Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

FC Dallas find blueprint for success, Red Bulls need a scorer to step up & more from Week 25

August arrived and MLS attackers have decided to make it rain:

It seems like almost every fringe playoff team is trying to solve their issues by slamming on the gas and going full-throttle into the attack. This is the opposite of what conventional wisdom says that teams should be doing at this point, and is one of the very big reasons that I absolutely love this league.

In we go:


FC Dallas got on the board early against visiting San Jose. They pressed the Quakes into a lazy turnover as the visitors were attempting to play out of the back, pinged it around very briefly and gave Jesus Ferreira a tap-in to make it 1-0 inside of three minutes.

It’s a disastrous start to the game for San Jose, clearly. Yet all season long Dallas have struggled to turn 1-0 into 2-0. There was no real need to go berserk in search of an immediate equalizer.

But the Quakes, who came into this weekend with some minuscule hope of making a late, miracle run toward the playoff line, were desperate to the point of madness, and so they did what desperate teams do: They went berserk, pushed everyone up in search of goals and left space to run in behind. YOLO.

Dallas responded by lighting them on fire en route to a 4-1 win. Ferreira got his brace, Alan Velasco had a golazo, Sebastian Lletget got a pair of assists, and suddenly Los Toros Tejanos are 3W-1L-1D in their past five, sitting all alone in third place in the West with eight games left.

In the context of this year, I’d argue Dallas have shown almost across-the-board improvement. In the context of this game, the most interesting thing is that they at least partially merged what’s become their identity – an emphasis on pitch control through central midfield – with a more dynamic approach to pushing forward. It’s a big step.

Their issue all year is that head coach Nico Estevez’s emphasis on pitch control has often become an over-emphasis on pitch control, which has come at the expense of creating penetration both on and off the ball. It's why so many of Dallas’s dominant segments in games have only resulted in those 1-0 leads rather than 2- or 3-0s they could, and at times should have had. Subsequently they spent much of May, June and July melting down late in matches and routinely dropping points from leading positions.

Understand that it’s not that exerting control over the middle of the pitch is in any way bad. It’s just that it can be tough for a young team with a new coach to sort of navigate the tension between running the show and just running. Dallas didn’t do enough of the latter.

That’s been changing recently, though mostly it’d manifested itself with entire games played against the ball. On Saturday, those moments turned into stuff like this:

Look at how central midfielders Lletget and Tsiki Ntsabeleng deny San Jose's backline easy passes into central midfield with their positioning, which then forces a telegraphed diagonal that Marco Farfan can jump and win. That is the first, foundational part, and all year long Dallas have been good at turning defensive moments like that into long sequences of comfortable possession.

The difference this time is that on the change of possession Dallas go forward and Lletget actually goes early – he gets high and stays high, which unbalances the SJ backline and lets Farfan stroll into the shot.

It was almost shocking to see Lletget make that early run given how conservative Dallas’s central midfielders have been all year long. It is a significant change to (I’d also say improvement of) the tactical approach if the central midfielders are going to occasionally release like that.

So what happened Saturday is that even though they were good on the ball, Dallas still ended up below 40 percent possession. They were happy to let the game state and the Quakes' desperation be the defining factors. That was smart and, I thought, opportunistic.

But it might actually be more than that. The last line of this explanation from Estevez's postgame presser was especially revealing.

"We were able to score in the third minute, and we kept pressing and trying to exploit the wings," Estevez said. "We realized that and read it very well, and this is something that we are talking about. These transition moments are important when we play at home. We should not feel bad about regaining our shape quickly and forcing them to lose the ball so we can transition quickly.”

My take when watching the game was that I wasn't sure if how Dallas played was indicative of anything other than playing the Quakes in Texas. But clearly Estevez sees it as a blueprint – to some degree, anyway – for what he wants from his side down the stretch. They are going to try to navigate that tension between possession and penetration.

