Armchair Analyst LAFC fuming

We’re starting to winnow down the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs field, as a pair of teams were officially, mathematically eliminated this weekend.

My season post-mortems – you know the ones with 1,000 words you don’t read but a silly GIF you watch like 10 times – will be coming this week.

Since most of the drama right now is around the “are they in or are they out?” playoff dance, we’re going to mess around with our usual column format and highlight those games.

In we go:

On the East Line

As a great man once said (actually he said it way more than once, but still): two things can be true at the same time. And so we’ll bring that aphorism up to Montréal on Friday night, where the Columbus Crew came away with a point courtesy of a 2-2 draw at CFM.

  • A point on the road in this game, against that CF Montréal team, is a very, very good result.
  • A late, two-goal collapse is terrible from Columbus.

The Crew had reason to be happy. They had reason to be enraged. They had reason to be frustrated. Head coach Caleb Porter was feeling all of those and more before unleashing in his postgame presser.

“We’re all pissed off, obviously, with the way it ended,” Porter said. “Honestly I thought we were playing as well as we’d played in any game all year. We were on the road playing, in my opinion, the best team in the league, and we’re up 2-0… I thought the energy, the execution, everything we did on our way to scoring two goals.

“And then we lose our discipline, and we go down a man. For me, that’s what turned the game. You know, up 2-0, 75th minute, 11-v-11? No chance. No chance they come back.”

Porter’s right – obviously – that it would’ve been harder for Montréal to come back if they were playing 11-v-11 (Luis Diaz absolutely earned his 76th-minute red, no question), but the numbers also suggest that Porter’s wrong in his assertion that Montréal wouldn’t have had a chance, because the Crew’s thing this year is that they give everybody a chance. They’ve made squandering leads a bit of a thing, and they’ve now dropped 17 points from winning positions over the course of this season – only a handful of teams are worse than that.

More to the point: As per TruMedia via StatsPerform, Columbus are tied for league-worst (with the Revs) with a -6 goal differential in the 75th minute or later when they have a lead, and nobody’s conceded more than the Crew’s nine goals in that situation. When they’re ahead or tied past the 75th minute, they’re -8 (again, tied with the Revs for league-worst), and all alone with an MLS-worst 13 goals conceded.

Columbus have given up just 20 goals in all other situations all year long. What this tells me is that down the stretch, when games are tight, they are broken.

Want more evidence? The last time these two teams met, it was 11-v-11 in the 75th minute, and the Crew were up 1-0. Montréal won that one 2-1.

Friday wasn’t an outlier. It’s a habit.

Second Spectrum’s tracking data points the finger directly at how deep the Crew drop their line in late-game situations. Whether they’re playing 10-v-11 or 11-v-11, they concede midfield and just defend in Eloy Room’s lap. Everything becomes a box scramble, and when you’ve got that many bodies in the box and that many clear shooting lanes from midfield, strange things can happen…

…including a pair of deflected goals.

Even with the latest late collapse Columbus are, I’m pretty sure, going to make the playoffs. They’re in seventh place but they’ve got three points and a game in hand on the 8th-place Revs, and a five-point lead on 9th-place Inter Miami. Plus they’re staring at a pretty manageable schedule down the stretch here. I don’t think it’s time to panic.

But it’s past time to change how they manage the closing stages of their games.

As for Montréal, this is also something of a habit for them, as they’ve now collected a league-best 24 points from losing positions. That is, in its way, a very good thing – they are mentality monsters who do not get down on themselves when things aren’t going their way.

It’s also a red flag, though, as they can sometimes have trouble turning their sustained possession into boxscore dominance, especially now that Romell Quioto has cooled off a bit.

You see all those parentheticals about the Revs in that Crew section? Yeah… they did it again. Gustavo Bou’s Pass of the Week gave them a 1-0 lead down in Harrison against RBNY:

But it ended 2-1 as the hosts came roaring back with an equalizer via Cristian Casseres Jr. and a late winner via a Lewis Morgan penalty. RBNY haven’t officially clinched yet, but they pulled out of their summer malaise in real fashion and have picked up 14 points since the start of August. That’s tied second-best in the league behind only the scorching hot Union.

