It's Sunday night, which means it's time for the full weekend wrap-up. I'm taking a look at a pair of young forwards putting the ball into the net in different ways, as well as why and how their teams are building around them. Plus the Philadelphia Union look like Supporters' Shield contenders – just like we thought – and the CCL teams look exhausted.
In we go:
I've said it over and over again: I don't love a False 9. While I understand the theory behind it, and while we've all seen it work well at various levels over the past 20 years (Totti was the first modern False 9; Messi was the best; Firmino is the best currently), we've all also seen it not work well more often than not. In an era where teams are getting smarter about both how to generate shots and where to generate them from – dead center on goal, 15 yards and in – it’s often hard to justify a system that moves your primary goalscoring threat 50 yards away while asking for a more complicated, coordinated series of movements with and without the ball in order to get to that optimal shot zone in the first place.
The gamble coaches who employ a False 9 make is that it’s worth it anyway. Having a center forward who is comfortable pulling all the way up into midfield to become a playmaker means you 1) force some really tough choices upon the opposing backline/d-mids – they’ve got to be coordinated in order to deal with this kind of unconventional center forward movement or they’re cooked – and 2) open attacking space for your wingers who, when it works, tend to arrive in the attacking quarter (not third! We’re talking real narrow margins here) ahead of the False 9, and are allowed to attack a scrambling defense.
The False 9, meanwhile, instead of jostling 1v1 or even 1v2 with the center backs, instead becomes invisible and gets to make second- or third-man, box-arriving runs. Like this:
Alan Velasco’s into the final quarter early. Paul Arriola’s into the box early. Jesus Ferreira, after coming all the way into midfield for that slick one-touch lay-off to Paxton Pomykal, dragged Zac McGraw out with him, then turned around at a dead sprint and beat McGraw into the box for what looks much more like a No. 10’s goal than a No. 9’s. Frank Lampard scored a million of these.
That’s part 1. Here’s part 2, with the False 9 pulling into midfield to become a pure playmaker because the center backs are now scared to go with him, and are just reacting instead of acting in transition moments. So now the False 9 has the time and space to pick up his head and release the wingers to have a go. Like this:
It’s gorgeous when it works, and it’s devastating when it works, and my god, did it work over and over and over again for FC Dallas on Saturday night in their 4-1 win over Portland. It was a clinic. Ferreira had himself a hat-trick and that assist to Arriola above, and put in something close to the Platonic ideal of a False 9 performance (even if Dallas head coach Nico Estevez and Ferreira himself would both probably quibble with my calling him a “False 9” instead of just a “9”).
“I want to be that player that can be in any position and be able to score so like you said – the header, the shot, and just the tap-ins – those are the best goals that you can score as the nine,” Ferreira, who’d entered the game still looking for his first goal of the season and comes out of it amongst the league leaders in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race, recounted. “I'm excited that I can score in different ways and that I can help the team win.”
It’s a pretty milquetoast quote but there’s truth in it: Ferreira’s ability to be a part of these sequences at their genesis, and then again at their termination, is the type of thing that can certainly help this team win. Dallas are 2W-1L-1D through four games and their expected goal differential is in the top third of the league, per TruMedia via StatsPerform. The sample size is too small to take that as gospel, but the trendline is good.
Underpinning all of this is the often unremarked truth that betting on a False 9 means betting on your wingers to be vicious on the ball and goal-dangerous off it. Most teams around the world do not have wingers who are good enough, relative to their respective level of competition, to make that wager on. Dallas, with Arriola and Velasco, as well as the improved Jader Obrian in reserve, really seem to.
“The more you play together the more you're able to understand each other’s movements, understand what is needed when you plan a system, and everyone is starting to understand,” Arriola explained afterward. “I think we're learning where there are spaces.”