The Quakes, meanwhile, are left to navigate their journey into 2023. Their only ray of light was Jeremy Ebobisse’s long-range, right-footed stunner (he's left-footed), which meant he finished the night tied for third in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race on 14 goals, neck-and-neck with Ferreira.

Cross the Breeze

Like Dallas, the Red Bulls have a very clear identity. It’s one that is very unlike Dallas’s in execution – you all know, if you’ve ever read this column or watched a single RBNY game, that there are no slow build-ups from this team – but the goal is the same: to control both the tempo of the game and where it’s played on the field, and to force the opponents to bend their own approach to operate exclusively inside the Energy Drink Soccer OODA loop.

And honestly, the Red Bulls have been very good at that this season. They’re not playing peak Jesse Marsch-era soccer in terms of effectiveness, but it’s probably the closest this team has been since Marsch left four years ago, and for a while there I thought they were going to ride that to a top four or five spot in the standings.

But there is no Bradley Wright-Phillips on this team, and there is no Sacha Kljestan on this team, and I’m not even sure if there’s a Daniel Royer on this team. Those guys, and most of the other attackers that Marsch gave regular minutes to, mixed the vicious, league-changing high press with a bit of attacking magic and a lot of executing upon the fundamentals.

This team does not do that. This team does not even get to the near post:

If Patryk Klimala is going to make those angled runs into the channels – and at this point that’s pretty much all he does – then the wingers who pinch in or the central midfielder who pushes on to occupy the central channel have to understand what the fundamental runs are when play swings out wide.

“Oh, but that’s not part of the Red Bull game model!” you say, and to that I say this:

Of course it’s part of the Red Bull game model. Whether you’re a maximalist or not this is the most fundamental run in soccer. When the ball gets wide like that, someone in the attack has to get to the near post. BWP, a center forward, scored 100 goals that way. Rodrigo, who is not a center forward, scored a BWP goal on the opener for Marsch’s Leeds side this weekend in the clip above.

Lewis Morgan, though, just stood there feeling the wind on his face. It’s like Gerhard Struber’s version of the Red Bulls are so committed to attacking downhill – Morgan has been excellent this year when running straight at goal in transition, and very good on restarts – that they have not figured out how to be dangerous in any other phase of play or build-up scenario.

“I think in some moments you need in the buildup a better understanding, you use the space,” Struber said afterward. “I think this is how we crash the first line, and this is always easier to come in the end in better follow actions.”

The point here, and in several other instances, is that there was no “crashing the first line,” to borrow Struber’s way of describing it. Klimala doesn’t reliably do it, and neither does Morgan, nor Luquinhas. Tom Barlow does, but his limitations in other areas make him much more of a bit player.

Struber has to figure out a way to address this because if the Red Bulls continue to skimp on the fundamental things, it’s hard to imagine them pulling out of this summer tailspin that’s threatening to become a death spiral.

Orlando might’ve staved off a death spiral of their own with this win, which pushed them back above the line for a week. But even with the opportunistic and well-worked goal, and the fact that they didn’t really give RBNY any great looks, this wasn’t a great performance from the Lions. They took just two shots, and at no point were they in any danger of actually controlling the game and imposing some of their will upon the hosts.

Still, though, I don’t think anyone will be complaining about ending up on the right side of an away six-pointer.

A few more things to ponder…

12. Here's what a "solid" team does: They strangle you defensively and annihilate you on set pieces.

Here’s what LAFC did in Saturday night’s 5-0 win over visiting Charlotte: Allowed two shots on goal – only one from inside the 18 – and scored their first two goals off of restarts.

We'll remember the picturesque third and fourth goals, and the kind of hilarious fifth, but the ones that ended the game were just ruthless and professional. They didn't even need Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini, who were given the weekend off for load management.

LAFC need 20 points from their final 10 games to set a new single-season points and PPG record, which the Revs own after last season. I'm pretty sure they're going to do it, and I'm pretty sure they'll enter the MLS Cup playoffs as prohibitive favorites.

