Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Bale an odd fit for LAFC, losing Taty would hit NYCFC hard & more from Week 21

Heineken Rivalry Week has come to an end. In we go:

Hit and Run

If this is the last we’ll see of Taty Castellanos, the reigning Golden Boot presented by Audi winner and current leading scorer, it was an appropriate farewell:

Castellanos, who has pretty clearly expressed his desire to be sold to a team in Europe this window, scored the only goal in NYCFC’s 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls in Harrison. It was the first win for the Pigeons against RBNY in Jersey since 2017, and it was the latest entry in the book of just how much Taty has developed since arriving in 2018 (remember when he was a winger who couldn’t finish?).

  • He scored 23 goals in his first 86 games for NYCFC across all competitions.
  • He’s scored 36 in his past 47 across all comps since then.

That is what development looks like in raw numbers. As it is, Castellanos will stand alongside Miguel Almiron as one of the two biggest victories in MLS history when it comes to developing Latin American prospects. He is proof of concept not only for opening a Latin American pipeline to make money, but also to do so in order to win hardware.

“Last season, the Golden Boot speaks for itself, and then this year, he’s still scoring goals, he’s still up there, he’s still leading on the goal-scoring chart. I think for him, it’s the type of guy that he is,” said interim head coach Nick Cushing. “He’s a really good guy, he’s really committed. For myself, being interim head coach, he’s shown me full support and full dedication to the way I want to adjust the team.”

He is a player NYCFC will miss badly when he’s gone. For the time being – and this is all being written with the idea that Taty’s sale is imminent – the obvious solution is to go with Heber, who has bagged at least one goal in each of his past four starts, including the game-winner midweek down in Dallas. He’s now got five goals in 450 regular-season minutes this year, and finally looks like the guy who scored 15 times in 1600 minutes during his debut season back in 2019.

But those adjustments Cushing mentioned are just as big an issue. While nine points from their past three games and a perch atop the Eastern Conference standings (on PPG) paints a pretty picture, the Pigeons have had weird defensive issues in the eight games since Cushing stepped in for Ronny Deila. They didn’t pop up in this win because the Red Bulls don’t do possession, so they’re not equipped to exploit NYCFC’s Achilles heel, but they were there midweek when NYCFC were up against it in Dallas the whole time, and even last week when up a man at home against New England, this happened:

I’m not just seeing things, as the numbers bear out that NYCFC have been all too willing to let opponents knock the ball around and break them down over the past two months. As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data:

  • The Pigeons pressed about 105 times per game in their defensive third under Deila; that number has dropped to 94 times per game – 21st in the league – under Cushing.
  • Their pressures per possession in the defensive third have dropped a shade over 5% since Cushing took over.
  • In the final 15 minutes of games under Deila, they disrupted possession within five seconds on 55% of their pressures. Under Cushing that’s down a staggering amount, to just under 43%.

I do think that Keaton Parks’s absence – he had surgery on his calf for another blood clot at the end of last month, and I have not seen anything official regarding how long he’ll be out – is at least somewhat correlated, but it’s pretty obvious there’s a new, underlying and weird structural issue that this team’s dealing with. And that they’ll have to deal with it just as they’re trying to figure out how to replace the best striker in the league.

Plan and Execution

On March 12, Inter Miami CF lost 2-0 to LAFC and found themselves down at the bottom of the standings, on one point from three games. Manager Phil Neville came out in the press afterwards and laid a challenge at the feet of his star player, Gonzalo Higuain.

“I just wanted more quality from my quality players,” Neville said after that loss. “Every team we’ve played against, their quality players stand up and score. Ours don’t and they need to.”

Higuain got two more games in the starting lineup to respond. In fairness, he scored twice (two PKs) but he was otherwise ineffective. The Herons lost both games and, when they came out against the Revs on April 9, there was no Pipita in the XI.

His replacement, Leo Campana, dropped a hat-trick in that one. Miami ran a lot – everybody worked – and won 3-2.

That has been Inter’s defining trait since that game; everybody runs, everybody works. Including that win over the Revs they are now 7W-5L-3D in their past 15 outings, a stretch that also includes Saturday’s dramatic, come-from-behind 3-2 win over visiting Charlotte, one in which everybody ran, everybody worked, and at the final whistle, one of Miami’s heroes was none other than super-sub Gonzalo Higuain.

