Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Columbus stay elite, Galaxy push Miami & more from MLS is Back 

Doyle Sunday wrap column - 2.25.24

The first Sunday night column of the year! It’s good to be back.

In we go:

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

The champs pushed back any sort of MLS Cup hangover to next matchday. It wasn’t precisely a vintage performance, but it was unmistakably Crew-y on Saturday afternoon in their 1-0 win over visiting Atlanta United at Field.

Columbus accepted their championship rings, and then they went out and showed how they won ‘em in the first place:

  • Patience when playing from the backline? Check.
  • Wingbacks staying high and wide to make the field big? Check.
  • Players playing disguised, line-breaking passes across their hips at every chance? Check.
  • A floating, amorphous front three? Check.

Just about the only thing missing was more goals, and so this turned into the first 1-0 result the Crew have had in MLS play in the Wilfried Nancy era (they beat Indy Eleven 1-0 in the third round of last year’s US Open Cup as well).

“We had the ring ceremony, but I told them to enjoy this moment because they deserve it, but at the same time to do the switch and to start right away. The way they did it, I'm really happy with that because they were able to enjoy this moment because they deserve it, but at the same time, they did a really good first half,” Nancy said in the postgame.

“We could have scored more goals. After that, the second half was a bit different. We had less of the ball, but I really like to see my players with good resilience and the persistence to try to keep the clean sheet. The way we defended the box also was good. Yes, we could have scored more goals, but for the first game at home with a lot of pressure, this is a good win.”

That… just about sums it up. But let’s look at some clips of what went right in the first half. Pay attention to Danny Higginbotham’s commentary at the end of this one – about how Yaw Yeboah’s constantly getting a ton of space on that left side:

That had been the pattern of play for the first 25 minutes (overload right, then play across the game channel to the left flank), but this switch from Aidan Morris was the first time anyone on Columbus had just blasted it from one touchline to the other. Usually their switches are two or three short passes across the middle, but by this point, Atlanta were a little bit slow to get pressure to the ball. So… big switch.

And here’s what happened two minutes later:

That is a case of both imposing your will and taking exactly what the defense gives you. And on the flip side, the Crew did a good job of putting pressure on Atlanta’s No. 10, Thiago Almada, and limiting his influence. He created just one chance, good for .12 expected assists.

In other words, this match was very, very different from last year’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs matchups in which Columbus overwhelmed the Five Stripes with numbers going forward, but were sweating bullets any time they had to defend (Atlanta scored six goals in the two games Almada was available in last year’s first round).

I don’t think it was a change of structure, just an effortful execution of what Columbus did last year. Getting that kind of buy-in from champions is not always easy, but Nancy’s proving to be a hell of a coach.

Atlanta were fortunate not to lose by more, but Brad Guzan had a nice game in goal and the new guys at d-mid and center back mostly scrambled well, which kept it respectable.

Macro take for Atlanta fans: You can take some heart from this because it was just a lesson from the best team in the league, as opposed to the type of self-inflicted losses that have been commonplace for this team over the past four years.

Ideas as Opiates

I have been weirdly bullish* on D.C. United since the Troy Lesesne hire, and I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on why. Talent tends to be the biggest separator in this league – in any league – and it’s tough to argue that D.C. are a top-10 Eastern Conference team on talent. Two of their most crucial pieces (Steve Birnbaum and Russell Canouse) are frequently hurt. Two of their other most crucial pieces (Ted Ku-DiPietro and Gabriel Pirani) have been good only in small sample sizes. Their DP midfielders don’t exactly profile as dominant.

(*) I was still too much of a coward to pick them to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.

But something was gnawing at me all offseason that I should be higher on United. I mean, I didn’t even know what formation they’d be playing in, but the non-verbal part of my brain kept flashing a warning light that I was underrating this team.

On Saturday night they beat the Revs 3-1 behind a Christian Benteke hat-trick. It could’ve been 5-1, honestly, and while Giacomo Vrioni’s deserved second yellow was, in many ways, the decisive play, this felt like United’s game from the jump.

On Sunday morning I texted Calen Carr, who did color commentary on the game for MLS Season Pass, to get his first-hand account:

“Lesesne talked all week about winning the ball higher up the pitch to give Benteke opportunities and it worked,” which, yeah.

But then what Calen said next is what made the whole thing click into place for me: “I think D.C. will look more like Philly’s press than Red Bulls’, as they push out of a very narrow diamond with wing progressions coming from \[Aaron\] Herrera and \[Pedro\] Santos (both had assists), but neither of those teams has a weapon like Benteke.”