Charlotte dropped down to 11th in the East. Their playoff hopes are on life support.

11. Even with the Crown on points but technically 13th in the East are Atlanta United, who earned themselves a very credible 2-2 draw at FC Cincinnati on Saturday night. Gonzalo Pineda switched back into the 3-4-2-1 he’d used at times earlier in the year, and while it wasn’t perfect, they jumped all over the hosts for the first 20 minutes and had enough in reserve – including Josef Martinez, who seems to be staring at life as a super-sub down the stretch here – to spend the final 15 on the front foot looking for an equalizer. They eventually found one.

In between the frenetic opening and the wild end, Brandon Vazquez and Brenner had given Cincy a 2-1 lead, and Roman Celentano produced one of the most outrageous saves of the season:

This game was fun and good, but it was weird fun and good because Cincy, in a home six-pointer with massive playoff implications, both started and finished so flat. It feels like maybe they were flying a little too high after last week’s surprisingly easy win over the Union.

Vazquez’s goal, his 15th on the season, kept him just ahead of Ferreira and Ebobisse in the Golden Boot race.

10. Remaining atop the Golden Boot race is Austin's Sebastian Driussi, who scored his 17th of the year to finish off Austin's comeback in a 4-3 win over visiting Sporting KC that went full #MLSAfterDark real quick. Brad Stuver gifted Sporting a 2-0 lead, which turned into a 3-1 lead by halftime, but then the Verde came out in the second half and just bludgeoned the guests, with Driussi’s winner coming four minutes into stoppage.

Head coach Josh Wolff then jumped on what he clearly thought was a poorly phrased question in the postgame presser:

I will say that Wolff’s not lying here. Austin’s big changes, when they’re chasing a late result like this, aren’t in their shape or overall approach. Wolff tends to make like-for-like switches – fresh legs – with the biggest tactical adjustments coming from how high the fullbacks push and how early Alex Ring releases out of central midfield.

Despite this latest infliction of misery on Sporting fans, I do think there’s reason to be happy with the summer’s new arrivals, midfielder Erik Thommy and forward William Agada. Both have been upgrades.

9. The Revs took care of business at home, riding an early Carles Gil goal to a 1-0 win over visiting D.C. United, who never truly threatened. With a bit more sharpness in the final third this one could’ve easily been 2- or 3-0 to the hosts, who’ve now lost just twice since April.

There’s little to recommend Wayne Rooney’s version of D.C. United thus far, as they’ve been punchless up top and bereft of creativity through the middle. The hope is that the arrival of Christian Benteke and the return to full health of Taxi Fountas, as well as a dose of chemistry, can change that.

8. CF Montréal took care of business on the road, heading down to Texas and coming back with three points courtesy of a 3-2 win over the Dynamo. There are a number of positive takeaways here for Montréal, who climbed into second in the East, including Djordje Mihailovic putting in his best performance since returning from injury and Victor Wanyama, who only had to come on for the final 12 minutes, getting a bit of rest.

But the best thing was James Pantemis bouncing back from last week with a stellar night in goal. This one’s as good as Celentano’s save above:

If he continues to play at a high level Montréal will hold onto second place and actually create some distance between themselves and the rest of the East. Basically all of the other pieces are in place.

Houston are just 1W-5L-1D since adding Hector Herrera to the mix. They’re in the group of teams that needs to have eyes and thoughts on 2023, because there’s no playoff push happening this year.

7. The reason I’m convinced Montréal are going to start creating some separation in the East is because of how poor NYCFC continue to be. They went down to Fort Lauderdale and continued to shoot themselves in the foot, with this week’s goat being Alfredo Morales. He left a back-pass short for Alejandro Pozuelo to slot past Sean Johnson in the 84th minute of Miami’s 3-2 win.

