MLS week six is now upon us. We've seen plenty over the first five weeks of the season, and we surely will experience more unpredictable results and unprecedented moments that we've come to get used to in this wonderful, parity-filled league. The major talking point of week five was unwritten rules and red cards, but I think that's been a little overdone throughout the soccer-web recently. That's why we'll veer away from that topic this week, and instead focus on some of the players who have really impressed us at the beginning of the season, specifically the lesser-known players.
In other words, the Giovincos and Kakas and Villas of the world will be put on the back-burner for once. It's time to give the guys who quietly produce week after week some love.
Here are the players who have proven their worth over the recent weeks despite their non-DP salary or lack of experience playing for AC Milan, and why you should watch out for them this week:
Travis Worra—D.C. United
The only goalkeeper on this brief list earned the league minimum salary last year. Worra, a third-string keeper behind Bill Hamid and Andrew Dykstra on the depth chart, earned $50,000 in 2015, according to Spotrac.com, but when he was called into action recently after long-term injuries to the two goalies ahead of him, he impressed everyone.
Hamid and Dykstra are both out for months, and D.C. United, already facing losses elsewhere in the starting XI, looked dire at the goalkeeping position. After all, Worra had played a grand total of just 32 pro soccer minutes in his short career. United signed MLS veteran Tally Hall to help out at the position, but they may not need him, as this former University of New Hampshire standout surprised MLS by putting in some good performances, and proving that he could be a capable starter until Hamid returns.
Worra can make one-on-one saves, has good reactionary skills and, perhaps most important, makes the saves he's supposed to make. That's important for any young keeper, but he has taken it a step further with an ability to come off his line and clean up plays, a skill that even the best have trouble with. It takes all the physical attributes needed to be a good goalie—reaction time, technique, and strength, among others—and, to do it well, it requires exceptional tactical awareness. Worra has shown that.
For an example, look at this play he made on a cross sent in by San Jose's Alberto Quintero:
Look at how absolutely wide open Quincy Amarikwa was. No doubt, if that ball gets to him, Worra has zero chance at getting close to making a save. It would have been a point-blank, can't-miss opportunity, but the second-year keeper has the recognition and understanding to get out and prevent anything from happening.
It will be interesting to see whether he can continue his success against Vancouver on Saturday. Although Worra doesn't exactly have a large sample size, he could prove to be a huge part of United's defense in the months to come.
It's only been four games, so you're right to be hesitant about boarding the Travis Worra hype train, but he is showing some real signs of potential. Maybe they ought to give him a bigger contract.
Justen Glad—Real Salt Lake
RSL faced a plethora of injuries when they travelled to Children's Mercy Park to play previously-undefeated Sporting Kansas City—including, but not limited to, Javier Morales, Nick Rimando and Burrito Martinez—but they overcame the odds stacked against them to pull off an impressive 2-1 victory. Although they saw multiple players make their mark on Saturday, perhaps none was more surprising than center-back Justen Glad.
Glad, in his third MLS season, got a rare opportunity to start after Jamison Olave was suspended due to a red card. He took advantage of it, playing a confident game and, for the most part, shutting down SKC's always-dangerous number-nine Dom Dwyer. The 34-year old Olave, who has struggled this season, should have his starting spot put into question following Glad's impressive performance.
The Homegrown defender only had six career starts before last week's, but that number will likely increase in the coming weeks. Real Salt Lake have generally struggled at center-back in recent years, and Glad could be a solution to that problem.
If he's going to be the future in central defense, though, he has to cut down on mistakes. He can't be doing things like this on a consistent basis:
Does that remind you of anyone, LA Galaxy fans? (Cough, Daniel Steres, cough).
That's a bad play, and could have resulted in a goal, but it's not evidence of deeper problems. It was simply a mistake, and that will happen with 19-year olds. It was the same for Steres, and it's the same for Glad.
Nevertheless, RSL should be pleased with this kid's progression. He looks to be legit, but the Claret and Cobalt have to keep him improving in order for him to grow into a consistent starter. That means it's necessary for Glad to get game time, and a good bit of it. That starts on Saturday, when they face Colorado.
Will Bruin—Houston Dynamo
The Dynamo are a very intriguing team. Their defense has played a frenetic style recently—giving up tons of goals, save for a 1-0 loss to Vancouver—but the offense has been mostly effective despite injuries to Cristian Maidana and Giles Barnes. Using superb wide play from Andrew Wenger and a functioning central midfield in their 4-2-3-1 formation, Houston have scored 11 goals in four games.
One aspect of their wacky season thus far that has flown under the radar a bit has been the play of forward Will Bruin.
Bruin isn't a relative unknown like the other two guys talked about previously, but his lack of flashiness and MLS Goal of the Week contenders have made him an afterthought when it comes to thinking about who the best striker in the league is. The US-international—capped multiple times by the national team—is tied for the lead in MLS with three goals and also has two assists, as well as firing four shots on target.
