The new season has begun. As is usually the case in MLS, home teams fared pretty well.
Nobody, of course, fared better than the Sounders. Let’s start there:
After the Rain
Maybe the Sounders were reading their press clippings, the ones (like mine!) that said they'd take a step backward this year, and maybe that ticked them off, and maybe they used that as fuel.
They didn’t play like it for 45 minutes in Friday night’s 4-0 home win over visiting Minnesota United, as I’d argue that the Loons had the better of the early play even if it was Seattle that had the better of the chances. But by the time the final whistle blew I was feeling pretty skeptical about my prior firmly held belief that 2021 would mark a year of regression in Rave Green.
I’m not set to do a complete about face, but this game against a good opponent while playing without Nico Lodeiro and trotting out a new formation — a 3-5-2, which I don’t think we’ve seen more than a handful of times in the Brian Schmetzer era — is a significant data point. Yes, Seattle struggled a bit in the first half. They followed it up with a much better second half capped by a dominant final 20 minutes in which they were able to almost constantly create both qualitative and dynamic superiority.
In other words they used their superior talent to isolate Minnesota’s weakest links, then exploit them. Seattle’s first goal, a Joao Paulo banger from 27 yards straight out of Darlington Nagbe’s playbook, was the most spectacular, and their third was the most aesthetically pleasing (to me, anyway). But their second provided the best example of what they were trying to inflict upon Minnesota’s backline:
Shouts to Chris Russell for that video
Get Brent Kallman isolated and force him to make plays. For 70 minutes Kallman hung on in grim determination, and then the dam broke.
You could actually see the gameplan written in Cristian Roldan’s positioning. Roldan was nominally filling in as a No. 10 for Lodeiro, but he played less as an attacking hub and more as an extra runner, sort of a central winger who tilted toward the right in order to create overloads and pull the Loons apart.
It is readily apparent in the network passing graph, which shows up in the matchcenter under the stats tab. Roldan is No. 7:
“During the first half, we were still trying to adapt and still trying to figure it out, and then at halftime, the coach was very clear with us that we needed to keep calm and keep trying the same way, and that things were going to happen,” said Raul Ruidiaz, who had a brace and looked right at home up top with both Will Bruin and, later, Fredy Montero. “So, we did that, and thankfully the goals started to come.”
Joao Paulo was less cagey: “We made the adjustments for the second half, particularly when it comes to building up the play,” said the DP defensive midfielder, who got on the ball more than anybody else on the field, and very much looked the part of a DP.
For what it's worth, my long-standing criticisms of Schmetzer are that the Sounders have never put together a dominant regular-season under him, and that he hasn’t done much in terms of getting Seattle’s academy talent on a track to the first-team. So far so good on the first count, obviously, and it was a super-promising start on the second given the performance of 19-year-old Josh Atencio (No. 84 in the above graphic) in that double pivot.
More on Atencio coming in my midweek column.
I’m giving the Loons a mulligan in Week 1. You can’t force me to write them off no matter how much they looked like the 2017, Demidov-vintage Loons.
Shock and Delight
Seattle vs. Minnesota was a matchup of two teams who were largely very good last year, and are expected to be largely very good this year. Inter Miami hosting the LA Galaxy on Sunday was … not precisely the opposite of that, but somewhere in that realm. I think there’s a general consensus that both teams have the chance to actually be very good this year, even if there is some understandable “prove it!”-rooted skepticism that they’ll actually manage as much.
That skepticism will remain after Week 1, which produced a highly entertaining come-from-behind 3-2 Galaxy win in Fort Lauderdale that either maintained already on-the-record concerns, or produced a few new ones:
- Lost their legs by about the 65th minute.
- Have an unreliable central defense that can't handle multiple runners.
- Have an iffy bench which might've contributed to new head coach Phil Neville's ultimately fatal hesitancy in making any subs/adjustments.
- Still have a porous defense, one that was lucky to get off with only two goals conceded.
- Settled for crosses way too easily, even after promising build-up play.
- Were unable to consistently get their playmakers into the half-spaces, which meant that Chicharito was often on an island with no support.
The first half was a particular slog for LA and Chicharito. They had 67% possession, but couldn’t translate that deeper build-up play into possession in more central areas in the attacking third — possession without penetration, basically.
And then they shifted to a 4-4-2 just before the hour mark. Suddenly Chicharito wasn’t up top all alone, and instead of worrying about getting higher and staying tight to the No. 9, Galaxy playmaker Victor Vazquez could just roam.
"I felt like that was it today, they were really releasing their center backs to deal with our players who are kind of in those half spaces," said new Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney afterward, "and so we decided to put a second forward that would really not allow them to do that, and they had a hard time."
