Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Austin doing it right, Montréal strike it lucky and more from Week 2

Week 2 is in the books. Lots of draws, which isn’t unusual for early in the season — home teams generally aren’t crisp enough to impose their will until about Week 7 or so, which is when the percentage of home team wins traditionally increases.

Also, so much for the death of parity in MLS:

Note: That was sent before the Galaxy beat the Red Bulls on Sunday night to become the only team in the league sitting at 2-0-0. Everything old is new again! (More on that game at the bottom).

Let’s jump in:

Doin’ It Right

It was easy being green on Saturday night, as Austin FC got their first-ever win. They did it by dominating Colorado’s tissue-soft midfield throughout the second half in Commerce City, repeatedly strolling through wide-open spaces en route to three very well-worked goals for the 3-1 final.

There are always gaps to find vs. the Rapids. But the best teams don’t just find those gaps; they hit them hard and turn them into chasms by spreading Colorado out with multiple off-ball runners. If there’s one defining feature of the Verde through their first 180 MLS minutes it’s that. They want to get multiple guys moving downhill, leverage gaps, stretch the opposition out and embiggen the field of play.

You could see all of it on the broadcast clip from the first goal, but the view via Second Spectrum’s tactical cam — waaaaay up in the clouds — gives you the full picture of how Austin want to operate:

As soon as Alex Ring takes that quick free kick Austin have four attackers bearing down on goal. The Rapids manage to clear the immediate danger but it’s Austin who win possession and recycle. A few passes later Danny Pereira skips through two Rapids midfielders (at least foul him, guys) and this time there are five runners pouring into the attack, and it’s a pure scramble for Colorado.

By the time Pereira gets into the box there are three Rapids playing emergency defense at the near post, none in the middle of the box, and four Austin players waiting to pounce if/when a low cross squeaks through.

It did. They scored. Jubilation.

Then they kept scoring, adding two more after Diego Fagundez’s opener. Their final tally of the night once again showed all those principles of play head coach Josh Wolff is trying to instill, even if it wasn’t exactly a carbon copy of the first.

It was mostly about moving, playing with each other, making space [and] creating angles,” Wolff said afterward. “Constantly thinking about how we can progress attacks and get behind the line and get in front of goal."

In other words it was about moving in coordinated patterns a lot! Through two games Austin are averaging 188 off-ball, attacking runs per game, as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data. Last year NYCFC led the league with 175 per game. The truth of what Wolff wants his team to be is in the numbers, in the clips and, on Saturday, it was on the scoreboard as well.

It’s too early for Colorado to panic. This was a playoff team last year because they played good soccer and imposed their will on teams by using the ball, and all the pieces from that group are back. They should, in the long run, be fine.

But it’s not too early to move Younes Namli back out to the wing and get Kellyn Acosta, who has been playing LB out of necessity with Sam Vines out, back into central midfield. Jack Price, Cole Bassett and Namli, together, offer little defensive coverage or ball-winnning, and when that’s the story of your central midfield you’re going to end up on the wrong side of a lot of 3-1s no matter how pretty you play when you actually have the ball.

Get Lucky

Break up CF Montréal! They got another Mason Toye banger and another “blitz the opposition’s left side” semi-breakaway — this one from Zachary Brault-Guillard — in what became a 2-2 draw at Nashville, which has Montréal on four points from two games.

This is a dream start for Wilfried Nancy & Co., one that’s been propelled by dream starts to each of their first two games. If you go up early then you control the game state, and if you control the game state you put yourself in a position where you can take advantage of early-season midfield slop and hit opponents on the break. It is smart and purposeful soccer, and that is a smart way for a team that’s not going to win many outings based on pure talent to approach things. The fans up north are understandably jubilant.

Nonetheless I am going to risk the wrath of CFM Twitter and suggest that there might be some fool’s gold here. Montréal scored four goals on just one xG created vs. TFC, and then scored two more on .6 xG created in this one. They are not going to bag two bangers a week and while Toye has been incredible, it’s worth remembering Toye was incredible for ~two months in the middle of the 2019 season and then entirely disappeared until … last week. There needs to be more here that suggests this is repeatable and not just an unsustainable hot streak of curling, upper-90 finishes.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t admire these finishes, because… my god!

