Week four of MLS was completely overshadowed by the FIFA international break—or, more specifically, by Jurgen Klinsmann's USMNT failures—but there was a shortened schedule of three games on Saturday.
New York City FC drew with the New England Revolution at Yankee Stadium, FC Dallas dominated D.C. United despite a number of players absent due to international duty, and the Vancouver Whitecaps rode another controversial penalty decision to a 1-0 victory against the Houston Dynamo. It was a week marred by the break, and it brought up a debate that has been thrown around MLS for years: Whether to play games during international windows.
Major League Soccer is the only top league in the world that doesn't take a week off for international matches; instead, they schedule a shortened amount of games for six or so teams who will be forced to play without some of their starters. There is an advantage to playing at these times as well—less mid-week games—but it would probably be a good idea for MLS to even out their schedule and actually take breaks during international breaks.
The Whitecaps would likely express a similar sentiment, given what they had go with in their Saturday game against the Dynamo. They were forced to replace both center-backs, Kendall Waston for Costa Rica and Tim Parker for the US U-23s, with a midfielder (Andrew Jacobson) and a 35-year old veteran (Pa Modou Kah). Also, starting winger Christian Bolaños (Costa Rica) and forward Blas Perez (Panama) departed for Central America, forcing the Whitecaps to go with a makeshift lineup that also featured rookie striker Masato Kudo, making his MLS debut.
Vancouver did win this game, thanks to another Pedro Morales penalty and some sketchy Dynamo finishing, but it's just another example of why teams shouldn't have to deal with these absences when they don't have to.
Anyway, let's take a look at the weekend ahead:
What to watch for
NYRB's defensive replacements
The New England Revolution looked like they could be a pretty good team this season. On paper, they checked off all the boxes, with a good attack (led by Lee Nguyen), a decent midfield (Scott Caldwell and Gershon Koffie), and a solid backline (Andrew Farrell, Chris Tierney and others). Trophies were a bit of a reach, but they appeared to be somewhat of a threat in the Eastern Conference.
That's all on paper. Any team can look like they have everything in place, but the game is played on grass (or turf). So when this side was assembled by Jay Heaps and put out there for the first four games of the year, from which they gathered three points, it became clear that maybe the Revs weren't who we thought were.
A number of factors played into their early season disappointments (they've drawn three times and gotten creamed by Philly in four matches against three non-playoff teams from 2015). There's the matter of right back, where Je-Vaughn Watson and London Woodberry haven't been great; there's finishing—New England have scored one goal in the last three games, despite firing 38 shots during that period—and they have struggled in central defense, with Farrell experiencing some difficulties in his fourth MLS season.
On Friday night, they face the New York Red Bulls, who won a frenetic 4-3 decision two weeks ago against Houston. The Red Bulls won't be playing any starting-level defenders up in Foxborough, as their three top central defenders, Gideon Baah, Marc Perrinelle and Ronald Zubar, will be out, and top full-back Kemar Lawrence is questionable after an injury suffered with Jamaica. Connor Lade and Karl Ouimette will likely play center-back, which signals even more defensive difficulties after a series of individual errors allowed the Dynamo to walk right through the backline.
The key for the Revolution in this game, then, is to use their multi-faceted attack, focused on Nguyen's playmaking in Zone 14, to confuse a scrambled-together NYRB defense and locate the holes that will likely emerge. Teal Bunbury will have to find his game again after bad touches took away his effectiveness in attack last week, and the other factors of the offense will have to take their chances against this Red Bulls team, who proved they can score against Houston.
New York made too many avoidable mishaps on defense two weeks ago, so sitting deep and absorbing the attack will not be a good idea. That's not what Jesse Marsch does, though, and their high-energy pressing in the midfield, which played a large role in their Supporters' Shield win last year, will have to be at full force. The problem with that, however, is the backline, which used now-departed center-back Matt Miazga's unique skill-set to press high last year. They won't be able to do that as much now.
I wouldn't be surprised if this ended up being a high-scoring shootout. The Revolution have the advantage on paper due to NYRB's defensive absences, but if we've learned anything, the game's played on the field, not on the stats sheet.
Problems in Columbus
A very intriguing matchup takes place Saturday evening on MLS Live. In what looks like one of the best—on paper (I promise I'll stop saying that)—games of the week, FC Dallas host the Columbus Crew. Both of these teams were projected to contend for some silverware before the season started, but right now, only Dallas have at least come close to living up to those high expectations. They hold a 3-0-1 record, marred only by a 5-0 loss at Houston, which appears to be an anomaly.
The Crew are currently at the bottom of the Eastern Conference—with only one point through three games—and are one of five teams that have yet to grab a victory. They employ a lineup almost identical to the one they played during their run to the MLS Cup Final last season, but have yet to enjoy the same successes.
