selling Acosta to PSG in the spring, only for the deal to fall apart at the final hour. It was devastating for Acosta, who wanted the move. As Acosta muddles through a disappointing MLS season, DCU could regret the decision not to sell high — the real Acosta has proven to be closer to the pre-Wayne Rooney version than to the dominant one of last season’s second half. The Argentine’s value has likely taken a hit.

Long is significantly better than Acosta, and is unlikely to spiral if the Red Bulls don’t pull the trigger in the next few days. NYRB will probably be able to sell for a similar price this winter. That won’t satisfy Long, who understandably wants to take his opportunity to make a huge career jump. 

But the Red Bulls want their shot at MLS glory, and there’s no reason to sacrifice that when MLS is going to dip their claws into the transfer fee anyway. 

HPS MLS Pod Episode 7 with Kevin Minkus

Avatar July 30, 2019

A bit of delay on this getting published, but the HPS MLS Pod is up!

Joining Harrison Hamm this week is Kevin Minkus. Covered…

  • (0:43): Atlanta United, Pity Martinez, and their ideal tactical set-up
  • (14:00): The rise of the Revs
  • (23:15): Slightly out of date now, but reviewing some of the week’s biggest rivalry games
  • … and more.
Listen to “HPS MLS Podcast Episode 7 with Kevin Minkus” on Spreaker.

Previewing Atlanta United vs. LAFC: Tactical Notes from Marquee Match-Up

Avatar July 25, 2019
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LAFC lost again to the LA Galaxy in last week’s LA Derby. Afterwards, critics raged that LAFC wilt under the pressure of big games.

Perhaps it is a bit much to proclaim that this team — arguably the most dominant and talented MLS has ever seen — can’t get it done in one-off, all-important matches, but there is some history here.

LAFC have never beaten the Galaxy, their bitter rival. They lost at home in the playoffs last year to Real Salt Lake, a heavy underdog. Nine days before the latest loss to the Galaxy, they dropped a US Open Cup quarterfinal to the Portland Timbers.

Their struggles in these types of games has a bit of a Pep Guardiola Manchester City feel to it, the way that LAFC don’t quite choke, per se, but instead simply don’t win, failing to live up to their regular level.

It is a phenomenon that Bob Bradley and co. will deal with and hear about until they win a big game. This year’s playoffs, which will be the ultimate measuring stick for their legacy, should prove something of a testing ground. In MLS, you can’t truly be the league’s best team if you don’t win MLS Cup. Everyone understands it, as brutal as it can be for regular season winners who falter in one-off games. 

As LAFC cruise to a resounding Supporters’ Shield win (the probability of which sits at 95 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight), they will continue to face questions about their ability to pick up the crucial wins that will be required of them.

LAFC vs Atlanta United Preview

This Friday’s blockbuster against Atlanta United won’t come close to the importance of an El Trafico game, or a tournament game. But it’s an opportunity to play against a marquee team on national television. 

Atlanta have been mercurial and sometimes mediocre this season, but they are coming off a nice six-point week and have still managed to reach second in the Eastern Conference. Pity Martinez looked kinda good off the bench in their win against D.C. United on Sunday. 

Let’s take a look at a couple of tactical notes ahead of one of the more interesting matches of the MLS season.

1 – It’s probably a bit premature to say that Pity Martinez has reached some meaningful new level. By this point, he’s not going to suddenly turn into the superstar we all thought he was. But if he starts improving and becomes playable again for coach Frank de Boer, Atlanta’s calculus changes this season.

De Boer’s played a 3-5-2 in each of the last two games, bringing Pity off the bench and playing Brandon Vazquez alongside Josef Martinez up top. It has not been a perfect solution, but Atlanta look better playing three-at-the-back, and Vazquez’s presence as a pure No. 9 adds a new wrinkle for teams defending Josef. With a hold-up striker diverting attention, space can theoretically open Atlanta’s star.

When Vazquez starts in that 3-5-2, though, there is no obvious place for Pity. Sticking him at the top of the midfield is untenable defensively with Darlington Nagbe already playing as a finesse box-to-box No. 8. It’s debatable whether Pity is best used as a second striker underneath Josef anyway, but it’s not like Pity has been good enough that de Boer should shape the formation to fit him.

