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Things we learned from MLS Week 4

In Week 4, we got a more changes to the perceived best group of teams in MLS, and learned a few things about those perceived to be among the worst.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

1. FC Dallas, Vancouver Whitecaps and the New York Red Bulls are the teams to beat after Week 4

It's pretty easy to spot the hottest teams in the league after four games: they're at the top of the standings.

This column continues to avoid power rankings, but if it were to indulge, the top of the rankings would look exactly like the top three teams in the Supporters' Shield table at the moment.

FCD is the top team in the league: it has played four and won three, and the points it dropped this week were in the context of going a man down against Seattle in the first half. The Sounders huffed and puffed, but couldn't land a single shot on target. Nor could FCD, for that matter. The match ended 0-0.

It wasn't a game for those who tune into soccer for its aesthetic charm, but it was last year's best (Seattle) in the league against this year's early challenger for the title. Both teams were missing many of their best players, primarily due to international call ups, but FCD's rearguard defense of a clean sheet is sufficient to suggest the team is legitimately tough to beat.

Second-in-the-table Vancouver pulled off a narrow victory for the third week in a row. There comes a point when one must stop regarding team as lucky and start to consider it may have particular virtues that allow it to shade close contests. In the 'Caps' case, this week's 2-1 win over Portland illustrated the team's strengths: indefatigable defending (Portland had more possession and more shots; Vancouver didn't win a corner for the whole game); outstanding goalkeeping (David Ousted's career highlight reel will feature many clips from this match); opportunistic attacking (one brilliant pass and a calm finish in the 90th minute sealed all three points).

The 'Caps haven't lost since opening day, and currently have the longest active winning streak in the league.

And then there is RBNY. The New York Red Bulls went to Columbus and beat what had appeared to be the best team in the Eastern Conference at the moment: the Crew. It was a slender victory - 2-1 - with both sides able to create good opportunities. Federico Higuain's red card in the 83rd minute stalled the Crew's effort to force a late equalizer, but to suggest the Red Bulls got lucky in Columbus is to fail to understand what the team has been doing since the season began.

Jesse Marsch is implementing a new system of play, one that relies heavily on high pressing and seeks to have the midfield rotate in and out of the attack, using Bradley Wright-Phillips more as as a fulcrum than a target. The coach has little choice but to keep the players working at the new tactics, because if he wants them to be established then they need to be given ample opportunity for the players to figure them out.

So in all three of RBNY's games this season, Marsch has set his team up the same way, with minor adjustments to the lineup based on player availability and occasional consideration of the perceived strengths or weaknesses of the opponent. Each game so far has appeared to show that the team is gradually improving, figuring out how to execute the coach's plan and gaining increased understanding of each other's tendencies and preferences in the new system.

In Columbus, the two goals scored illustrated quite how disciplined the players have been in adhering to their coach's instructions, and how effective those instructions can be when executed well. RBNY's opening goal was a penalty, but it was incurred by a situation the team hopes to create several times a game: BWP running at the defense with passing options spread out before him. Last week, against D.C. United, he picked out Lloyd Sam and Sam scored. This week, he picked out Sam again, and the winger was hacked down in the box. Penalty: 1-0 to RBNY.

The second goal was all about the high press: BWP forced a turnover high up the field and pushed the ball forward for Mike Grella to chase. Grella, who had been scoring some impressive goals in preseason, chipped over 'keeper Steve Clark from 25 yards.

These are the situations Marsch wants his team to find itself in, and the outcomes he hopes they will combine to deliver.

So far, so good. RBNY has played fewer games than both FCD and Vancouver, and - unlike both those teams - it hasn't won three in a row this season. So it hasn't necessarily earned the right to be considered in better form than either of the teams above it in the table. But it is undefeated, top of the Eastern Conference at the end of March, and one of three clubs in MLS that can be completely satisfied with the opening month of their 2015 season.

2. Chicago can win

The Fire entered Week 4 of MLS 2015 as close to crisis as it is possible to get so early in the season. It had lost three games in a row to start the year, and was therefore the first (and is still the only) team to accumulate three regular season losses.

Not an auspicious start, especially since it somehow contrived to be worse than the Fire's awful start to 2014: no wins through the first eight games (but only two losses). Last year delivered only six wins to Chicago, as the team proved susceptible to long streaks of futility (two stretches of eight matches without a win and one six-game winless run is enough to kill any team's season).

The squad was overhauled in the off-season, but initial results suggested - implausibly - the team had managed to get worse. A 1-0 win over a deeply troubled Philadelphia side that couldn't land a shot on target does not mean the Fire is transformed into a title contender. But at least it has proved to itself and its fans that the side that delivered 18 draws in 2014 can defend a narrow lead and close out a game to secure three points.

Fluency and confidence come later. All Chicago needed this week was a win, and that is what it got.

3. Pressure on Philadelphia

The Union has a problem. It arrived in Chicago as one of six teams in MLS without a win in the new season, and left as one of four winless clubs. The number of teams yet to take three points from one game is dwindling, and as that number reduces, the excuses for those yet to win are also reduced.

In the Union's case, the pressure is compounded by a couple of factors. First, the lingering narrative of 2014: Philly won just one of its final seven games of last season; the memory of this team is that it isn't good - the slow start does nothing to challenge that notion.

Second, Philly seems to have the least consolation of the four teams yet to find a win in 2015. Colorado has drawn 0-0 for three consecutive games: it can at least consider itself defensively solid. Also, two of the Rapids first three matches have been on the road - draws on the road are part of the win-at-home-tie-away formula that pretty much any team in MLS would be delighted with over the course of a full season. If Colorado wins its next game, at home against New England Revolution, we may see a radical shift in the perception of the Rapids' current status.

