Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Atlanta are fun again, LAFC remind us they're still champs & more from Matchday 32

Doyle 9.17.23 - Matchday 32 wrap

Back in the saddle, writing a Sunday column for the first time in months. I’m going to start it with a plug for MLS Wrap-Up on Season Pass, which comes out late every Saturday night (or early Sunday morning, depending upon your time zone) and features highlights and a breakdown of all of Saturday’s action:

Ok. Now in we go:

The magic is back

The low point for Atlanta this season came on what was really, to this point, their biggest stage: a 4-0 Leagues Cup shellacking at the hands of Lionel Messi and a resurgent Inter Miami side in late July. That game was an encapsulation of everything that’s been wrong with the Five Stripes since pretty much the start of the decade. Let’s enumerate the three biggest for fun:

  1. They were unable to press effectively, so when they brought their line up they were easily beaten over the top.
  2. They couldn’t win the ball in midfield, so Miami were easily able to play through the lines.
  3. They were unable to create attacking width or depth without bringing both fullbacks way up, so any attacking-third turnover created a five-alarm fire going in the other direction.

Atlanta followed up that 4-0 depantsing with a more credible 1-1 draw vs. Cruz Azul, though the Five Stripes would lose in penalties and were eliminated.

The silver lining there is the loss gave everyone three weeks of rest, and gave head coach Gonzalo Pineda a chance to go back to the drawing board and a chance to integrate the raft of new additions Atlanta’s front office made during the summer window.

With Saturday’s 5-2 win over a Messi-less Miami side, Atlanta are now 3W-1L-1D with a +8 goal differential since league play restarted on August 20. The new additions have helped mightily, as a pair of livewire wingers (Xande Silva’s been starting on the left, while DP signing Saba Lobjanidze has mostly been coming off the bench) have provided attacking balance and Tristan Muyumba has, at times, looked like a Diego Chara-esque one-man midfield ball-winning solution.

That talent upgrade alone would probably have been enough to push Atlanta comfortably toward the top tier in the East. But let’s give Pineda some extra credit for the cool stuff he’s having his side do in possession:

This is a long clip, but you should watch it twice:

First focus on Thiago Almada, how Atlanta’s No. 10 is always ducking into the pockets and then drifting back outside of the midfield shape, and how Inter’s Sergio Busquets is always – always!! – checking his shoulder to keep tabs on the Five Stripes’ main danger man. Almada’s gravity finally sucks Busquets in and drags him out of the middle about 33 seconds into the clip, in conjunction with Atlanta switching play.

On the second run-through, watch the positioning of right back Brooks Lennon throughout this clip. I’ve always thought of Lennon as a purely north-south player, and if you’ve watched him at all over the past five years you probably have, too. He runs the touchline, gets into the final third and crosses the ball (mostly very well). Rinse, repeat.

That’s not his role anymore. Instead, Pineda has Lennon ducking inside to create midfield overloads, and to either 1) park himself there so Atlanta don’t get outnumbered in the most important part of the field, which in turn makes it tougher to counterattack them, or 2) make inside-out runs, as he did on the first goal, or 3) do what he did here and crash the box if the opponent’s rotations are slow.

This is a very clever way of weaponizing Almada’s gravity, and not one I’d have expected of an Atlanta side that’s been pretty tactically vanilla for years. But the Five Stripes battered Miami, who hadn’t lost since the addition of Messi, Busquets, et al with this pattern of play all day long. The Herons spent the entire day chasing, and that 5-2 final was about right (and a hell of a lot of fun for any neutrals to watch).

"We always talk about the best way to sustain that advantage is to increase it," Pineda said afterwards. "If we're winning 2-1, the best way to win is 3-1. Now we're 3-1, [let's] make it 4-1. That's the best way to make sure we get the three points. So, it has to be a balance of enough attack-minded situations, but the same counter-measures to make sure we're not open in transition."

Atlanta aren’t invulnerable, as was especially apparent on the first goal they conceded. But they are fun again, and have become so based upon more than just raw talent.

