While MLS still has its fair share of issues, the one thing you have to give it credit for is that during the regular season, the league rewards teams that just say, “Fuck it, it’s free cake.” They don’t generally live on in history, because wonky defensive teams get found out by the extremely callous and punitive MLS playoffs, where one or two defensive lapses will end your season. And those playoffs are why regular season accomplishments are rarely celebrated, or even remembered.
Take the New England Revolution. With three matches to play, they need one win to tie the all-time points record in a season of 72. One win and a tie will break it. They’ve lost one match in their last 17 in the league. They’ve scored 10 more goals than anyone else. And yet, you won’t find too many MLS insiders picking them to hoist MLS Cup in six weeks or so, because of just how entertaining they are.
Last night was a perfect example of just what the Revs are. They beat DC United, 3-2. They gave up 20 shots, nine of them on target. The game before that, a 2-2 draw with one of the league’s farm runoffs in Chicago, they gave up 16 shots and five on target. Previous to that, a 4-1 win over Montreal, one of the better teams in the East, they gave up 16 chances and seven shots on target, 19 overall.
New England can do this — be willing to trade shots and chances back and forth — because they have the most terrifying frontline in the league. Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou, and Adam Buksa have combined for 33 goals and 21 assists. Manager Bruce Arena has never been one to believe in “tactics,” or “plans,” and has always just preferred to get the ball to his forwards and just “do shit.” So New England can not play all that well, but the three up top will still do stuff like this. Or this. Or this.
Gil is the facilitator, playing as a genuine No. 10. He was a leading MVP candidate before missing all of August with injury issues, and he has mostly toyed with the league when healthy and playing. He still leads the league in expected assists per 90 minutes, and is lapping the field when it comes to shot-creating actions per 90 (passes, dribbles, or drawing fouls). He’s at 8.21 per 90. The second-placed player is 6.72. That’s the same difference between 2nd and 11th (all stats from FBREF.com).
Buksa and Bou have split 29 goals between them, the clear beneficiaries of Gil’s work. Though they play as a partnership, Buksa is more of the battering ram, center forward, with Bou running off of and around him through the channels.
All three are designated players, and MLS is just about the last bastion of a true No. 10 like Gil. Maybe it’s because of a lack of genuine defensive midfielders, or the pace of the league still leaving tons of space in midfield for them to do their work. Either way, looking around the standings and you’ll see teams led by the attacking midfielder/withdrawn striker. Nashville, second to New England in the East, is led by Hany Mukhtar. Orlando has Nani, who has moved in off the wing. Seattle plays with basically two No. 10s in Raul Ruidiaz and Cristian Roldan. Kansas City has the leading MVP candidate in Daniel Salloi, who starts nominally on the left of a front three but takes up space in the middle most of the time.
MLS teams to pile up this many points have always been offensively dominant. LAFC’s 2019 whirlwind currently holds the record, which they got through manager Bob Bradley’s seeming 4-0-6 formation and Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi treating the league’s defenders like a marrow bone.
But these kinds of teams tend to come undone in the playoffs, especially now that they’re back to simple one-offs instead of over two legs. That LAFC team got coldcocked by Seattle that was able to hold them out for long enough for their counterattacks to simply rip through the midfield that LAFC basically abandoned on a nightly basis.
New England is hardly any more defensively solid than that LAFC team. Their 38 goals against is only sixth-best in the East, and 10th best in MLS. Their 40.6 xGA is 12th. Their post-shot xGA, which measures the type of chances they give up, is 17th.
Their path to MLS Cup might have to go through both NYCFC and Nashville, the two most miserly MLS teams when it comes to what they give up. And you can’t exactly count on Arena to come up with some tactical masterplan to overcome any of this, as anyone who watched the last U.S. World Cup qualifying circle can tell you through their rage-tears.
But hey, sometimes you just gotta damn the torpedoes, and hope your forwards that have done so much catch another heater for a few games. Stranger things have happened. Which is basically MLS’s mantra.