Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Columbus' biggest handicap, Miami's Messi magic runs out & more from Matchday 37

23MLS_Boyle_Armchair_TEMP-v5

The second-to-last matchday of the season is in the books. There are a few scattered matches next Saturday and the following Wednesday, but for a full slate, only Decision Day is left.

That makes this the final Sunday wrap-up column of the year. As always, I’ll be cranking through post-mortems for all 29 teams over the next two months (the first two are already out, with a few more set to come this week), and as always, there will be Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs previews (Tiers! We love tiers!) and analysis coming down the pike.

Let’s dive in:

I Will Never Learn

Man, Columbus just battered Atlanta in this one. They outshot the hosts 22-10, generated 2.15 xG to Atlanta’s 1.12, and had 29 touches in Atlanta’s box while conceding just 11 in their own.

The first 10 of those touches they handled just fine. That last one…

That’s a 1-1 final. Still a very good road point, but obviously frustrating.

Stuff like this keeps happening to Columbus, and it’s generated some discussion over how they play. The consensus is that they are too wide open and always keep attacking, leaving themselves vulnerable when they’d be better served by putting numbers behind the ball to lock it down over the final 15 minutes. Close up shop and protect the lead.

I do not share in that consensus. I think that particular tack is a losing one for this group because this group does not defend all that well in the box (I think that’s where they’re at their absolute weakest, actually), and while young Patrick Schulte has proved to be a good distributor and an above-average shot-stopper, he still struggles mightily to command his area.

Related: they put numbers behind the ball, gave up possession and attempted to lock it down over the final 15 minutes of this one. Here’s the possession chart:

7b4563cb-3d96-4808-a1b2-2eb629ac7473

See how heavily it skews toward Atlanta over the final 20 minutes of the game? Some teams – Nashville, for example – are perfectly fine with that kind of blueprint because they don’t commit dumb fouls around the area, they’re monsters in their own box, and are excellent at preventing you from turning possession into chances.

Columbus aren’t built like that. Columbus are a team that has Kevin Molino defending on the wings 25 yards from goal, and has Aidan Morris (or maybe Julian Gressel; there was clearly some confusion) marking Miles Robinson on a set piece.

Either way, that’s a mismatch. Mouse in the house. Barbecue chicken.

Look at the xG race chart, and focus on that last 15-20 minute stretch:

Columbus xG Race chart at Atlanta

As Columbus concede possession they no longer create chances of their own (they’re only OK on the break) and progressively give up bigger and bigger chances as they give up more and more of the ball to the hosts.

“This is football, but I'm not happy with that. This is something that we are missing, not because they don't want to do it; it’s because maybe we need to do certain things a little bit better to avoid losing a point like this,” head coach Wilfried Nancy said in the postgame.

“Listen, I know that. This is not the first time that it happened for me. When we dominate the game like this and we were close, it happened several times that we were close to finish the game and we didn't do it. Yeah, this is painful, but again, we are going to learn from that the hard way, but this is the way it is.”

Even with the disappointing end, Columbus had a great week. Three points on the road at New England (where the Revs hadn’t lost this year) followed by a point in Atlanta on short rest is the kind of stuff that speaks well to their ability to make a deep postseason run. Nobody will want to play this team in the playoffs.

I just think that they should be this team in the playoffs, because throwing caution to the wind in search of that second goal is less dangerous to this group than trying like hell to simply protect that first one. Lean into that identity as a front-foot, ball-dominant, possession team from whistle to whistle. Let Nashville be Nashville.

As for Atlanta, Gonzalo Pineda praised his team’s fight and spirit (he was right to), but this week served as something of a measuring stick, and the Five Stripes came up short both up in Chester midweek and at home on the weekend. There is very clearly a gap between themselves and the top-four teams in the East.

They have the talent to close it. This week’s results mean, however, that they will have to do so mostly on the road.

