The season is juuuuust about 33% done.
The Crown’s reversion to last year’s 4-2-3-1 with Karol Swiderski playing as a trequartista underneath a true No. 9 is complete. They put last week’s disastrous 3-0 loss at D.C. behind them with an impressive – if not entirely convincing – 3-2 home win over visiting NYCFC, whose road struggles are truly mounting.
A non-negotiable when playing a 4-2-3-1 is for one of the two in the double pivot to be able to hit line-breaking passes. And so here’s Ashley Westwood with our Pass of the Week:
“Through the week we were taking a lot of grief,” head coach Christian Lattanzio said afterward. “But I was really pleased with how they were fighting tonight. I would like us to show better compactness higher up the field. But the team fought well tonight."
That compactness is the next step for Charlotte, who are still dead last in expected goals allowed as per TruMedia via StatsPerform, and who were fairly easily sliced up by NYCFC in this one. You have to be able to defend and dictate a game from the front in order to win at a high level, and Charlotte aren’t there yet (in part because of Lattanzio’s unnecessary early-season formation/game model experiments).
The Pigeons have now taken zero points from the first two of their four-game road swing. They play good ball, but man do they miss Alex Callens at center back.
And the answer is that they did the simple, rational, straightforward thing: every time the ball swung wide, Cincy would bring a second CB over. So there was one center back fronting the big man and another backing him.
It says everything about how good Benteke is as a target man that he still had a perfect lay-off to Ruan for a big chance created, and another moment in the first half when he brought a ball down off his chest with Nick Hagglund on his back and still managed to create a chance of his own.
But that’s really it for D.C., and with their current crop of wingbacks, all the service Benteke gets is more hopeful than targeted. If they could keep Pedro Santos and Andy Najar healthy that would change, but that’s just the biggest damn “if.”
So yeah, Cincy were the better team and deserved the win because they were defensively sound in a way they haven’t been recently. But it was all pretty marginal relative to expectations, and I’m still waiting to see things click together for the team that’s sitting atop the table but doesn’t often look like it when they come to play.
Josef Martínez, of course, came to play. The legend got his first and second goals in Miami colors – his 99th and 100th goals in MLS regular-season play – down in Fort Lauderdale in a made-it-closer-than-it-needed-to-be win over his former side.
Josef’s goals, both of which came in the second half and were from Miami’s only two shots of the second half (the first one being a penalty) were the big story, and spinning forward there is now maybe some pressure on Phil Neville to give the Josef and Leo Campana striker partnership a spin from the start next week.
For Atlanta, the goal for next week has to be better final-third patterns and shot discipline because this map is a wreck:
Atlanta are 27th in percentage of shots from inside the box and are mid-table in xG per shot as per TruMedia via StatsPerform. Given how good Thiago Almada is, those middling-to-bad numbers are kind of wild.
Giorgos Giakoumakis is missed, of course. But this is very clearly a structural issue as well.
Montréal went from just one win and six losses (all by shutout) in seven games to three wins on the trot, all by 2-0 scorelines as they head into next week’s Canadian Classique.
The change is, first and foremost, a personnel-based one:
A month ago it really felt like this team’s season was going to go off a cliff, but Hernán Losada deserves some credit for pulling them back from the brink. They’re working hard – I think it’s pretty clear they’ve bought into Maximum Overdrive – and when you have that as a baseline, and start adding players with final-third quality to the mix, you can start stringing together some results.
“We had a collective problem at the beginning of the season, but we had to give ourselves time,” said veteran defender Rudy Camacho in the postgame. “We've worked a lot defensively since then. It starts with our forwards. They're doing a good job up front and taking some of the work off us.”
Orlando could use some of the above. They’ve now gone L-W-L-W-L-W-L in their past seven outings, and every week there’s a new solution via squad rotation, formation or overall tactical approach.
It’s not a disaster – they’re above the line on both points and points per game – but there isn’t any kind of tangible progress either in the boxscore or underlying numbers, and certainly not by the eye test.
The Red Bulls, as always, had their chances:
This team’s now got just seven goals scored and one win in 11 games. They are still missing pieces – Luquinhas and Lewis Morgan are both still hurt, and Dante Vanzeir is still suspended. There is an argument you could make that if they keep playing like this but get their supposedly top-end attacking talent back on the field, things will turn around.
And yet they are dead last in the East with a third of the year done. The shock and awe of their relentless press doesn’t really seem to hit like it used to, and the developmental curve of too many young players seems to have stalled for this team to pull itself out of a tailspin (they’ve passed “nosedive” and look on their way toward “death spiral”).
They have no alternate plan of attack. The other press-oriented teams, including Philly (who are now 10 unbeaten vs. RBNY), have the ability to slow games down and use the ball. They will, when the need arises, craft chances from possession.
RBNY don’t do that. I think it’s catching up to them.
The season finally caught up to LAFC, who became the final unbeaten to fall, and did so in front of a crowd of 45,112 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
It feels like a landmark win for the Quakes. Sickos like me and the rest of the Extratime gang had been banging the drum for most of the season – San Jose’s midfield and attacking balance are good, and Luchi Gonzalez has instilled a rational defensive structure that has made them more of what I would call a “real soccer team” as opposed to the “meditation on madness and frenzy” that Matias Almeyda conducted for three-and-a-half years.