Four minutes after the formation change Chicharito got his first of the day, and while Miami had one last gasp to make it 2-1, they never really figured out how to deal with two true forwards on the pitch and they almost entirely lost track of the Little Pea:
LA spent a lot of time trying to play through Chicharito in the 4-2-3-1. When it was the 4-4-2, he was allowed to just be a ghost and find space instead of finding the ball. And so he played what was, by far, the best game of his MLS career.
He then gave an even better postgame interview. Usually these things are rote, but this was not:
If there was one concern written in big letters on the chalkboard heading into 2021 for the Galaxy, it’s that Chicharito wasn’t all there in 2020. I think that concern is buried.
Miami got their silver linings, too:
- Gonzalo Higuain didn’t look his fittest and still hasn’t scored an open-play goal, but he did pot a penalty and registered an assist.
- That assist was the first MLS goal for last year’s No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick, Robbie Robinson, whose head has no doubt been ringing with all the “yeah, but Daryl Dike…” analysis (which is largely fair IMO).
- Blaise Matuidi was awesome for a half, and then good for another 10-15 minutes before he ran out of gas.
- Rodolfo Pizarro was everywhere. He shouldered a Lodeiro-level workload and was really, really good for 70 minutes.
Neville — who, to be clear, had the team playing with more commitment and chemistry than they showed at any point last year — has to put his hand up after this one. Subs were needed and a tactical adjustment was needed, and he didn’t provide either until it was too late.
And so they took a bad beat in Week 1, even if the seeds of something better in the near future have clearly been planted.
A few more things to ponder...
11) The season opened with a very strong performance from a Houston Dynamo FC side that nobody’s expecting much of. They dominated the Quakes for 45 minutes, staked themselves a two-goal lead and held on for a 2-1 win despite having to play the ageless Boniek Garcia at center back. He even got his Paolo Maldini moment:
Houston pressed out of a 4-2-3-1 that looked a lot like a 4-4-2 given how high attacking midfielder Memo Rodriguez, who got the game’s opening goal, was pushing. Adding veteran Joe Corona as a No. 8 next to Matias Vera cut down, at least for Week 1, on the number of transition opportunities Houston conceded. Those were the bane of their existence in 2020.
If there’s one positive from Atlanta’s point of view it’s that new d-mid Santiago Sosa continues to look like he’ll be worth every penny, which marks a pleasant change from many of their recent purchases. For Orlando, it’s that Pato looked lively and inventive before ultimately coming off with a knock with 10 minutes left.
Fingers crossed it’s nothing major, because he was a hell of a lot of fun when he was out there.
9) D.C. United demolition derby’d their way past NYCFC by 2-1 on Saturday night, getting a banger from center back Brendan Hines-Ike and a well-taken volley from Russell Canouse off a Julian Gressel corner.
The Cityzens had some good moments, including and especially the build-up to Taty Castellanos’ goal. But they’re a team without an alpha goalscorer, and it shows.
“We didn’t have any depth in attack,” NYCFC head coach Ronny Deila said afterward. “We didn’t connect on any switches. We’d lose the ball and they’d just kick it over us, the other way.”
D.C. had just 38% possession and connected on just 58% of their passes — an absurdly low number. But that’s almost by design, as new head coach Hernan Losada’s approach seems very much cut from the attritional, “create transition moments by inducing a ton of 50/50s” approach that have defined Red Bull teams across the globe for the past five years.
8) The Red Bulls were one of the few home losers, falling 2-1 in Harrison to Sporting KC. Young Caden Clark gave them a lead early in the second half, but RBNY’s collective tank hit empty just afterward and Sporting punished them with two quick, deserved goals.
It was a very good win for Sporting, who had to go with a makeshift front line and gave an MLS debut to 19-year-old homegrown goalkeeper John Pulskamp thanks to injuries to Tim Melia and Kendall McIntosh.
What stood out about the game, though, was not the surfeit of young talent on display. Rather, it was the frenetic pace, and how committed both teams were to just jamming it down each other’s respective throats. At times it was kind of hilarious how much they eschewed the very concepts of patient build-up or attacking width:
For context, RBNY generated a league-leading 117 possessions per game last season, as per Second Spectrum tracking data. In this game they had 134, and Sporting had 151! That’s a 30% increase over the typical, already frenetic Red Bulls game from last season.
I don’t know if I’m looking forward to the RB vs. D.C. games coming up this summer or if I’m terrified for all involved.
7) The new kids drew arguably the toughest opening assignment possible, heading to downtown LA to visit LAFC. They came away with a pretty predictable result: a 2-0 loss in which the hosts were clearly better.