This time, when he mentioned Higuain without actually mentioning him, Neville was all praise. “Our substitutes won us the game" he said in the postmatch presser, and he was not wrong.

With that in mind, it remains pretty clear that dropping Higuain back in early spring has been one of the best coaching decisions anybody’s made this season. It gave Miami a teamwide ethos, rather than a “team ostensibly slapped together around one guy who’s definitely not the player he was four years ago” ethos.

"They're creating their own culture, they're creating their own identity," Neville said of his side. "And I suppose the identity that we're seeing is that this team never knows when it's beat, it never knows when to give up, and it scores late goals."

They have, in other words, become resilient. It shows in the numbers, as Miami are among the league leaders in points won from a trailing position, and have dropped the second-fewest points in the league when leading. My notion in watching them on Saturday night was to see how Alejandro Pozuelo fit (first half: bad; second half; quite good!), but it was that resilience and the bench mob – Higuain, Bryce Duke and Emerson Rodriguez – that stole the show, and stole the points.

Higuain buying into all of the above is a big part of it. He has started just once since April 2, but rather than pack it in he’s embraced his super-sub role, scoring a goal in each of his past two games after coming on at the hour mark. The contributions of Rodriguez, who scored his first MLS goal (the stoppage-time match-winner) are obvious this weekend just by looking at the boxscore. They are both in Fort Lauderdale to score goals, and on Saturday they did, and so Miami won.

Duke’s contributions are less obvious, but were unmissable if you were watching the game. I’ll admit that I didn’t particularly rate Duke during his LAFC years, but his energy is infectious and he has had a Latif Blessing-like impact on this Miami team, getting pressure on the opponent’s build-out early, often and virtually everywhere, forcing turnovers and then having enough smarts and skill to immediately turn those won possessions into penetration.

As so (note that it’s Higuain doing the pressing here):

Duke’s quietly been doing stuff like this for a couple of months now, playing primarily as a half-space merchant rather than as a pure 10 or a pure winger. With Pozuelo’s arrival, Duke is probably going to have to adjust to a new role – most likely coming off the bench along with Higuain, and most likely doing some read-and-react positional swapping with Pozuelo, who’s a true No. 10 but who truly loves to drift out wide. It is complicated, but in 35 minutes on the pitch together on Saturday night, they made it look pretty simple.

And “simple” keeps being the key for Miami, since there’s nothing simpler than “everybody runs, everybody works.” It took a while but it feels like they’ve got the baseline fundamentals correct, and now with Higuain bought in and Pozuelo in town, they can start adding a bit of magic to the mix.

Charlotte wasted a magical night from Yordy Reyna, who scored in the first minute and the 42nd and was generally excellent, but I’m not going to ding them too hard since they pretty clearly lost their legs in the second half and expansion teams, as a rule, tend not to have the kind off game-changing depth Miami were able to bring off the bench.

Still though, if they miss the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs by a point or two they’ll go back, look at this one and think about the three points they let slip away.

A few more things to ponder…

12. Austin FC won their first piece of hardware:

FC Dallas are one of the worst teams in the league at protecting a lead. Verde are this year’s very best at coming from behind to collect a point or three. And that’s exactly how it played out, as Diego Fagundez’s late equalizer gave Austin a 1-1 draw and a trophy.

Verde, like Miami, are well balanced and resilient (unlike Miami, they have also been explosive when they’ve gotten the chance to be this year), and in Brad Stuver they have a match-winner of a goalkeeper. Stuver kept his team in the game throughout the first half and into the second half, with the highlight being one absolutely spectacular stop on a Dallas breakaway in the 69th minute. That gave the attack enough time to figure out a way how to claw back in, and as has been happening all year long, that’s what Fagundez, Sebastian Driussi & Co. did.

Dallas are now winless in seven and have just one win in 10. They have made a habit of controlling games but never putting them away, and head coach Nico Estevez said as much afterward.