He uses his size advantage and underrated speed to hold off defenders and bring teammates into the game, and will drop deeper into the midfield to help in possession. Bruin is a massive pest for the defenders in the box, taking up dangerous positions and forcing the opposition to move guys onto him, opening up space for other Dynamo players.
However, as mentioned before, his distribution from the number-nine role is Bruin's best quality. Here's his passing map from Houston's 4-3 loss in New Jersey three weeks ago:
That may not look all that impressive at first glance, but for a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1, it shows his willingness to drop back and help in midfield as well as drift over to the wing—he appears to favor the left—to try and create holes through the channels. It worked, as the Dynamo put three goals on the board, with two netted by Bruin.
Of course, he's not perfect, and that showed in Houston's most recent match, a dull 1-0 loss in Vancouver. Bruin and the Orange severely struggled with finishing and overall had trouble breaking apart a makeshift Whitecaps' backline. But while he has his off days, he consistently scores 10-15 goals a season for the Dynamo and rarely sits out of games, making him one of the most reliable players in MLS.
Bruin and his club travel back to Houston after a week off to face the Sounders. The game, broadcast nationally on ESPN, will be a chance for the Dynamo to showcase their offensive talents as well as try and fix their defensive struggles. On the attacking side, Bruin will play a big role.
What to watch for this weekend
Sapong in midfield
I talked about Orlando City and their successes in last week's edition of MLS Post-Mortem, but the gist of it is that Kaka is really, really good and that the defensive midfield is a crucial component of OCSC. Even without Cyle Larin up front for the majority of the match, Orlando obliterated the Portland Timbers at home.
They overloaded the midfield and constantly swarmed Portland's star number-nine, Fanendo Adi, whenever he got close to the ball. Their advantage in the middle of the park—heightened by the 4-6-0 formation they employed—allowed them to take Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri out of the attack, helping them shut down the Timbers talented offense.
The Philadelphia Union host Orlando on Friday, and while the Union aren't at the quality of Portland, they do have a striker whose skill-set could cause major problems for the visitors: C.J. Sapong.
Last week, the Union failed to put anything past Matt Lampson in snowy Chicago, thanks in part to Warren Creavalle's red card, but they did create chances, hitting the woodwork twice and coming close a couple other times. Sapong was a handful for the packed-in Fire defense despite the 1-0 loss, and will be the same against Orlando.
Sapong, who plays as a lone striker in Philly's 4-2-3-1, runs the channels and drags defenders out of position while also running into various holes in the midfield. He spots up in the 18-yard box and hunts down opportunities when crosses come in. That's why he ends up with so many shots:
In this aspect, he is similar to Bruin in that he always ends up in a threatening spot when other distributors are sending balls in. But Sapong's hold-up play and ability to not get stranded in his lone number-nine role sets him apart from other strikers.
Other elite number-nines, like Kei Kamara, Fanendo Adi and Larin, have a tendency to disappear from their team's attack when they don't have a teammate providing them service. Sapong goes out and seeks the ball, taking up positions all over the field and starting attacks when he forces defenders to follow him to the midfield. That's important for a striker on a club like the Union, who let their main midfield creator—Cristian Maidana—go in the offseason, because if he doesn't go and get the ball himself, he doesn't have a role in the attack.
Because of this playing style, he finds himself in positions all over the field. His passing map shows this:
The Union will get Tranquilo Barnetta back in midfield on Friday, so Sapong will have some help. But he remains the focal point of the attack, and OCSC will have to deal with him.
If anybody can do it, it would be Orlando. Their defensive midfield—featuring Cristian Higuita and Darwin Ceren—has morphed into a crucial part of their starting lineup, crowding the area outside the box and forcing turnovers in the middle of the park. When Sapong comes into the midfield to hold-up play or help in possession, which will inevitably happen, he will run into Higuita and Ceren, who dominated Portland's attack last week:
Whoever wins this battle will likely win the game.
Game of the Week—LA Galaxy vs. Portland Timbers
The final match of the weekend is between the Galaxy and the Timbers, broadcast on Fox Sports 1. For Galaxy fans, this is a realistic opportunity for LA to grab a full three points.
For one, it's at home, and, as mentioned before, Portland had a tough go last week in Orlando, so this is a great opportunity for the Galaxy to feast on the defending champions, who are still figuring things out this season. LA could get Giovani dos Santos back from injury, and although Robbie Keane is out for an extended period, they could see Jeff Larentowicz back as an option in central midfield, where Steven Gerrard has been ruled out.
The struggle for Bruce Arena's side is in the midfield, despite the boost defensively they got when Gerrard was ruled out. With Diego Chara playing as the number-six in the Timbers' 4-3-3, LA's strikers will have a hard time combining and working the ball around outside the box, and in the Galaxy's 4-4-2, they lose out on the numbers battle in the midfield, meaning it will be harder to sustain possession in attacking positions.
But Portland still have problems in the backline—Liam Ridgewell is out for another couple weeks, and the question about who will play left-back remains—so the hosts should have an easier time when they do manage to get the ball into the box.
This match could go either way. Playing in the friendly confines of the StubHub Center, the Galaxy have a slight advantage.