Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Cincinnati can be all-time greats, St. Louis lock top seed in West & more from Matchday 35

Doyle MD35 - CIN celebration

Three new champions were crowned this week. Congrats to the:

  1. US Open Cup-winning Houston Dynamo, who put on an utterly remarkable performance in their 2-1 win over Lionel Messi-less Miami down in Fort Lauderdale.
  2. Tigres, who put LAFC away in penalties in Campeones Cup.
  3. And your official Supporters’ Shield winners in Cincinnati, who wrapped it up in Toronto with three games to go.

Let’s start with the last one:

Champion Sound

I’ll get it on the record once more: The Shield is the single best trophy an MLS team can win. It’s the truest measure of who the best team in the league actually is, for one, and for two, it means you gave your fans eight straight months of sustained, winning soccer. As someone who used to sit (stand) in the supporters’ section year after year, I would’ve given my soul to watch a season’s worth of soccer like that. It’s those fans, the ones who show up week after week to sing and chant and drink and cheer, and who have done so even in the depths of despair (a three-year-long trough of despair, in Cincy’s case), that give a club its soul.

There is nothing better you can give them in return than wins. Look at this:

FC Cincinnati punished those fans for the first three years of the club’s existence. Again: an absolute trough of despair. I was a MetroStars fan during the absolute worst days of that club, and even I’d never been through anything like what Cincy fans endured from 2019-21.

So yeah, huge congrats to everyone there for making this happen. And now it’s about getting 100% healthy, getting everyone on the same page (I no longer have concerns about Lucho Acosta and Aaron Boupendza, who now seem like besties), maybe setting a points record… and then winning MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9.

"It's about managing these games in a way where, yeah, we have a quick turnaround going into the Red Bull game [on Wednesday],” head coach Pat Noonan said in the postgame. “So, it's not necessary to risk players if the recovery isn't there. But we're going to put out a strong team and look to maintain fitness for players because you don't want guys − we're not just going to do wholesale changes, and have guys that are off for weeks leading into the playoffs. This next game will probably be the one that we look at just with, really, the next two, how we balance out the rotations to make sure we're fresh and not pushing guys in an unnecessary way."

And that’s the thing: while the Shield is the best trophy to win in MLS, and setting a points record is a hell of a way to plant a flag, the best thing about MLS trophies is that the truly, historically great teams go out and win both. Those who pull it off are canonized for doing so.

Cincy have the goods to manage it – barring any injuries over the next couple of weeks here, I think they’ll go into the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs bigger favorites than LAFC were last year – but more than one truly great team has had a truly bad day in the postseason and seen their double dreams dashed.

So celebrate, and revel in it, and go buck wild on Wednesday night when the Shield’s presented. And then get ready for the next test, because if you pass that one, you’ll forever get a spot in the argument for Greatest MLS Team of All-Time.

As for the game… 3-2, and it was only that close because of some uncharacteristic errors that I don’t think point to any larger problems. What really matters is the growing chemistry among Lucho and Boupendza, and Brandon Vazquez getting a brace and hopefully, for Cincy’s sake, starting to heat up at the right time.

A West champion was crowned as well. Let’s head there:

No Competition

The only reason Cincy didn’t lead the Shield race wire-to-wire is because St. Louis exist. CITY, you’ll recall, got off to a scorching 5W-0L-0D start – the best start of any expansion team MLS has ever had, and one of the best starts anybody in the league has ever had – before injuries, a bit of inconsistency and increasing in-season sharpness from all comers started chipping away at that lead.

From April 1 to Sept. 20, so a stretch of nearly six months, St. Louis went 10W-10L-5D. Still a very good record for any expansion team, and more than good enough to make the playoffs, but not exactly the irresistible force they looked like coming out of the gate.

Then they went to Minnesota last weekend and won 2-1, putting a major dent into the Loons’ playoff hopes while, at the same time, putting themselves on the precipice of becoming the first expansion side to win a regular-season conference crown.

An hour into Saturday’s home derby vs. Sporting KC it was still scoreless, Roman Bürki had had to stand on his head a few times, and it looked like the opportunity to clinch was maybe going to pass this team by.