A late goal and assist to slip past DCU will probably be enough to get Pity back in the lineup, most likely replacing Vazquez. Atlanta will have to have Pity be a difference-maker on the ball, and also manage to not make costly turnovers.

2 — This might be something of a redemption game for LAFC’s midfield, which did not perform to its usual high level in the loss to the Galaxy. They were outworked, a point Bob Bradley made after the game, and struggled to distribute the ball effectively.

It’s hard to see the Galaxy’s approach being repeatable for other clubs, though, especially without a player like Jonathan dos Santos in there. LAG had to work really hard to avoid losing the midfield battle, and there was nothing tactical they did (outside of maybe focusing more on Eduard Atuesta) that presents any sort of blueprint for other teams to use.

This game will come down to whether Atlanta bunkers or not — I’m betting they will, to an extent, but try to keep a ton of possession when they get the ball. LAFC are too good, particularly at home, to not drive opponents back and force them to play a deep defensive line. Pushing your defense forward with an aggressive possession shape against Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi is death.

De Boer might end up learning that lesson the hard way. If Atlanta get blitzed, a de Boer misstep may well be the cause. 

Bob Bradley probably won’t make some fatal tactical mistake. He’s Bob Bradley. But LAFC can be beat (remember when they lost 1-0 at Colorado with an A- XI?), and Atlanta, as we all know, have a certain bit of game-breaking talent. We’ll see it play out Friday night.

Analyzing Each of the Eastern Conference’s Best Teams

Avatar July 19, 2019

At this stage of the MLS season, we can confidently place a group of five teams at the top of the Eastern Conference hierarchy:

Other playoff contenders — notably the Montreal Impact, Toronto FC, Orlando City SC and the New England Revolution — will hang around, but the existing group of five will be tough to challenge.

To handicap the race, let’s take a look at each of the East elites, including what they do well and poorly and how they’ve played in recent weeks.

D.C. United

DCU sit second in the Eastern Conference, barely a nick ahead of a threatening group of three — Atlanta, NYRB, and NYCFC. D.C. are in danger are falling further behind.

Even as they stick around in the upper tier in the conference, it grows harder and harder to proclaim them as legitimate contenders. They’ve won just twice in their last 10 games.

Luciano Acosta is suspended currently for a red card, and has generally taken a step back from last season’s ascent to stardom. They haven’t scored at the rate most expected despite Wayne Rooney’s continued excellence.

By the time Acosta is transferred elsewhere (which seems like an inevitability, whether this window or next), D.C. will be severely missing attacking creativity. In fact, they’ve been missing attacking creativity even with Acosta in the lineup. D.C. rank in the lower tiers of shots per game and xG per game. They lack difference-makers — players who can find the ball and pick out passes that others don’t see. 

Acosta has been a difference-maker in the past, but this season his productivity has waned. DCU don’t have other players who can both fill in when Acosta’s production dips and, most importantly, help boost the Argentine. They need a secondary creator.

Lucas Rodriguez is a dribbler, but he’s not a passer or an adept connector. Paul Arriola is a workhorse. The deeper midfielders have yet to find ways to impact further up the field the way players like Cristian Roldan in Seattle have.

D.C. have to surround Rodriguez and Arriola with players who can move the ball and keep D.C.’s attack from faltering. Rodriguez, while electric on the ball, has an xGChain/96 figure of 0.96, lower than that of Gyasi Zardes. Arriola is a high-caliber player, but similarly lacks the ability to find difference-making passes. 

Above all else, D.C. need a shake-up. They’ve clearly stagnated. We’ll see what this transfer window brings.

NYCFC

NYC lost twice in MLS in the last couple of weeks, to the Portland Timbers and the Red Bulls. In between those, they sandwiched a penalty-kick defeat in the US Open Cup quarterfinals against Orlando City.

Pigeons fans need not worry too much about these recent setbacks. The Red Bulls loss had a fluky feel to it — NYRB scored their goals on a penalty-kick and a bizarre, controversial referee mismanagement situation. NYC had dominated much of the New York Derby. They had their chances against Portland, losing 1-0 despite dominating the xG battle. Penalty shootouts are basically coin tosses.