Spare Me the Decision

The curtain finally rang down on Inter Miami’s hopes for a miracle push into the playoffs. Even 35 minutes of a rusty-if-not-hobbled Lionel Messi couldn’t change the inevitable, as FC Cincinnati got a measure of revenge for that US Open Cup semifinal miracle the Herons pulled off six weeks ago by going down to Fort Lauderdale and driving the final knife in.

The 1-0 final, courtesy of Álvaro Barreal’s 78th-minute rebound winner, was a pretty fair and accurate reflection of a game in which Miami just couldn’t find the cracks in Cincy’s defense.

"We should have taken the lead in the first half, and from my point of view, talking specifically about fútbol, we had one of the best first halves we’ve played recently and were better. The second half was another story," Miami head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino said in the postgame presser. “Now we need to work on what lies ahead… we need to be precise and solid when analyzing how prepared we are heading into next season.”

I think “precise” is a good word, because if one thing’s stood out about Miami’s sputtering form over the past month it’s been their inability to turn possession and final-third entries into good looks from inside the box.

This shot chart is fairly damning:

Miami v Cincy shot chart

That’s Miami attacking left to right, and that’s Miami who only generated three shots inside the 18 all night long. All three of those came in the first 25 minutes which, yeah, means they spent the final 65 knocking on the door to the box with no way in.

And this, conversely, is a big chunk of why Cincy are so damn good. They spent a long time in this game not looking like the Supporters’ Shield winners when they were on the ball, but they were good enough defensively to keep the zero for 45 minutes, came out of the halftime break renewed, and got a deserved late winner.

They got their measure of revenge against Miami. They got their 20th win. They now get two weeks off – a much-needed chance to rest some heavy legs and recharge a bit – and come back on Decision Day with a 70-point season in sight. That’s a summit only three other MLS teams have ever climbed.

That said, Pat Noonan’s focus now is on the playoffs, and this game gave him some film to show to his charges.

"You’re not going to win playoff games playing like that. I think the guys know it," Noonan said in the postgame presser. "If we’re gonna be honest about the assessment of the game, look past the result. How did we perform? In a lot of ways, I think we underperformed. While we’ve been able to figure out how to win in the regular season, the games just look different in the playoffs.

"And I think the guys will be – we’ll be sharper. A lot of it will have to do with how brave we are on the ball and being able to play the game. If that improves, I think we’ll be OK. Defensively, the way the guys defend the box, the way they defend in isolation, the way they put out fires, has been a strength of our group. You can only withstand so many of those moments when the other stuff isn’t strong so, that’s the part we need to improve on and we’ve got a decent amount of time now to assess the past week and talk through some things. I think the guys will be on the same page.”

That’s been the case all year. No reason to think it’ll be different two weeks from now and into the postseason.

A New Goodbye

D.C. United were missing target man and talisman Christian Benteke, but still put forth one of their five best performances of the year in a 2-0 home win over NYCFC. D.C. didn’t control the game by any means, but they were brave and relentless in pushing numbers forward, and the defense – which featured 16-year-old homegrown Matai Akinmboni starting at center back alongside veteran Steve Birnbaum – held up by limiting the quality of the Pigeons’ chances, if not the quantity.

Wayne Rooney (we’ll talk more about him in a bit, and I don’t know why I’m dragging this out because I’m sure everyone reading this already knows the news) had settled this team into a 4-4-2 diamond over the past month, and while wins had been hard to come by, promising passages of play had not.

Part of that formation switch had been letting the shuttlers (the wide midfielders in the diamond) release a little bit earlier to press opposing build-outs, or just to win second balls. Et voilà.

It was a must-win for United to stay alive. And they did, and they finished the weekend above the playoff line. Hooray!

But also, because of results elsewhere (Montréal winning), and because either NYCFC or Chicago are guaranteed to finish on at least 41 points, United climbed above the playoff line and were eliminated from playoff contention at the same time.

And with that, the Rooney era came to a close, as he and the club parted ways.