One ring don’t make a dynasty

I don’t think there’s any doubt LAFC have taken a step backwards, aesthetically speaking, this season. Their roster is packed with toolsy, technical attacking players, but for the most part they don’t seem to want the ball through midfield and it’s been tough figuring out how the pieces are supposed to fit in the attack. Add in Carlos Vela’s drop in form, some iffy goalkeeping moments and a backline that’s often looked a step slow, and you get a defending champ that’s been reeling since the CCL battering they took at the hands of Club León three months ago.

They came into Saturday’s El Tráfico riding a three-game losing streak. Stretch it back to late May and they were just 6W-12L-3D across all competitions, and nothing had really been working right.

Then this:

Should this get an asterisk since it came against a Galaxy side that hasn’t stopped anybody all year (their 45 goals conceded is tied for worst in the league)? I’m leaning towards “maybe.” It’s tough to look at what eventually became a 4-2 LAFC win and say things are back to where we all expected them to be. And look, the Black & Gold still only managed 38% possession in this game, squandered two leads and left the game in the balance until the final few minutes. They were the better team, but this was not a comprehensive beatdown of an undermanned foe.

But there were more sequences like the one above than I’ve seen from them in months. They seemed to want the ball again, at least for certain stretches, and with the ball came both more comfort and more danger from the new, young players still trying to integrate into this side, as well as more incisiveness from Vela and fellow DP attacker Dénis Bouanga.

"Using wingers\] Dénis and [Cristian \[Olivera\] gave us depth, that was the idea – to be a little more narrow with our wingers, but you need a pass giver, and Carlos is very good at coming in the pocket and setting guys up,” is how LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo put it in the postgame presser. “Which worked, and every game will have its own solutions and next game we will figure that out as well.”

The next game is a big one, as they travel to St. Louis CITY SC in a battle of Nos. 1 & 2 in the West. The solution the last time these two teams met, which was a 3-0 LAFC win, was to get lots of the ball. The Black & Gold had 59% of it in that game, which is a season-high.

I don’t really think that’s a coincidence. This group of players is better with the ball than without it, and at least for a few moments this weekend, the champs looked like the champs again.

A few more things to ponder…

12. Let’s give St. Louis tons of credit for just continuing to hang around in games and collect points even when they’re being outplayed. That was very much the story once again Saturday night, but they kept their deficit in Houston to a manageable 1-0 and that allowed them to collect a point when João Klauss pounced on a late rebound for a 1-1 final.

The Dynamo had a chance to climb to third in the West and will be kicking themselves for the missed opportunity. Also, this goal sequence made me feel something deep in my soul:

Houston play some of the prettiest soccer in the league.

11. The Red Bulls play some of the most aesthetically-challenged soccer in the league, though they are still effective at inflicting their brand of demolition derby on all comers. As a result, they generate more good chances than most teams and concede fewer than everyone. That has been a recipe for annual Audi MLS Cup Playoffs appearances for years.

Saturday’s scoreless Hudson River Derby, as expected, played out on the Red Bulls’ terms. They held the hosts under 70% passing accuracy and to just 0.6 xG. And, more importantly, goalless.

But also, the Red Bulls lack the final-third quality to make all their dominance matter, so they were shut out for the third time in four, and the 11th time this season. Both teams now look like good bets to miss the postseason this year, which would be the first time since 2009 for the Red Bulls and first since 2015 for NYCFC.

10. D.C. went down to Charlotte and came away with a very useful point, though just like last week they’ll be kicking themselves for not having taken all three. In the end, they had to settle for a scoreless draw as Christian Benteke couldn’t find the range and none of the wingers running off him could put the ball into the back of the net. United remain ninth in the East, two points clear of Chicago and three clear of Charlotte.

DP striker Enzo Copetti made his first start for Charlotte since early July, though the lack of chemistry between him and fellow DP Karol Swiderski is still glaring.

9. Two other playoff hopefuls, CF Montréal (8th place) and Chicago (10th place) pitched a scoreless draw of their own up at Stade Saputo.