In general, City look like one of the league’s better teams, and hold games in hand on most of their Eastern Conference rivals. Their attack is deep. Younger options have emerged in midfield alongside Alex Ring; most notably, Keaton Parks has become an important starter, and James Sands will continue to have a role. Maxi Moralez is a legitimate MVP candidate. 

Dome Torrent has his team spreading opponents out, sending the fullbacks forward, and thriving off of diagonal switches in the attacking third. It is an effective formula, but they have to be careful to prevent the well running dry. 

Atlanta United

Have Atlanta adjusted to Frank de Boer’s system? I’m inclined to say that they have, to a certain extent. They’ve worked their way back up to third in the Eastern Conference, and they have started to improve in midfield. Justin Meram has shown flashes of pre-Orlando City Justin Meram.

But when they win, defending and Josef Martinez make the difference.

Ezequiel Barco and Hector Villalba are still injured. With Brek Shea out for the year and Mikey Amrbose battling thigh problems, they don’t have a left back. Pity Martinez has not yet transformed into a world-beating superstar, and it’s hard to see that happening any time soon. They have a ceiling now that they didn’t have in the past.

The five-game win streak they ripped off at the beginning of May appears to have been a product of a weak schedule; they took four of a possible 15 points in the five games prior to Wednesday’s 5-0 demolition of 10-man Houston.

De Boer should roll with the 3-5-2-ish formation he tested against the Dynamo. Julian Gressel is best used as a wingback, and a three-at-the-back is the only way De Boer can fit the center back trio of Miles Robinson, Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Michael Parkhurst together. Pity’s defensive apathy would be most effectively sheltered in a second striker role.

Atlanta will keep trying to find the best version of themselves.

New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls, contrary to previous NYRB seasons, look set up to succeed in the playoffs instead of the regular season. They took some time to coalesce this year — a process that makes sense, considering the departure of Tyler Adams, injuries on the backline, Champions League congestion, and Kaku’s going off the rails at various times — and now they are motoring along at a reasonable pace.

It’s hard to see them going on a run and challenging for first in the conference, barring some big signing of a winger. Reigning Defender of the Year Aaron Long has been the subject of transfer rumors this summer. If they sell, they make things very difficult for themselves this season.

But aside from Adams’s departure and Bradley Wright-Phillips’s decline to super-sub status, not too much is different about this Red Bulls team from previous iterations. They play a similar style and press the ball well. In the waning BWP years (and first Brian White year!), they’ll want to make a serious run in October.

Philadelphia Union

The current top team, Philly have been better and more consistent than every team in the East except for (arguably) NYCFC. They have the look of a bona fide elite, though the recent injury of Jamiro Monteiro has stunted their recent form.

They may be a bit overrated in some areas. Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie haven’t had seasons to write home about, though Jack Elliott has been very good at center back. Andre Blake is perpetually the most overrated keeper in the league. The signing of journeyman American Andrew Wooten at striker is unlikely to be a serious difference-maker.

In general, though, the Union are legit. Ilsinho is a weapon off the bench that other teams don’t have. Kai Wagner has been one of the league’s best left backs this season. The diamond formation has worked wonders, and continues to produce quality possession. They will face a battle to finish at the top of the conference.

HPS MLS Pod Episode 6 with Evan Weston

Avatar July 13, 2019

It’s time for another HPS MLS Pod!

Joining Harrison Hamm this week is Evan Weston, the television voice of Orlando City SC. Topics discussed include:

  • Orlando’s wild win over NYCFC in the US Open Cup quarterfinals (0:30)
  • Orlando’s improvement this season and future direction (10:00)
  • The attack, and Chris Mueller’s potential USMNT contention (30:00)
Listen to “HPS MLS Pod Episode 6 with Evan Weston” on Spreaker.

Complete MLS Midseason Award Picks

Avatar July 12, 2019
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With the MLS season just past its halfway point, now is as good a time as ever to do some awards. We’ll do the real awards and mix in plenty of other player and team prizes.

Let’s go!

MVP: Carlos Vela, LAFC

This one is as consensus a selection as you’re going to get. Carlos Vela has a ridiculous 19 goals and 12 assists in 19 games, on pace for the best season in MLS history. He is the best player on the best team. He does so much beyond scoring that he has left little debate as to who the best player in the league is.