The big change, as per TruMedia, is simply that they’re defending a little deeper over the past month. They’re still a high-pressing team – highest in the league – and are still super direct, but a higher percentage of their attacking sequences are starting in the middle third of the field, as opposed to the attacking third. As a result, they’re actually playing faster and are less susceptible to getting countered. Gerhard Struber has done well to figure things out in the aftermath of that 5-1 US Open Cup bloodbath.

This’ll be the Red Bulls’ 13th straight trip to the postseason, which ties the mark Seattle set last year.

New England, who were without Carles Gil (he was in Boston for the birth of his kid) are obviously in massive danger of missing the playoffs. I think they’ll need 10 out of the 12 points on the table down the stretch here, which starts for them on Tuesday in Houston.

The post-US Open Cup celebration hangover hit Orlando City hard on Saturday in Chester. The Lions, 72 hours past their first trophy as an MLS team, held on for dear life for almost 40 minutes. Then the floodgates opened and the rest of the game was a futile exercise in damage mitigation as they ended up on the wrong side of a 5-1 scoreline.

I don’t know that there’s a ton to take away from this other than continued awe at the performance of the Union, who are currently the second-best defensive team in MLS history (only 2010 RSL are better) and have the second-best goal differential in MLS history (only 2019 LAFC have got them… for now). Their four-goal margin means each of their past seven wins have come by multiple goals. Their 23 goals in five games is the best five-game stretch in league history, as is their +21 goal differential.

For context: LAFC are +26 on the entire year.

Anyway, Orlando’s technically back in the playoff scrap on 42 points, but with a game in hand, good vibes (despite this loss) and three of their final five at home, they could have a spot all but wrapped up by this weekend.

Cincy aren’t sitting quite so pretty as Orlando, but they out-Philly’d Philly on the weekend with a cathartic 6-0 demolition of visiting San Jose. Brenner had a hat-trick and an assist, pushing his season-long total to 12g/5a in about 1750 minutes, which is the type of Year 2 production that gives the David Gass Theorem life.

Since I know xG isn’t everybody’s thing, I want to show you how good Cincy have become at shot-clustering – i.e., being skilled and patient enough to find shots from higher-value spots in the 18 rather than just unleashing from wherever:

cincy shots

If there’s a Landon Donovan MLS MVP award argument for Lucho Acosta, this is where it comes from. Acosta can still dribble out of just about any scrum, but he’s actually dialed that back this year and is instead much more likely to ping the ball around and orchestrate, even in the final third, in order to find the optimal chance for himself, or for Brenner, or Brandon Vazquez or Alvaro Barreal.

It’s not just his numbers, which are absurd – he’s running away with the assist (18) crown, leads virtually all the underlying chance creation metrics and has a very decent chance of becoming just the fourth guy in league history to register 20+ assists in a season – but it’s the fact that he’s no longer forcing the action anymore.

In years past if things were going badly for him in the final third, he’d put his head down and just try to dribble more dudes. If he wasn’t getting the ball enough, he’d drop all the way back to the defense and basically take it off the foot of his own center back. I always admired his bravery (give me a player who wants that responsibility over one who doesn’t 100 times out of 100), but it was often too untethered to actually do his team much good.

Through 35 minutes it could’ve been that kind of game from him. Lucho wasn’t getting the ball a ton, and when he did, in all honesty he was having kind of a shocker.

But this is the new Lucho, one who understands how to harness his gifts in service of his team. You can basically see it in the network passing graphic if you know what to look for:

cincy network graphic

He’s not trying to be a Lodeiro-style “go everywhere, do everything” No. 10 out there. Cincy don’t need that, and he knows it. Instead he had the discipline to stay high, keep working to combine, and keep working to find the right kind of shots.

He ended up with two assists and a goal.

Cincy, who are on a nine-game unbeaten streak, are on 42 points and have a weird, two-game Western Conference road trip to end September. Of all the teams above the line in the East, their situation is most precarious.

