Why Toronto FC look legit
Toronto FC were not able to finish out their eight-game business trip around North America with a win. That's okay, because they were able to pick up 11 points in their eight straight road games to begin the season, and that would have been 14 if the Portland Timbers' Wall of New Zealand (aka Jake Gleeson) hadn't saved everything but the US presidential election on Sunday in Portland's 2-1 victory.
Despite the loss at Providence Park, everything appears to be on the up and up in Toronto. Sebastian Giovinco is doing Sebastian Giovinco things, Jozy Altidore officially has a hamstring, Michael Bradley may actually have found a position (someone tell Jurgen), and Clint Irwin has been a revelation in goal. TFC fans have a right to be pleased with the recent happenings, and if any of us actually know anything about this league—we question if we really do sometimes—then all indications point to a Supporters' Shield in Toronto.
I'm jumping the gun here, obviously. We're only a few days into May and I guarantee almost everything will look completely different by the time Los Angeles has hosted its first NFL game in 20 years. But if there's one thing that looks like a legitimate possibility at this way-too-early juncture, it's that a trophy will make an appearance in Toronto. And I can tell you right now the Maple Leafs won't be the ones honored.
Why the confidence in Toronto FC? There's a simple reason: Home games, and the quantity of them Toronto will have.
The reason for their season-opening eight-game road trip—surely a source of angst for TFC fans—was renovations being done to BMO Field. Because of that, they will spend an unusually large amount of time in the safe confines of eastern Canada for the rest of the season, likely enjoying the benefits of all those home matches.
MLS teams always dominate at home, so it's no surprise that fans are so confident in Toronto. The hosts have taken 161 points from the 237 available in 2016, and it's generally a safe bet to pick all the home teams in any given week. The reasons for this are varied—travel, weather, altitude and a myriad of other factors—but home-field advantage has become a reality in this league.
So having more home games than anybody else at a time in the season when teams are coalescing and generally playing better is a significant advantage. TFC could experience a similar jump in the last few months of the season as the Montreal Impact did in 2015, when they were forced to play a congested schedule late in the season due to other commitments. Sure, the arrival of a certain DP helped, but all those extra matches were a definite contributing factor in their eventual run to a third-place Eastern Conference finish. A similar thing could happen for the Reds this season.
All those home games could prompt an unprecedented run of brilliance as long as everything works in TFC's starting lineup, and so far, it has passed that test with flying colors.
Giovinco has started the season as hot as he's ever been—with six goals and three assists—and has only gotten better with the return of Altidore (who was bothered by a hamstring injury early on). The forward pairing confuses backlines and creates space all over the field thanks to the unique skill-sets each of them present, masking the club's one real weakness: the lack of a midfield chance-creator. With Giovinco playing as sort of a false nine at times, dragging the defense with him everywhere he goes, even Jonathan Osorio or Tsubasa Endoh can look like Mauro Diaz or Lee Nguyen.
The attack is certainly clicking on all cylinders, and backlines have shown no progress in being able to stop it. Barring injuries, it will continue to function at the highest level for months to come until one creative manager finds some sort of solution, and even then, TFC have the defensive means to keep the entire team winning.
Bradley, who has been played all over the midfield in recent years, has found his home in defensive midfield. He has become more disciplined—not ranging out of position as often—and has shown his talent for taking the ball away from the opponent and initiating attacks by spraying balls all over the field. Like this one:
He's been a key component in midfield, but the real story has been the team's overall defense, particularly the backline.
A revamped back-four has gelled quickly. The central defense paring of Drew Moor and Damien Perquis has impressed, while Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow have been huge at full-back; Beitashour has vaulted himself into the conversation of the best right-back in MLS.
The whole team, despite the offensive talent, plays a compact, organized style of soccer. They frustrate opponents with a tight shape and good 1v1 defending before providing viewers the dose of entertainment everybody wants by hitting that one incisive pass or making that one intricate skill-move before firing a fancy finish past a helpless goalkeeper with underrated efficiency. Coach Greg Vanney has developed this team into MLS Cup favorites at this point in the season.
Not all will be peachy the whole time, obviously, because this is MLS. Also, summer international tournaments will take the likes of Giovinco, Altidore, Bradley and others away for a few games, temporarily disrupting the rhythm of the club and slowing down whatever momentum they would have.
They'll get shocked some time—like FC Dallas was recently—and they'll learn a few lessons along the way, because that's how things work in this league. But they've put together a roster that has yet to be beaten, and, don't forget, they have the all-important luxury of all those home matches late in the season.
Don't get too overhyped about Toronto FC. Things change. But this team currently has the makings of a Supporters' Shield-winning side, and until someone figures out the secret to beating them, they will reign at the top of Major League Soccer.
All of this taking place at BMO Field, of course.
RBNY are back
There was a recent feature on MLSsoccer.com about the New York Red Bulls and how they use video analysis to hone their tactical craft, especially the high-press they employ. Coach Jesse Marsch uses film to point out intricate strategical details from previous games, as well as to perfect set piece routines. It's seems to be very important in the success of the Red Bulls, and, as he told MLS's Ben Baer, it is something they use a lot.
"It’s become almost a labor of love looking through these things and finding the little details that help our players understand how to get better," Marsch said in the article above.