Finalists: Maxi Moralez (NYCFC), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy)

Moralez has 6g, 11a as NYCFC’s fulcrum. The Light Blues have two losses all season and are tied for the Eastern Conference lead on points-per-game.

Zlatan is second in the league in goals and dictates everything that makes the Galaxy successful. He also dictates everything that holds them back — he does little defensive work and has an outwardly poor attitude.

Defender of the Year: Walker Zimmerman, LAFC

It’s hard not to give this award to Walker Zimmerman, who has clearly been the best defender in the league. His performance earned him a regular starting job in the USMNT’s Gold Cup backline.

Finalists: Miles Robinson (Atlanta), Larrys Mabiala (Portland)

Coach of the Year: Jim Curtain, Philadelphia

Philly has risen to first-place in the Eastern Conference with a defined style of play, emphasizing the strengths of its players and playing quality possession soccer. Jim Curtain’s trust of guys like Brenden Aaronson has spurred the Union’s surge.

Finalists: Bob Bradley (LAFC), Matias Almeyda (San Jose)

Goalkeeper of the Year: Stefan Ffrei, Seattle Sounders

I had a hard time coming up with a clear top contender for this one. Stefan Frei has continued to be solid in Seattle, so I’ll give it to him.

Finalists: Sean Johnson (NYCFC), Maxime Crepeau (Vancouver Whitecaps)

Newcomer of the Year: Alejandro Pozuelo, Toronto FC

Alejandro Pozuelo has easily been TFC’s best player, with seven goals and eight assists so far in his debut season.

It would be a very good bet, though, that Portland forward Brian Fernandez will have this award on lock by the end of the year. The Timbers promise to win a good portion of their home game slate in the second half of the season, and Fernandez has been scoring at a goal-per-game pace.

Finalists: Fernandez, Kacper Przybylko (Philadelphia)

Most Improved Player: Latif Blessing, LAFC

Latif Blessing has been a Best XI-level performer in midfield for LA. He has gone from a super-utility player to one of the league’s best ball-moving and ground-covering midfielders in the league. Fellow LA midfielder Eduard Atuesta would’ve been a reasonable pick here as well.

Honorable mentions: Jackson Yueill (San Jose), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Atuesta, Lamine Sane (Orlando), Memo Rodriguez (Houston)

Best team: LAFC

I mean.

Honorable mention: Philadelphia Union

Worst team: FC Cincinnati

Cincy have lost 13 of their 19 games and are the running favorite for the Wooden Spoon. They went to Minnesota and got annihilated 7-1 on June 29. As they continue to search for a coach, their roster is in a “tear it all down” stage.

Honorable mention: Columbus Crew

With Colorado and New England starting to figure themselves out, it’s been an especially bad year for Ohio teams.

Biggest surprise: The rise of the Union

Watching Philly transition from an interesting young team to a clear MLS elite has been a joy. They’ve done so through a well-crafted style of play, the growth of several players, and smart signings (Kai Wagner, Kacper Przybylko, Jamiro Monteiro, Sergio Santos). We await the rise of Marco Fabian.

Honorable mentions: LAFC’s complete dominance, San Jose’s turnaround, Orlando’s new foundation

Biggest disappointment: Columbus’s plummet

The Crew started the season competently and then tumbled harshly to the surface, pushed off the ledge by a rash of injuries (Milton Valenzuela, Federico Higuain, Harrison Afful) and static coaching. As much as Caleb Porter wanted to run it all back, it just wouldn’t work. Big changes are on the horizon in Columbus.

Honorable mentions: Houston’s road stagnation, Toronto’s slow first half

Team that should improve: Portland Timbers

This is the easiest answer: Portland have a few games in hand on most Western Conference teams and will play the vast majority of their remaining matches at home. Sitting ninth in the west now, the Timbers should rise at least a few spots by the end of the year.

Honorable mentions: New York Red Bulls, Sporting KC

Team that might regress: Montreal Impact

Montreal are fourth in the east now, but feel the heat of NYCFC on their back. NYCFC have four games in hand and are just one point behind the Impact. The Red Bulls and possibly Toronto FC (with Omar Gonzalez and one or two TAM attackers arriving) could overtake the Impact as well and toss them out of the playoff race.

