Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Armas out, Austin find the gas & more from Week 11

We’ve had our first coaching casualty of the season. Let’s start there:

The Hope that Kills You

D.C. United set an MLS record on Saturday night in a 7-1 drubbing of visiting Toronto FC. As per MLS Communications, the game “marked the first time in MLS history there were seven different goalscorers for a team in a single game, in 6,308 regular season games all-time.”

That is very good. And what has to be very encouraging for Hernan Losada & Co. is that a number of the goals scored by D.C. — especially the ones that came early in the game, and there were lots that came early in the game since United were up 2-0 inside of 10 minutes and the contest achieved full blowout status when a Reds own-goal made it 3-0 in the 21st minute — came from Losada’s blueprint.

That blueprint says to hit opponents with the chaos hammer. Losada encourages what has elsewhere been branded as energy drink soccer, and while it bore a stronger resemblance to demolition derby in April and May, it really has evolved into an overcaffeinated version of the beautiful game in the past month. It took fewer than 90 seconds for Toronto to get a taste:

This is both frenetic and tightly scripted: defenders on a string working together out of Losada’s 3-4-2-1; instant transitions with runners occupying different lanes and finding different patches of space; all of it culminating in an open look from eight yards. As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data D.C. are in the top third of nearly all the relevant pressing statistics, and boasting an upward trajectory across the board. That includes in the standings, where the chaos hammer has provided a ladder up to sixth in the East.

In short, this is very good soccer. D.C.’s been doing a lot of good soccer things recently but early-season results bias obscured that. Take a look at those results, though, and the only truly bad one was the 4-1 cross-country trip to San Jose. The rest are a who’s who of Eastern Conference heavyweights: 1-0 at the Revs, 3-1 at Columbus, back-to-back 1-0s vs. Orlando City and Philly, and then last week’s heartbreaking 2-1 loss at NYCFC.

D.C. are, in other words, better than their record indicates.

They are not as good as the scoreboard from this weekend indicated, though. Don’t get me wrong — the three points were about D.C. The 7-1? That was much more about a Toronto side that were disengaged from the start and especially at the end, and so it wasn’t altogether surprising that head coach Chris Armas paid with his job.

"Is it the formation? Is it the starters? Is it my fault? Something has to give," Armas said in the postgame presser and, well, he was right. Something gave.

Here’s what I wrote last summer after Armas was dismissed by the Red Bulls:

While it is true that Armas hadn't been given an Atlanta or LAFC or Toronto-sized budget to work with, he hadn't been given nothing, either. What is true is that there has been almost uniform regression in terms of individual performance across the entire roster.

This time he was given one precisely Toronto-sized budget to work with and the regression was both more widespread and more pronounced. Consider, for a moment, the advanced data:

tfc got worse

(If you want to read more about g+ and what it indicates, here’s your LINK).

Now consider that Toronto are dead last in MLS with just one win and five points from 11 games, the worst start in club history. Not only is that saying something given that TFC missed the playoffs in each of their first eight years of existence, it’s also saying something given that TFC were second in the Supporters’ Shield race last year, and gutted out a memorable CCL series win over Club Leon back in March. Even through the injuries and the second straight season of being away from home, the cupboard is far from bare.

This group had to dig real deep to find rock bottom, and if this isn’t rock bottom then … ooof. It has to be.

The only way out if you’re the Reds is to start climbing.

Two Aces

Austin FC finally got off the schneid at home, and did so in a big way with a dominant, relentless 4-1 win over Portland on Thursday night. It was the Verde’s first win in exactly two months, and was the first time in a good long while they looked like the team I kinda sorta thought they would become back in April when they came out of the gates playing good ball.

The key was Josh Wolff’s decision to station Diego Fagundez, who’s mostly been a central midfielder this year, at left wing. Possession is, for a lot of teams, an overrated statistic — one that doesn’t really matter. Austin are not one of those teams; possession matters for them a lot. They want the ball, and they want to use the ball to disorganize their opponents. They have struggled with the latter.

Against Portland they did not, collecting nearly 70% possession (part of this was the Timbers just tapping out), completing over 90% of their passes and funneling a lot of both through Fagundez and DP Cecilio Dominguez, once again operating as a false 9, in the half-spaces. Portland could not keep up.

