Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

FC Cincinnati raise their ceiling, two contenders emerge out West & more from Matchday 16

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We’re looking at what seems like a legendary Supporters’ Shield race in the making, a Rapids team that just keeps responding, an LAFC side getting comfortable with the ball again and everything else from around the league on Matchday 16.

Happy Memorial Day to all my fellow Yanks reading this one. Touch grass.

And in we go:

If Things Were Perfect

In the books, FC Cincinnati’s 4-3 triumph up in Toronto on Saturday night goes down as another one-goal win for the reigning masters of those. It is their ninth such win this year, which comes a season after registering 14 one-goal wins en route to the club’s first-ever Supporters’ Shield triumph.

So it is safe to say the Garys are used to playing tense affairs, and this certainly was that.

But the manner of this particular one-goal win was inarguably different. Each of the previous ones this season, and to be honest, the vast majority of last year’s 14, were exercises in grinding the opponents down and outlasting them, with a dose of Lucho Acosta magic thrown in. They’ve invested heavily in their defense and they have one of the league’s best goalkeepers, and they rode that. Why would you not?

I am, however, of the opinion that the best teams need the ability to just occasionally brute force a win via super firepower. Cincy had done that at times last season – there was a hot second where it all appeared to be clicking for Lucho was the now departed Brandon Vazquez and Álvaro Barreal, and the possibly-soon-to-depart Aaron Boupendza. In 2024, though, those moments hadn’t yet existed.

Now they do. Cincy went out and got U-22 Initiative target forward Kevin Kelsy just before the window closed last month, and his arrival combining with the ascent of Barreal’s replacement, Luca Orellano, has given this team the ability to go out there and win via raw firepower. The first couple of months it was all defense and Lucho. Now the attack is humming.

“Lucho's carried our attack up to this point,” head coach Pat Noonan said in the postgame. “So nights where, you know, whether he's off or teams do a good job of taking him off the ball and out of dangerous spots, we have to figure out how to create and score goals. And I think you saw that tonight from a variety of players and in different ways that allowed us to score goals. So if we're going to continue to win games, it's got to be with players outside of Lucho contributing with how we create and how we score goals”

The principles of how Cincy play are still in place: a 3-4-1-2 with the left wingback (Orellano) tending to play a little higher than the right wingback (DeAndre Yedlin when healthy) in order to facilitate the kinds of left-side overloads* that Lucho has feasted upon since Noonan became head coach. As so:

() A fun wrinkle we saw in this one was Orellano starting inverted on the right, which caused TFC all sorts of problems. Orellano scored the first goal and basically created the second, scored by Kelsy.*

Kelsy, meanwhile, does what it says on the tin: he’s a big target forward who occupies center backs, links play and finds good spots in the box for one-touch finishes either from combo play or on rebounds. Since his addition Cincy are hitting long-balls marginally more often (from 10.5% to 11.9%, both numbers in the bottom half of the league), and while their overall pass completion percentage has stayed exactly the same (82.4%), their accuracy on those long-balls has jumped from 44.5% to 48%. And subsequently, their passing accuracy in the final third has jumped a few percentage points as well.

That’s added up to more open play shots on target per 90 over the past five games, as well as better overall xG and higher xG per shot. This isn’t all because of Kelsy, but he’s played a huge part in opening up avenues of attack by an extra yard or two.

It’s all pretty glorious, and honestly, right now it all feels like it’s cooking a little bit hotter than last year’s Shield-winning side ever managed to. For one thing, that group never scored more than three goals in a game, which obviously means they never scored seven goals in back-to-back games. Which this group has now done.

For another – forgive me for burying the lede here: Cincy now have won seven on the bounce, which is tied for the second-longest winning streak in the post-shootout era. Seattle’s record of nine, which they set back in 2018, feels very achievable.

Whether they get there or not they’ve pushed fractionally ahead of Inter Miami on points per game, though they remain a point behind the Herons. I don’t think either of these teams are going away, and it’s starting to feel like we could have an all-time great Shield race, a la 2022 or 2018.

Credit to Toronto, by the way. They’ve lost three of four in league play, but they went into this one without Federico Bernardeschi and mostly gave as good as they got. They are clearly miles better than last year, even if things are starting to fall apart just a little bit on the defensive side (10 goals conceded in their past four league games and some underlying numbers that are flashing warning signs).

Part of this is personnel, as the Reds are one of the thinner teams in the league. Tactically, though, one glaring thing John Herdman needs to solve for is his team’s inability to win second balls. He’s mostly decided to sacrifice central midfield numerical superiority for a front-foot and, at times, unbalanced tactical approach. I respect the hell out of that – it’s certainly made Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne, who was brilliant in this one, more dangerous – but it’s asking a lot out of Deybi Flores and Matty Longstaff, and both guys have buckled a bit under that pressure in recent weeks.