Montreal has two points from three matches, but it also has one foot in the CONCACAF Champions League final. If L'Impact manages to contest the regional club championship, a slow start in the league will be irrelevant.

Portland definitely has issues, but it just lost its first game of the season this week (to Vancouver). And that was the second match of the year to date in which the team has coughed up a goal in the final minutes - so it's arguably an unfortunate bounce or two away from being a lot better than three points from four games suggests.

The Timbers will also point out they had the better of their first two matches (0-0 vs Real Salt Lake and 2-2 vs LA Galaxy), and were denied more goals in their most recent outing by some great goalkeeping.

As for the Union, the team did boss Colorado in its opening match and did put three goals past RSL in Salt Lake. But it hasn't scored since visiting Utah, and hasn't kept a clean sheet since opening day. The trajectory appears to be downward, and each game brings fresh problems.

Against Chicago, the Union was without the services of Zach Pfeffer (suspended), who was himself deputizing for Cristian Maidana (injured). And Fred picked up a red card - and suspension - against the Fire to create further midfield depth issues. A team that has trouble scoring also isn't assisted by having two forwards on the injury list (Conor Casey and CJ Sapong); and its defensive issues weren't helped by the injury Sheanon Williams sustained against Dallas in Week 3, which kept him out of this week's game.

It is, of course, very early in the season. The good news for any team that has started the year in a slump is that it is only couple of positive results away from a change in perception. After all, the team's currently regarded as "good" have only strung a handful of encouraging results together. Everything can flip around in April. The advantage of being the bottom team in the league at the end of March is that the only way is up for the second month of the season.

4. It's possible NYC FC is lying again, but it's not at all clear why that is important

NYC FC plays on a small field at Yankee Stadium. This has been known for some time, although the club has steadfastly maintained it has carved out dimensions of 70 yards by 110 yards from the space afforded by landlords and part-owners, the New York Yankees. That is small by MLS standards, but not unprecedented: visiting teams were complaining about the 70 x 110 yard pitch Portland played on in 2011.

This week, the Daily News reported the field at Yankee Stadium is not even 70 x 110 yards, as previously believed. Or rather, it reported that Peter Vermes, head coach of Sporting Kansas City, believes the field dimensions to be 68 yards by 106 yards. In support of this claim, there is the fact Peter Vermes spends a lot of time hanging around soccer fields. Also, the pitch at Yankee Stadium looks smaller than most around MLS, especially since Portland Timbers expanded the width of its notoriously cramped field to 75 yards.

In opposition to the suggestion: NYC FC says different, and what reason do we have to doubt the word of...oh. Good point.

Does it matter in particular that NYC FC plays on a small field? No.

Field size has a bearing on the tactics the team will tend to use, and the way visiting teams will set up when they come to play. Vermes was speaking in the context of coaching the first away team to win a competitive match against NYC FC in Yankee Stadium - and suggesting the narrow field made it easier for Matt Besler's long throw to reach a dangerous position in the penalty area (the service from which Ike Opara scored the game's only and winning goal).

Field size will affect the style of play and amplify the effect of some tactical decisions while muting others. Soccer is a many-splendored game, a little variety in field dimensions is part of what keeps the game interesting. Sensible coaches will include field size in their preparations: Vermes said KC had been training on a narrow pitch prior to playing NYC FC.

Except, the Daily News also reported that dimensions of 68 x 106 yards would violate "FIFA and MLS standards". That does put Vermes's comments in a different light. Is NYC FC violating the laws of the game?

Not really. If MLS has rules governing field dimensions, they are not readily accessible. FIFA's regulations on the acceptable measurements of a soccer pitch are, however, very easy to find - and they suggest there isn't anything wrong with a 68 x 106 yard field.

Only international matches are held to the 70 x 110 yard standard held up as FIFA's required dimensions. So while NYC FC might be infringing on a rule the league has implemented (one benefit of saying all fields must meet FIFA's standard for international games is, of course, it means all fields used by MLS clubs could potentially host international matches), it isn't infringing on any FIFA regulations: NYC FC is not a country; if NYC FC wants a narrow field, it can have a narrow field.

Of course, since the Lampard affair, it is all too easy to believe NYC FC might shave a few yards off its field without officially mentioning it. And it does the club no favors that it allowed a very easily settled question to be put into print with the line "nobody from the media has been permitted on to the field to measure the dimensions." Filip Bondy from the Daily News wants to measure your pitch - is this a big deal?

C'mon NYC FC. Your pitch is small, we can all see this, but you're not breaking any significant rule of the game. If MLS has a regulation in place that its playing fields must meet FIFA's standard for international matches, that is laudable but also very easy to change. And 68 x 106 yards is entirely within the broader laws of the game governing non-international matches.

As a club with a credibility problem, is it really a big deal to let Filip Bondy loose on your field with a tape measure? Because either the field is 70 yards wide and this isn't an issue, or it's not and still isn't really an issue. Loosen up, NYC FC: you really have nothing to lose here. "Small pitch a little smaller than first thought" isn't much of story, but if that's what the Daily News wants to report, why not let it investigate?

5. Wondo edges closer to his 100

The San Jose Earthquakes handed New England Revolution its first win of the season in Week 4. The Revs returned the favor by conceding a penalty in the second half to allow Chris Wondolowski to score his third goal of the season.

The goal was the 96th of Wondo's career in MLS regular season matches. This season, he is expected to become just the ninth player in the league's history to reach the milestone of 100 career goals, and the Revs' generosity made it just a touch more likely that the historic moment might occur sooner rather than later, and at home.

The Quakes play three of four games at home in April. Wondo has three goals from four appearances this season, but three of those matches were on the road. The second month of the 2015 is San Jose's chance to settle in to its new stadium, and Wondo's opportunity to further settle in to MLS's record books.