Matchday 3 is in the books, and it gave us all a wonderful reminder of what a grind early-season MLS typically is. Year after year this is the lowest-scoring point of the season because teams just don’t have enough reps to be sharp with the ball – they’re more likely to disorganize themselves than their opponents up until about Matchday 6 or so.
We saw that all over the league this weekend. But let’s start in Charlotte, where it was particularly gruesome…
There was a dose of what I felt was justified optimism around Charlotte heading into this season. They had executed a textbook course correction in 2022 after Miguel Angel Ramírez’s… I guess we’ll call them “struggles,” going 10W-11L-2D after Christian Lattanzio took over in late spring. In the process, they’d established a compelling style of play (Lattanzio’s a City Football Group guy), figured out how to put DP Karol Swiderski in influential spots, and started squeezing more out of players like Brandt Bronico, Derrick Jones and Andre Shinyashiki than their previous clubs had managed.
The vibes were good, and there was reason to think, with the addition of a new DP No. 9 and a full preseason of learning Lattanzio’s system under everyone’s belts, that they’d come into 2023 and look like a more polished version of what worked so well in the back half of 2022.
270 minutes and three truly dispiriting losses have ruined those good vibes. Charlotte got worked 3-0 at home by Atlanta United early Saturday afternoon, a humbling loss that followed a 3-1 humiliation at St. Louis, which followed on the heels of their late, 1-0 home heartbreak against the Revs to open the season.
It is bad and while that is frustrating, I think the more frustrating part is that this feels like Ramírez-style self-inflicted badness born of a commitment to over-complicating the team’s entire approach. Let me run through it real quick:
- Charlotte are playing a base 4-2-3-1 set which is supposed to evolve into a 3-2-2-3 in possession.
- The evolution comes when the right-footed left back (Bronico) pushes up to underlap into central deep central midfield next to Jones.
- That releases the other deep central midfielder (Ashley Westwood) to push forward and orchestrate from the ball-side half-space, while the nominal No. 10 (Shinyashiki) pushes to the weak-side half-space as a connector.
- The right winger (Swiderski) stays wide unless possession is on the weak side, in which case he crashes back-post for pullbacks from the very right-footed left winger (Kamil Jozwiak) who has no goals and just four assists in 22 MLS games, and just one goal in his last 92 outings over nearly three years.
That’s a whole lot of moving pieces in midfield, two inverted wingers who actually can’t get to the endline to hit pullbacks, a new center back partnership that’s not protected by a true, stay-at-home 6 (Jones was so good at that last year!), and… woooooo boy does it look like these guys are uncomfortable with all of the above. Every rotation is complex, and thus every rotation is late:
Lattanzio wants this team to use the ball and I’m always a fan of that, but he’s gone about it in such a mad scientist way that his dudes are just lost out there. He even talked about it a bit in the postgame (though it was in reference to Atlanta’s first goal – also scored by left winger Caleb Wiley – rather than the coup de grace in Wiebe’s tweet above):
“When he scores, we go out of position too early. We take, at times, gambles, and this is something that I don’t want,” Lattanzio said. “I always say that we have to have a position where we are building first and we are in support, especially when the ball is on the opposite side, and then we release ourselves. Not to go higher before the ball is played, because then [the breakdown leading to the goal] can happen...
“So they had this moment when we were not rightly positioned, and with the quality they have they find a good pass, and they find a good goal.”
It’s grim right now but I think this is salvageable for the Crown, just as it was last season. A true left back – one who can provide occasional width in the attack – has got to get into the XI for one, and for two, Swiderski needs to be moved back into his shadow striker role underneath the No. 9. He’s not a true 10, but he’s very, very good there (he combines naturally in tight spaces and has an eye for the final ball), and leaving him stranded on the right wing, where he can basically only bend in useless crosses, is a waste of the team’s best attacker.
Put one of Westwood or Bronico alongside Jones and the other one goes to the bench. Put Shinyashiki on the left wing for his box-arriving abilities, or maybe try one of Nuno Santos or Kerwin Vargas there to see if they’ve got more juice. And yeah, that means the current left winger, Jozwiak, has probably played himself to the bench (though I wouldn’t be entirely against the idea of running him out on the right wing with a mandate to stay wide and get to the endline for pullbacks).