Fagundez, when he’s on the wing, loves to drop into those spots and become an auxiliary playmaker, as does Dominguez. Both are much less linear than the other, more traditional options, and by changing the functionality of those spots rather than the shape (it was still a 4-3-3 from Austin), Wolff was able to get his team to create constant central midfield overloads that shredded the visitors. Just look at their network passing graph, made using Opta data:

austin network graph vs. portland

Bear in mind that Fagundez (14) and Dominguez (10) are nominally on the same line as Jon Gallagher (17). It really didn’t play out that way, and Portland got smashed.

“For us it was about pushing, taking the ball away a little more from them and utilizing that to try to kill their energy. Try to kill their spirit,” Wolff said afterward. “But the third goal was always going to do it. That’s what we’ve got to keep in mind. We have to stay hungry, we have to stay aggressive. You got to get that third goal and that becomes the knockout punch.”

In a vacuum I don’t think one bad result is much to worry about for Portland, but this feels like the fourth or fifth time I’ve written that this year, so I guess we’re not in a vacuum anymore.

We know about the DP injuries (even if we’re still unclear on the exact timeframe for a return to play), and the other player availability issues that they’ve had to deal with. But the looming big one is this: Diego Chara’s effectiveness in defensive transition, as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, has dropped. Significantly. And I think it was evident on the field in this one.

This might be a sample size thing (he’s played fewer than 600 minutes this year), or it might be a just-returned-from-injury thing. Or it might actually be a “yeah, he’s finally lost a half-step” thing. Everyone does, eventually.

Chara’s essentially been a Best XI-caliber d-mid for a decade. If he is now less than that, Portland’s ceiling drops quite a bit.

A few more things to ponder…

11. The Crew didn’t entirely turn the corner in Saturday’s 2-2 home draw vs. the Revs at the opener of their gorgeous, brand-new stadium, but they certainly provided a reminder over the game’s final hour of how devastating this team can be when they shift out of second gear. The result did knock Columbus down below the playoff line based upon wins (the first tiebreaker), but if they can bottle this performance they will not stay down there for long.

New England, it should be noted, scored two fantastic goals in the first half hour and finished up a stretch in which they played four of five on the road by holding on for dear life over the final 60. Only some hilariously bad luck by Andrew Farrell separated them from the full three points.

Still, they went 3-1-1 over the five games and fully deserve their perch atop the East.

10. The best possible thing for the Chicago Fire would be for young DP Ignacio Aliseda, who struggled mightily in 2020, to prove himself worthy of the tag. In Saturday’s commanding 3-0 win over Atlanta United he was exactly that, putting forth his finest MLS performance in bagging two goals and an assist.

There is nothing fancy about this. He and his teammates are just taking the space afforded by Atlanta’s defense when Gabriel Heinze’s man-marking system breaks down:

This quote from Brad Guzan is a couple of weeks old, but it applies here: “I don’t think that part is going to change,” Guzan said about Heinze’s commitment to the man-marking scheme. “The issue with that is if an attacking player makes a run into space, a run off someone’s back shoulder, you fall asleep for half-a-second, then they have the jump on you and then you’re chasing.”

OK, now watch all three of those goals again.

9. In other man-marking news, San Jose are winless in eight following a 2-2 draw at Minnesota United on Saturday night.

By San Jose’s typical standards against the Loons this was actually a good result; Minnesota almost always crush them. But an early injury to Michael Boxall (severity yet unknown) meant he couldn’t do his usual Beckenbauer impression, and the Loons were forced to scrap out a point instead.

They’re now 4-0-3 after that 0-4-0 start. It hasn’t fully turned around as of yet, but Adrian Heath’s got his team above the playoff line and looking likely to stay there.

Also, Hassani Dotson got the weekend's biggest dub:

8. Wilfried Nancy has very quietly been rotating his squad throughout the year, building depth without losing continuity, both of which should come in handy in the months ahead for CF Montréal. They looked very comfortable and at times dominant in a 1-0 win over Miami. Montréal squeezed the life out of that game, and that’s a compliment.

The issue, of course, is turning that depth and continuity into high-level final-third performance so that they can collect points even when they’re not squeezing the life out of games. Montréal’s not there yet, which is why they’ve scored just four times in their past six games.

Nancy has to figure it out quick as the schedule over the next two months is much more difficult than what they’ve faced thus far.

Miami once again started with DPs Gonzalo Higuain and Rodolfo Pizarro on the bench, and lost their fifth straight. They have blown through the “nosedive” and “tailspin” portion of the year’s events and are into a full-on death spiral.

7. Nashville’s script all year has been to give up an early goal (or goals), snap out of their stupor and then desperately try to claw back for at least a point. They’ve mostly been very good at it, having lost just once all season, but have left a bunch of points on the table in the process.