Then Bradley Carnell did his thing, making multiple subs just past the hour mark. In so doing he changed the team’s shape – Niko Gioacchini came in as something of a (I swear I’m not making this up) target No. 10 and CITY went from a 4-2-2-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond – and thus changed the game. A week after practically driving a nail into Minnesota’s 2023 coffin, CITY went a couple of steps further, basically lowering Sporting’s casket into a hole six-feet deep. DP striker Joao Klauss then tossed some dirt on it for good measure, with a likely AT&T 5G Goal of the Year contender as a tight affair became a 4-1 laugher.

The xG race chart tells the entire story of what unfolded post-subs:

st. louis subs v skc

“There were just a lot of things there that I thought that the players did right. It's not easy to adapt systems in-game, and it's not easy to have that effect,” Carnell said in the postgame presser.

“We trust the process and I think the guys have had multiple reps. I think we have always been brave with our substitutions, and there's been some growing moments, too… But we get it to a point where almost – yeah, I'm so happy to be on the sidelines when it goes that way, because it almost falls into place exactly how you thought it could go and it did go.”

Carnell, in St. Louis’ 32 games, has used 152 of 160 possible subs this year. Cincinnati are second, with 147 in their 31 games. Depth, and the ability to change the game with that depth, has become a weapon for the best teams in the league.

“I feel pretty confident and I've always been brave to make changes and I've always held my head up to say if I got it right, or I got it wrong and sometimes I do both,” Carnell explained. “You can get it right and you get it wrong, and I'm fine with that because we learn and we grow and we go next week again.

“Totally fine with it, but it's a great feeling when you know that you got a team to a certain point, and then you can feel a sense of energy and then the complexion of the game change, and then we score. It's a great feeling for sure.”

While St. Louis clinched a spot atop the West, Sporting are now looking at a future where their only realistic hope is to win their final two contests. They’re at RSL this coming Saturday, then host Minnesota on Decision Day on Oct. 21.

A few more things to ponder…

12) Jim Curtin both rotated his squad (Philly were without five regular starters, some for rest and some for injuries) and shifted his formation, going to a 3-5-2 in order to mirror Columbus’s 3-5-2ish 3-4-2-1 on the banks of the Scioto.

It worked, though just barely as the hosts pummeled Andre Blake’s net and Philly were holding on for dear life at the end. But a 1-1 draw, which leaves the Union fourth in the East and Columbus fifth, both with three games to go, means job done.

11) Job done as well for NYCFC with their 1-1 draw down in Fort Lauderdale against a Messi-less Inter Miami, though the Pigeons will be furious at themselves for conceding Tomás Avilés’ 95th-minute set piece equalizer.

Miami were without veteran fullbacks DeAndre Yedlin and Jordi Alba in addition to Messi, and went with a pretty pure 3-5-2 with Facundo Farías and Leo Campana up top. The network passing graph shows it pretty clearly:

miami network passing graphic

It was a struggle, as no one in that side is a natural provider of the final ball. Farías might get there, and so might Benja Cremaschi, but neither is that guy yet.

The Pigeons climbed to eighth with the draw, and are now 3W-0L-3D in their past six. They are playing good ball, though it is still jarring to see them have so little possession (down around 35% in this one).

Miami climbed a spot to 13th, but narrowed the gap between themselves and the playoff line to four points because…

10) Montréal got absolutely trounced, as I think most expected, down in Orlando, losing 3-0. This one was not close at any point, as Facu Torres was able to constantly come inside – first from the right and later from the left – and find touches in profitable spots.

This one went down as an own goal, but everything about it is excellent from the Cardiac Cats:

And yeah, Pass of the Week for César Araújo. Orlando stay second in the East with the win.

Montréal have taken just two points from their past six games. They are lucky no one behind them has gotten particularly hot.

9) That includes both the Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls. The Fire went to Harrison and won 1-0 on a Georgios Koutsias header, which broke a seven-game winless skid and put Chicago on 37 points, even with Montréal and D.C. (we’ll get to them in a bit).