It’s a simpler approach, but simpler is often better in this game of ours. And bear in mind that this can still morph into the CFG-approved 3-2-2-3 shape in possession.
Lattanzio figured out how to clean up someone else’s mess last year. Let’s see how long he takes to figure out how to clean up his own.
As for Atlanta, the performance was probably not as promising as the scoreline suggested, but I loved the clear-eyed ruthlessness with which they exploited the disorganization of Charlotte's left side:
Find the gaps created by Charlotte’s confused rotations, attack them, then play across the game channel to the left winger running free. Rinse and repeat and go home with three points.
Let’s move a few hours north and stick with the CFG theme:
I’m on the record – in like a million places – as not liking the idea or the reality of Talles Magno as a false 9. I still think he’s the best left winger in the league if he’s played there every week, and I still think a true center forward who just does basic center forward stuff at a high level would be the best thing for NYCFC’s still-struggling-to-put-the-ball-in-the-net attack.
But for the first time all year, in Saturday’s 1-0 win over previously-perfect Miami in the Bronx, the Pigeons were good at most of the stuff that comes before you put the ball in the net. They looked more comfortable pinging the ball around in their build-up, more ruthless in their press (they forced Jean Mota to lose possession 25 times, which is a TON for a d-mid), and more dangerous in the final third.
Does that make it somewhat amusing that their only goal came when Chris McVey side-footed an own goal past Drake Callender off a set-piece delivery from Santi Rodríguez? Yes, of course it does. But let’s give full credit to Callender because I’m pretty sure something ridiculous like that was the only way he was going to get beat this weekend.
Anyway, back to my point about NYCFC: Magno’s growing comfort with the basics of center forward play was a big part of his side being more dangerous and forcing Callender into a Team of the Matchday-level outing. Go ahead and allow yourself to enjoy a full minute of NYCFC doing typical NYCFC things, and note how Magno plays a different role in all four attacks here:
First, he flares out wide and beats the offside trap, eventually forcing Callender to make a save. The Pigeons press, win the ball back, and this time Magno floats into the playmaker spot but takes a sloppy touch and gives up possession.
The Pigeons press and win the ball back again. This time Magno makes a run up the gut, but can’t quite control Braian Cufré’s chipped ball with his chest.
The Pigeons press and win the ball back yet again (they pressed out of a flattish 4-4-2, which had Miami in hell most of the second half), and this time Talles makes a clever curling run that freezes Sergii Kryvtsov, and opens up a lane for Santi, who gets onto the end of a Keaton Parks slip pass and forces Callender into maybe his best save of the night.
“NYCFC got better in the second half. They got more in control in terms of stopping us building,” Miami manager Phil Neville said afterward, and he might as well have been calling out that exact sequence (or sequence of sequences).
It didn’t turn directly into a goal, of course, and I’m not going to be convinced that playing this kid as a center forward is the right choice until/unless he starts putting up Taty Castellanos-like numbers. But passages of play like this one paint a fairly plausible path toward NYCFC being good anyway. He allows Rodríguez and Parks (now in a more advanced role with James Sands sitting in as a full-time, protect-the-backline 6) to fill that central channel and, well, that’s kind of the idea of playing a false 9 in the first place: You get other guys to attack a scrambled central defense from angles they’re not used to.
Miami weren’t DOA or anything, though. They had a few good chances of their own in the first half – Josef Martínez was active, if not yet sharp – and continued to show an admirable amount of resoluteness (their xDAWG is very high) in their overall mien. They have come into the season in a “veteran team with something to prove” kind of locked-in approach, and have taken six of nine points (nice) on offer because of it.
But things will have gotten much, much harder if the 73rd-minute injury to Gregore is as bad as it looked. He was in tears as he was stretchered off following a pretty gruesome challenge from Matías Pellegrini.
“We hope it’s not that significant, but when Gregore comes off you know it is not just a kick on the ankle,” Neville said after the game. “We have to wait and see what the diagnosis is. He’s our captain, the heart and soul of our football club.”