“We had a couple chances and in the counterattacks we were able to hurt them. We have to score in certain plays of the match,” Estevez said. “We are living in a cruel moment of the sport, any mistake and any misfortune can affect us. Every time that we don’t punish a team, we get punished instead.”

As per TruMedia, they are the first team since Toronto FC, back in 2013, to draw four straight matches that they’ve led in the 75th minute or later. Ooof.

11. Revs fans, look away:

Last year, en route to winning the Supporters’ Shield and setting the single-season points record, New England dropped just six points from a winning position. A lot has changed.

Of course, a lot changed over the course of the Union’s come-from-behind (naturally) 2-1 win in Chester on Saturday night. Jim Curtin brought his team out in a 4-3-2-1ish 4-2-3-1, with the idea of denying Carles Gil space in central midfield, as well as getting pressure on New England’s fullbacks.

In a way it worked as the Revs didn’t create anything except for Gustavo Bou’s 61st-minute goal (off an absolutely stunning build-up). But the trade-off for Philly wasn’t worth it as neither Paxten Aaronson nor Leon Flach – Philly’s two “wingers” on the night, and yes those are air quotes – were able to get in behind off of Julian Carranza’s movement, while neither fullback was getting upfield to provide useful width. Switching to the 4-2-3-1 neutralized both teams.

So at the 65th minute Curtin made two changes, flipped back to the preferred 4-4-2 diamond, had his team go more direct and spend the next quarter-hour just pumping the Revs. Philly’s sequences up until that point had been dying with low-percentage shots from zone 14. Over the final 25 minutes they just played directly into the box, always with multiple runners, and made the Revs scramble on the back foot.

The Revs have not done that well this year. And so the Union, who had won just two of 12 entering July, got themselves a set-piece goal and a PK, and have now won three straight and climbed back to the top of the East.

10. I basically threw dirt on the Fire’s season in this column last weekend after their catastrophic 3-2 home loss to the Crew, one in which Chicago blew a 2-0 lead in the game’s final 20 minutes. I’m pretty sure everyone outside that locker room thought they were done.

The guys inside the locker room obviously had a different idea. They responded with a six-point week, blasting Toronto FC 2-0 on Wednesday and then strangling Seattle en route to a pretty comfortable 1-0 win on Saturday. And don’t look now, but the Fire are 4W-3L-0D in their past seven, and just four points below the playoff line.

There has been nothing fancy in any of this, as they’re still almost exclusively a 4-2-3-1 team. They’ve just managed to reduce the number of unforced errors they’ve made defensively (last weekend’s meltdown was kind of an outlier recently), while at the same time have gotten more productivity from young attackers like Brian Gutierrez and Jhon Duran.

And now they’re starting to feel it, from the players in the locker room all the way to the top of the org chart.

“Let’s let the season play out. We still have [13] games left, so there’s still a lot of the season to go. The story’s not over yet for this year. I’m still optimistic we’ll make the playoffs.”

Those are the words of owner Joe Mansueto, who gave Brian Sandalow of the Chicago Sun-Times a few minutes this weekend. It’s worth a read.

Not much optimism right now in Seattle as the Sounders have dropped three straight. Their big issue currently is how slow and predictable they are in the build-up, which puts them in a position where they’re always facing a compact defense. The two causes:

  • With both Joao Paulo and Obed Vargas out, they’re not as crisp playing through central midfield.
  • As good as Nouhou is defensively in a back 3 or 5, he is a massive negative in possession & attack as a fullback in a back four, as he’s neither able to complete progressive passes, nor beat defenders off the dribble, nor get to the primary assist zone for pullbacks.

So they can’t build up the left side and are worse than they used to be building through the middle. Everybody they face knows this. It ain’t great.

9. The Galaxy’s season is rapidly (I’m so sorry) starting to slip away following their 2-0 loss in Colorado on Saturday night. LA are now just 2W-6L-2D in their past 10, and the underlying numbers (which had been mostly good up until summer) are now catching up to the results (they’ve been really, really poor at limiting chance quality over the past month).

Anger is starting to spill over from the locker room into the press.

“We’re not playing as a team. There’s a lot of people playing as individuals,” center back Derrick Williams said afterward – and he was not the only player with sharp words for the squad. “The manager gives us clear instructions and there’s times where people don’t want to do that. It’s frustrating.