When Columbus look to rebound in Frisco, they have to get better on offense. Last week, an away scoreless draw with bunkering Chicago was a respectable result, but 2-1 losses to Portland and Philadelphia were causes for concern. Against the Fire, they have an excuse for the lack of production—the home team used a deep-sitting 5-3-2 formation to completely cut off all holes through the backline and take away the Crew's threatening crosses. The issues that plagued them during the first two games, however, have to be resolved against a high-flying Dallas side.
Specifically, they haven't been able to find the final ball through the midfield. Columbus focuses on crossing the ball toward number-nine Kei Kamara rather than playing in the middle, and while at times that can be a good idea—especially with Harrison Afful charging forward from full-back—they have to be able to find that last ball that breaks apart the defense.
Their key passes—passes that lead to a shot—against Chicago never showed this:
Some of these originate in the midfield, but none of them penetrated the Fire backline. Even with Kamara's superb hold-up play, no one in the Crew attack exploited the gaps in Chicago's defense. There weren't many openings, but it signals larger difficulties.
They have to resolve these issues, and fast, because losses in Frisco this week and Montreal next week would dig them a deep, deep hole in the Eastern Conference.
Redding vs. Adi
The Crew's attack revolves around Kamara. The large, imposing presence of a number-nine up front often means that they are the focal point of the attack, especially when there are elite wingers or chance-creating midfielders surrounding them. The same is true for multiple other MLS sides, albeit with different style forwards. Orlando City's Cyle Larin, Philadelphia's C.J. Sapong, Montreal's Didier Drogba and, in years past, Seattle's Obafemi Martins were similar: Each, as the lone forward (except for Martins, who played in a 4-4-2), they dragged defenders around the field and caused havoc in and around the box for opposing backlines.
Perhaps the best example of this is Fanendo Adi, the Portland Timbers' number-nine. Adi, recently capped by the Nigerian national team, has arguably the best hold-up play in the league and can facilitate Portland's attack from deep in the hole or all the way at the heart of the defense, muscling off center-backs and bringing his teammates into the game.
Every central defender in the league will struggle against him. How much they struggle often makes or breaks a team's defensive performance, so when Orlando face off with Adi and the Timbers on Sunday, 19-year old center-back Tommy Redding will become the next challenger.
The US U-20 defender has earned himself a place in the starting XI after performing well over the past three weeks, but his skills will be seriously tested against Portland. Whether or not OCSC will be able to grab some points at home against the defending champs will partially be based on how Adi does in attack, and Redding is crucial to help achieve that goal.
Players to watch
Gilberto (Chicago Fire)
Buried in this article is a report that David Accam, basically the Fire's only real threat in attack, is unlikely to play in their game against the Philadelphia Union on Saturday. Chicago, playing their aforementioned 5-3-2 formation, had troubles offensively despite a shutdown game defensively, and need Accam in the lineup to have any semblance of an attack.
By bunkering in and letting teams run at them, they force themselves to play a counter-attacking game. That's okay, but to do that, you have to have speedy players on the dribble, and the Ghanaian, arguably one of the fastest players in the league, provides that for them. But with him sidelined for the Philadelphia match, they're going to need someone else to step up. That person has to be the striker Gilberto.
The Brazilian hasn't stepped up in two games up top—he hasn't scored a goal despite five shots and two on target—but he will need to for the Fire's attack to be able to have much success.
Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
I usually don't say much about the Galaxy—just go to the home page of this website—but I'll take a crack at it today.
It's time that Gyasi Zardes takes a permanent position up top in Bruce Arena's 4-4-2 formation. I know I'm not breaking any news here, but after Zardes's effective performance as an inverted winger/second forward hybrid with the US national team, I felt it was useful to reiterate.
Robbie Keane is out until around June, but Giovani dos Santos will likely be back from injury against the Vancouver Whitecaps. That makes it possible to put dos Santos and Zardes up top and Sebastian Lletget and someone like Emmanuel Boateng on the wings. Perhaps a more realistic option would be to have dos Santos on the wing and Mike Magee up top with Zardes. Whatever happens, Gyasi needs to be played up top.
He showed his ability to run the channels and break open backlines against Guatemala—although he wasn't exactly facing world-class competition—and will have to do it again against the Whitecaps, who will have their talented central defense pairing of Kendall Waston and Tim Parker back from international duty. Someone has to pick up the slack after Keane's injury, so why not Zardes?
Soni Mustivar (Sporting Kansas City)
Saturday's matchup between Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake looks very intriguing at first sight, but the suspension of Kyle Beckerman, Jamison Olave and Roger Espinoza takes some of the excitement out. It still will be a good one, though, as SKC will look to stay undefeated.
Espinoza is crucial in Sporting's midfield. He runs all over the field, making plays in all sorts of circumstances. He distributes, he plays defense, and he is a key cog in the middle of the park. But after receiving a red card against Toronto two weeks ago, he will need someone, or multiple players, to pick up some of the workload. That's where Mustivar comes in.
Whether or not he starts, I have no idea, but he, or whoever else is in there, has to be able to get around the field and prevent guys like Sunny Obayan from threading a pass through the SKC backline. It will be critical to Sporting's success.