Every week I’m coming up with a new way to say that the Pigeons don’t press as much or as well under Nick Cushing, so here’s this week’s installment:

  • Their passes allowed per defensive action under Ronny Deila, as per TruMedia via StatsPerform, was 9.1. That is elite.
  • Their PPDA under Cushing has been 11.9, which is middling.

It’s not unusual to back off the press during the hottest months of the year, nor is it dumb. But the degree to which Cushing has changed one of the fundamental pieces of NYCFC’s success over the previous three managers is pretty stunning, and is not currently being justified by the results.

For the Herons, this was a great comeback and a great result. Manager Phil Neville also called it a big performance, though I think I’d more likely file it under “gutsy” than “great.”

"I’m super proud tonight. I think that was a big performance," Neville said afterward. "We’re now down to nine games. What I've said to them in there is that we treated today as the last game of our season. Against Toronto, again, it will be like the last game of our season. We’ve got to treat every game now, as if the next game is the most important."

6. Toronto are in that same boat, only more so because they’re below the playoff line while Miami finished the weekend above it. The Reds, though, have got momentum, as their 3-1 win over visiting Portland on Saturday moved them to 3W-0L-1D with a +7 goal differential in the four games they’ve gotten Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi on the field together.

Both of those guys got goals, and fellow summer newcomer Richie Laryea got himself a pair of assists in the win. The first was on Jonathan Osorio’s opener, and I’m just going to give the whole team our Pass of the Week for this build-up:

Insigne and especially Bernardeschi have looked like MVP-caliber DPs thus far, and adding individual talent like that can improve virtually any team. But the real beauty in our game comes when high-level individual talent melds seamlessly into a team structure, which opens up time and space for guys who were already there.

That’s what’s happening in Toronto right now, and it’s no surprise that Osorio’s the one who’s taking best advantage of it (four goals in the past four games). The dude has a PhD in using the gravity of others to find one-touch finishes in the box – remember it was Osorio who won the CCL Golden Boot back in 2018 as he was brilliantly able to capitalize on the space created by the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez.

The names have changed, but Osorio’s still there doing what he’s done best. I had my doubts about it all coming together so quickly for the Reds, but thus far I have been thoroughly disabused.

Wednesday’s home game against the Revs is massive, as is next weekend’s trip to Miami. Given the way Toronto’s been playing I like their chances of coming away with at least four points.

5. Columbus kept their heads above the line and put a decent dent in Colorado’s hopes by going to Commerce City and coming away with a 1-1 draw on Saturday night. Cucho Hernandez got himself another goal, this time by ghosting to the back post like Wondo, before Diego Rubio equalized from the spot in the second half.

The Crew, who have just one loss in 12, are in fifth place with 34 points and a game in hand. Five of their next six games are six-pointers against the cohort of teams just below them in the standings, the ones who are desperately trying to climb over each other and anyone else who happens to be in their way.

Colorado are one of the Western Conference versions of those teams, on 31 points and with a game in hand on most of the teams they’re chasing, desperately trying to climb from 10th into the top seven. A positive from this game was the performance of newly-acquired midfielder Felipe Gutierrez, who jumped right into the XI and hit a bunch of big left-to-right switches directly to left winger Michael Barrios:

felipe gutierrez pass map

That allowed Colorado to leave Barrios high, which is important since 1) he pins back opposing fullbacks, and 2) he’s their best chance creator.

If I were facing the Rapids over the next couple of months, I’d try to be very prepared for that pattern of play.

4. Philly bounced back from last weekend’s humiliation in Cincinnati with a commanding 4-1 win over visiting Chicago, one in which Fire goalkeeper Gaga Slonina had the worst performance of his young career.

The two DPs Philly acquired this offseason, Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre, have 9g/6a in 1550 minutes and 8g/3a in 1013 minutes, respectively. The DP they got last year (who is no longer technically a DP), Daniel Gazdag, has 12g/6a.