How the Seattle Sounders Have Maintained Contention in the Western Conference

Avatar July 3, 2019

Additional writing contribution by: Cheuk Hei Ho

For the last handful of years, we’ve known roughly how the Seattle Sounders play.

Their 4-2-3-1 is relatively straightforward. They revolve around Nicolas Lodeiro, who handles as much possession responsibility as any player in the league, and set up shop in the final third, with wingers milling about and the full backs charging forward. They aim to switch the field and create overloads.

The Sounders have managed to start the season well for once. They now sit third in the Western Conference and will be in the middle of a competitive top four. Their system is similar to what it’s been in the past, but there are always adjustments to be made and kinks to iron out. The loss of Chad Marshall to midseason retirement hurts.

Let’s take a look at how they’ve played this season and how they project for the rest of the year.

Lodeiro’s heavy role

In any discussion about the Sounders, Nico Lodeiro is at the forefront. He consistently ranks in the top handful of MLS players in touch percentage, and this season, he outpaces Jonathan dos Santos by 0.5%. 

Possession wise, he is involved in ~43% of Seattle’s open play possessions, the top three percent among all qualified attacking central midfielders. His role in the Sounders’ attack has maintained 2016 levels of importance, though he isn’t quite taking over the league the way he was back then.

But while Lodeiro remains the Sounders’ undisputed most valuable player, his contributions have waned over time. His influence on Seattle’s chance creation is worsening, indicating that he may be less effective as a creator. Seattle still relies on Lodeiro to create, as shown by the 3.2 times increases of the xG per possession. However, his influence in chance creation is inferior to a league’s average attacking central midfielder, who would boost the xG per possession for his team by 3.7 folds. Any decline in Lodeiro’s efficiency should worry the Sounders.  

It should be noted that his touch percentage is higher this year than it has been any other MLS season, despite his decreasing positive effects on Sounders’ possessions. His work rate only grows, and he will continue to keep heavy amounts of the ball, but lesser efficiency could be a by-product.

Seattle may be working to maximize the involvement of Cristian Roldan, particularly the Lodeiro-Roldan two-man game. As Roldan has grown into a high-level MLS central midfielder, his on-field relationship with Lodeiro has smoothed into a fruitful interchange. When Lodeiro drifts in and out of the midfield, Roldan fills his spot and hits incisive passes as a forward-thinking No. 8.

Roldan is involved in ~3% more of Seattle’s possessions this season compared to last year. Moreover, his involvement increases the xG per possession to ~100%, 90% better than it did last year. Interchanges between Roldan and Lodeiro have become a regular feature of Sounders’ attacks.

via GIPHY

That was not the greatest shot quality, but it is fairly representative of many Sounders’ attacks.

Roldan’s increased responsibility can explain Lodeiro’s seemingly decreased effect on Seattle’s chance creation; when Lodeiro doesn’t participate in ball movement, Roldan takes over his job. When both players start, the percentage of possessions involving only Lodeiro but not Roldan decreases by three percent while the percentage of possessions involving only Roldan but not Lodeiro increases by two percent compared to last year. Roldan, in other words, has taken noticeably more responsibility.

via GIPHY

Lodeiro, as a result, becomes less critical for the Sounders: Seattle’s possession with the attacking midfielder (Lodeiro) and the left central midfielder (Roldan) increases the xG per possession by 240% and 50%, respectively. Both scenarios rank about average compared to everyone else in a 4-2-3-1. But when combing both positions together, the xG per possession jumps to >300%, top 25% since 2016. There are some declines from Lodeiro, but the Sounders have also rerouted their attack this season.

Build-up play 

In general, the Sounders aren’t a possession-dominant team, they control only ~49% of the possession per game. Building up from the back isn’t their thing; the Sounders start ~43.8% of the possessions from their initial third, right about average in MLS. Perhaps they should knock that number down even more; they create only 0.3 xG per 100 possessions from the initial third through open play, worse than 97% of the teams. They are also very careless with the ball: 3.9% of the opponent’s final third possession come from Seattle’s mistake in the buildup, the 10th highest since 2016, constituting 9.2% of xG the Sounders concede this season.

There is one saving grace: Stefan Frei’s play-making ability:


Based on his accuracy of the 12 types of passes defined by distance and direction, Frei is the 8th best among all qualified keepers since 2016. This season, his participation increases the xG of Seattle’s build-up by ~58%, top 12% in MLS. 