Run On

First half: Minnesota come flying out of the gates, pump long ball after long ball to win second ball after second ball, and grab themselves a 3-1 lead.

Second half: Colorado respond with a vengeance, control play basically the entire time and inflict so much pain and pressure that the Loons finally buckle. And so it becomes a 3-3 draw, and that’s how it ends.

Overall takeaway: Damn this was fun. And if you’d told me a game between the Rapids and a Reynoso-less Loons side in late May would be this much fun, and be laden with this many playoff implications, I’d have called you a liar. But here we are.

“In that moment (at halftime), it was just another reminder of the belief and the challenge of staying focused,” Rapids head coach Chris Armas said. “I give the boys a lot of credit tonight because I’m not sure how many games we’re going to play with nine or 10 big chances statistically.”

It was that kind of team -- two good teams going hammer and tongs for all three points, and two teams looking like they could do damage en route to an extended playoff stay, or even a push at the Shield. I wouldn’t bet on either to do it, but games played with this level of intensity and problem-solving are rare. And they only happen between good teams.

So back to that first half, which as mentioned was all Minnesota long balls and second balls. They attempted only 101 passes and completed just 53. The more telling stat is that 51 of those 53 were in the attacking half, which illustrates exactly what you think it does: the Loons were not spending any time with the ball on their foot, and were instead just doing pure boom-ball upfield towards the two-man front line of Tani Oluwaseyi and Sang Bin Jeong.

Playing those two guys in front of three central midfielders – and occasionally a center back stepping off the line, or a wingback pinching in to change Minnesota from a 5-3-2 to a 4-2-2-2 on the fly – tasked with winning the second ball and then immediately playing forward made the Loons relentlessly north-south. And look, most of those passes don’t come off. But then you just win another second ball, and play forward again.

This is so ingrained in them they were do it off of throw-ins:

A brief aside: These Tani goals are real. He’s scored at every level he’s ever played at, and while 514 MLS minutes isn’t a large enough sample size to say he’s going to be elite in this league, my guess is he’s going to be very, very, very good. The important parts of his FBRef chart are all green, as he’s in the 99th percentile among forwards for:

  • non-penalty goals
  • non-penalty expected goals
  • Assists
  • Non-penalty expected goals + expected assists combined

He is merely in the 98th percentile in expected assists. What a slacker.

The overall point is, though, that every great goalscorer’s consistency is built upon finding one-touch finishes in the box, be they off set pieces, or patterns of play, or rebounds. Tani did that in college, in MLS Next PRO, in the USL Championship, and now in MLS. Bet against him at your own peril.

Back to the game. This graphic from @MLSStat on Twitter – especially the Match Momentum Chart on the bottom right – tells a ton of our second half story:


Colorado controlled virtually the whole field, got a ton of meaningful ball progression from Djordje Mihailovic pulling the strings as a No. 10, and utterly dominated the second half. That was because they started winning those second balls that the Loons had been feasting upon in the first 45 minutes, and once that happened, Minnesota didn’t really have a way to play through the hosts.

“It didn’t feel like, for me, that there was a quick fire away at half time to make us immediately better on the ball, to have more control, to find more energy,” Loons head coach Eric Ramsay said. “I think that almost the course of the game has been set from that point. So, yes, we tried to freshen up a bit with the way we used the substitutes, but in some senses, it had an air of inevitability about that in the second half that we were going to end up defending our box for long periods.”

While Colorado answered a toughness question in the second half, it’s kind of gone under the radar that Rafa Navarro has pretty thoroughly answered the No. 9 question. His 62nd-minute goal off a corner to make it 3-2 gives him nine on the season, and five in his past five games. It is a good run of form.

The best part about that – the actually convincing part? Four of those have been non-PK goals. Navarro, until this stretch, had been a pure PK merchant. He is no longer that (and even biffed a PK to prove it), and Armas said after the game that he expects the Brazilian to continue in Colorado.

That had been up in the air given his loan from Palmeiras officially expired in mid-July. Expect to see this man in Burgundy much, much longer than that.

Now, for the record, I am going to mention that Kévin Cabral had himself a brace. While I am in on Navarro, I can not quite get there with Cabral. As for now I’m calling this a black swan event and can not bring myself to believe that consistent goalscoring will follow. But if it does, I promise you, Rapids fans, that I will write about it at length.