“I think it’s just the right time,” Rooney told reporters postmatch. “I’ve done everything I can to try and get the club into the playoffs. It’s not been a single thing which has happened. It’s about timing in your career. I’ve really enjoyed my time here. I’ve had a lot of great help from the owners. … I just feel like it’s the right time for me to go back to England, first to obviously see my family. I haven’t seen them for a long time.

“And then, what lies ahead? Whether opportunities come up? I’ve seen a lot of reports in the media. I don’t have anything lined up. I’m going back there to see my family. If something comes up in October, November, of course I’ll look at it."

You can read more on Rooney HERE.

As for the Pigeons, I will just reiterate that they should never have been in this position in the first place – the decision to go into this season without a true No. 9 was unconscionable. Anyway, this was their first loss in seven and leaves them needing a win over Chicago on Decision Day and some help – from Nashville and Miami! – to get in.

A few more things to ponder…

11. NYCFC need that Nashville help because the Red Bulls are suddenly red-hot, stuffing TFC into a locker with a wasn’t-as-close-as-the-scoreline 3-0 win in Harrison that now gives RBNY three wins in four, and only one loss in six.

I’m not sure the game requires any analysis, since it played out exactly like you’d think: RBNY pressed high upfield, had 40% possession, and outshot the Reds 16-4.

TFC have generated just 0.2 xG in their past two games. They are as thoroughly finished as I’ve ever seen a team at any point in an MLS season.

10. Even with the win, the Red Bulls don’t control their own fate. It’s actually Charlotte, who went to Soldier Field and popped Chicago’s balloon with a 2-0 win, who’s got the conch.

This is a hell of a way to take a lead:

But yeah, as the tweet says, this kind of thing was coming. Xherdan Shaqiri and Gastón Giménez aren’t really two-way players – that midweek win over Miami was something of an aberration in that regard – so you can both build quickly up the gut against the Fire, and win a ton of second balls at the top of the box. Winning those balls is a good way to generate goals (though usually not quite as spectacular as this one).

This is one of the benefits of having two actual forwards out there, in Karol Swiderski and Enzo Copetti. Yes, Christian Lattanzio is calling it a 4-3-3, but it’s much more of a 4-2-3-1 or even a 4-4-1-1, and whatever you want to call it, the point is that two guys pushing into the box like that compresses the opposing defense and occupies the opposing center backs, which leaves room for the Charlotte midfield to creep up and win clearances closer to goal. I think the Crown should’ve been doing more of this all year.

Anyway, it’s not a case of too little too late, as they have two games left now against a Miami team with absolutely nothing to play for. If Charlotte win both, they’re in. If they take three or four points, they need a bit of help (a draw or loss from two of Montréal, Chicago and RBNY).

Chicago need to win that final game at NYCFC and then hope either Montréal or RBNY draw or lose.

9. Montréal looked like a team that might never lose again in their 4-1 destruction of Portland, which snapped Montréal’s seven-game winless streak and the Timbers’ seven-game unbeaten run.

The hosts feasted on turnovers, won every second ball, and exploited the narrowness of Portland’s midfield and front three. This goal, man…

It shouldn’t be that easy, but for most of the night it definitely was.

Montréal finish the weekend in eighth place, and are in with a Decision Day win. However, CFMTL are 2W-12L-2D so far away from home, and their Decision Day plans are a trip to Columbus to face a Crew team 1) playing for postseason seeding, 2) pissed about dropping points this weekend, and 3) that handed Montréal a 4-2 loss at Stade Saputo last month (and remember, Montréal are infinitely better at home).

It’s not technically a must-win, as they could still make the Wild Card if two of the three teams behind them (New York, Chicago, Charlotte) fall on their faces. NYCFC, meanwhile, can’t catch Montréal no matter what happens.

Portland stayed in seventh place in the West, but that’s still precarious, as a Decision Day loss – or even a draw – could pretty easily see both San Jose and Dallas, as well as either Sporting KC or Minnesota, pass them and knock them down below the red line.