“I feel for the staff because they put so much work in and then when it comes to the game, some people just have their own agendas. It’s frustrating and we can’t just keep going on like this because it’s not good enough and we’re sick of losing. It’s just not good enough.”

The Rapids broke a six-game winless skid with the dub, and it’s worth noting that since Austin Trusty’s departure at the start of the month, Robin Fraser has gone away from the 3-4-2-1 and back to the 4-3-3. They’re still direct, but are possessing the ball a bit more and are unbeaten (a win and two draws) since that change.

8. Minnesota United are now unbeaten in five, with four wins and a draw, following Saturday night’s ho-hum 2-0 win over visiting D.C. United.

There is rarely anything new to pull apart with Minnesota because Adrian Heath so rarely changes his team’s shape or principles of play. In this one, the Loons – who always play a 4-2-3-1, and are very good at applying selective pressure – beat a less-talented 4-4-2 team in the way you’d expect: they dominated central midfield, constantly got their No. 10 on the ball in the half-spaces, and turned their pressure into chances and, eventually, the game’s second goal.

Also, here’s Luis Amarilla with our Pass of the Week:

Reynoso has been the league’s best player since the international break, with 7g/2a in seven games.

7. CF Montréal had been missing their playmaker since before the international break, and were finally treated to the happy sight of Djordje Mihailovic’s return in a 1-0 Canadian Classique win over visiting Toronto on Saturday.

Mihailovic played the final half-hour and wasn’t particularly influential, though the game’s only goal did come just after he was subbed on. More telling, though, is that despite the fact that the game was scoreless for 69 minutes, and despite the fact that Montréal played the final 10 minutes a man down, this result felt inevitable. Toronto are adrift and directionless in attack; in defense, they are dislocated and mistake-prone. Only a monster performance from Alex Bono in net kept it close.

For the purposes of the playoff race, the change in Montréal’s goal were almost certainly the bigger story. Wilfried Nancy hinted last week, after a disastrous performance in a home loss to Sporting KC, that Sebastian Breza had finally done enough to lose the No. 1 job. This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing – Breza has been, by most metrics, the worst ‘keeper in the league this year and Montréal are underperforming defensively by miles because of it (though not exclusively because of it).

And so James Pantemis got the nod on Saturday. Truth be told he didn’t have much to do, making just four routine saves. But if he can be just league average at keeping the ball out of the net, that’ll be a massive upgrade for CFM over the season’s final two-and-a-half months.

6. I don’t have the right words to describe the utter chaos of the final 10 minutes (plus stoppage) of Orlando City’s 1-1 draw at Atlanta on Sunday afternoon, so let’s let the highlight reel do the talking:

The game had entered the Tactics Free Zone at this point, so I’m not sure there’s a ton to analyze from how it played out beyond saying that 1) Juan Sanchez Purata has adjusted to MLS real quick, and 2) Orlando continue their trend of blowing it late in games (their goal differential in the final 30 minutes of games is -10 on the year).

For the first one of those: Boy, did Atlanta need that!

For the second: I still have no concrete explanation why a team with as much talent as Orlando exert so little pitch control through central midfield. The result is that they were outshot 18-3 and out-xG’d 2.2-0.2, and this is not unusual – they’ve spent a good chunk of this season hanging on by a thread.

It got them a very useful road point in this one, but all the numbers are flashing a giant warnings sign that things have to get better if they’re going to stay above the line.

5. Four goals in three games for Cucho Hernandez, who became just the eighth player in MLS history with a goal in each of his first three appearances as the Crew made hell real for FC Cincinnati in Sunday night’s 2-0 win in Columbus.

It’s been a hand-in-glove fit for Cucho, whose movement – both the speed and decisiveness of that movement – is not only leading to chances for himself, but is the type of movement that scrambles opposing backlines and opens space for the rest of the guys in the attack. That’s how the Crew ended up generating 17 shots, 13 of which were from inside the box.

Last three games:

This is how you dream of a No. 9 and a No. 10 meshing together. Columbus are now unbeaten in eight and have climbed above Cincy into sixth in the East.

