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The Big Picture: Best of the West, Acosta and KC cookin’

Massive Report’s Josh Mlot and Nathaniel Marhefka discuss thoughts from Week 9 of MLS

MLS: Sporting KC at FC Dallas Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

We are through nine weeks of the Major League Soccer season. Wondering how things are developing? Massive Report’s Josh Mlot and Nathaniel Marhefka are here to give you a glimpse into the rest of the MLS ecosystem, outside of the Columbus Crew SC universe.

Here are some of their thoughts on what they saw in Week 9...

JOSH

What I watched: Other than the Columbus game, I took in Toronto FC vs. Houston Dynamo (2-0), FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers (2-2), Sporting Kansas City vs. Real Salt Lake (3-0), LA Galaxy vs. Philadelphia Union (0-0) and Atlanta United vs. D.C. United (1-3).

Why I watched: The Dallas-Portland matchup was just flat-out juicy. TFC-Houston had the potential for some goals, I thought, and are two teams that interest me tactically. SKC-RSL has some rivalry edge and are two teams that feel to me like they're in the process of finding themselves (for better or worse), so I was interested in seeing their development. Galaxy-Union ... well, it was at a time I had two free hours, and it's like a car crash you can't turn away from. And on Sunday I showed up for some ATLU fun and got something wholly unexpected but entertaining.

What I noticed: I noticed some of the things you told me about TFC last week (positive things). I get what Houston is trying to do with the diamond midfield, but I'm not sure I love it for them. We expected FCD to be the real deal, but I think Portland is proving it's legit for the long haul. I'm crushing hard on Kansas City. It's the ultimate schadenfreude moment with Los Angeles right now. And ... ay dios mio, Luciano!

NATHANIEL

What I watched: Besides the Columbus Crew match, I also was able to catch FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers, and Sporting Kansas City vs. Real Salt Lake.

Why I watched: Firstly, the Portland Timbers vs. FC Dallas match was the one match of the weekend that I was really looking forward to. Portland has been very fun to watch and Dallas has been very convincing in the early-goings of the season. For the Sporting Kansas City match, I was almost certain that SKC was going to pull through with the victory but was once again looking to see how RSL responded to such a tough defense (especially since they have had offensive question marks in my books).

What I noticed: Fenando Adi again proved to be a constant threat in front of the opponent's goal. This match, he grabbed a goal and an assist. With that, Portland was once again efficient with only seven shots. FC Dallas showed resilience by grabbing a tying goal late in the match. These two teams are the teams to beat in the west ... But there is also SKC. Who was insanely impressive in their win against RSL. Once again proving to be a defensive powerhouse, again shutting out their opponent. Their team defending is phenomenal. Gerso Fernandes was particularly impressive for me this match, with much of the creative outlets coming form a reborn Benny Feilhaber.


Discuss...

NATE: You said you saw a lot of positive from Toronto FC. What was it that impress you? Was Jozy as impressive as the boxscore suggests?

JOSH: Jozy just did his thing. He combines with Sebastian Giovinco so well near the top of the box and creates so much space. Even when people have enjoyed bashing Jozy Altidore, I’ve always appreciated what he does. But to me it’s just how all the pieces fit.

It’s so clear that players understand their role in Greg Vanney’s system. i think Vincent Vasquez has been a very good addition, with the way he links in attacking play, and Raheem Edwards was the best player on the field at some points. And those are two guys that weren’t on the field last year for an MLS Cup finalist.

It will be interesting to ssee what they do if/when they’re full strength in the back — do they move Justin Morrow out wide again at the expense of Edwards?

That’s basically what I took away there — it’s always going to be hard for any team to really stand head and shoulders above everyone else in MLS, but TFC is pretty good. And Seba has clearly found himself.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Toronto FC
Raheem “The Dream” Edwards
Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

N: I have a hard time believing that they would dump Edwards. He has just been too good. One of my favorite new talents in the league.

Now to my biggest but simplest question: What happened to Atlanta United? I thought D.C. United was ... horrible.

