Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Armchair Analyst: Reds reeling, Busio levels up and more from Week 7

And with that, a bit over 20 percent of the season is done and we are heading into a three-week break for the Nations League. But first let's take a look at Week 7:

This is it

Let’s just start with the highlight because, my god, what a highlight. Gianluca Busio stepped up to a free kick in the 51st minute and the kid bent it like Beckham:

That is a golazo. You know it’s a worldie when the goalkeeper gives up as it’s cresting the wall. The fact that Busio did this with his team trailing 1-0, though? That he did this when his team needed him to do it, and just a day after turning 19? That’s a benchmark, a coming-of-age moment. Busio had always been a toolsy, talented player — good feet, good engine, good balance, good vision — but never the type who regularly brought all of that to bear either for his club or at the US youth levels. You just didn’t know what you were going to get.

He is bringing it to bear now for Sporting, who know what they’re getting each week from him at this point. He had that goal, above, to make it 1-1, and then he had an assist on his side’s third goal of the night, the game-winner from Gadi Kinda in what became a 3-2 win over a gritty and resilient but ultimately overmatched Houston Dynamo side.

It was Busio’s best game as a pro. It also came with him wearing the No. 10 but actually playing once again as a No. 6, setting the tempo and establishing a rhythm for his side while all alone at the back point of the 4-3-3 Peter Vermes has used for more than a decade. It is an evolution for Busio within the framework of what Sporting have been since they were still the Wizards, and it is going very, very well.

“Wherever they need me, I'm going to play,” said Busio, who’s also played as a false 9, an 8, a No. 10 and on the wing during his young MLS career thus far. “I've been playing really well at the 6 right now and I'll continue to play that way.

“I think I've done really well at the 6 so far and I just want to help the team win games. That's what has been happening lately and I don't want to change anything right now. I'm happy where I'm at.”

Vermes is happy with where Busio’s at as well, calling him an “incredible talent,” a “great kid,” a “fantastic player” and “a great soccer player” over the course of one effusive paragraph in the postgame presser. No one could blame him after that performance, which featured not only the goal and the assist, but the kind of “he was born to play as a regista” distribution that makes good teams tick.

The Second Spectrum tactical cam gives a great view of how Busio’s able to advance the ball quickly and accurately, breaking lines and cutting defenders out of the play while putting his teammates into spots with multiple options:

This isn’t “break the game apart” type stuff, but if your back-to-front patterns of play regularly create positional and dynamic superiority, something is going very well. When you’re creating that superiority for a team with the likes of Kinda and Alan Pulido in the attack, you’re going to score a lot of goals.

And so that’s what Sporting are doing right now. They’ve won three straight, and scored three goals in each of them. They are a buzzsaw going forward.

They are still leaky at the back, though, and part of that is on Busio. He lost a must-win-it 50/50 in second-half stoppage time that led directly to Houston’s second goal, and overall his individual defensive numbers are poor. He generally knows where to be — I think his reading of the game and reactions are good and getting better — but he still loses duels way too often.

To put a fine point on it, here are the only starting central midfielders in the league who’ve won a lower percentage of their duels than Busio’s 44.7%:

  • Kelyn Rowe (44.2%)
  • Moses Nyeman (43.9%)
  • Caden Clark (43.2%)
  • Pablo Ruiz (43.1%)
  • Michael Bradley (41.7%)
  • Emerson Hyndman (38.2%)
  • Wil Trapp (36.2%)

Those are all good but limited players. Trapp and Bradley fell out of the USMNT pool precisely because they couldn’t reliably win the ball in those moments. Rowe and Hyndman, who were both once USYNT stars like Busio, never got real shots with the USMNT and never got real shots to be the centerpiece of club teams because they couldn’t reliably win the ball in those moments. Ruiz is a talented young player who now has to play alongside a ball-winning bodyguard in Nick Besler. Nyeman and Clark are literally children.

Busio’s grown a lot. He’ll be on a lot of folks’ Player of the Week ballots after this one, and he deserves it. But there’s more work yet to be done, and it’s the dirty work.

Danger zone

It took nearly 10 hours of play, but Columbus finally scored their first open play goal of 2021. It came in the 12th minute of their 2-1 win over Toronto FC when Luis Diaz raced the length of the pitch, more or less, after the Reds brought all 10 field players way up on a corner.

Second Spectrum's 2D tactical animation paints a not-so-pretty picture for Toronto. Look at how bunched up they are, and how they have no chance once that first line of pressure is broken:

That is really aggressive from Chris Armas, especially against a team with open field weapons like Diaz and Derrick Etienne, Jr. Usually you’d leave one guy about five or 10 yards deeper as sort of a free safety to prevent exactly this type of breakaway, but in this case it was Auro, Jr. — who was never going to beat Diaz in a footrace — as the last man back at the top of the D.