Seattle bases its attack on disjointing defenses and then pouncing. Transition situations offer optimal opportunities for that approach, so it makes sense that the Sounders excel at counter-attacking (and do well to prevent opposition counter-attacks); ~14% of their xG come from transitional attacks — possession that starts in their own half and finishes within 20 seconds, the 14th highest percentage since 2016. Moreover, transition plays increase their xG per possession by 48%, the fifth highest in MLS. 

The Sounders are equally good at defending in transition: fewer than 4% of the xG they concede comes from transition, the second fewest since 2016. 

There are multiple reasons for their aptitude in defensive transition. They are sufficiently tidy with the ball, completing 78% of their open play passes in the opponent’s half, 17% above average. They are also decent at attacking loose balls, hitting ~7% of their mis-passes in the opponent’s half, about 20% above average. The Sounders have another secret weapon that prevents the opponent from hitting in transition:

More than 73% of their activities are done on the flank, the third highest in MLS. Counter-attacking from the flank is always difficult: the distance is longer and the angle is more complicated.

Transition play is a theme for Seattle this year; even though their counter-pressing isn’t elite, it elevates the quality of their possessions. Counter-pressing increases Seattle’s xG per possession by ~220%, the highest since 2016. 16.8% of Seattle’s xG also comes from counter-pressing possessions, again highest in the last four years. 

In addition, they are uniquely able to push and pull opposing teams in the attacking half with methodical passing and movement. Lodeiro runs and relocates more than any other player in MLS. We’ve touched on his widespread role already — he’s at the center of everything. By the time Seattle advance the ball into the final third, they will have already battered through the opposing midfield and thus unlocked opportunities to pour numbers forward and create overloads. 

Much of their direct, on-goal production comes from the flanks. They bomb their fullbacks forward and let the wingers — particularly Victor Rodriguez, whose role only grows — feast on jumbled defenses, either by slicing inside or outnumbering opposing fullbacks. Once Rodriguez, or any other fullback or winger, finds the ball on the touchline near the 18-year-old box, they have built-in options: the crafty Raul Ruidiaz lurking around the six-yard box, Roldan making a late run at the top of the 18, and Lodeiro popping up wherever.

Because their attack is so focused on transporting the ball from Roldan and Lodeiro’s distribution to overloads on the wings, the Sounders often find success by switching play. When they hit switches, they are more than two and a half times more likely to score. Switches are a common foil against pinned defenses, and they are especially valuable for Seattle, given the ease with which they disjoint defenses and create odd-man situations. 

In addition, the Sounders cross the ball well; for all the possessions that enter the final third, crossing increases their quality (xG per possession) by ~240% times, top 3% since 2016. When they drag defenders to the overloaded flanks, space opens in the box for a striker and a winger crashing back-post. Will Bruin is great in the air. Ruidíaz may be a little short but Jordan Morris is an underappreciated header of the ball: he wins 46% of headers, better than >75% of qualified wingers since 2016. Crosses have become a focal point of their attack.

Conclusions

Even as Lodeiro’s effectiveness has hit a slight decline, the Sounders have shown significant improvement in multiple attacking areas. They are one of the most effective crossing teams in the league. They dominate the transition phase of the game. Roldan-Lodeiro interchanges spur the attacking phase of their game. 

Focusing on what they do well, and improving specifically at those elements, has resulted in their establishing themselves as a clear Western Conference contender. They did not sleepwalk through the first half of the season, as they famously have in the past. While Chad Marshall’s retirement hurts, they look like a lock to finish at least in the conference’s top three.

Tactical Notes on Polarizing USWNT and Areas of Improvement for Finals

Avatar July 3, 2019

The USWNT advanced to the 2019 World Cup final by the skin of their teeth. The 2-1 win over England was a rollercoaster of VAR, a penalty save, and time-killing.

England was not the US’s toughest opponent — France was. The final against either the Netherlands or Sweden should not be as difficult as the quarters and semis were. But this is a knockout tournament and anything can happen.

Two of the US’s best players (Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle) nurse tricky hamstring injuries, though both players have indicated that they will be healthy by Sunday’s final.