J: I don’t think D.C. is terrible. But that alone doesn’t explain this game. Atlanta could have led 2- or 3-0 within the first 10 minutes, but it wasn’t clinical enough. Then we saw its weakness, with DCU preying on Atlanta’s willingness to get up the field. D.C. just countered back hard and finished its chances. Bill Hamid also made some big saves, and we saw peak Luciano Acosta. This was the player that can be a star in MLS and that almost singlehandedly can change the way DCU plays.

For Atlanta, there’s a guy like Leandro Gonzalez Pirez on the back line, who has shown how adept (and bold) he is on the ball, but maybe leaves cracks sometimes. And without Jeff Larentowicz, there’s less of a shield in place and less experience.

It’s also interesting that we see some of the expansion-ness of ATL with its bench. There’s so much attacking talent in the starting 11, but when they need a spark late, who do they go to? That’s a little different when Josef Martinez is healthy and they have that extra attacking body, but the question is still worth pondering. The bench doesn’t scare anyone.

N: A great point you make about Atlanta’s depth. And, possibly, an argument about MLS in general, but we can leave that for another day.

It sounds like DC capitalized on Atlanta’s weakness with resolve. We’ll see if this game picks up their form this season.

J: So how about the battle of two of the best in the West? This was more open than many expected, but that’s MLS — it almost always finds a way to play against expectations. What was your takeaway from the Dallas-Portland game?

N: For me it was a game of two commanding halves, by two commanding teams. The first was Portland’s, as it looked the better side and went on the scoreboard early. The second went to FC Dallas, as it found solid answers after halftime. Overall, the game was rather sloppy due to the pitch and the weather.

An interesting note for Crew SC fans is that once-homesick right back Hernan Grana gave the helper on the final goal by Tesho Akindele to tie the game at 2.

J: I thought it was interesting because both teams kind of showed exactly what makes them good.

Maxi Urruti’s goal was one of my favorite of the weekend. I’ve always felt he’s underappreciated by the average fan. I love watching how he creates out of pure defensive work.

I know you’ve been singing Sebastian Blanco’s praises all season, Nate. I thought this was his best game of the year, though having more responsibility thrust on him with Diego Valeri out certainly shined the spotlight more.

It’s just interesting to see the Timbers keep on keeping on. It’s still very early, but we’ve seen them miss both Adi and Valeri, and they still put up multiple goals. Meanwhile, Columbus doesn’t have Federico Higuain on the field for a game and the attack struggles. I think the same would go if Justin Meram or Ola Kamara were out. Yet somehow Portland doesn’t seem to skip a beat, even without a player I would argue deserves legend status in MLS.

And as far as Grana goes, I’ve moved on. I don’t even really think of him as former Crew anymore. That whole “homesick” thing was weird, but it’s hard to believe there wasn’t some sort of failing by the club as well in that situation. So I’m over it. Though watching him flub a couple moments for Dallas in CONCACAF Champion’s League might have helped make me feel better.

N: I like your take on Grana. And I, too, have an affection for Urruti. I think he has been quite the underrated player in MLS for several years.

What did you think of the struggle in Los Angeles? It featured two of the league’s struggling teams and ended in a not-too-thrilling 0-0 scoreline. Was the game as rough as the score suggests?

Also, we’ve talked about LA a bit, but less about Philly. What do you think is going on with the Union?

J: That’s what we should have expected from these two teams right now, right? A scoreless draw?

LA outplayed Philly, but the Union will be happy to take a point home. Honestly, days later, I don’t recall any immense impressions from the game, so that should tell you something.

I think Philly has a couple of problems. No. 1, I just don’t think they got better from last year, and in this league if you’re not getting better it’s easy to get worse, because other teams will improve. I think Philly has some issues down the spine. Richie Marquez is a vet, but there’s not a good, strong partnership there. And there’s no backbone in the defensive midfield.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Los Angeles Galaxy
Not sure what you guys are smiling about...
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Madunjanin (I’ll pat myself on the back for spelling that right before looking it up) is still settling in to MLS, I think, and maybe trying to do too much? Again, i think part of that is partnership. I don’t believe Alejandro Bedoya is est suited for that deeper-lying role, even if he does put in the work.