So it’s two things here:

  1. The Benteke point is well-taken. Put him out there with two fullbacks who can cross and he’s a nightmare for opposing center backs.
  1. Philly’s game model – which is similar to Philly, RBNY, Cincy and St. Louis – has proven remarkably durable in MLS. Teams that play that way don’t miss the playoffs.

Think about it: Cincy became a playoff team as soon as Pat Noonan and Chris Albright arrived from Philly, and Philly’s been a playoff team for about a decade straight. St. Louis walked into the league and won the West last year (I expect regression this year, but not to the point that they miss the playoffs). And the Red Bulls have set an MLS record with 14 straight postseason appearances, the past nine of which have been read from the Energy Drink Soccer blueprint.

There are differences of degree within the game model – RBNY takes it to its logical, often ridiculous extent in terms of emphasis on field position over possession; Philly and Cincinnati tend to play much more actual soccer through midfield – but the overall approach comes from a unified philosophy of playing against the ball to create quick transition moments. Lesesne did that with New Mexico United in the USL Championship, and he did that last year in Harrison with the Red Bulls. And he did it this weekend (even though he officially missed the game via suspension, we all know he’s the guy who did the prep and picked the lineup) in Buzzard Point.

So should I reverse my preseason prediction and put D.C. into the postseason? Honest to god, I’m considering it already. I don’t think they’re going to be anywhere near as dominant on a week-to-week basis as they showed on Saturday, but this team’s already got an identity and a ton of buy-in from their best player. You couldn’t ask for a better foundation if you’re a United fan.

I’m giving the Revs, as a collective, a mulligan. We see every single year how hard it is to balance Concacaf Champions Cup (née League) with the early-season schedule, and I’m not going to pretend to be even a little bit surprised they came out so flat after a midweek win in Panama.

Vrioni, however, has no more mulligans to burn. To paraphrase Calen a bit, “he was supposed to finally get a run of games under a manager that would put his trust in him, but he took a terrible second yellow and was rightly sent off. I’d worry more about him earning the trust of his teammates moving forward.”

He’s on the clock for real.

A few more things to ponder…

12. I was genuinely surprised Brian Schmetzer had his Sounders come out in what I would consider to be a fairly standard, no-frills 4-4-2. You can see it from the average position graphic:

Seattle lineup - Doyle - 2.25.24

That’s a pretty empty midfield. And even though it ended up in a 2-1 win for LAFC, I can’t really say Schmetzer was wrong – the Sounders absolutely had their chances. It was just unexpected to see him move away from the risk-mitigation-conscious 4-2-3-1 (even with Albert Rusnák out and Pedro de la Vega not fit to go from the start, the Sounders have the pieces to play that shape) that had worked so well last year.

Steve Cherundolo, on the other hand… I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a head coach who disdains possession and also disdains playing a true forward. Usually, if you’re dropping a forward for an extra midfielder, you’re Pep Guardiola galaxy-braining a Champions League semifinal or something.

Cherundolo’s not Pep (if you want to compare him to a managerial giant it’s Klopp), but he checks both boxes: possession does not matter in his game model, and neither do center forwards. On Saturday he had midfielder Mateusz Bogusz start in the middle of the frontline of his counterattacking 4-3-3 and, well, it worked. Bogusz was involved all game and scored himself a banger for what proved to be the game-winner.

“That was an adjustment last week. We tried Mati in preseason up high, and yes he’s a midfielder playing as a 9, so the natural instincts and behaviors are to come underneath and to stay underneath,” Cherundolo explained.

“We worked with him, explained to him – credit to Mati, he accepted the role and really played well today as a 9. We saw it all week in training, he was training exactly like that and we felt really good about going into the game. He had a fantastic game, so really happy for him.”

11. Charlotte came flying out of the gates under Dean Smith, took a 1-0 lead inside 10 minutes and made it stand up in a win over NYCFC. Everything the Crown did was transition-oriented, and I thought the wingers – including 16-year-old homegrown Nimfasha Berchimas, who made a late debut – did a very nice job of threatening space any time the Pigeons’ fullbacks pushed up in possession.

The real differentiator, however, was on dead balls. Which, if you’re an NYCFC fan…

You’ve seen this story before. It’s hard to envision a happy ending for NYCFC this season if they don’t fix their dead-ball defense posthaste.