Nancy has done well to have his team engaged and ready to punish mistakes, and that is a wonderful foundation. If, however, they don’t start using the ball more and creating more high-quality chances, they’ll start to struggle.

“It’s a good point for us because they pushed a lot. We had difficult moments between the 55th and the 75th minutes. I’m proud of the team, they were resilient. I like that the players didn’t quit when it became harder. I love that attitude,” he said, but then added “Nashville put pressure on us and I would have liked to have more control of the play sometimes.”

The flip side of the game state and xG story, of course, is what Nashville have done the past two weeks. They took 32 shots in Week 1 and managed only a point at home vs. FC Cincinnati. They outshot Montréal 18-9 in Week 2, including a number of looks for their DPs, and managed just the point vs. Montreal despite winning the xG battle 3.2-to-0.6 on Saturday.

"This isn't just about the way we start or the goals conceded. We've created more clear goalscoring chances in the first two games than we did in 8-10 games last season. I want to look at this in a very positive light,"said Nashville head coach Gary Smith, who I think has the right perspective, especially because his side aren’t just whipping in crosses from the touchline (though there is some of that). They’re working to get into the optimal assist zone via some pretty, and pretty effective combination play.

Here, I used some very advanced graphics to circle the optimal assist zones in red.

passes leading to shots nashville vs montreal

"I'm ecstatic that we're creating as many chances as we are ... I think, over time, you get what you deserve,” Smith said. “And we deserve more than we're picking up at the moment. But the circumstances of any game are huge."

He’s right about that, too, and here’s the simple truth: The circumstances for Nashville are that they’ve been soft and vulnerable to start each of their first two games this season, which has cost them four home points.

There are 32 games left so this isn’t a crisis. But dropping home points to Cincy and Montréal early is how you lose playoff positioning — or even a trip to the postseason all together — late, and so a little more desperation from the opening whistle is probably warranted next time out.

A Few More Things to Ponder…

11. Over the past year we’ve seen 18-year-old Gianluca Busio play as a 10, an 8, a 6, a winger, a false 9 and then, on Friday night in a 1-1 Sporting KC draw vs. Orlando City, he spent 45 minutes as a true No. 9. Even got himself a goal with a very clever near-post finish across his body.

A home draw probably doesn’t thrill Peter Vermes, but they’ve got four points from two games, Alan Pulido is on the verge of 90-minute fitness (he played center forward in the second half with Busio dropping back to be a No. 10), and the early returns on CB Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and DM Remi Walter are pretty positive.

Orlando City have just two kind of meh points from two games but they were pretty clearly the better team in this one. Antonio Carlos is still awesome and Jhegson Mendez might’ve leveled up. He was Roger Espinoza-esque in his ability to both win the ball back and conduct the game.

10. I think FC Cincinnati set an unofficial MLS record by conceding five set-piece goals in Saturday’s 5-0 loss at NYCFC. This came a week after they survived giving Nashville’s center backs a series of uncontested alley-oops in Week 1.

Taking one point from these two games is honestly better than I thought they’d do, but they’ve been outshot 54-19 overall, and outscored 7-0 (six of those goals off of set pieces) in the past 168 minutes. Through two games they are completing a tick over 50 percent of their passes in the attacking third, which is very, very low.

Every bounce in this game went NYCFC’s way, which is what they probably deserved after a decent helping of bad luck in Week 1.

9. Houston played well at Portland in Saturday’s eventual 2-1 loss, but this one had to hurt:

New center back Tim Parker gets beaten to a long-ball header by the 5-foot-9 Felipe Mora, and usually stalwart d-mid Matias Vera falls asleep and lets Cristhian Paredes win the second ball before scorching home that stunner. Houston don’t have enough match-winning talent to survive if those two guys in particular aren’t winning their individual battles every week.