For the Quakes, this was their worst loss under interim manager Alex Covelo. They looked pretty gassed.

Speaking of gassed, Inter Miami’s got that look following their 3-1 loss at Chicago. It’s their third straight L, leaving them in ninth place on 36 points. The only reason I’m bumping them into the actual playoff discussion here is that they’ve got a game in hand over most of the teams they’re chasing, and a win over the visiting Crew on Tuesday night could open all kinds of different scenarios.

But Miami don’t really look like the kind of team that’s about to string a massive run together. The Fire were just significantly better from the whistle in this one.

Chicago were particularly good at getting play into the primary assist zones alongside the sides of the 18, generating pullbacks and getting multiple runners into the box. The movement of their central midfielders was a little more dynamic than I think we’ve seen, which is a good explanation for how the lowest-scoring team in the league put up three well-earned goals. That and young Jhon Duran finishing off a pair of his chances, of course.

The Fire, on 35 points, are technically alive. But they’d need to win all four of their remaining games and get a ton of help in order to climb into seventh. Even winning out might not be enough.

I’m going to be cheeky and put the Charlotte vs. NYCFC game in this section. Technically the Crown’s very respectable 1-0 win kept them alive for at least another half a week, but like the Fire they’d need to sweep their remaining four games and get help elsewhere. Considering two of those games are on the road, where they’ve won just twice all season, and the two home games are against Philly and Columbus, the chances are infinitesimally small they’ll do so.

Thus the more interesting playoff discussion might revolve around NYCFC, who continue to fall apart. They’re a brutal 1W-7L-2D in their past 10 games, and while the defensive issues I’ve continually harped on (they have stopped getting pressure to the ball virtually everywhere, as per the tracking data) are still there, I think we’re beyond the point where it’s fair to ask questions of the attack as well, right? As in “why is Talles Magno, who was maybe the best winger in the league through June, playing as a false 9?”

The poor kid has no idea where to go even for basic stuff like being an outlet when his team’s pinned:

Maybe center forward is where both Nick Cushing and CFG see him long-term, but if so that’s costing the Pigeons massively in the short-term. Magno’s been absolutely lost with just one goal and no assists over the past two months, while Heber, who’s more of a natural center forward, has seven goals in 950 minutes this year. That includes three in about 540 over the same two-month timespan in which Magno’s gone bone dry.

Obviously that’s not an incredible haul for Heber, but when you’re in this kind of tailspin, marginal upgrades matter.

Anyway, NYCFC have got three games left and are still in fourth place in the East on 46 points. Chances are they’ve already done enough to make the playoffs. But if they, say, pick up only a single point from their final three games, and either New England or Miami get hot, the Pigeons could find themselves having authored one of the worst collapses in MLS history.

On the West Line

Ok, I’m giving the Sounders blurb, following their 3-0 win over visiting Austin, to Producent Anders, who has lots of thoughts:

I think they have to play that XI going forward. Having Danny Leyva and Josh Atencio [in a double pivot] just balanced the team so, so, so much better for three reasons:

  1. They both sat in and didn't really make a ton of forward runs, so there were always more players to defend counters and win second balls.
  2. It allowed Albert Rusnak and Nico Lodeiro to play free roles which, combined with Atencio and Leyva, created SO much more off-ball movement and allowed them to play through Austin's press/lines.
  3. Usually the issue with having two sitting mids like that is you don't get enough progressive passing or ball movement, but Leyva and Atencio are both good passers, and Leyva in particular is willing to take a few risks here and there. So you don't get any stagnation in the buildup.

The result was a much better-balanced team and one that was able to control long stretches of the game while also generating chances (chance generation has obviously been the problem for parts of this season).

Whew, ok (Anders is done; this is Doyle now). I think I agree with most of that, though I’d point out that Seattle managed only five shots all night. Game states obviously played a role – they were on top by the 12th minute – but I still think this team is missing some extra spice.