Some tactical notes from the wild win over England and how the US can improve as they head into a pressure-packed final. I’ll end with some final notes on the importance of the team in general.

Tactical notes

Phil Neville wins the strategy game over Ellis

US coach Jill Ellis did not play her best strategic cards. She set the US up in a base 4-3-3 and allowed England to control the tempo of the game, playing heavily up the right flank through star right back Lucy Bronze and searching for diagonal switches. Too often, England disjointed the US with interplay down the right flank followed by a switch to a wide open Beth Mead. They created their goal through such a pattern of play.

The US’s biggest weakness became a leaky midfield. Without strong ball-winning and ground-coverage down the spine, Ellis’s team allowed England to transition possession into the attacking half too easily. Passes into advanced midfielders (like Nikita Parris, who was influential) unlocked meaningful attacking sequences. 

Julie Ertz has to be better as the US’s defensive midfielder, and whoever plays alongside her — most likely two of Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Sam Mewis — have to be stronger. The US have to be smarter with their pressing triggers and trapping. Much of that falls on Ellis.

Credit to England’s Phil Neville for setting his team up for success.

2. Improvements in possession

England would not have controlled the game to such an extent had Ellis designed a more effective possession shape. When the US took the ball in their defensive half, they spread wide and trusted the center backs to carry the ball forward and lead distribution. Lavelle, who has good vision and ideas, should be on the ball deeper. The full backs have to have more of a role.

It was bizarre watching the US set up when Becky Sauerbrunn or Abby Dahlkemper had the ball. The formation was an exaggerated 4-3-3, with the midfield barely visible. Ertz ranged forward consistently, which works only when the US actually get the ball forward. They did not do that well enough.

To possess the ball, you have to have a discernible midfield. Ellis appeared overly concerned with the flanks, which makes a fair bit of sense against an English team that loves its overloads and switches, but the way she set the US up with the ball resulted in low-percentage long balls. There has to be more meaningful possession.

3. US destroys opponents in transition.

The US thrive in transition play and counter-pressing. Losing the ball in your own end against the USWNT is death. The wingers are skillful and Alex Morgan is a cerebral hold-up striker, particularly when she finds the ball in tight spaces around the 18-yard box. Tobin Heath, despite a subpar performance against England, is arguably the US’s best overall player, and disintegrates hopeless defenders off the dribble with regularity. The US will combine and overlap with ferocity, and whip deadly crosses into the box once they’ve thoroughly disjointed you. 

Whichever team the US face in the final will be at a real and noticeably talent deficiency. All of the US’s opponents in this tournament have been. Against England, talent won out.

4. Press good, but Rapinoe was missed.

Starting Christen Press on the left wing proved a downgrade to Rapinoe, though Press did score the US’s first goal. Rapinoe is a better passer and connector, and was scorching hot heading into the semifinals. Press sometimes misses passes and runs. She does track back well and did in this game.

5. US good and killing the clock

It will be interesting how aggressive Ellis is willing to be against the Netherlands or Sweden. The US’s 4-1-4-1 defensive shape (which sometimes looked like a flat 4-5-1) was conservative, and Ellis designed it to flummox a possession-happy England. It mostly succeeded in that goal.

That defensive set-up proved helpful once the US resorted completely to time-killing mode after Alyssa Naeher’s heroic penalty-kick save. It was bold to carry the ball to the corner as early as the US did, but it worked, and England barely generated any meaningful chances late in the contest. France ran into similar problems.

Major Implications

Let’s take a moment to recognize the pressure on this USWNT team.

They’ve ruffled plenty of feathers this tournament, from celebrations against Thailand and England to Rapinoe’s political activism to the enduring fight for equal pay. Everyone expects them to win, and plenty may delight in their losing — curmudgeonly Brits, and hardcore Trump supporters who hate Rapinoe, and men who refuse to accept equal pay.

A loss in the final should not diminish their multiple worthy fights, but in the brutal, volatile world of public opinion, a defeat would undoubtedly be devastating. Primarily, it would be used as ammo by opponents of equal pay. However flawed (both morally and economically) arguments against equal pay are, they will hang around. 

The pressure mounts on a team that is becoming a phenomenon. It is not often that we see an international side this controversial and polarizing. The spotlight will be on when they take the Lyon field for the World Cup final.

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