Portland do. They weren’t great, but they were able to bring the likes of Mora, Diego Valeri and Eryk Williamson off the bench for the second half to eventually sew this one up.

Also it’s worth noting that Dairon Asprilla has been fantastic this year.

8. “It was just a battle. It was a real scrap,” said New England Revolution head coach Bruce Arena following Saturday night’s 1-0 home win over D.C. United. “It made for a difficult game. No flow. Difficult to build our attack.”

That is clearly going to be United’s modus operandi, at least in the early season, under new head coach Hernan Losada. Here is the blueprint:

  • Clearances lead to 50/50s...
  • And 50/50s lead to transition opportunities...
  • And transition opportunities lead to shots...
  • And shots lead to goals...

It’s the Red Bull gameplan, and in theory it should work. I mean, it has worked — the Red Bulls have routinely led the league in 50/50s challenged and have routinely been near the bottom of the league in passing accuracy since 2015, and they’ve won two Supporters’ Shields and made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs every single season in that span.

That’s what Losada’s trying to do and so, D.C., two games in, barely pass the ball. They are fully committed to demolition derby all over the field, and in this one the Revs were too prepared for it to let it work, as they held the visitors to just one shot on goal and deserved to win what was an ugly, ugly game.

7. No winner in Seattle’s trip to downtown LA to face LAFC, which finished 1-1. That was probably the right result from a game that was missing a ton of star power (Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi and Nico Lodeiro were all scratched) and short of the types of high-quality chances both these teams have habitually created over the past few years.

6. No winner in Orlando, either, where Vancouver “visited” Toronto FC and came away with a 2-2 draw. The Reds’ late equalizer will no doubt be one of the luckiest goals of the season, as Jonathan Osorio got a tap-in after Andy Rose’s clearance had blasted Michael Baldisimo in the face and caromed right into Oso’s path, eight yards from goal.

Don’t let that entirely overshadow how Vancouver manhandled Toronto all over the pitch, but especially in central midfield as the ‘Caps won 51 of the 86 duels the teams contested.

TFC were second to everything. If the same happens midweek vs. Cruz Azul, their CCL run will end real quick.

New Vancouver signing Caio Alexandre was promising in a late cameo. He also lost a tooth! Welcome to the league.

5. RSL opened their season by playing the standard MLS road game: Pick spots to attack at pace, but mainly sit back and absorb. It was enough to get them a 2-1 win at a Minnesota side who were incensed when RSL ‘keeper David Ochoa punted the ball into the Wonderwall at the final whistle.

"He's got some edge on him for a kid who's not that good," Loons manager Adrian Heath said on the postgame show. Minnesota center back Michael Boxall got his two cents in as well: “He’d been acting like a clown the 90 minutes before that.”

Ask any USL fan and they’ll confirm that Ochoa is a noted practitioner of the dark arts with regard to time wasting, riling up opposing fans (and players!) and the like. He has clearly carried that up with him to the first team now that he appears to be RSL’s starting ‘keeper. If he doesn’t back that up with his play … well, anyone who watched Concacaf Olympic qualifying knows that he’s capable of catastrophic, match-losing errors. He’s also been prone to the occasional bobble, which showed up again, but was unpunished, in this one.

Anyway, we sure have spent more time talking about this than the fact that a Loons side picked by most to be a top four team in the West are now 0-2 with a -5 goal differential to start the season. As with the likes of Nashville and Orlando it’s nowhere near a crisis point yet, but a couple of the guys who were very good for them at the close of last season — Chase Gasper especially -- have been very poor at the start of this one, and a lack of on-the-ball dynamism from the wingers is a glaring weakness.

4. Face of the Week from Atlanta United head coach Gabriel Heinze after Emerson Hyndman finished off the Fire in a 3-1 home win for the Five Stripes:

This was the first time since the first half-hour of their first-leg CCL win at Alajuelense a few weeks back that Atlanta had moments where they were really humming. Even Josef Martinez, who got in for 25 late minutes, finally looked something like the pre-ACL Josef. They haven’t precisely been bad since the CCL opener, just kind of ponderous and De Boer-ish.