They’re also learning to use that coordinated movement together to create spaces where there are none, with a lot of help from that all-Homegrown midfield behind them (Pomykal and Brandon Servania have both been very good, while Edwin Cerrillo is one of the early leaders in the Most Improved Player race). Even with Velasco’s late arrival and integration, a new coach, a new system, some notable winter departures and a few frustrating moments in front of goal, Dallas have looked like a team where the False 9 makes sense. It’s not just a tactical wrinkle; it’s something that’s playing to the roster’s strengths, and Estevez deserves a lot of credit for getting it functional so quickly.
As for the Timbers, a performance like this was probably to be expected to one degree or another. Portland’s really only been comfortable defending deep and asking little of their center backs aside from box dominance (which they’ve been very good at). Going from that to the types of rapid-fire, open-field decisions Dallas forced upon them was a bridge too far for McGraw and Bill Tuiloma, especially with 19-year-old d-mid David Ayala, in his first start, struggling to keep up with the tactical pace of the game. And that’s to say nothing of the nightmare performance from Josecarlos Van Rankin at right back.
There was a sliver of good news, though, since Sebastian Blanco came on at the start of the second half, picked up an assist and looked like his old self for, I’d say, 25-30 minutes before running out of gas. Portland have been surviving without him over the past few weeks. If they’re going to thrive, they need him healthy and in the XI probably 20 times over the season’s final 30 games.
Saturday felt like a step in that direction.
For the first time in their MLS existence, it seems like FC Cincinnati have hit upon something that’s really working. This doesn’t feel like a false alarm or wishcasting, but rather like they’ve found and polished a gem, and are using it in a way that both makes sense now, and can make sense as part of the foundation for the future.
If that feels like too much praise for Brandon Vazquez, the 23-year-old journeyman center forward who’s played fewer than 3000 MLS minutes, and never more in one season than last year’s 828, then fair enough. But the underlying numbers have been screaming for about two years now that Vazquez needed to be on the field more, and when interim head coach Tyrone Marshall finally took the hint at the end of last season, Vazquez delivered with 4g/2a in his final five games’ worth of MLS minutes.
New head coach Pat Noonan, hired this offseason, looked at the data, looked at the boxscore production and decided not to fix what wasn’t broken. Vazquez has started four times in four games thus far, and followed up last week’s brace in a 2-1 win at Orlando City SC with two more goals, an assist and a drawn PK in Saturday’s rapturous 3-1 home win over Inter Miami CF.
Vazquez is the polar opposite of Ferreira in most ways. He’s a classic target forward who’s aerially dominant, and his dance is not about dragging the opposing defenders upfield. It’s about either beasting them physically, or making the kinds of hard stunts that create a reaction and provide an extra yard or two of separation in the 18. It’s the Wondo and BWP game-within-the-game stuff he does, and these are the margins, as seen through Second Spectrum’s tactical cam:
Vazquez has no intention of receiving a pass at the corner of the 18 when he makes that stunt; he just wants to convince Damion Lowe that he does. Lowe bites, and Chris McVey is torn about coming over to help, and when Ronald Matarrita dimes that cross…1-0.
That’s just classic center forward work. Modern center backs are good – they’re mostly fast, physical, and well-versed on who they’re coming up against. The only way to beat them is the relentless cycle of move and countermove, feint and counter-feint, all done in the service of opening up that sliver of space you need to do things like getting an open header at the corner of the six.
It’s a Wondo goal, it’s a BWP goal, it’s a Chicharito goal, and it’s becoming a Brandon Vazquez goal.
And that has been a long-time coming for Vazquez who, before he was a journeyman, was a USYNT star, part of the same U-17 cohort as Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie. His career has not gone as expected since then, but he would hardly be the first late-bloomer in US history, and he seems determined to make the most of his first-ever chance to be a full-time starter.
“It was nice to see him not get complacent during the week because he scored a couple important goals for us last week,” Noonan said afterward. “He had the same hunger throughout the week. He was working after training every day to the point where we wanted to pull him back and just be smart about getting him through the week in an intelligent way so your legs are there for Saturday.
“So, him getting a couple more goals tonight was nice to see with that, as far as his development as a player in his progress, to not settle for a performance last week, and to go and do it again for the group tonight.”