8. Orlando City hit 60 points for the first time in club history, clinched second-place in the Shield standings and won themselves a spot in next year’s Concacaf Champions Cup with a 3-2 home win over New England on Saturday night.

This game was fun, with a series of adjustments from Orlando head coach Oscar Pareja and New England’s Clint Peay.

“The plan that I had in the first 15 minutes was not working and then we let [left back Rafael Santos] go and changed our structure in the back when we had the ball, and immediately the boys felt much more comfortable,” Pareja explained. “They started creating dangerous crosses and plays and I felt like they felt like themselves again. We readapted the game in that moment and in the last 25 minutes of the first half we were very good.

“Second half as well, I thought we played well but New England changed their structure in the difference of three players and we had some challenges defending their wingbacks.”

Those dangerous crosses Pareja mentioned? Yeah, they’re becoming New England’s Achilles’ heel:

Injuries have hurt this team badly in the obvious ways, but also, while Peay has tried to shore up the central midfield, that has come at the expense of protecting the flanks. So opposing chance creators are having a field day operating out wide.

They are now down to fifth in the East. With two games left, they could mathematically climb into the top three if everything goes right, but that looks like a stretch right now.

7. Nashville are one of those two teams left the Revs have to face, as they host New England next weekend. Gary Smith switched to a 3-5-2 – a formation Philly’s Jim Curtin has said gives his diamond trouble – and got themselves a good road point in Chester on Saturday night with a scoreless draw.

The ‘Yotes could climb up to fifth if absolutely everything broke their way, but that would necessitate winning back-to-back games to close out the season, which is something they haven’t done since spring. Nashville are just 1W-5L-5D in their past 11 regular-season games, and that energy-sapping Leagues Cup run seems a distant memory.

Philly have handled the workload better, and they’re now 5W-1L-6D in their past 12 regular-season games. That’s good enough for third place in the East, and two weeks off to rest and prepare for Decision Day against that spiraling Revs side.

6. Face of the Week from old friend Giorgio Chiellini in LAFC’s 4-2 mauling of Austin:

LAFC have now scored nine goals in their past two games after scoring none in their previous four. I thought the movement of the front three – Dénis Bouanga on the left, Cristian Olivera on the right, and hyper-mobile Nathan Ordaz at center forward – opened up a lot of space and allowed the LAFC midfield, which is usually just functional and efficient when it comes to their passing, to be incisive and game-breaking.

And so Bouanga feasted, bagging a brace (he set up Tim Tillman on the first and Olivera got the fourth off the rebound of a Bouanga shot) and taking a firm grip on the Golden Boot presented by Audi lead.

In the process, the Black & Gold climbed back up into second place in the West.

Austin dropped down to 12th in the conference and were eliminated. They seem headed for a massive rebuild this offseason.

5. Also eliminated were the LA Galaxy, who went to St. Paul and got blown out 5-2 by the Loons, who got a poker (I just learned on Saturday night that this is a Spanish term for four goals) from Teemu Pukki in the first game of the post-Adrian Heath era.

The Galaxy just leave themselves wide open any time they turn the ball over, and so Minnesota took advantage time after time after time as Pukki buried chance after chance after chance. It wasn’t purely one-way traffic, but the better team won.

Minnesota stay alive in the West race, which is tight enough for the Loons to conceivably climb as high as seventh.

4. The same is true of Sporting KC, who took advantage of an early Justen Glad red card en route to a more-dramatic-than-it-should’ve-been 3-2 win at RSL. The win left Sporting on 41 points, just like the Loons, and sets up what should be a desperate and interesting Decision Day matchup between the two in Kansas.

RSL got this moment of glory from Brayan Vera, who hit this ball like it owed him money:

Ultimately it meant nothing as they dropped down to sixth in the West. If they win their game in hand – at the Galaxy next weekend – they’d climb back up to fourth, but that looks even tougher since Chicho Arango picked up what looked like a pretty nasty injury in this one (no official word yet on what it is).