They finally changed to a different script on Saturday, getting an early C.J. Sapong goal and riding it out for the 1-0 final against Philly. It was the kind of tough win they specialized in last year.

Worth noting that Nashville are the latest in a growing list of sides to go with some version of a back three in order to stretch out the Union’s diamond, as their network passing graphic shows:

nashville passing network vs philly

I'm curious to see if Philly head coach Jim Curtin will adjust his team's shape to account for opposing wingbacks in the future.

6. That said, Curtin won’t have to do so right away, as the Union’s next match-up comes Thursday at RBNY, another side that plays out of a 4-4-2 diamond. They brought that diamond and their press down to central Florida and walked out with a 2-1 win and three points against a previously hot Orlando City side.

The Red Bulls weren’t in control of the game, but the more important thing against Orlando City is not letting them control it. And that’s how it went, with both teams charging up one end and then back down the other some very clever link-up play between forwards Patryk Klimala and Fabio got RBNY the late game-winner.

If one of Klimala or Fabio becomes regular goal-scorers, this team is going to cook.

For Orlando City this loss is a warning shot about their schedule, which is about to get a lot tougher. More road games, and more games in general against the better teams in the East are on the menu.

5. Do FC Cincinnati count as one of the better teams in the East? No, not by a long shot. But they’re much better than they’ve been, and showed it once again with a 1-1 draw at Houston on Saturday night. Cincy are now 3-2-1 in their past six and have gotten much, much better about limiting the quality of the chances they allow even if they’re not yet great about limiting the quantity.

Houston have now drawn four straight and play six of their next eight on the road. We’re going to learn a ton about this team between now and late August.

4. Between last week’s win over New England and an utterly dominant first 29 minutes against Vancouver, I had convinced myself that FC Dallas had worked through their early-season yips and were going to start collecting points at a playoff-worthy clip. They were all over the ball, Jesus Ferreira was pulling strings and Ricardo Pepi was turning chances into goals. Everything was clicking.

Then this happened:

That’s the second time in three weeks Dallas have conceded a goal born of individual calamity like this (and yes, I’m giving Lucas Cavallini the Face of the Week for that shrug at the end).

That goal completely took the wind out of Dallas’ sails. While I wouldn’t argue that Vancouver were the better team for the next 50 minutes, they were certainly the more dangerous team. They probably deserved what eventually became a 2-1 lead just before the half.

Here’s the thing, though: Whenever Vancouver have a late lead they pack it in and defend in Maxime Crepeau’s lap. It’s understandable — a lot of teams do that — but Vancouver really can’t defend in their own box. Every cross is a five-alarm fire.

And so it finished 2-2 when Ranko Veselinovic, who’d been subbed in because all the ‘Caps were doing was defending in the box, turned a Paxton Pomykal cross into his own net.

Vancouver get five of the next six at “home,” which currently means Utah. Dallas are staring at five of the next six on the road.

These are the bottom two teams in the West and if they’re going to climb off the mat they’ve got to figure out how to stop doing this to themselves.

3. The book, to a degree, is out on the Sounders: hit big switches and try to find the space behind their center backs. The ‘Caps did it well last weekend, and on Saturday night the Rapids copied that gameplan (for the second half, anyway) of what became a 1-1 draw.

Seattle, who have yet to lose but have won just twice in their past six and are suffering injury upon injury, are still the best team in the league. They also tied the league record by going 12 unbeaten to start the year.

But they feel a good deal less inevitable than they did a month ago.

2. The Galaxy are playing really, really good soccer. The issue is they have exactly one goalscorer, and that guy got hurt in warm-ups ahead of Sunday night’s eventual 2-0 home loss to Sporting KC.

Chicharito is the MVP to this point in the season and this was the classic case of a great player’s absence proving his value. The Galaxy look like a Greg Vanney team — the use the ball well, control the tempo and create chances. The Little Pea is the only one who can turn those chances into goals, though.

Sporting, who were also without their star No. 9, aren’t quite so reliant upon one guy. They also still have the ability to press their way to a win, which is exactly what they did to get the game-winner via Johnny Russell before Khiry Shelton finished the evening off deep into stoppage.

Sporting technically went top of the Supporters' Shield race with the result, though the Sounders have a game in hand and are still top on PPG.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to Carlos Vela for this little backheel in LAFC’s 1-0 win at RSL:

LAFC, even when they aren’t playing very well (and to be clear, they are not), are still capable of putting together some stunning sequences of play.

RSL mostly are not, and have won just once in their past eight.