10. Minnesota, with interim head coach Cameron Knowles at the helm and without star No. 10 Emanuel Reynoso, went down to Austin and beat the Verde & Black like a drum. The final score was 2-1 to the visitors, but the outcome was never in doubt (Austin’s lone tally was a well-worked consolation goal five minutes into second-half stoppage).

The Loons, even without Reynoso and Bongi Hlongwane, generated 19 shots and 2.6 xG. I’m not going to read too much into it – Austin looked like Wooden Spoon contenders heading into opening weekend and did nothing to disabuse me of that notion – but I’m not going to read nothing into it, either. Especially since it suits my “people are being too quick to write off the Loons” agenda.

9. The goalkeepers got to be heroes in CF Montréal’s very credible scoreless draw down in Orlando, giving new head coach Laurent Courtois a point in his debut. Montréal looked nothing like the Wilfried Nancy team of two years ago – it’s clearly going to take time for Courtois to get his side to that level of comfort with the ball. But they were dangerous pressing in the first five minutes and almost got a smash-and-grab late.

Orlando City were consistently dangerous after surviving the visitors’ furious first five minutes, but consistently took too many touches to turn that danger into goals. Oscar Pareja sounded disappointed in his postgame presser and he was right to be.

8. Philly were another of the CCC strugglers, needing a late goal from Dániel Gazdag to eke out a 2-2 home draw against the Fire. Chicago’s 20-year-old homegrown attacker Brian Gutiérrez was the Man of the Match with a thunderbastard and a brilliant assist. Head coach Frank Klopas was understandably pleased.

“It's something that we've talked to him about, that he needs to have a bigger impact in the final third with his ability and quality,” Klopas said. “It's great to see him taking that initiative and taking shots from the outside and finishing plays, because I think he has that ability to do so. He needs to do it more often and he needs to have that kind of impact in games.”

Still, the highlight of the match was this build-up from the Union:

That’s what I meant above, in the D.C. section, when I said the Union play more actual soccer than the Red Bulls. This is the synthesis of direct, transition-oriented Energy Drink Soccer with actual ball-playing with chance creation as the intent.

Andre Blake missed this game with a knock. Head coach Jim Curtin is hopeful he’ll be back on Tuesday for the second leg of their CCC tie.

7. Houston and Sporting KC looked very much like two teams lacking a cutting edge to start the season, though Erik Thommy deserves credit for his very nice solo goal just past the hour mark and Gabe Segal will probably have earned himself more minutes with his equalizer eight minutes later. Segal’s ability to occupy opposing center backs – he’s not going to out-muscle them, but he’ll put himself around them and keep them busy – allows Ibrahim Aliyu a little more space to drift out wide and attack, and given the state of the Dynamo roster right now, that might be the best use of Aliyu.

Ben Olsen positively begged through the press for roster reinforcements last week after their 2-1 CCC loss at St. Louis. The Dynamo have got a DP slot open, have already suffered two devastating long-term injuries, and lost their top-scoring center forward in free agency. It’s insane that they’ve added no significant pieces to a team that really was just one piece away last year.

6. Speaking of St. Louis, there were no late heroics on the weekend as RSL came into town and took a point via a 1-1 draw. Diego Luna and new No. 10 Matt Crooks get to share our Pass of the Week nod for this one:

Sam Adeniran bum-rushed Brayan Vera five minutes later for the equalizer for St. Louis who… weren’t great. But god, I love Bradley Carnell’s postgame pressers so much. The dude is purely raw and honest, and here’s what he said when he was asked about a lack of sharpness from his side:

“I didn't say sharp – I don't think I said sharpness. I said ‘intensity.’ If we lack that in our game model, then we are pretty much nothing.”

My guess is the locker room will be hearing a lot of that from him this week, especially with a Tuesday trip to Houston for the second leg of their CCC date coming up quickly.

5. Uh, so Zack Steffen’s still got a bit of rust to shake off:

I’m not putting all of Colorado’s 4-1 loss at Portland on him – or even most of it, really. The real culprit was the Rapids’ lack of cohesion in reading pressing triggers, which led to too much space between the forwards (they pressed with a front two) and then, subsequently, between the lines. When teams get strung out like that, they get gashed, and the Timbers were only too happy to fire up the chainsaw and get gashing.

The actual victory was replete with moral victories as well. Head coach Phil Neville had to go down the roster a bit on every line, and just about every card he pulled was an ace. That included winger Antony, who scored a brace, and veteran CM Eryk Williamson, who was slated to start as a No. 8 in Neville’s 4-2-3-1 but was pushed to the No. 10 when Evander was a late scratch. It was Williamson, returning from an ACL tear, who opened the scoring in the ninth minute.