A few more things to ponder…

12. LAFC made it three wins on the trot and four in five with a 1-0 down in Atlanta after Mateusz Bogusz’s free kick took a wicked deflection to wrong-foot Josh Cohen.

It was a return to pure transition play from the Black & Gold, who’d been using the ball more in recent weeks and looking good for it. The change was understandable, though, given that midfield tempo-setter Ilie Sánchez missed the game with a leg injury (I’d have liked to have seen Eddie Atuesta get a start there in LAFC’s typical 4-3-3, but alas).

Atlanta’s winless skid stretched to nine games. They didn’t play badly, but the wheels are coming off and the vibes are visibly bad.

11. Charlotte made it five straight clean sheets with a 0-0 at home vs. the Union, who probably did enough to score on most nights but couldn’t seem to remember which direction the goal was in.

Still, Dean Smith deserves a ton of credit. He’s installed a mid-to-low block, no-frills 4-2-3-1, and is being rewarded with progress from his two young center backs (they’ll make a bundle off of Adilson Malanda this winter, and Andrew Privett was rewarded with a well-earned new contract this week), who play behind a midfield that just constantly works.

They’ll need to add a DP playmaker this summer. I think it should be a No. 10.

10. D.C. did what’s becoming the norm for them: played well, took a lead, controlled most of the game, and then somehow coughed up an equalizer to drop points in what became a 1-1 home draw vs. the Fire.

That’s a brutal result for United, who are now all the way down in ninth in the East despite having a top three expected goal differential in the conference. If they miss the playoffs by a point or two, this is the exact result they’ll be pointing at come Decision Day.

Not taking anything away from the Fire’s equalizer, by the way. This was a lovely passage of play from Andrew Gutman, Hugo Cuypers and Kellyn Acosta:

Chicago 5-3-2 in this one and I’m not sure it made a difference. Though you know what did? Starting Brian Gutiérrez as a No. 10. He wasn’t super influential, but he was fun and engaged, which the Fire have not always (often) had from their No. 10 in recent years.

Speaking of: Xherdan Shaqiri was not with the squad. The DP was released to go join Switzerland for the Euros – even though their camp doesn’t start until Monday.

Writing’s on the wall.

9. A coaching change in Nashville brought a bit of a tactical change to the team’s shape in what became a scoreless draw on their visit to Montréal Saturday night:

On the one hand, I think it worked: Nashville were better on the ball and more consistently dangerous in possession than they have managed through most of the year.

On the other hand, they couldn’t find a goal against a Montréal side that’s been bleeding for the better part of two months. Their deeper-lying midfielders, Aníbal Godoy and Sean Davis (with cameos from Dru Yearwood and Tah Anunga) remain too limited in their ball progression to really spark the attack.

8. New York City FC have now taken 21 of the past 24 points on offer after Keaton Parks’ late header gave the Pigeons a 1-0 win up in Foxborough.

This performance was another from Nick Cushing’s new playbook, as NYCFC mostly conceded possession and field position for space to counterattack into, and generally created better chances for it (though Parks’ goal did come off a stretch of pure possession play). They don’t look all that much like a CFG team, but they are up to third in the East, so I doubt they much care.

The Revs are dead last, and the underlying numbers agree: their -0.92 xG differential per 90 is the worst in FBRef’s MLS database, which goes back to 2017. Yes, that means they’re worse than any of those first three FC Cincinnati sides, or last year’s tragic TFC Wooden Spoon winners.

It’s hard to believe this is largely the same group that was on a 65-point pace through the middle of last season.

7. If you hit a trivela through-ball that leads to a goal, you win our Pass of the Week. Take a bow, Aidan Morris.

And a hearty well done to Yaw Yeboah, as well. He’s now got five assists on the season, while Diego Rossi’s brace in the Crew’s 2-0 win at Orlando gave him 4g/5a in MLS play, along with another three in Concacaf Champions Cup action.

Speaking of, the Crew will now ride their three-game winning streak – all on the road – into the Concacaf Champions Cup final this coming Saturday at Pachuca, with most of their best players in their best form. The one exception is Cucho Hernández, who’s now missed all three of those wins with a back injury.

I don’t know what his status will be for this weekend.

Orlando’s little three-game unbeaten run came to the end and at this point I almost admire Oscar Pareja’s steadfast refusal to use Martín Ojeda from the start in a pure playmaker’s role.

6. Glass half empty: RSL went to a struggling Dallas side and coughed up three goals, two of which were pure disasters, to dig themselves a 3-0 hole by the hour mark. Zac MacMath, at this point, might’ve played 19-year-old Homegrown Gavin Beavers into the No. 1 kit.