Cincinnati, who have now won just once in their past nine, badly missed Luciano Acosta. When he gets back he’s got to keep his temper bottled for the rest of the season.

4. LAFC went to Nashville on Sunday night and did two things.

Thing No. 1: Take care of business. They did that by getting a goal midway through the first half from Chicho Arango to make it 1-0, and then a goal from Jose Cifuentes early in the second half to make it 2-1. That scoreline stood up and LAFC walked away with all three points. Successful trip, especially because Chicho’s goal was sick:

I’m giving him full credit for that touch around Daniel Lovitz. He meant it.

Thing No. 2: Give Giorgio Chiellini and Gareth Bale their debuts and see how they fit. Chiellini, who started at CB (duh) and went for an hour, fit fine of course. Bale… it was different. He came on for the final 18 minutes and while he got a few touches on the ball, none of them were in dangerous spots and he, himself, created no danger.

Part of this was surely rust, but part of it is that Bale and Carlos Vela tend to want to operate in the same pockets of space. Steve Cherundolo tried to mitigate this by subbing off Arango and putting Vela central as more of a false 9, which in theory allows Bale to spend his time inverted on the right.

In practice, though, it made LAFC less dangerous. Arango is the type of true center forward who’s always worrying opposing CBs, flitting in and out of their peripheral vision and working to either get in behind or get into the half-space and play a winger in. He also unclogs the midfield just by staying high and occupying those center backs.

It’s just not like that when Vela’s out there as a false 9, and I don’t think Bale being on the right wing will change that.

The obvious thing would be to play Bale on the left and Vela in his natural spot inverted on the right. I’m not sure why, if even for a few minutes, that wasn’t the first thing Cherundolo tried.

Nashville continue to be who they’ve been all year: just kind of a middling team with too much talent at the back to go into the tank, but without enough talent up top to go on any sort of a run.

3. It took RSL 50 minutes to break through, but there was never any real doubt that they would against a Sporting KC side that provided little resistance through midfield and almost zero danger in attack. The Claret-and-Cobalt – who switch the field as well as anybody in the league – were able to create constant wide overloads and then just blitzed Sporting’s center backs with multiple runners in the box. All three goals in the 3-0 final came from that pattern of play.

The win put a halt to a four-game winless skid for the hosts. Not a coincidence that corresponded with Justen Glad’s return to full health.

2. Our Face of the Week is Pain, by Jeremy Ebobisse:

The Quakes had not played all that well, but they were sitting on a 1-0 lead against the visiting Dynamo midway through the second half when their brains broke. Jackson Yueill played an unforgivable back-pass to gift Houston an equalizer. Ebobisse missed that chance above. Then Eric Remedi got stripped by Darwin Quintero, who teed up Thor Ulfarsson for the game-winner.

It’s the kind of absolutely brutal, self-inflicted loss that was a hallmark of this team under Matias Almeyda, and is the first of this sort since they parted ways with the former manager.

The Dynamo absolutely needed this one, which snapped a four-game winless skid and brought them to within three points of the playoff line in the West. Like LAFC they have some fit issues – with Hector Herrera and Coco Carrasquilla starting in front of Matias Vera in central midfield, Darwin Quintero played as something of a false 9 in a 4-3-3, dropping deeper in possession to turn it into more of a 4-4-2 diamond.

It showed some promise, though I have my doubts about how it’ll work against teams that are able to wrest midfield control away. The Quakes never really pulled that off.

1. And finally, the coolest thing to come out of Vancouver’s hard-fought and entertaining 1-1 draw at Portland late on Sunday night was this clever kick-off routine from the ‘Caps to start the second half:

The game played out largely as I expected it to once I saw the lineups. By going with a 3-5-2 with two true center forwards (Brian White & Lucas Cavallini), the ‘Caps were lined up for long-balls, crosses and counters. And of course White got their only goal with a diving header off an inch-perfect cross from left wingback Ryan Raposo.

The Timbers, meanwhile, lacked the midfield guile necessary to break Vancouver down from open play because Eryk Williamson was suspended. They just can’t replicate what he brings to the table when he’s not there.

So in the end a draw – one that left both teams just below the line out West – was probably fair.