12. The Union got themselves what might’ve been a pyrrhic victory on Saturday night, beating the Fire 1-0 on Joaquín Torres’s 90th-minute knuckler (which induced an absolute howler from young Chris Brady in his first start of the year), but losing Andre Blake to what seemed like a groin injury after half an hour in the process. I will be shocked if Blake plays the home leg of their CCL series on Tuesday, which means it’ll be up to veteran backup Joe Bendik.
“He’ll get an MRI. But with a groin injury, I always fear the worst, you know?” head coach Jim Curtin said when asked about Blake’s status in the postgame. “Andre has been a quick healer in the past. I don’t want to speculate too much.”
Fire head coach Ezra Hendrickson took a page from Cincy’s book and went with a 3-5-2 in this one, a formation that Curtin has admitted has given Philly trouble in the past (three center backs to handle two center forwards is the math that brought the 3-5-2 to prominence in the first place 40 years ago). That turned the game into something of a car crash, and I’d argue it was one Chicago were getting the better of until Fabian Herbers’ deserved sending-off in the 50th minute.
Add in Xherdan Shaqiri having to come off in the 76th minute for yet another bout of hamstring tightness and a 93rd-minute red card for Kei Kamara, and what had started off as a promising night for the Fire ended as something close to a disaster.
“It's a very difficult place to come get points. So I'm extremely proud of the guys, the response from a poor performance in the Dominican [Republic] was washed away quickly tonight and the guys worked extremely hard,” head coach Josh Wolff said afterward. "It was needed."
Here’s Gallagher’s golazo with the full, 19-pass build-up that preceded it:
I feel like a clip of that kind of sustained build-up directly through central midfield against RSL is making this column basically every week. They’re very clearly trying to play a compact mid-block, but they’re missing the “compact” part.
10. Orlando finally scored, with Duncan McGuire’s tap-in marking their first goal of the season in any competition before D.C.’s Chris Durkin equalized with 10 minutes left en route to a hang-on-for-dear-life 1-1 final in the District.
Oscar Pareja has very clearly chosen heavy squad rotation and a “grind out results” approach to this first part of the season as his side juggles CCL (they had a very, very credible 0-0 draw at El Volcán midweek) and MLS play.
"Sometimes you need to choose: What do you want? Do you want consistency with the lineup and the players that are competing in the first team?” Pareja asked in the postgame presser. “Or [do you want the first team rested for] the main competition that we just had in this leg for the Champions League, and try to advance?”
The answer for Pareja, obviously, is to keep his first team as fresh as possible for Tigres. I think that is the right call – Orlando have a real shot now, especially since André-Pierre Gignac has no shots of his own – even if it has made for some brutal viewing early on this year (though keep in mind that even without CCL play Pareja’s teams often start the year with a less-than-aesthetically-pleasing bent).
D.C. switched to a 4-3-3 in this one and it was both fun and effective (Christian Benteke had six shots, all of which were good looks). Pedro Gallese just went full octopus, and that was enough for the point.
I will grant that this came after they destroyed Real Espana 5-0 in midweek CCL play so there was probably some amount of fatigue at play in the second half. But still, the attacking balance right now is not great for the ‘Caps. Too often their center forward, be it Brian White or Sergio Córdova, is stranded, and they basically never have early width to play to. That means their ability to create via possession is limited, and yes, this has been a longstanding issue.
Dallas will probably look back on this game and kick themselves for not taking all three. They weren’t great by any stretch, but they had better ideas going forward. Nico Estévez seems to be loosening the reins from last year’s very, very tactical approach and allowing his side a little more room for improvisation.
8. Just a super professional, “don’t any of you forget for a single second that we’re the damn champs” performance from LAFC in their 4-0 win over the Revs late Sunday night. New England obviously weren’t good, but this was so, so much more about the Black & Gold being absolutely excellent than anything the visitors were doing wrong.