Columbus are not yet who we thought they’d be, but they are meeting expectations in terms of having too much talent to be actually bad despite some really brutal underlying numbers. Nothing is really clicking yet (even in this one they were out-possessed, out-shot, and out-xG’d) but they have so many weapons that they can brute force some wins. We saw it last week against NYCFC, and we saw it again on Saturday.

Toronto have a ton of weapons as well even with Jozy Altidore seemingly exiled, Yeferson Soteldo sidelined with a muscle injury and Alejandro Pozuelo having just returned this weekend for a second-half cameo. They should not be as poor as they are, but my word are they poor. They’ll head into the Nations League break at just 1-4-2, 12th place in the East ahead of only Chicago and Cincy.

Back to Auro for a second: He started at central midfield for the third straight game while started at right midfield/right wing for the ninth time in 10 appearances across all competitions. The idea of Delgado wide on the right is that he can be a significant defensive presence when RB Richie Laryea overlaps, and the idea of Auro at CM is … weird.

In the interest of fairness here’s Armas’s full answer when asked about his decision-making process:

There is obviously some thought put into it, but from my point of view all coaches should take the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm. And the easiest way to do that is to not play your players out of position. Armas finally gave in and switched Delgado to central midfield, Auro to RB and pushed Laryea up to RW midway through the first half, but by that point they were already down 2-0.

The next-easiest decision to make would be to give up the ghost on becoming a high-pressing team. TFC are, at best, middle of the pack in the following pressing metrics, as per Second Spectrum:

  • Possession gained within five seconds of pressing the ball
  • Possession gained within 10 seconds of pressing the ball
  • Passes allowed per possession
  • Possession won in the attacking third

While that’s happened, their ability to prevent teams from playing between the lines has cratered. Toronto were 14th in 2020, allowing 15 completed passes between the lines per 90. In 2021 they’ve dropped to 23rd, allowing almost 17 per game. That forces the central midfield to adjust on the fly, and remember that Auro doesn’t have the reps at that spot to consistently adjust on the fly. That in turn forces the center backs to adjust on the fly, and Toronto’s center backs aren’t really meant for that type of approach.

The above has happened while Toronto have been getting less of the ball. Last year — when they almost won the Supporters’ Shield, remember — they were fourth in the league at 55.3 percent possession. This year they’re 14th at 48.8 percent, which, yes, means they have to spend more time defending without the ball. And no, this team’s not well-suited to defending without the ball. (Also, having less of the ball means fewer chances for Laryea to overlap, which defeats the purpose of the Delgado and Auro positional switches, and if you are picturing the “Galaxy Brain” meme right now you are surely not the only one).

All of that means there have been a lot of drastic changes for a team that was really close last season before the injury load became too much to bear. I get wanting to change some things with regard to personnel, and I understand a new coach wanting to put his own stamp on his team. And yes, these things take time.

But TFC have been in a nosedive since Week 1. The changes Armas has made seem to be working toward the roster’s weaknesses rather than its strengths, and the games start coming thick and fast once the season starts up again.

The clock is ticking, and they’ve got to figure out some things to get right over the break.

A few more things to ponder...

11. Mason Toye rode to the rescue for CF Montréal in their 1-0 win at Chicago on Saturday, and this time it wasn't a banger. This time it was a Wondo Goal, as Toye ghosted between the center backs, found himself a pocket of space and flicked a header inside the back post.

It was in no way as eye-catching as the curled golazos he scored in each of the first two weeks but this is a more important goal because of its repeatability. You score maybe five golazos a year if you're exceptional, and if you get on a hot streak like that you can ride it for a while. Remember what Toye did in the second half of 2019 for Minnesota? He ran hot.

And then he didn’t. Toye stopped scorching the nets with improbable finishes and the goals almost entirely dried up for a year-and-a-half. Consistent goal-scoring of the Golden Boot variety is born of tons of looks in high-value spots, and Toye hadn't really shown the ability to find those in his first three MLS seasons.

He's learning. The pocket of space he scored the winner from is where the likes of Wondo, Chicharito and Josef — you score enough goals and you go by one name — have made their living for years. Figure out where the defenders aren't, and where the next pass could be, and score. Do that 10 times a year on top of your four golazos, and you’re a starter. Do that 15 times as year on top of your four golazos, and you’re a star. Do that 20 times a year and you get to be one of those guys who goes by one name.

“For Mason, his advantage is that he does a lot of individual work in front of the net in training. I’m not surprised at all today,” said Montréal head coach Wilfried Nancy afterward. “He is good and feels good in this team so it’s good for us.”

Chicago were the better team throughout this game, by the way, but they still found a way to lose. Fire fans are sick of reading that but there isn’t much left to say.