Back to Sporting and Minnesota: Neither controls their own destiny – each needs to get a win and some help. A draw and a metric ton of help would also do it for Sporting, but in that case they’d be relying on Dallas losing each of their last two games, and since Dallas host Colorado then travel to LA, and have lost just once in three months, I would not be holding my breath for a point being good enough.

3. Ok, so Dallas haven’t been losing a lot, but they also haven’t been winning a lot, either. Their 1-1 home draw vs. San Jose on Saturday night puts los Toros Tejanos at 2W-1L-7D in their past 10 regular-season games dating back to early July.

Nico Estévez has leaned fully into a 4-2-3-1 double pivot over the past few weeks, and I think it really is the right look for them. Part of what needs to happen to make it work is more passages of play like this, where the weak-side winger pinches in to attack the space behind the center backs as Jesús Ferreira drops in to become a co-playmaker with Alan Velasco:

That’s our Pass of the Week, though obviously don’t sleep on that initial third-line pass from Asier Illarramendi, who put Ferreira into such a great spot in the first place.

One note of caution from Dallas’s perspective: they settled for crosses a bit too often, launching 27 of them against San Jose’s low block.

The Quakes will be happy enough with a smash-and-grab point. Jeremy Ebobisse scored a pure striker’s goal in the third minute and from there it was an exercise in hanging on.

Dallas, as mentioned above, have two games left. Three points would be enough, while two probably wouldn’t be.

The Quakes host Austin on Decision Day. They probably need to win that one to make the Wild Card, as a draw would likely see them behind both Dallas and either Sporting or Minnesota, provided there’s a winner in that game.

2. Vancouver, without Andrés Cubas, went down to Seattle and held on for a point in a scoreless draw. The ‘Caps were outshot 17-4, but did a very good job of limiting the quality of the Sounders’ chances.

“I think the Sounders are probably the best team we’ve played the entire season,” ‘Caps head coach Vanni Sartini said. “So, the fact that in three games we did a win, a loss and a tie, and the loss was undeserved, speaks volumes about how this team has improved during the year. This team is now mature for the playoffs.”

Mature or not – and I won’t argue with him in that regard, since this was a very mature performance – they need Cubas back healthy if they’re going to win the West.

The Sounders still need Raúl Ruidíaz back. Right now it’s Jordan Morris and Héber sharing No. 9 duties, and while both guys are quality players, neither reliably finds those fox-in-the-box chances that Ruidíaz has made a career out of, and that helped propel this group to 2019 MLS Cup and a 2022 Concacaf Champions League titles.

Seattle are unbeaten in eight, finished the weekend third in the West, and travel to St. Louis on Decision Day for the regular-season finale. Vancouver are unbeaten in four and host LAFC.

1. And finally, the Houston Dynamo awoke from their post-Open Cup mini-slumber to bury Colorado 5-1 in Houston. Basically everybody in orange got into the boxscore with a goal and assist or two, as they took hold of fourth place in the West.

“It’s natural to say, ‘Okay, we're in the postseason,’” head coach Ben Olsen said about his side, which had officially qualified on Wednesday. “So, I was a little worried about the mentality of coming in this, but you could tell from the start that these guys want more. That’s a really healthy thing.

“It was an incredible first half. The way they played and trust each other. The way they moved the ball. It was just a joy to watch. The last two games, we weren’t killers. We didn't finish plays to give us the points we needed. We really kind of hammered that home this week and made sure that collectively we were going to be a little sharper and really dial it in, in front of goal. They did that.”

Yeah, when you score two like this inside the first 10 minutes, nobody’s going to argue that point:

Colorado’s only remaining job is to try to play spoiler, with a trip to Dallas and a home derby on Decision Day against RSL remaining. Houston go to Portland on Decision Day, and could conceivably climb as high as second with a win.

Bear in mind that while the Dynamo are just 2W-9L-5D on the road in MLS play, they won three times on the road (including the final) en route to winning that Open Cup title.