Young Chris Brady was awesome for the Fire, posting yet another Man of the Match performance and keeping them within touching distance of a Wild Card spot.

Montréal, meanwhile, keep dropping valuable home points and are now staring at a six-game stretch run in which six of their final six are against teams in playoff spots. It’s not great.

8. Our Pass of the Week goes to Lorenzo Insigne, because this is outrageous:

It didn’t much matter, though, because Vancouver are just much, much better than the Reds, and turned that 1-0 deficit into a pretty comfortable 2-1 win.

  1. Nobody’s figured out how to stop the ‘Caps attack since Ryan Gauld was pushed up alongside Brian White in a 3-5-2, and…
  2. Vanni Sartini’s been clever about rotating his central midfielders, which has kept the group fresh.

In this one, key orchestrator Pedro Vite started on the bench (he came on at the hour mark) and d-mid Andrés Cubas got the day off entirely after logging 180 minutes on international duty with Paraguay.

Vancouver now have 10 points from the first four games of their season-defining, seven-game road trip. They are up to fourth in the West and have at least one game in hand on all the teams they’re chasing. It’s been a remarkable month for this team.

7. It’s been less remarkable for the Sounders, who keep playing decent ball while figuring out how to drop points. Their 1-1 draw at FC Dallas on Saturday night makes it one win in nine across all competitions, and next week’s trip to Colorado is probably a must-win if the Sounders want home-field advantage in the first round.

Both of these nuggets from Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer were interesting to me:

Little mistakes like that one from Yeimar have really taken a toll on this team.

Dallas continue to be a disappointment, and with this draw they’ve faded below the red line in the West. They managed precisely zero shots over the final 42 minutes of the game.

The goal, which came off that wayward header from Yeimar, was something of an anomaly as Dallas won it in midfield and then actually transitioned quickly rather than settling into their positional play. Attacking space behind the opponent’s backline is something los Toros Tejanos need to do a lot more of, or there’ll be no postseason this year.

6. There’ll be no postseason for Colorado, but they got the interim-coach bounce in their 2-1 win over the Revs in Commerce City. They were quicker to attack in transition in this game, and that especially benefited Cole Bassett – playing as a No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 and putting in what was easily his best game of the year – and winger Calvin Harris. Chris Little was understandably pretty damn pleased afterward.

New England, in their first game under interim head coach Clint Peay, had their chances and didn’t look like a team that’s destined to fall apart after all the turmoil of the past couple of months.

Let’s make sure to check back in on that opinion next week, though.

5. Sporting KC bounced back from last week’s fairly shocking 3-2 loss at Messi-less Miami with a much more important 1-0 smash-and-grab at Minnesota, which popped the guests up above the red line at least for 24 hours before dropping back down to 10th on Sunday evening.

This was Sporting’s only shot of the game’s final 30 minutes:

Yeah, that’s a colossal error from Loons left back Ethan Bristow, but my word that control from Gadi Kinda on his first touch… lovely.

“As everybody knows, and it's been well documented, we didn't have a very good start to the season for so many reasons,” Sporting manager Peter Vermes said. “But at the end, as I told the guys, we have just got to try to keep ourselves alive when we got to the Leagues Cup so that we can make a push at the end.

“We've had four games now with three wins and a loss and that loss was on the road. One of those wins is on the road. That's pretty good. But we haven't really accomplished anything yet. We have got some more to get after here. We have got some other games, some important games and some big teams we have to play and they're all going to be difficult. We have got to fight for it.”

Minnesota have got to fight a bit as well. A month ago they looked absolutely safe, but have now managed just one win in their past five and are down to eighth place in the West with one point of padding between them and ninth, and two points between them and a winter spent wondering where it all went wrong. The walls are starting to close in a little bit.

4. I’d expressed similar sentiments about San Jose recently, but they jumped all over RSL from the whistle and then held on for dear life en route to a 2-1 final at PayPal Park.