I’ll admit to not being an expert on Medunjanin and not watching him week in and week out, but he strikes me as a mobile guy but maybe not a guy who can shield a defense on his own, and right now the back line needs shielding. Throw in that some of the attacking players aren’t having as good a year as last year (C.J. Sapong aside), and it all turns into a step back.

We can wrap things up with the Sporting-RSL game.

For me, this is all about the quality of SKC. I’ve been an admirer of Peter Vermes for a while, but I really, really enjoy watching this team right now, even if they’re not at the top of the list for entertaining sides. I just appreciate how they do things and the individual pieces that come together.

Roger Espinoza is another guys who I think goes a little under the radar for the casual fan (maybe I’m wrong about that, when Benny Feilhaber is being Benny it’s so fun to watch, and Ilie Sanchez has been really good in that midfield. He’s smart positionally and good at making the simple pass to move things up the field. Dom Dwyer is just a sparkplug, and this was Gerso’s best game. The team defends so well, and then the way those players connect allows for quick, often stunning, buildup into the attack.

N: I think you explain very well how they’ve been able to be successful this season. I will be honest, I had questioned Vermes in the past, but I think that was largely due to personnel decisions rather than tactical or technical. I think he has finally gotten the former correct, and is reaping the benefits.

Let’s just hope the key pieces stay healthy, otherwise I questions the team’s chances of sustaining things. Until then, they might just be the best team in the league in my eyes.

J: Most teams’ success depends on health. Except Portland’s, apparently.

But SKC is so good defensively — both individually and as a team (although I think Graham Zusi can be exposed defensively at times) that it’s going to be hard for anyone to break them down, especially at home. And I think that defensive quality is what allows the Zusi experiment to work — even if he falters, it’s only a dent, not a hole. And he played some great attacking balls against RSL.

N: The Zusi experiment has been fun to watch and has worked as well. Like you said, the defensive stability of this team is really what gives it the edge, and defense wins championships, right?


THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU MISSED

N: Maxi Urruti's terrific work rate and defensive effort took a turnover into a brilliant individual​ goal:

J: I’m going to go outside-the-box with this. There was a moment in the TFC-Houston game where Giovinco was Giovincoing and I literally yelled out loud at my TV, “STOP IT!” I went and found that moment. It turned into nothing, but it doesn’t matter:

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

N: Sebastian Blanco against FC Dallas. He was absolutely brilliant in the match, and proved he can take Valeri's playmaker role which is not an easy task.

J: Seattle probably deserves some recognition for a ridiculous comeback we didn’t even talk about. But I’m going to go with Luciano “El Bicho de Agua” Acosta (Yes, I just bestowed the nickname “The Waterbug” on him, and mangled some Spanish in the process).

The game highlights are basically a string of Acosta moments (goal, dancing, assist):

HYPE TRAIN

N: DC United is going to win the cup ... Graham Zusi is going to find a time machine so he can play more of his career at right back ... Seattle will take a three-goal handicap every week and still make the playoffs ... Alan Gordon — not Colorado’s savior ... Andrew Jacobson is going to have a late-career Men's National Team run.

J: Luciano Acosta and Sebastian Giovinco will have a West Side Story-style duel ... Raheem Edwards becomes known as Raheem “The Dream” Edwards ... LA Galaxy goes the way of Chivas USA ... Peter Vermes will lead the USMNT to a World Cup title.

BASED ON WHAT YOU SAW THIS WEEK, PROJECT CREW SC’S FINAL STANDING

N: Somewhere above Philadelphia and below Orlando

J: Who cares, as long as Guillermo Barros Schelotto doesn’t go coach LAFC

LIFE FOR THE GALAXY RIGHT NOW, SUMMED UP IN SEVEN SECONDS