MLS Little Things: Unnecessary Skill Moves, Farrell's Feet & Columbus

We take a look at the Columbus Crew, Toronto FC, New England’s Andrew Farrell, and an unexpected Maradona move in this week’s MLS Little Things from FloFC. 

Columbus, needing a bit more

The Crew entered the weekend first in the Eastern Conference. They lost that title on Saturday after a choppy 1-0 loss to the Montreal Impact, the preeminent choppy team in MLS. 

The defeat exposed critical flaws. Columbus didn’t have enough in the attacking third to make things difficult for the Impact, and once Montreal started pressing in the second half, the Crew faltered. 

Columbus are good and organized enough to offset attacking minuses. That has been their entire M.O. for years. Federico Higuain is a legitimate star, but he is 34 and declining, no longer able to carry the ship. Overcoming the lack of difference-makers is growing harder and harder.

A lot of things are the same in Columbus. The straightforward 4-2-3-1, with full backs masquerading forward and Wil Trapp dictating, and the 4-4-2 defensive shape, concealing Higuain’s defensive deficiencies, are holdovers from the Gregg Berhalter era. It has worked for much of the early season. But it is reasonable to question whether they have enough in attack to stick in the Eastern Conference, which has only one truly bad team and two sleeping giants. There is a vacuum at the top of the conference, and only D.C. United look good enough to stay on top for the rest of the season.

Higuain’s decline, by the way, is starting to become a thing. He had a quiet six goals and nine assists in 2,380 minutes last year, and has yet to score this year in 612 minutes. His xBuildup and xGoalChain figures, measuring how often he is involved in threatening attacks, are his worst per 96 minutes in the American Soccer Analysis database, which dates to 2015. He’s on the ball less, with his lowest touch percentage in ASA’s database, and lacks the on-goal production of prior years.

He is 34, so this is expected. The Crew will have difficult decisions to make after this season, as Higuain’s contract is up. Replacing him requires scouting and signing a new attacker, which Columbus have evidently struggled to do in recent years. 

In the meantime, Columbus hope to stick around in the East.

Move your feet, Andrew Farrell!

Hector Villalba thoroughly skinned Farrell on Saturday.

Farrell has quietly done well to improve his game as a consistent, versatile MLS starter over the years. He’s slimmed down, upped his agility, and refined his defensive game. Playing 30 matches every year since 2013 is something only a small handful of MLS players can boast. Credit to the Revs for trusting him. 

But he was too slow against Atlanta, and Villalba consistently had his number. The Revs’ midfield did its center backs no favors, but Farrell has to learn to at least deter faster attackers. On the above play, Farrell doesn’t do anything to slow down Villalba—it’s like he’s moving in slow motion, banking on Villalba to slow down with him.

That is not the greatest formula for success. 

Toronto FC are willing to exchange goals with you

TFC are developing a satisfying, if not ideal, identity: they will score a ton and attack with flair, but ship goals on the other end. An average of 4.4 total goals are scored in their games, one of the highest averages in MLS. They are a fun team.

Their 3-2 loss to the Sounders in Seattle came after a flurry of second-half goals and a pair of Alejandro Pozuelo-Jozy Altidore combinations, offset by the Sounders waltzing through TFC’s backline with little issue. It was perfectly emblematic of what Toronto are at this point.

One of the best elements of this TFC team is their ability to play in tight spaces. It is impressive watching Pozuelo, Altidore, Jonathan Osorio, Michael Bradley, and the rest exchanging clever passes with each other all over the field. They are completely willing to do stuff like this all game:

It seems simple, but Toronto tire defenders and drag them out of position with this kind of possession. They did this before Pozuelo arrived, and it was a feature of the great TFC teams of yore, but the new Spanish DP ups the quotient significantly. Pozuelo is always trying this stuff, bouncing everywhere and combining with all of his teammates. He is different from Sebastian Giovinco in that way.

Once TFC’s possession enters the attacking third, they pile numbers forward and keep it up. Justin Morrow is at the heart of it from his wingback position. They often end up beaten on the other end, but they stack up the goals.

This team could win every game 3-2 (instead of losing them by the same score) with another high-caliber attacker.

Unnecessary skill moves

I don’t know why Jan Gregus pulled a Maradona out of nowhere, but I can’t be mad at it:

It did not work, evidently. He emerged from a sideline scrap with his back to goal and some space, with Ozzie Alonso standing open in the midfield, and decided he might as well try something. It was actually a valid attempt, considering the room he had in the direction the move would take him and how open Alonso appeared. A sprinting, sliding Alexander Ring disrupted it. I certainly respect the effort.

This was not the most important takeaway from Minnesota United’s wacky Allianz Field debut, but it’s not the least important one, either.

Harrison Hamm is a sportswriter who covers American soccer and MLS for FloFC. He also covers sports for FanSided and The Comeback, and has freelanced for the Washington Post.

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