By Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21)
Tyler Adams and the New York Red Bulls Under Chris Armas
Tyler Adams, who is two months younger than Kylian Mbappe, is on the verge of becoming a world-class soccer player. After this season, when he (probably) joins Jesse Marsch at RB Leipzig, he will be placed directly on that track.
Already, he’s one of MLS’ best midfielders. His touch percentage of 10.5 percent shows how important he is to the Red Bulls’ system. He fits perfectly into what they want to do — he covers ground, controls himself well in space and wins the ball when he has to.
Adams is not so much a deep distributor as he is a connector. The Red Bulls are one of the most direct teams in the league, so Adams and Sean Davis passing the ball around in midfield is not of particular use to them. Rather, the midfield duo is tasked with supporting attackers who on the ball a lot. Attacking midfielder Kaku has a similar touch percentage as Adams, and winger Florian Valot (who is out for the season but played 1,212 minutes), has a higher one.
Under Chris Armas, whose biggest individual stamp on the team since taking over for Marsch has been a mandate for more passing and possession, Adams’s role has changed slightly. He is more active on the ball higher up the field, and the Red Bulls are focusing on generating more chances from sustained possession — their well-known struggles against bunkered opposition legitimize Armas’s instructions.
Here are Adams’s passing maps from their July 1 win over Toronto FC, with Marsch at the helm and Saturday’s 3-2 win over Sporting KC, Armas’s second game in charge: :
Armas’s instructions are being implemented. The Red Bulls were already third in MLS with 325 short passes per game, but they were easily first with 68 inaccurate short passes per game, indicating many of those short passes came in higher-leverage (read: closer to goal) situations. That fits their direct attacking reputation. Against SKC, they completed 356 short passes with 47 inaccurate short passes.
It's a small sample size, sure. But Armas’s stamp on the team has been clear. It will be interesting to see how well they play with these new adjustments.
The Perils of Playing without a Defensive Midfielder
Credit to MLSsoccer.com’s Bobby Warshaw for his analysis of LAFC’s unique midfield:
It’s true: LAFC have been using Benny Feilhaber, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Lee Nguyen as their three central midfielders, a system devoid of a dedicated number six. Every other team in recent MLS history that has tried that didn’t have a player capable of doing the d-mid job, and it blew up in their faces (Minnesota and San Jose are teams that come to mind). But it’s been working for LA. The three rotate well and cover ground sufficiently enough that the dedicated attackers are free to, you know, attack. Bob Bradley has done a fantastic job.
There was one sequence in that otherwise quiet 0-0 draw with Portland on Sunday that stood out as an example of the system’s disadvantages:
Defensive midfielders are there to break up plays, close gaps and win second balls so defenders don’t have to. Keeping the backline in place, and thus preventing open runs in behind, is the core reason for the existence of the d-mid. In the clip above, no one was strong to the ball, and Diego Valeri had too easy of a route through LA’s shape.
Most damagingly, Laurent Ciman had to come out of the backline to break up a pass, opening pathways in behind. Ciman’s ventures out of the center back position, although not always due to a lack of solidity in midfield, have become a consistent problem for LA this season. Above, Valeri ultimately ended up with a quality shot.
Managing this, and determining how far to go with it, will be one of Bradley’s biggest jobs this season.
Collen Warner and Minnesota United
Speaking of the importance of a defensive midfielder: Minnesota United has gone 2-3-0 in their past five games, all five of which have featured Collen Warner playing as a number six. They were 4-7-1 in the 12 games before that did not feature Warner heavily (they beat Orlando 2-1 in March with him on the field for most of the second half). Jeff Reuter of The Athletic looked at Warner’s influence recently (published as I wrote this section of the article!) and noted his efficient passing percentage in the middle third of the field (83 percent) and the work Warner did against Jefferson Savarino and RSL on Saturday, a game Minnesota won 3-2. Minnesota are still conceding goals, to the tune of 12 in those five games. That is not great. But Darwin Quintero is singlehandedly winning them games, and it helps to have Warner playing d-mid competently.
Remember that two years ago, when the Owen Coyle-Wade Barrett Houston Dynamo were languishing in the depths of the Western Conference, Warner provided a similar dose of competence to a team without a d-mid. Houston let the MLS veteran leave in the expansion draft, and he went 90 every week during the Loons’ terrible start to their MLS existence.
Warner is no savior, nor is he a long-term answer. Minnesota have the worst xGA per game in MLS, at 1.88, and in their last five games, their xGA per game is 1.84, not exactly an improvement. That includes giving up 3.02 xG (and three goals) to the Colorado Rapids on June 23.
But credit to Adrian Heath for finding a capable answer to a problem that has plagued the Loons for months.
Chad Marshall has eyes in the back of his head
This is a small, somewhat inconsequential thing, but I loved this Chad Marshall flick-on header on a set piece against Atlanta United.
He sees the ball coming towards him, backs up so as to place himself directly in its path, and lets it lightly brush off his head to teammate Victor Rodriguez, knowing exactly where Rodriguez is. A smart, veteran play, and also a very satisfying gif to watch.
Ignore the little stat that Fox has in the corner of the screen, saying that Seattle have not scored a goal in the first 15 minutes of a game. The Sounders have 1.20 xG per game, second to last in MLS. But they are significantly underperforming in that department (they have 0.89 goals per game), so hope remains.
Seattle will play Cascadia rivals Vancouver next week, hoping to build on their impressive point.