Nobody’s going to confuse these guys for LAFC’s cadre of high-priced, big-name attackers, but the Union are getting elite productivity out of the high-end talent on their roster. And it’s been turbocharged lately with Jack McGlynn getting heavier minutes in the midfield rotation, as McGlynn’s passing and just overall ability to command the game means that Gazdag can stay higher and act less as a midfielder and more as a third forward.

As for the Fire, I wrote last week that they were entering the five-game stretch against tougher competition that would prove to be make-or-break for this season. Not a great start.

3. This is what it was all supposed to look like all year in Carson:

Patient build-up, back-to-front, side-to-side, using both touchlines to spread the opponents out and using the defenders and some clever off-ball movement (Mark Delgado’s slip out of the midfield is timed to pull one of Vancouver’s midfielders out) to open up both passing and running lanes. A measured ball into the channel – sure, the defender misplays it, but good ball movement + great speed causes pressure, and pressure causes mistakes – for Kevin Cabral to run onto. A teed-up one-time finish for Samuel Grandsir.

The Galaxy won 5-2 on Saturday night, roasting Vancouver on a spit made of sequences like that one. These are the types of sequences LA have been putting together all year long, and this weekend the difference is that Grandsir (x2), Victor Vazquez and Efra Alvarez actually finished them off (Chicharito also potted a PK).

“Sam, over the course of his time here, he’s gotten himself in a lot of those types of positions, and, unfortunately a lack of execution sometimes, in some of those moments, but he’s been able to get in those positions,” head coach Greg Vanney said afterward. “Like the second goal when he’s able to curl things to the back post, [in the past] he just missed, or things like that. And tonight he found the back of the net.”

That’s the whole story for the Galaxy this season. They’ve played like a top-three team in the conference, but haven’t finished plays off. If they start finishing plays off, they’ll make the playoffs. If they don’t, they won’t.

This was Vancouver’s worst game in months. Nothing but six-pointers coming up so they’re not out of it yet, but the Galaxy just killed them.

2. Emanuel Reynoso outdueled Hany Mukhtar late Sunday night in a duel of two of the league’s best No. 10s, as Minnesota went down to Nashville and came away with all three points thanks to a 2-1 win.

Bebelo assisted on both Loons goals – the first a primary assist after Minnesota had turned Nashville over via the press, and the second a pass-before-the-pass job where he’d released the winger to cross low across the six.

Reynoso is just a genius at unlocking those kinds of chances for his teammates, and credit to Adrian Heath for getting the rest of that attack to understand that if they run, they win. As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, Franco Fragapane and Bongi Hlongwane are both among the league leaders in off-ball attacking runs per 90, and if you’re playing with Reynoso, that is the exact way to go about your job.

Mukhtar is more direct – less of an orchestrator and more of a goalscorer, and true to his role, he got Nashville’s only goal.

As usual, though, that was it. Nashville created a ton of half-chances but don’t have the sort of attacking structure or talent to turn dynamic superiority into full, big chances. There are not many one-touch finishes in the box, which are the types of goals that Minnesota have ridden up to fourth in the West.

1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to Brian Schmetzer:

schmetzer face

The Sounders lost, at home, 2-1 to RSL. Their inability to use the left flankNouhou is just not an attacking threat – is starting to handicap them to a pretty serious extent, but the reality is they created enough chances in this one to have at least found an equalizer. In very un-Sounders fashion, though, they seem truly rattled.

RSL are the opposite of that. They created two great chances all night, one on as pretty a counter as you’ll ever see and the other off a neat bit of interplay directly after Seattle’s goal, and buried them both. They were cool, defended hard as hell, scrambled well, and were vicious when they got the chance.

"I think we conjured some of our last-year-playoff mentality ... it was really grit, determination,” head coach Pablo Mastroeni said post-game. “It was a fantastic performance from the guys."

And so they’re back to having a little padding, as they’re now four points clear of the line with nine to play. The way they’re doing it is… unconventional. But they’re still here, and don’t seem eager to go away any time soon.