Through three games now across MLS and CCL play LAFC have only had about 20 bad minutes, and they’ve gotten meaningful contributions from some guys who were relative question marks heading into the season. I’m not saying they’re better than last year, but they are performing as if they intend for that to be a point of discussion.
I am, in short, very, very glad folks talked me into keeping them in Tier 1 in my annual preview column.
As for the Revs, they didn’t have Carles Gil from the start – he was carrying a knock – and then they saw him limp off in the 90th minute with what appeared to be a reaggravation. I don’t know if they would be good enough against most teams without Gil, but what’s 100% obvious is they were no match for LAFC without him.
Also, this happened:
By the way, MLS teams went 0W-4L-0D with no goals scored and -7 goal differential in their league games after the first round of CCL play last year. This year’s group went 3W-0L-2D with a +6 goal differential.
I’m calling that anecdotal evidence of the growing depth – thanks to the homegrown pipeline and the U22 Initiative – in the league.
7. Here is the good news for Sporting KC through three games: They seem to have fixed their longstanding defensive issues, and have conceded just once all season. The midfield has been very good about not getting stretched, the backline has eliminated simple mistakes, and young goalkeeper John Pulskamp has bounced back from a soft concession in the season opener to string together two very solid outings.
He’s getting into the right spots, but can’t quite remember where the goal is.
That’s a first-world problem compared to the Galaxy’s issues – they were outshot 30-to-8 and spent the whole game hanging on for dear life. One point from two Western Conference road games to start the season is probably fine, to be fair, but through 180 minutes they’ve looked poor.
“I was proud of our guys for the grit, the determination and the effort. I thought it was a character point on our behalf. We weren't great with the ball tonight by any stretch – so many transitions to have to defend because we lost possession too easily at times in the first half,” Greg Vanney explained.
“Structurally we were kind of all over the place, which led to transitions where you spend a lot of energy on the defensive side and a lot of energy protecting your goal and defending the box. But that's not something that we've typically been great at and tonight we did what we had to do to get a point in a tough place and not on our best night.”
6. Snow. Frozen tundra. Orange ball. Set pieces.
That’s the story of RBNY’s 1-1 draw at Minnesota on Saturday night, a game in which the Loons completed just under 48% of their passes – the lowest single-game number recorded in league history. Forever ever.
RBNY were only marginally more precise, completing just 52.4% of their passes. That’s ninth-lowest in the database as per TruMedia via StatsPerform. Seven of the nine in that set are either from the Red Bulls or their opponents, all since 2016.
5. Last week I wrote about how Cincy showed more patience in their build-up in their scoreless draw at Orlando. This week they went in a different direction, pressing the hell out of Seattle at every opportunity and eventually riding that to a 1-0 win courtesy of a turnover, quick build and a sweet finish from Brenner:
That’s Obinna Nwobodo – my vote for Player of the Matchday – keying the whole thing by forcing Nico Lodeiro into a huge turnover. Nwobodo is the type of midfielder who can be the best player on the field in these types of high-level games, and if you have guys like that you can win shiny things.
Seattle invited it a bit by stationing João Paulo and Albert Rusnak a little bit deeper than normal (presumably as a way of cutting off service to Lucho Acosta). But that had the knock-on effect of pushing Lodeiro deeper, which let Nwobodo and his partner Junior Moreno run a little bit wild, and that was the ballgame.
The Sounders, of course, have won shiny things with their group, and I remain convinced that these two will end up being the top two regular-season teams when it’s all said and done. This was a really, really good game.
4. Colorado’s trip to San Jose did not produce a good game. The Rapids played out of a 5-4-1 with an extra center back to try to limit Jeremy Ebobisse (it worked) and an extra midfielder to try to kill the Quakes’ rhythm in build-up (fairly effective) and a very deep line in order to dare the Quakes' wingers or attacking midfielders to beat them (bet).
It took a late, deflected, 19-yard effort from Cristian Espinoza to beat William Yarbrough and secure the 1-0 win, but you could see San Jose were purposeful in how they were trying to break the Colorado bunker throughout.
“We are always working on different situations when the other teams drop too much and they have very tight lines and we can combine between them,” Espinoza said afterward about facing such a deep block. “Today we had a great game in managing the ball side to side, we tried to move them. And after that, we tried to find the spaces between them. So, today I think was a very good game for us.”