10. Oscar Pareja took a gamble by changing his team’s shape out of the 4-2-3-1 and into more of a 5-4-1 for Orlando City’s trip to Harrison to play the Red Bulls. He chose poorly as RBNY got themselves a 2-1 win.

The Red Bulls were able to constantly exploit the gap between Orlando left center back Kyle Smith and left wingback Chris Mueller throughout the first half. Caden Clark, Patryk Klimala and Cristian Casseres all drifted into that spot repeatedly, and the Lions couldn’t figure out how to get pressure to any of them:

Clark Klimala Casseres first-half pass map v Orlando

The game wasn’t won there, precisely. RBNY were up 1-0 at the half and Pareja changed his team’s shape back to the more familiar 4-2-3-1 for the second 45. It took a Casseres free kick to make it 2-0 and then a hold-on-for-dear-life final 10 minutes for the Red Bulls to come away with the full three points, but the terms of the engagement were set by Pareja’s original choice

It turned out to be the wrong one, and ended with Orlando taking their first L of the season.

The big story for RBNY this season is Clark, but Casseres, in his fourth year with the team, has finally made a gigantic leap. Gerhard Struber has done a very good job of putting his young players into positions to succeed — that includes 18-year-old homegrown left back John Tolkin, who made his first MLS start in this one — and they have almost uniformly repaid that faith.

9. The Revs battered FC Cincinnati in Cincy on Saturday, registering 25 shots before finally, on their 26th of the day, breaking through via an Adam Buksa set piece goal for the 1-0 win.

The advanced numbers loved Buksa last year and they love him even more this year; he’s fourth in total xG behind Raul Ruidiaz, Chicharito and Taty Castellanos, and we’re getting to the point where the sample size is large enough to be trusted. The issue with him last year, though, was he massively underperformed his xG to the point where he couldn’t be counted upon to lead the line in a 4-2-3-1.

This year he’s only mildly underperforming his xG, as he now has four goals on 4.7 xG as per Opta data. It has been enough for Bruce Arena to switch to the 4-2-3-1 on something close to a permanent basis, as they’ve played out of that formation in five of their past six games. The one time they didn’t, going to a 4-4-2 with Buksa and Gustavo Bou up top, they picked up their only loss of the season, 2-0 at Nashville.

Obviously the upshot of that change — the reason the 4-2-3-1 is basically the default formation in world soccer — is that it gives you the numbers to control central midfield in most match-ups, and if you have control of central midfield, an elite playmaker (which the Revs do in Carles Gil) and a center forward who gets into good spots, you’re going to win a lot of games.

The missing ingredient right now is a goal-scoring winger.

Cincy did a better job once again this week of limiting the quality of shots they conceded, if not the quantity.

8. As with Chicago, San Jose have entered “different week, same story” territory. Which means that on Saturday they once again generated good chances, and once again were undone by their inability to finish them in what became a 1-0 loss at LA:

That is a beautiful, flowing attacking move with the ball ending up on the foot of the Quakes’ second-highest-paid player in the box with only the ‘keeper to beat and the game in the balance. San Jose have scored just once in their past four games, all losses.

Galaxy ‘keeper Jonathan Bond has a strong argument for Newcomer of the Year thus far, and obviously he had a whole hell of a lot to do with San Jose’s struggles in front of goal on Saturday.

“As he has settled in, he's become a leader in the back, he's become a guy who's communicating to everybody in important moments and he's very connected to the group in every aspect,” said Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney afterward.

"It's wonderful to have that because it brings a lot of confidence to the line in front of him. It brings a lot of confidence to the group to know that on the odd occasion when you make a mistake, tonight maybe too many mistakes, but when you make the mistake you have someone back there that can really help you out and he's been fantastic in that way."

He really has been, and it’s yet another entry on the list of big, noticeable ways in which this year’s Galaxy side is vastly different from the previous six.

7. Pass of the Week goes to Miles Robinson, who has become the league’s premiere long-ball artist from the backline:

This came a week after a similar Robinson long-ball earned Atlanta a PK for a late point at Seattle. His distribution has become a weapon.

Sadly for Five Stripes fans, this week they gave up a late result as Nashville came roaring back from a 2-0 deficit to snag a 2-2 draw courtesy of a Hany Mukhtar brace. The result left Nashville as the last unbeaten team standing in the East.

6. Minnesota United registered one shot on goal in Saturday nights’ 1-1 draw at RSL. It came when RSL ‘keeper Zac MacMath decided to punch a Chase Gasper cross instead of just catching it and, well, that was a bad idea. It caromed off of Niko Hansen and into the net for the late equalizer.

RSL are probably pretty bummed about that, but they never really pressed the issue after going up 1-0 early. I also think it’s fair to ask why Freddy Juarez is so reluctant to go down his bench.