But even we, the true believers, had our doubts.
I think those are mostly buried now (though bear in mind that as I write this, I’m staring pretty hard at their 0W-3L-2D road record). They didn’t play LAFC off the pitch or anything, but they were pragmatic about their approach and ruthless about carving out big chances. And on the occasions when they found room to play…
Man, this team can ball. That link play from Jeremy Ebobisse dropping off the line, followed by his hold-up play in the box, followed by that touch from Jamiro Monteiro and that finish from Cristian Espinoza… this is not accidental. This is that midfield and attacking balance that I was talking about, and what can happen when you put together a group of players whose strengths amplify each other, rather than overlap.
Let’s give Luchi the mic for a sec:
“We have a team that can compete with anyone,” he said after the game. “We still have a lot of work to do. I want to see us progress and try to get better every day with each game. Two weeks ago, we had some results that didn’t go our way, and we were disappointed with, but you never felt the guys stop being open to feedback, believing and working hard in training. They’re always looking to respond, and I’m proud of them for that. We knew tonight was going to be very difficult, an undefeated LAFC, a team that is in multiple competitions and doing well in all of them because they are very good. They have depth, which they showed tonight. We knew we could focus on ourselves and what we can do attacking well, defending well as a group. We can win, we can beat anybody.”
Me: “Toronto are better than you think defensively because they are a team of veterans who don’t give the ball away cheaply.”
If a Bruce Arena team gets a gift like that 20 minutes into a road game, you know exactly what the next 70 minutes are like: Low block, absorb, and selectively send runners forward (which is how they got their second goal, which came in the 62nd minute). The reality of the game state dictated how this one would play out more than any tactical adjustments from either Arena or his counterpart in the other dugout, Bob Bradley.
Which is not to say there were no changes. Bradley actually had his Reds go to two up top (Adama Diomande pairing C.J. Sapong) at about the hour mark… just before the Supporters’ Shield-leading Revs made it 2-0.
But yeah, it didn’t work.
“We generated a lot of shots tonight. How many really good chances in certain moments, our ability to run harder in the box to maybe open up possibilities? We get in spots where we have chances for crosses but whether we choose to cut back or cross, we don't do well enough to make more out of those,” Bradley said in the postgame. “At times we won some balls in the first half in good positions but couldn't play quickly enough and well enough to really take that advantage from the turnover and turn it into something.
“So I think my answer is, there's a lot of things that we've seen throughout the year that we're still not as consistent and as strong in the attacking team as we need to be. Sometimes in a game like this, you generate some numbers but I still would say that overall, not really creating enough big chances.”
That matches my eye test as well as the underlying numbers: Toronto are second in total touches, but are just 24th in non-penalty xG and 25th in touches in the opponent’s box.
They get a lot of the ball, but they don’t really seem to know what to do with it. Given the names on the roster, that’s very strange.
You see it, right?
The extra pass, the unselfishness, the synchronized runs and attacking instincts… it’s the hardest stuff in the game to get right, and is the difference between a team that’s merely hard to beat and one that’s going to run you off the field.
Ezra Hendrickson asked his team a couple of weeks back if they’re eggs or potatoes. They verdict is in:
Potatoes. Mashed to a pulp.
I don’t think there’s anything to examine here beyond Nashville being a significantly better team and taking care of business at home in the way a significantly better team should (and if anything, they came a couple of goals shy of what they could’ve).
The Fire had me going for a minute there in late March/early April, but that now seems like a million years ago. Maybe that changes again – they’re only three points below the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line in the East, and it’s a long season. But man has it been a brutal month of soccer, and man is it hard to have any confidence in this team given what a struggle they’ve had over the past 14 (!!!) seasons.
Every time you come out and play your best players in their best spots, and in a formation that makes sense, you inherently take the opportunity to improve. You inherently take the opportunity to work better on and off the ball – to learn tendencies and preferences, strengths and weaknesses, the good and the bad.
Every time you come out in a formation that’s… not that, you are burning an opportunity to work on the above. That’s not to say that it’s never a good idea to vary up formations or personnel or team shape or gameplans, but if you do it constantly, and you never identify the right one, and you’re a team that is already prone to dislocation and leaving yourself exposed off of turnovers…
That’s a good run into the depth to string the Rapids backline out. That’s a good challenge of the header to potentially win a second ball. That is a… completely empty midfield with no one in position to actually win that second ball, and then an embarrassing lack of urgency to close the potential danger down. And then it’s 2-0 and this one was done.
LA didn’t lose because they started in a diamond (the first time this year I can recall Greg Vanney spinning the wheel and landing on that formation), but the way they’ve flipped from one look to another to another all season long, and at halftime of seemingly every game (including this one) has infused the whole team with a level of instability that is exacerbating their biggest underlying probably (disastrously disorganized rest defense).
So every turnover is a five-alarm fire. And the Rapids live off turnovers. And yes, the soccer gods have a sense of humor so of course it was Kévin Cabral who would drive home the dagger.