Still, with two straight wins, a friendly upcoming schedule and results elsewhere in the West around the playoff line, the Sounders have given themselves a shot. It’s not a great one, but they’re suddenly getting some help from the likes of Minnesota, RSL and the Galaxy, so the door to a 14th straight playoff appearance is open a crack.

That help the Sounders are getting from the Galaxy… I mean, a lot of what I wrote in the Crew blurb, about how a result can be good (a 1-1 draw at Nashville is quality!) and bad (um, we’ll talk about PKs in a minute) applies here. Which is to say I think any sane Galaxy fan would’ve taken a point out of this game if offered as much before the whistle.

But after the whistle, even with Riqui Puig’s dramatic 99th-minute equalizer from the spot, I doubt this one felt all that great for LA given the big highlight was another PK miss from Chicharito. He’s now 4-for-9 (I’m assuming there will be no attempt No. 10) on penalties in his MLS career.

Here’s what TUDN’s Michele Giannone, who was on the scene, saw:

LA head coach Greg Vanney gave – pretty smartly, I think – some milquetoast quotes afterwards.

"There are guys who are comfortable stepping up and taking the PK. Javi is our goal scorer. He wanted to step up," he said. "I'm sure he felt that he wanted to bury it after the last match and the decision that was made."

I would be surprised if there weren’t more definitive words had in the locker room this week.

A note on the Galaxy shape: In rest defense it was a 4-4-2 diamond that then morphed into a 3-5-2 (or even a 3-1-4-2, if you want to get granular) in attack, with Mark Delgado sliding out to become a wingback. It’s a really unusual rotation and, to LA’s credit, I do think they largely outplayed Nashville and did a good job of flummoxing what had been the West’s hottest team.

The ‘Yotes, by the way, are not entirely safe. But one win from their final three games probably gets them across the line. The Galaxy, meanwhile, probably need eight points out of their final five games.

If RSL end up on the wrong side of the playoff line by a point or two, Saturday’s scoreless home draw against D.C. is probably the one result they’ll most regret. But between David Ochoa putting in a solid performance in his return to Utah and United overall just being very good about not letting the hosts out into transition, a goal never really felt like it was coming.

Claret & Cobalt head coach Pablo Mastroeni was choosing to look on the bright side.

“Obviously, I’m frustrated with the result. From a points perspective, those were the three points we needed,” Mastroeni said afterward. “The only thing you can’t control is the results – you need things to go your way, you need balls to bounce, you need shots to hit the frame, you need good calls, and you need a lot of breaks to score goals.

“But when I think about where we were and what we went on to achieve in the game on both sides of the ball, I think we did a really, really good job. And obviously, scoring goals is the toughest thing to do in a game, and we just couldn’t find it, but we created enough solid opportunities to be able to do that.”

Those solid opportunities, it should be noted, came almost solely up their left side. RSL got just about nothing up the right or through the middle.

They’re seventh in the West on 43 points, though if the Galaxy win their game in hand, RSL will drop to eighth. Those two teams square off on October 1, the second-to-last weekend of the season, and chances are that just about everything will be on the line.

Wayne Rooney, on a night in which he saw his side officially eliminated from playoff contention, gave a start to 15-year-old Homegrown center back Matai Akinmboni. I did some digging and, as far as I can tell, he’s the youngest center back ever to suit up in an MLS game.

Portland’s doing their late-season Portland thing, where, after months of scuffling along, they figure it out and play just good enough to start stringing the results they need together. Their past four results:

  • 2-1 win vs. Seattle
  • 2-1 win at Austin
  • 2-1 win vs. Atlanta
  • 1-0 win, on Saturday, vs. Minnesota

If any of those four (but especially the Seattle one) goes in the other direction, then I’m writing a very different blurb about them right here. But this is the Timbers in late-summer, and we’ve seen this movie for a decade straight. They almost always figure it out, and this winning streak, which has been driven by a shape change (they now play with three or five at the back) and the return to health of Eryk Williamson (he’s been the best No. 8 in the league this year when healthy), is proof positive of that.