“This is something you dream of. It’s been a long rehab process, coming back, and the first game at home, the first game of the season,” Williamson said afterward. “Couldn’t be happier with the goal. I think the guys came out and really performed today and I think that’s what we needed to do to set the tone this year. Not making the playoffs isn’t good enough. We’re off to the right start.”

4. Asier Illaramendi got himself a golazo, and thus he got himself a big old hat following FC Dallas’ come-from-behind 2-1 home win over San Jose. Here’s our Face of the Week:

Dallas, as expected, came out in a Crew-esque 3-4-2-1 with flying wingbacks. One of those wingbacks, young Dante Sealy, got the game-winner deep into second-half stoppage time (on a shot I really expected Daniel to do better on).

Los Toros Tejanos were missing all three of their DPs and two other starters (four of those guys should be available soon), so I’m chalking this up as a good win.

I’m chalking this up as a promising performance from San Jose, too, since they were consistently dangerous. But also, they consistently showed why head coach Luchi Gonzalez has said his team’s looking hard for a DP No. 10.

3. Cincy got them CCC blues and Toronto FC got themselves a quality road point in Sunday’s scoreless draw at TQL Stadium. The hosts badly missed Álvaro Barreal’s ability to function as a second No. 10 in possession. With Toronto largely sitting in, someone on Cincy had to pick locks. Luciano Acosta just didn’t quite have it on the day.

In one of the most interesting personnel deployments of the weekend, John Herdman used inverted fullbacks in his side’s 3-4-2-1, with Richie Laryea on the left and Federico Bernardeschi on the right for the first hour.

A ton was asked of Shane O’Neill. He was the right center back behind Bernardeschi, and he responded well, but you’d better believe every coach in the league will be watching film of that exact dynamic in the week leading up to their date with the Reds.

2. An opening matchup between the Red Bulls and Nashville with Nashville missing both of their DP attackers (and three other starters) and the Red Bulls still not having added a DP No. 9 ended with the exact scoreline you would think and looked exactly like you would think. Nil-nil.

A buddy of mine called it “sufferball vs. murderball.”

1. And finally, the LA Galaxy put on a show to kick off their 2024 season, taking Inter Miami out behind the woodshed late Sunday and… ok so they only got a 1-1 draw on the night. At least the fans got a halftime rave out of it!

Look, I’m just gonna leave what I wrote when the score was 1-0 and looked like it was more likely to end 2-0 than 1-1, because I think it’s salient:

Greg Vanney teams do not traditionally put numbers behind the ball and counter. But this team put numbers behind the ball, invited Miami upfield and then countered them to the pain. When they weren’t countering them to the pain, they were taking turns pressing them to death (Sergio Busquets, buddy… pass it to the guys in pink/black).

Riqui Puig was great, aside from a missed PK. He even defended! Both new wingers, Joseph Paintsil and Gabriel Pec, were lively, as was veteran Diego Fagundez. Edwin Cerrillo and Mark Delgado were solid, professional and mistake-free, as were the center backs, as were the fullbacks, as was goalkeeper John McCarthy (he had to make one big save and otherwise controlled his box well). If it wasn’t for Drake Callender, this would’ve been 3-0 Galaxy by halftime. If it wasn’t for a second yellow to Delgado, Miami were not coming back.

New LA general manager Will Kuntz’s strategy of “signing good players you’ve scouted and who are in or entering their prime” seems like a better approach than the previous Galaxy strategy of “signing guys recommended by an agent or that you saw playing in the Champions League that one time.” I’m not saying the Galaxy are BACK back, but by god, they were both fun and pragmatic at the same time, and it’s been a decade since I’ve said that.

Miami looked like a team that had to fly cross-country to play on short rest. And while I take Taylor Twellman’s point that this team needs to be more of a threat to run in behind, the much more pressing issue is they need to be sharper – and yes, I mean Busquets, Messi and Suárez because everything runs through them; THOSE guys need to be sharper and better – in possession, and in turning that possession into penetration, and that penetration into goals. Because for as long as they look like this with the ball, there’s going to be nobody who allows them space to run in behind in the first place. They could sign Erling Haaland and Usain Bolt and it wouldn’t matter a lick.

Everybody’s gonna look at what the Galaxy did and just defend in the ‘keeper’s lap. Miami have the keys to unlock that, to make teams suffer for it. Once they start doing that on the regular, we’ll see if MLS coaches can come up with a Plan B.