The Quakes were without DP d-mid Carlos Gruezo in this one and it showed, as RSL were able to get into the box at will and peppered Daniel with shot after shot:

sjvrsl shot map

The Brazilian goalkeeper has been one of the best signings of the year.

RSL now have just one win in four since Leagues Cup, and are still playing without leading scorer (all comps) Danny Musovski, who’s in a contract dispute with the club as per The Athletic’s Tom Bogert.

Both of these teams are on 40 points. I think both will make the playoffs, but both are making tough work of it.

3. Cincy are making tougher work of the Supporters’ Shield race than they were to start the year, but Saturday night’s 2-2 draw in Chester was a gut-check moment. They went on the road without the odds-on favorite to win the Landon Donovan MLS MVP (Lucho Acosta was suspended via yellow card accumulation) and dug themselves a 2-0 first-half hole, then came roaring back in the second 45 minutes behind the play of new DP center forward Aaron Boupendza. He had the first to make it 2-1, then fed Brandon Vazquez for the equalizer.

Vazquez then gave us – really, gave Philly fans – our Face of the Week:

I still think there are some kinks to iron out for Cincy in terms of getting Boupendza and Lucho on the same page. Boupendza clearly wants a ton of touches, and seemed very comfortable this weekend when everything in Cincy’s attack was happening through him.

That won’t be the case when Lucho’s back out there. But I don’t think it’s an unsolvable problem, and I came away from this game bullish on this team’s ability to get it all together and find their best form heading into the postseason.

I am selling off of that position with Philly. They are still very good, and their +16 goal differential is best in the East. But this team lacks the extra gear last year’s side had, and if there was a moment to find it – at home up 2-0, a chance to cut the gap in the Shield race to a plausible-if-not-likely nine points, and oh by the way it was all ax handles and machetes out there, just how the Union like it – it was this weekend.

2. The Timbers got their second road win of the season and did it in style, playing some of their best ball of 2023 in their 2-1 win at Austin on Sunday night that pushed them above the line into ninth place.

The big change since Miles Joseph took over is the relative lack of long-balls from the back. Portland haven’t become a methodical team in the build-out or anything – they were down around 35% possession in this game, which was to be expected given how much Austin try to use the ball at home – but there’s been more purposeful passing coming out of the backline, which has led to more combination play at pace. Thus far, that really suits this team.

Austin still have a shot, mathematically speaking, and their remaining schedule is fairly soft. But this team’s taken one out of 15 points on offer since Leagues Cup ended and there’s very little indication they’re going to turn it around.

1. And finally, the hottest team in MLS is in Florida. It’s just not the part of Florida you think, as it’s Orlando doing the business, not Miami. Orlando City’s wild, come-from-behind 4-3 win over a very good, very fun Columbus side on Saturday night moves the Cardiac Cats to 7W-1L-3D over their past 11 league games, and 4W-0L-1D in five since Leagues Cup ended. And oh, by the way, up to second place in the East and overall.

I loved this from Orlando head coach Oscar Pareja (whose contract expires at the end of the year, and yeah I’m gonna keep bringing it up because I’m old enough to remember where this club was before Pareja came to town):

“[Columbus] have a very good team and there is a clear idea on what the coach has brought to them, and they created some movements in the spaces that are difficult to control. We had some too and it was a battle of who can take advantage of those spaces and who can score clearly, then we had chances to equalize the game.

“The second half we modified a couple of behaviors that we needed in the middle. But then, coming in on a disadvantage of 3-1 was deep, but in the [hydration] break we said we have 15 minutes and we're going give them what we have, and we can do it. We're not going to tie it, we're going to win it and I felt that energy from them.”

I went back and didn’t notice anything drastically different in terms of Orlando’s second-half build-up (Facu Torres released vertically a little earlier sometimes to pull Columbus’s left center back out a little wider), but just getting on the front foot more, making the Crew a bit more uncomfortable in possession, and then beating the brakes off of them on restarts is a pretty solid plan.

When Orlando play with energy and purpose like that, they are very, very difficult to beat. Everyone’s learning that fact these days.