Colorado are now unbeaten in seven. Cabral scored, and Jonathan Lewis scored, and they got a goal off a set piece. They were just perfectly positioned to capitalize on everything LA did wrong, and that’s a good way to get your season to start to go right.
Robin Fraser has been immense.
“You talk about seven games unbeaten. Obviously, so many of them were ties, but we felt like we could have won so many of those games,” Fraser said. “We were close. We had opportunities. Things just didn't quite bounce our way, but there was a sense of belief growing within the team. And we have felt like we're playing well. We felt like we've defended well. We felt like over the seven-game stretch we've played offensively well, certainly more times than not.
“And there was definitely a feeling that at some point, this has to break. We have to score some goals based on some good build-up plays, some good approach play, and the fact that we had defended as hard as we have over the stretch, we feel like we always have a chance in games. We felt like we've always had a chance in games, and tonight was another example of that. Defended really well, grew into the game, and then, ultimately scored some goals. And this feels like the type of performance that we have been very, very close to having for quite a while now.”
What he’s talking about there is, without naming it, expected goals (or even expected threat, which is even more granular). The advanced data has been saying for a while now that Colorado were figuring things out, and that it was just a matter of if/when the likes of Cabral, Lewis and Diego Rubio would start scoring.
They figured it out on Saturday. The Galaxy invited them to do so.
I’m really, really interested in seeing what happens with this Colorado team next week.
The good news for Gio Savarese: Evander has started to figure out the league, and while I don’t think he’s really a second forward, he’s been effective over the past few weeks as a second forward, so there he stays. He assisted on both Portland goals in this one.
That’s a really good ball. Never let a scrambled defense go to waste.
The bad news for Gio Savarese: his team’s given up 18 goals through 11 games, worst in the West and second-worst in the league. As I’ve mentioned before, Aljaz Ivacic papered over those cracks last year, but he’s not been performing at the same level in 2023.
The bad news for Josh Wolff: while the switch to a 5-4-1 made sense in the absence of Sebastián Driussi, who will be out for a month with a groin injury, it didn’t exactly solve his own team’s defensive issues. And actually led to a somewhat distressing amount of passivity at times:
That’s two relatively unimpeded box entries and a lot of un-pressured passes in the most valuable area of the pitch in the 30 seconds leading up to Claudio Bravo’s banger.
The Verde & Black have not won in nearly two months. They host Dallas next matchday.
The Whitecaps have been – and I’m not remotely kidding here – maybe the best team in the entire league over the past month. They have been brilliant at gumming up passing lanes and forcing turnovers in key spots, and they are relentless at getting out on the run in order to get onto the end of chances created by the likes of Julian Gressel, Pedro Vite and Ryan Gauld.
What they have not been doing is finishing. But what we should have learned by now is to trust proven goalscorers who are finding good looks but are struggling to put the ball into the back of the net to, eventually, put the ball into the back of the net.
Brian White, everyone:
He now has four goals in his past five MLS games. He has six goals in his past 12 across all competitions, and is averaging better than a goal every 180 minutes.
I particularly love that second goal because it shows White’s Wondo-style poaching instincts. Forget the finish (word is White has a quad contusion and will be fine), and focus on the fact that while everyone else is trying to read the header, White is just taking the available space because there’s only one place Ranko Veselinovic’s header is going if/when he wins it.
And then Simon Becher comes on for 'Caps and, with his first touch, puts the ball into the back of the net. Pass of the Week to Gauld here:
The ‘Caps then took their foot off the gas and nearly paid for it (you can still pass the ball forward when you have a multi-goal lead, boys), but the preponderance of evidence says that, yeah, they’re actually very good.
To head coach Vanni Sartini’s credit, he was able to put his finger on the problem (and was his typically funny self in doing so):
“We are very good but we are growing a lot. We have never been a team who has to manage a lot of leads, and we need to be better at that. We scored, ok let’s keep our business intact, let’s keep the ball a little more and go on.”
The ‘Caps are unbeaten in eight and have now won three of their past five.
I’m gonna turn this blurb over to Producent Anders:
The entire game pretty much revolved around Seattle head coach Brian Schmetzer's decision to go 4-4-2 from the start. It messed up everything with the Sounders' build-out and pressing. They entirely gave up control of central midfield, and Héber up top/Léo Chú on the wing aren't special enough to justify going away from the 4-2-3-1 that's worked.
I thought Sporting did a great job in the first half of winning the ball back and controlling the midfield, and then attacking the halfspaces to create overloads and chances like on the first goal:
Also, it was a great move by Sporting’s Peter Vermes to start Gadi Kinda, then pull him at halftime as he works back to full fitness.
The second half (this is Doyle talking now – I cut Anders’ mic) became less an exercise in tactics or numbers and more just pure desperation from Sporting to hold onto the win, which was their first this year. The whole thing was just #TacticsFreeZone shenanigans at their very best.
And in the end, it worked. Sporting’s 10-game, season-opening winless skid is over, ending one game short of the record RSL set way back in 2007.
Nobody saw this coming. But since this is MLS, it kind of feels like everybody should’ve seen this coming.