Well, it has clearly been working, because RBNY have won each of their last two games in convincing fashion following a slow start to the season, including a 4-0 shellacking of FC Dallas last week. It hasn't exactly been smooth sailing in New Jersey, but things appear to be coming together for them.
It's hard to know whether they are back for real or whether those two wins—the first of which saw a crucial officiating blunder severely affect the result—are simply flukes, but we do know that things are considerably better for the Red Bulls.
For one, their gegenpressing tactic is working again. The suffocating pressure, which was crucial to their 2015 Supporters' Shield-winning campaign, needs organization, discipline and stamina, and all three have been there the last two weeks for New York. Also, the finishing has gotten considerably better, as Bradley Wright-Phillips seems to have gotten his touch back in front of goal. The attack is livelier as a result, and now they have scored seven goals in two games.
Defensive injuries were one of the main reasons why they got off to such a bad start, but with players like Gideon Baah, Ronald Zubar and Kemar Lawrence back healthy, that issue has been solved. They also acquired Aurelien Collin to help with depth on the backline, securing a major weakness.
They travel to Orlando on Friday in search of a third straight victory. Orlando City's Cyle Larin is a hassle for defenders and will be a serious test, while Kaka, who is expected to play after missing last weekend, will have to be dealt with in central midfield by Dax McCarty, RBNY's holding mid. OCSC are not an easy opponent, but New York at least have experience with them, beating them just two weeks ago.
Marsch will certainly find that video analysis helpful this week.
Compare and contrast
At one point earlier in the season, Sporting Kansas City were the team that everybody said was really good, and was consistently winning games against tough opponents. SKC were clicking, but recently they haven't been as successful, failing to win any of their previous five matches.
There are two main reasons for their recent failures, and coincidentally, they are also two of the problems plaguing their opponent on Saturday, the Houston Dynamo.
First, there is the lack of goal-scoring production on the wings. There are rivaling degrees of this difficulty for the two clubs, but the gist of it is that the wingers are not scoring goals, and it is affecting the overall production of the attack. In Kansas City, they have seen the offseason departure of Krisztian Nemeth—10 goals last season—bring down the offense.
They don't have the threat of a winger cutting in and causing havoc in the central channel anymore, allowing backlines to devote more defenders to forward Dom Dwyer, helping prevent Benny Feilhaber and Roger Espinoza from providing service to the number-nine. That's one of the reasons SKC have only scored four goals in five games.
Here's the wingers' passing chart in Zone 14 from their last match, a 1-1 draw with the LA Galaxy:
There's not enough incisiveness in the final third. The wingers—Brad Davis, Graham Zusi (who played on defense against LA), Jimmy Medranda, Justin Mapp—like to make their plays from closer to the touchline, whether it's a cross from Davis or Medranda taking defenders on 1v1.
It's not that the outside players have performed badly; it's that their styles of play haven't fit together with the rest of the roster. With the talent on this team, it's not a bad problem to have, so SKC fans should be confident that Peter Vermes will be able solve the issue soon.
Meanwhile, the Dynamo have an all together worse situation on their hands. Since Andrew Wenger's player of the week-caliber performance in week two, Owen Coyle hasn't seen any of his wingers produce much of anything in attack. In their recent run of five losses in six games (and just one point from 18 available), they have scored just three goals, a product of dysfunction throughout the entire roster.
Houston haven't found any sort of consistent production anywhere on the field, and that hasn't been as evident anywhere else as it has been on the wings. Wenger has played relatively well, but provides little attacking skill, and Leonel Miranda has a tendency to drift completely out of games. Giles Barnes was recently moved to striker from the wing, and has gotten almost no service in his two games there.
It's a problem that they have to fix, and while it's far from being their biggest issue, finding a solution could be huge in helping them turn their season around.
The second, and perhaps more important, factor in the two teams' recent struggles has been the position of defensive midfielder, again with each club in a different predicament.
Let's start with the Dynamo this time, as they have the much more serious and long-lasting problem at the position.
At the beginning of the season, Houston gave up 12 goals in three games. The defense was really, really disoriented, and much of that had to do with the lack of a defensive midfielder. A problem that they encountered last season, there was a serious disconnect between the backline and the midfield, and it played a definite role in their propensity to give up a lot of goals.
Coyle took a step to rectify things against Columbus Crew SC, when he played Collen Warner—acquired from Toronto FC before the season started—as a lone-number-six in a 4-1-4-1. The formation was broken up and Warner was taken out early on when goalkeeper Tyler Deric set the Dynamo down a man, but they played a similar lineup the next week against Real Salt Lake, and it showed signs of improvement.
But Warner is no Diego Chara or Scott Caldwell, or even Wil Trapp. He often becomes simply a body in the midfield, and struggles to break up attacks by cutting off passes or tackling the ball off opponents. The problem is far from solved.
Sporting have a solid defensive midfielder in Soni Mustivar, but he has been injured recently, and they don't have a viable replacement. Lawrence Olum doesn't come close to the Haiti-international, and while Nuno Coelho played fine against the Galaxy, he is better and more valuable at center-back. Mustivar's distribution skills and underrated defensive contributions make him crucial for this team, and they have seriously missed him in his absence.
These two floundering sides meet in Kansas City on Saturday. Make sure to keep an eye on how they adapt to the above problems.