Worth noting: via the Second Spectrum match report, Atlanta put a ton of pressure up the spine. Hyndman alone pressured the ball almost 50 times — a huge number — with Santiago Sosa, Ezequiel Barco and Lisandro Lopez the next three names on the list. That is a somewhat weird distribution of on-ball pressure, though it might have more to do with how the Fire play than what Heinze wants from his own team.

As for how the Fire played, I just don’t have anything novel to add. They are still regularly producing good, attractive soccer, and they are still regularly producing catastrophic defensive errors. That song has remained the same.

The indelible memory of Gonzalo Higuain’s first MLS season was a missed penalty vs. the Union and, subsequently, a gaggle of chirping Philly players surrounding him and exchanging pleasantries. Pipita certainly remembered, as did the primary Union antagonist, Jose “El Brujo” Martinez, and those two got to talking midway through the second half after Jamiro Monteiro gave Philly a 1-0 lead.

Then, with 15 minutes left, Gonzalo somehow got loose on a set piece for a wide open header six yards from goal. 1-1. Ten minutes after that, big brother Federico got loose for a header of his own with one of those patented late-arriving runs into the box of his. 2-1. Ballgame.

Miami weren’t fantastic in this one, but once again they were pretty good (same as Week 1). The difference was that this time, Phil Neville made some aggressive subs and changed the game rather than keeping them in his pocket for too long. I’m not going to call it a landmark win or anything, but beating Philly in Chester is something precisely zero teams accomplished last year in the regular season. It’s meaningful, and as a buddy of mine who’s a Miami friend put it, it “Was nice to see how much the goal meant to Higuain. As a fan it’s encouraging that he seems invested in the project.”

Philly were mostly fine, but man were they not sharp in the final third.

2. I was talking to one of my nerd friends from American Soccer Analysis a while back and made the point that, beyond anything else, Robert Lewandowski’s superpower is where he gets on the ball. “To be fair,” he said, “that’s every great center forward’s superpower.”

He was correct, and also, it turns out that Chicharito is still a great center forward. He scored three goals in the Galaxy’s 3-2 win over RBNY on Sunday night, two of them with one-touch finishes from inside the six-yard box and one with a two-touch finish after receiving the ball at the top of the box with no defender within five yards of him. His movement generates those sorts of looks.

This is the Chicharito the Galaxy hoped they were getting last year, and these are the types of goals that are repeatable. Golden Boots are built on one-touch finishes, and Chicharito’s got five goals in two games. The Galaxy have six points.

The Red Bulls have none. It’s worth noting that in Gerhard Struber’s three games in charge, he has trotted his team out in three different formations: a 4-2-3-1 in last year’s playoffs, a 4-4-2 diamond last week, and an ill-fated 3-5-2 in the first half on Sunday.

They switched back to the diamond in the second half, and I bet they’ll stay with it for a bit.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to 17-year-old Cade Cowell, who probably hit the Pass of the Year in San Jose’s 3-1 win over a pretty hapless FC Dallas side.

Cowell, in the DA, was an unstoppable goal machine (he bagged San Jose’s third, just after that assist) whose rep was that he didn’t see anything other than the goal. There have been hints in his few MLS minutes thus far that he actually sees much more than that, and then … this:

That’s a Landon Donovan pass, and in the history of the USMNT program Donovan is the only one I can think of who had the ability to hit an inch-perfect, outside-of-the-boot, defense-splitting through-ball at a full sprint. Cade Cowell, goal machine, can do that???? He eliminated the entire Dallas defense with one touch!

Kevin De Bruyne would be stoked to add that pass to his highlight reel. I am just blown away.

Dallas, of course, were just blown out. Their own young goal machine, 18-year-old Ricardo Pepi, came off the bench to get a late consolation goal, but through two games they really haven’t shown much that says they’re taking a step forward this year. I wonder how long the 3-4-2-1 is going to last.