The Rapids, to their credit, did find occasional chances on the break. But it’s getting harder and harder to ball on a budget in MLS.
3. Both Toronto and Columbus committed hard to trying to play through the other’s press in what eventually became a 1-1 draw at BMO Field on Saturday night. Neither was all that good at it, which of course made the game fun since there were a lot of chances (many of them generated from turnovers off of passages of play that I think, later in the season, will be a little bit crisper).
Amidst the early-season slop, though, there was some real good stuff, and in particular, the whole build-up to Deandre Kerr’s opener was a study of how Bob Bradley wants his team to use the ball to disorganize opponents. Watch, in particular, starting at 23:47 on the game clock in this clip below when Federico Bernardeschi sucks Aidan Morris into his gravity well, then drags him out of the half-space… which is subsequently filled by Jonathan Osorio, who provides the assist:
Poor Philip Quinton sees it happening – he’s pointing to Osorio in the half-space, but Morris goes with Bernardeschi, and Alexandru Matan doesn’t drop deep, and Quinton himself doesn’t step. And folks, that’s how goals are made.
On the flip side, there was a very cool moment in the 33rd minute during a stoppage. Wilfried Nancy’s there with a tactics board talking to Matan, Morris, Darlington Nagbe and Steven Moreira, and immediately afterward Matan started to come deeper and find the half spaces/pockets more. And then suddenly the Crew were breaking Toronto's lines more than they had in the first half-hour.
Look how it changed the balance of possession for the rest of the game:
(Graphic design is my passion.)
Remember that possession matters to both these teams – Toronto had created four chances in the first 30 minutes, and only managed three more for the rest of the night.
If you’re a junky looking to rewatch one game from the weekend, this might be it.
2. It was another very good outing for Nashville, who buried CF Montréal on counters and set pieces en route to a 2-0 win that didn’t feel that close even though Taylor Washington didn’t really finish it off until the 89th minute.
Even better than the scoreline from the ‘Yotes was the performance of Hany Mukhtar, who started and lasted all the way until the 91st minute before coming off, and who assisted on Jacob Shaffelburg’s thunderous opener. Gary Smith deserves a ton of credit for his patience over the past few weeks in handling his star player.
He also deserves credit for the buy-in he’s gotten from Mukhtar and everyone else in regard to the Nashville game model. They’re Nashville’ing even harder this year – sitting deeper, playing more direct, and doing everything in their power to entice teams upfield. And when you’ve got wingers like Shaffelburg and Fafà Picault, and you’ve got Mukhtar (one of the best open-field attackers in MLS history) pulling the strings, and you’ve got Teal Bunbury (not scoring, but still moving well and showing more ruggedness than ever in his hold-up play) leading the line… why would you play any other way?
Montréal, meanwhile, look lost. The combination of their offseason exodus and the abrupt shift from Wilfried Nancy’s methodical approach to Hernan Losada’s Maximum Overdrive has just been too much too soon.
That finish (lack thereof) from Rasmus Alm is about the only thing that’s gone wrong for CITY in this magical start to their first MLS campaign. They are getting high-level production from their DPs (Klauss has been great, as has Eduard Löwen), they are getting buy-in from their MLS vets (Tim Parker seems to be having fun again and Jared Stroud is finally getting enough playing time to prove that, yes, he is a starting-caliber MLS winger), they are developing their homegrowns already (a start and 66 combative minutes from 17-year-old Miggy Perez at d-mid), and in Kyle Hiebert, they’ve got one of the happiest “scrappy underdog” stories since Wondo broke onto the scene 13 years ago.
And they have nine points from three games. As per Opta, 18 of the previous 19 teams to have pulled off that trick have made the playoffs. The vibes couldn’t be better.
The vibes in Portland obviously could be. I’ll sum it up in two points:
- Their record signing, Evander, has created just one chance in 237 minutes.
- They lost a home game to an expansion team because they let a free kick bounce in the six-yard box.
There’s work to be done.