But there was a ton of positive stuff to takeaway for Austin FC. They have clear ideas of how they want to play -- this is a juego de posicion side -- and clear ideas of how to execute it. They legitimately troubled LAFC, and forced a sterling performance out of Pablo Sisniega.
LAFC looked mostly like we expected despite missing Diego Rossi for all of the game and Carlos Vela for most of it. If Siniega’s performance was the most encouraging part of the win (it was), the the second-most was how they finally manufactured the game’s first goal, i.e. by pressing the hell out of Austin, keeping them penned in and wearing them out until Corey Baird got a sliver of daylight and a lucky deflection.
They play the league’s most attractive soccer, but they’re also among the most vicious with that press. It is an extremely useful Plan B, especially when their Golden Boot winners are out.
6) I really thought there were going to be goals in FC Dallas vs. Colorado, as both teams were going at it early and it just had the feel of one that was not going to end scoreless. And yet, when the final whistle blew, it was 0-0.
The new 3-4-2-1 Luchi Gonzalez is using in Dallas looks interesting. Robin Fraser had the Rapids in their typically super wide 4-1-4-1, and I’d argue they created the best chances, but a draw was probably the right result.
Chris Armas had them come out in the same 4-4-2 and try to employ the same pressing scheme they’d used in their two-legged CCL win over Club Leon, and I get it. If something is working, stick with it.
But the reality is that the Reds had just played two super-intense and emotional games in the previous 10 days, one of which was at altitude and both in the heat. They did so after a five-month break and a limited preseason, and while dealing with myriad injuries. From the whistle they had no legs.
And so the press never really bothered CFM, whose defenders mostly had time to pick passes through the TFC midfield, or to play long and get into transition against a Reds team whose lines couldn’t stay tight because the front line never got pressure to the ball in the first place.
It wasn’t just all long-balls from Montréal, mind you. Wilfried Nancy, who had his side come out in a 3-4-1-2 (or a 3-4-2-1 depending upon how you want to interpret Quioto’s role) had them very, very well prepared to exploit a potential deficiency in their biggest rivals. When that deficiency appeared, they went in for the kill.
Of all the new coaches this week (or old coaches in new places), Nancy had the best debut.
That’s it; that’s the whole game. Credit to Porter for really engaging and describing, to a tee, the differences in formation and tactical approach between the teams, and how that defined the game.
It’s honestly one of the best in-game interviews I’ve ever seen in any sport.
3) In focusing so intently upon how much Portland struggled in the final 15 minutes of games last year, I overlooked/forgot about how much they struggled defending set pieces. The 'Caps reminded me — reminded everyone, really — in Sunday night's 1-0 loss to Vancouver in Utah. The 'Caps created basically nothing from open play, but Lucas Cavallini buried a Cristian Gutierrez corner just past halftime, and that was that (except for a second Vancouver set piece goal which was correctly ruled out about 10 minutes from time).
The 'Caps weren't great, but they did what I've been begging for them to do: defend deep and compact, and try to hit on the counter. The commitment to that in Week 1 is something I hope to see in Weeks 2 and beyond as they're able to piece their roster together.
Portland shouldn't worry too much, as they were victims of the typical post-CCL churn. The five MLS teams that did so well in the CCL over the past two weeks? 0-2-3 with a grand total of two goals scored in Week 1 of the MLS season.
Juggling competitions is hard.
2) The good news for FC Cincinnati: both of their massive offseason acquisitions, Lucho Acosta and Brenner, got on the board in a 2-2 draw at Nashville. Any road point is a good one in this league, but it’s especially good coming against a playoff team, and coming via goals from your No. 9 and No. 10. The fact that those guys are in the books early should buy at least a little bit of leeway for Jaap Stam & Co. as they try to put the back-to-back Wooden Spoons behind them. There will be no 800-pound gorilla on anyone's back when they look at the stats page.
The bad news for FC Cincinnati: They blew a 2-0 lead and were lucky not to lose 4-2. Nashville battered the visitors for the final 70 minutes, and Cincy only escaped with a point because the hosts failed to convert a seemingly endless series of late-game set-piece alley-oops.
Nashville’s first goal, by the way, gave us this spectacular Face of the Week from Anibal Godoy:
I’m still confused as to why Randall Leal needed to be told to make that run!
But the Fire are the Fire, and their defense is their defense. They conceded off a corner three minutes after going up 2-0, and off a throw-in a dozen minutes after that for what eventually became a 2-2 final.
The Revs, meanwhile, were the Revs: stout and opportunistic when the ball turns over because they have two guys in good, advanced positions already, and a winger that can join in. It was just classic Bruce Arena-ball.