But it’s hard to trust the Fire to follow that up with more results, just as it was hard to trust RBNY to do so after their 5-3 win at D.C. last week.

Anyway, Chicago host Miami on Wednesday, so if they get their lines right they can end that particular South Florida dream and put themselves in the driver’s seat for one of the Wild Card spots. RBNY, meanwhile, are down in 12th on 34 points and travel to meet the Shield holders on Wednesday.

8) D.C. got the best result of the weekend among the East playoff hopefuls, crossing the continent to get a 2-2 draw at Vancouver late Saturday night, twice coming from a goal down against a good team in a tough place to play.

United have settled into a 4-4-2 diamond in recent weeks, and have pressed out of it a bunch more than what we saw from them in other shapes earlier in the year (this may also have to do with the weather being less hot recently, and this game being played indoors). It seems to suit them, especially with as young a side as the one Wayne Rooney fielded this week. The point leaves them 10th in the East on 37 points, though the teams directly in front (Montréal) and behind them (Chicago, RBNY, Miami) all have at least one game in hand.

Vancouver, who went back to the 3-1-4-2 after a midweek reversion to the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree, let themselves down with this result. At sixth in the West on 43 points they are still a very safe bet to make the playoffs, but finish their schedule with games against the top three teams in the conference.

7) The other team ostensibly still in the hunt for an East Wild Card spot is Charlotte FC, but they are now winless in six and have one win in their past 15 following Saturday’s 2-1 loss at New England.

Give Charlotte credit for forcing the Revs out of the new base system Clint Peay has been trying to put together. Seth Macomber at The Blazing Musket did a nice job getting Peay and DeJuan Jones, who started as a right fullback but was shifted to his typical spot on the left at halftime, to talk about it.

“I can play either side, but I think the team in general is more comfortable seeing me on the left,” Jones said. “So I think the movements, they’re used to me getting forward this way.”

And “getting forward” is what both Jones and Matt Polster, the former d-mid who was an inverted left back pinching in possession for a game-and-a-half, but is now a pure overlapping right back, did in the second half.

“I think McKinze Gaines caused us some problems in the first half, so we switched DeJuan and Polster in the second half,” Peay said. “We kind of matched speed with speed. I think that helped tremendously.”

I think this is who the Revs will have to be for the rest of the season, as the small-sample-size returns on Peay’s system weren’t great. New England finish the weekend third in the East, two points back of Orlando but with a game in hand.

6) Nashville finally had enough folks healthy to put out what I think could be their best XI from the start, but you wouldn’t have known it by the way they played in Saturday’s 0-0 against the Sounders. The ‘Yotes generated all of five shots with just one on target, all for a grand total of 0.27 xG.

It was not the return to the XI DP No. 9 Sam Surridge had been hoping for. He had exactly one touch in the penalty box before being subbed off just past the hour.

Seattle weren’t much better, and I won’t argue against 0-0 being the fair result. Two takeaways here:

  • Reed Baker-Whiting continues to make a case for getting more minutes at left back.
  • If this team’s going to win the West, they need Raúl Ruidíaz – who was a late scratch – to drink from the Fountain of Youth before the playoffs start.

Nashville did clinch a spot in the playoffs with the weekend’s results, though they are nearly a dead certainty to be locked into that seventh spot in the East. Seattle are third in the West, but still haven’t found the accelerator.

5) Houston found the accelerator midweek, but lost it on the weekend and had to settle for a scoreless home draw against Dallas. Both managers rotated fairly heavily from midweek action, both in terms of personnel and formation/shape.

The Dynamo, to their credit, were pretty clearly the better team, outshooting Dallas 17-4 and winning the xG battle 1.4-0.4. And they did a really nice job of not settling for crosses even when it was clear that los Toros Tejanos were trying to push Houston out wide every time up the field.

Corey Baird is now goalless in four after scoring six in his prior nine across all comps. That is a worry, because there is no regular goalscorer on this roster behind Baird.

Dallas had a very ugly but very successful week, getting a point at Philly on Wednesday and then in Houston on Saturday, and finishing the matchday in ninth place, three points ahead of both Sporting and Minnesota.