Minnesota, believe it or not, also changed their shape in this game. Adrian Heath almost never does that – he’s ride or die for the 4-2-3-1. But with Emanuel Reynoso out injured and the Loons coming off of back-to-back 3-0 losses, Heath matched Gio Savarese’s back five with a back five of his own.

To be honest, it worked. New DP forward Mender Garcia was particularly active, finding a ton of chances for himself and creating a ton for his teammates. This double-move to get open here…

Forwards who find a way to shake loose in the box like that usually find a way to put the ball into the back of the net.

Still, though, Garcia didn’t on Saturday, and neither did anyone else for Minnesota, who are suddenly in a somewhat precarious position. There’s no clarity on when Reynoso will be back, though it seems unlikely he’ll be available for much more than a cameo against what’s likely to be a heavily pissed-off LAFC side on Tuesday night, and as well as they played in Portland, there’s no clarity on whether any of the healthy attackers has the juice to carry the team through the most important stretch of the year.

“For us to not score a goal with the clear-cut chances that we’ve created is disappointing,” Heath said. “We weren’t clinical enough. On the road, I say it all the time, when those opportunities come, you have to take them.”

A few more things to ponder…

A hat-trick for a defender? Sure, why not. Somehow JJ Purata’s day, which drove Atlanta to a 4-2 win over visiting Toronto, was appropriate for both teams. For Atlanta it’s because they got the kind of goalscoring outburst – from a center back! – they’ve been dying for all year, and because it came during the week in which Josef Martinez was suspended, and because he got beat on the first Toronto goal and conceded a penalty for the second.

It was maybe the most “Atlanta 2022” individual performance possible.

For Toronto it’s because, for all the money they’ve spent on superstars, they keep getting the most basic stuff wrong. Another way of putting that: all three of Purata’s goals came off of very basic corner kick routines.

Both teams still have a mathematical path to the playoffs, but c’mon.

The Rapids technically kept their playoff hopes alive – and just about finished off Vancouver’s – with a dominant 3-1 win in Commerce City on Saturday night. Gyasi Zardes’s 21st-minute goal was his 10th on the season, which marks the fifth time in his career he’s hit double-digits.

Vancouver, who’ve been almost entirely either a 3-4-2-1 team or a 3-4-1-2 team in the past year under Vanni Sartini, trotted out a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree in this one, presumably with the idea of controlling central midfield. It did not work.

Houston, in the first game post-Paulo Nagamura, were officially eliminated from playoff contention with a scoreless home draw against Sporting KC. That result all but ends SKC’s very, very faint hopes as well.

Hector Herrera missed his third straight game with what was initially reported to be a minor muscle injury. The Dynamo have won just twice in the 12 games since he made his debut.

And finally, our Face of the Week goes to LAFC’s Franco Escobar, who played a crucial role in an unreal goal sequence:

I’m going to toss out the tactics in this game, a 2-1 FC Dallas win which was defined by almost 80 minutes of 10-v-11 play thanks to Ryan Hollingshead’s red card (it went pretty much as you’d expect, with LAFC countering their way to a goal and Dallas having a ton of the ball but struggling to break the visitors down until the above brain fart).

I think the more notable thing is just that Dallas are so up for it – they’ve had a ruthlessness over the past month that didn’t exist for them over most of the year. This win kind of cements that identity, which was on display last week when they smoked Minnesota, a couple of weeks before that when they shut out (!!!) Philly, or a few days before that when they annihilated San Jose.

It hasn’t been perfect. But a month ago if you’d asked most folks, I think the consensus would’ve been that Dallas were in a decent amount of trouble and were in danger of dropping below the line. Instead they’ve gone 4W-1L-1D and are now a decent bet to finish second in the West.

LAFC are still going to finish first in the West, but with this loss they can’t break the single-season points record (73) the Revs set last year. Maybe the one shred of good news for them right now is that they still control the Supporters’ Shield race, since if both they and Philly win out, LAFC hold the first tiebreaker (wins).

But with the way the Union are playing, LAFC might have to win out in order to stay in the conversation. Given what we’ve seen from the Black & Gold over the past three weeks, that seems like too big an ask.