Glass half full: they roared back with three goals of their own, including an equalizer eight minutes into stoppage time. And they didn’t even have to ride MVP candidate Chicho Arango to do it! Instead it was Diego Luna – who has officially snapped out of his early-season doldrums – Anderson Julio and Nelson Palacio who got to be the heroes.

The Claret-and-Cobalt are flexible and resilient and are probably going to stay at or near the top of the West. But even with their 11-game unbeaten run there’s some daylight starting to bleed in between them and the Cincy/Miami duopoly.

5. Speaking of Miami, you may have heard that they went to Vancouver without Leo Messi, Luis Suárez and Sergio Busquets. And in the end it didn’t much matter as goals from Robert Taylor – a worthy Messi tribute cutting in from the wing on his stronger foot before banging it far post – and Leo Campana gave Tata Martino’s side enough cushion to hold on for a 2-1 win at a packed BC Place.

I have said before and will say again that Miami, who pushed their unbeaten run to 10 games, are the deepest and most talented team I’ve ever seen in MLS. Bolstering that wasn’t just the return of Federico Redondo, who got his first run in over two months, but the development of MLS SuperDraft picks Leo Afonso (a solid depth piece on the wing) and Yannick Bright (an excellent back-up for Busquets at d-mid, who might actually end up being the first-choice right back by the end of the year as well).

The one area of concern remains central defense, where Tomás Avilés needs to be more of a grown-up with his decision-making and reactions (both soccer reactions and non-soccer reactions).

Giving this guy our Face of the Week:

The ‘Caps are winless in six. Their chance creation has cratered during this streak, though they had a good (if ultimately fruitless) first half hour in this one.

Now they’re staring at a two-month stretch in which six of the next eight are on the road. Things could get worse before they get better.

4. The Sounders ranked 18th in the number of passes they hit that end in their own half heading into Saturday’s 2-1 win at St. Louis. Last year they were 10th, and I think what we've seen is that the way things have been unsettled in central defense and central midfield has made it harder for Seattle to put together methodical, patient passing sequences that control both the pace of the game and where on the field it’s been played.

This has probably had a bigger impact on their defense than their attack – “possess to defend” has become the Seattle game model over the past few seasons – but also, it’s definitely hindered their attack. And then on Saturday…

This wasn’t pure possession, but this wasn’t just scrambling to lump the ball forward, either. They played sideways to open passing angles, they played back to play forward.

Coming into the game Seattle had averaged about 200 passes in their own end per game. In this one they hit 276. They looked like themselves.

They’ve now lost just once in their past six. I expect them to keep climbing.

St. Louis didn’t play poorly by any stretch – they generated 24 shots and created a bunch of danger after going down a goal. But the luck they rode so hard last year has evened out a bit, so it’s going to be a scrap to get into the playoffs.

3. The Galaxy snapped a five-game winless skid with a big, come-from-behind 2-1 win over visiting Houston.

It was a win that spoke to LA’s attacking talent and resiliency. It also spoke to their defensive fragility, as the striker-less Dynamo controlled possession, created most of the best chances and let the Galaxy off the hook again and again and again.

The summer window can’t come soon enough for Houston.

2. Austin got themselves a very solid and very fortunate point in San Jose, riding Brad Stuver and the woodwork to a 1-1 draw that moves them to 6W-2L-2D in their past 10 games despite having the worst expected goals differential in the West.

I mean…

Sometimes the soccer gods smile upon you.

The Quakes remain down at the bottom of the West on PPG, but have been much more respectable (2W-2W-2W) over their past six, and Hernán López looks the part of a very good No. 10. If they keep playing like they did this weekend they’ll string some wins together.

1. And finally, Evander delivered Portland the late winner they desperately needed in their 2-1 over visiting Sporting KC, who’ve now lost five straight and are winless in eight. They’re propping up the West on points, though remain fractionally ahead of San Jose on points per game.

Portland have now won two of three and climbed to within a point of the play-in spots. I thought Phil Neville made a good decision in pushing Kamal Miller – normally a center back – out to left back. That kept the shape as a back four without the ball, but when Portland were in possession, Miller mostly never ventured forward. Doing that almost entirely negated Sporting’s right side while giving the Timbers a better shape for their rest defense.

“I think we’ve seen improvements now over the last two or three weeks,” Neville said afterward. “Tonight was probably our best defensive performance in terms of our shape and organization. We’ve worked hard on that this week, there’s been some non-negotiables and I suppose there’s been some hard conversations about accountability.”

Three of their next four are on the road, and each of their next seven is against Western Conference foes. The Timbers have a chance to keep climbing here – or for the floor to drop out from under them entirely.