They have lost just once in their past nine games, but also, they have won just two of those. That has to change on Wednesday when they host Colorado, and then this coming Saturday when they host the Quakes.

4) Those Quakes went to St. Paul and came away with not just a point of their own, but home points denied to a Minnesota side that did not play with the urgency I’d expect of a team that’s desperate for points.

This late equalizer from Paul Marie… the wingers are going to get most of the blame (understandable), but veteran central midfielder Kervin Arriaga – who had been on the field for 12 minutes at that point, so there’s no tired legs there – doesn’t contest a midfield 50/50, and veteran d-mid Wil Trapp doesn’t rotate down, and the backline doesn’t step out with any urgency, and nobody’s telling the left back to get out and get pressure to the literal Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate walking into the area…

This is not the countenance of a playoff team.

The Quakes, on the other hand, look like they’re getting in. They have done just enough – Daniel has been team MVP, single-handedly turning a number of losses into draws – and control their own fate even though they have just two games remaining.

That run from Jack Skahan into the box, by the way? San Jose need more of that when they get on the ball in the final third. Too often they are too static, which makes it easy for opponents to lock down the attackers.

3) The reason the Quakes are in complete control of their own destiny is because Austin have flatlined, and are now 0W-5L-3D in eight games post-Leagues Cup following a 1-0 loss at Colorado on Saturday night. They are down to 12th place on 35 points, six behind Dallas and not looking anything like a team that could make a late push – especially without the injured Sebastián Driussi.

Rapids interim manager Chris Little is perhaps doing enough to be considered for the full-time job this offseason. They are now 2W-2L-1D with eight goals scored and an even goal differential through his five games in charge, and youngish players like Cole Bassett and Calvin Harris have looked reborn.

2) It’s now getting to the point that it’d be a surprise if Portland’s interim manager, Miles Joseph, didn’t get the job outright for the work he’s done down the stretch here. Granted a 3-3 draw at the Galaxy is nothing to write home about in a vacuum, but this didn’t happen in a vacuum: this happened in the midst of a playoff push during which the Timbers have now gone 5W-0L-2D in their past seven, have scored 16 goals over that span, and have done most of it without Diego Chara, who is still recovering from appendix surgery, and Evander, who is nursing a knock.

The biggest winner since Joseph took over is Santi Moreno, who was miscast as a north-south winger under Gio Savarese but is now a super-dynamic, box-crashing free 8 in the new-look 4-3-3:

That smile was nowhere to be found last year or earlier this season. That’s our Face of the Week.

Portland’s work isn’t entirely done, but this result basically doomed the Galaxy, who are rapidly running out of games in hand.

1) The good news for LAFC: they did not play to a third consecutive scoreless draw on Sunday night, which would have been their fourth straight scoreless draw across all competitions when factoring in Wednesday’s Campeones Cup shootout loss to Tigres.

The bad news: they lost 1-0 at home to RSL, which marks the fifth time in six they’ve been shut out. I don’t know what to say here aside from what I’ve been saying basically all year, which is that they 1) don’t move the ball quickly enough, and 2) don’t move in concert off the ball, and 3) don’t have any midfielders who break lines with their distribution. So it’s basically Dénis Bouanga on the breakaway or nothing. And lately, obviously, the scales have come down on “or nothing.”

Know what’s wild? With the win – which came via a Chicho Arango revenge goal – RSL are up to second place in the West.

A week ago they looked dead and buried, having lost four of five and going into the half down 1-0 at home to the ‘Caps. But they rallied back in the second half of that one, and kept the smash-and-grab energy high in this one, and now they control their own destiny with three games left in the season. Pablo Mastroeni even buried the hatchet with DP playmaker Jefferson Savarino, who went from the start and lasted 88 minutes after being left out of the matchday squad a week ago.

MLS is the most bizarre, inexplicable league in the world. Nothing is a better example of that than RSL’s insistence, year after year, upon looking dead and buried for long stretches, then rising from the coffin to steam into the playoffs.

Looks like they’re doing it again. We probably all should’ve seen it coming.