For the Loons any road point is good, but especially one that came short handed on the road against a Western Conference foe that will be fighting for the same spots in the postseason.

5. For the first time this year NYCFC looked like the second-best team on the field for a significant chunk of a game. Then Ronny Deila made a line change and turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win at LAFC.

Deila made four subs in the 67th minute and while the Cityzens didn’t precisely dominate the game from that point on, they were clearly the better team for the final 20 minutes. That included the few minutes after they went down to 10 men, during which Ismael Tajouri-Shradi got the game-winner when LAFC left him completely unmarked at the back post on a corner.

LAFC played great for 65 minutes but weren’t sharp in the final third and keep being prone to things like, for example, leaving opponents unmarked at the back post on a corner kick, so they keep losing.

4. D.C. United absolutely smashed Inter Miami, who came out in a weirdo 4-4-2 that kind of played like a 3-5-2 and eventually switched to a 4-2-3-1 and never really made much sense throughout. Whatever formation you want to call it, Miami struggled badly and D.C. just destroyed them via the press, via regular build-ups, off of throw-ins, and in transition.

The Second Spectrum tactical cam really paints a picture of just how easy it got for Ola Kamara and the rest of the D.C. attack:

“You can point fingers at individual errors,” Inter Miami head coach Phil Neville said afterward. “It is those individual errors and lack of concentration that are really hurting us. But worse, it means we’re not difficult to play against.”

They are not, and obviously given the sanctions the league imposed upon them on Friday, there is unlikely to be help on the way. Neville is going to have to get more out of this group than he’s managed so far, and more than what Diego Alonso did last year.

3. Philly's big 3-0 win over the Timbers was, as David Gass pointed out on Thursday's Extratime, the easy pick of the week.

Portland have been game about playing through their injuries, adjusting their team shape and approach and getting huge wins at San Jose and over the Galaxy. Crossing the country with 10 missing players — including two DPs, their most important player (Diego Chara), their best center back (Larrys Mabiala) and their entire goalkeeper depth chart — is a different sort of ask, though. It was, to be honest, too big an ask.

If there's one lingering worry in this for Portland it's that they were utterly dominated on restarts. Remember that the apex version of the Timbers, which we last saw in Orlando last summer, absolutely smoked teams — including Philly — on set pieces. This is obviously not the apex version of the Timbers, but there's no reason for them to be as feeble as they were in dead ball situations. Sebastian Blanco is not the key to their set piece defense.

As for Philly, they went 4-0-1 in their final five games before this break and it continues to amaze me how smoothly they've moved on from Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson. They haven't skipped a beat.

2. And suddenly the Sounders aren't playing so great. They had to settle for their second-straight home draw, this one scoreless against weary road warriors Austin FC on Sunday night.

It's not quite "live by the Brad Smith, die by the Brad Smith" but this game was a good example of the downside of putting so much of the "you're the one who's gonna hit the final ball" work at the feet of the fullbacks. Smith in particular struggled dialing it up even when he got into good spots, and with Nico Lodeiro still out there isn't nearly enough individual creativity in other spots to unlock a well-prepped defense.

Austin deserve credit for that preparation, by the way. They adjusted really well to Cristian Roldan's movement and were always in good spots to cut out the pullbacks that his inside-out runs generate. They also did real work in forcing Seattle's first pass in transition moments wide or even backwards, which ... yeah, that's how you kill transition moments.

1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to Dallas attackers Jader Obrian and Freddy Vargas, as well as head coach Luchi Gonzalez following their 3-0 loss at Colorado:

Dallas had over 65 percent possession and took 21 shots, six of which were on goal. They controlled big chunks of the game and repeatedly got into good spots to generate good looks. They did the same thing last week in what became a home draw vs. RSL Taking just one point from those two performances is brutal.

Usually if a team regularly generates 20+ shots with many of them in good spots, I kind of shrug and trust that they'll figure out how to turn that into goals and wins. But Dallas ... boy, I don't know.

These are high-quality chances in good spots for Vargas, Obrian and center forward Franco Jara — the three guys they brought in over the past year to finish exactly these types of chances. And they just keep managing not to. Vargas has yet to score. Obrian has two goals in just shy of 600 minutes and hasn’t been a meaningful upgrade over last year’s wingers. That includes Michael Barrios, who scored for the second straight week for the Rapids with the final goal of the night.

But it’s Jara who’s in the deepest rut. The DP No. 9 has just one non-penalty goal in his last 19 appearances across all competitions. He has just six non-penalty goals overall in about 2100 all-competition minutes for Dallas.

There was actually a bunch of encouraging play from Dallas in May, but they don’t finish their chances so they only won once. They’ll head into the break at the bottom of the West because of it.