The “for the group” part is not just talk. Vazquez’s movement in and around the box has helped give both function and form to an FC Cincinnati attack that has historically had neither. His off-ball work puts the type of pressure on opposing center backs that force them to react to him, and the cascade effect is that Cincy’s midfielders often end up with more time on the ball. And in those moments when they don’t have more time on the ball, “launch it toward Brandon and fight to win the second ball” is a pretty good emergency valve, especially since Noonan has stuck with two up top in his side’s 3-5-2.
Noonan, who came over from the Union, has baked that into his team’s tactical approach. Cincy, like Philly, play with two up top, which makes it easier to win second balls in the attacking third. Cincy, like Philly, try to live in transition – i.e. do as much of it as possible and don’t worry about possession stats. It’s a bet on winning by dominating field position and high-leverage moments more than dominating the ball, and after four games it’s working better than any bet any previous Cincinnati coach has ever put forward.
There is a grain of salt to be taken here, however, given that it’s Miami at home. I asked my colleague Ben Wright for his breakdown, and this is what he offered:
No real pressure in midfield, so [Junior] Moreno and [Yuya] Kubo can consistently turn and play forward. As far as the backline, though, Matarrita and [Alvas] Powell are getting really high and wide, and [Tyler] Blackett has been really good at stepping up and playing line-breaking passes. Nothing revolutionary, they’re just actually executing.
So far the early returns on “just actually executing” are promising in attack – Cincy are fourth overall in xG. Defensively, though, it’s more of a work in progress, as they’re once again in the bottom five. There’s a ton more work that needs to be done.
But you’ve got to start somewhere, and Vazquez’s evolution into this type of center forward makes for the most obvious spot. Cincy’s never had that before, and that alone is reason for optimism in the Queen City.
12. Speaking of Philly, they went to the Bronx and spanked NYCFC by 2-0 to kick things off on Saturday, getting their first goal off a set piece, their second off a quick transition following a throw-in and conceding 70% possession to the hosts throughout.
Philly are who we thought they’d be, nestled amongst the Supporter’s Shield favorites with 10 points through four games and underlying numbers that say more wins are coming. It’s hard to imagine otherwise, especially if they come out of the international break with one or both of their DP forwards healthy and putting the ball into the net (it should be noted that Julian Carranza’s got a pair of assists thus far).
NYCFC have clearly hit a wall, with the break coming at the right time. Since Feb. 16 they’ve played eight games across all competitions, logging more than 17,000 travel miles, playing in four different countries, on turf and at altitude, and hosting three separate home openers.
Through the first 13 halves of this journey they’d logged a +11 goal differential. In the past three, which really started with the final 20-minute meltdown in Guatemala City, they’re -4.
I believe the larger sample size is the more representative one. They’ll be fine after a little bit of rest.
11. Toronto got their first win of the Bob Bradley era, winning 2-1 at home over visiting D.C. United. Bradley brought his team out in a 3-5-2, which better suited the talent in the midfield, and was rewarded with goals from Jonathan Osorio and Alejandro Pozuelo.
I need to highlight this moment from D.C.’s Ola Kamara, though:
The amount of work a forward has to put in to actually get open in the first place, and to get their team into the attacking third, often goes underappreciated. Let’s take a moment here and make sure that’s not the case on this sequence, even if it didn’t end in a goal.
10. Only one sequence in Minnesota United FC’s 1-0 win over San Jose ended in a goal, as Luis Amarilla got loose for a one-time finish in transition about a half-hour in, giving the Paraguayan No. 9 two goals in four appearances this year.
This game was not as close as the score indicated, though, as the Loons were constantly getting out on the run and putting J.T. Marcinkowski under pressure, while on the other end San Jose created absolutely nothing.
As per the tracking data, San Jose have conceded the second-most xG in transition, and spend the least amount of time – by miles – defending in an organized state.
tfw the tracking data is just the eye test.
9. The eye test says that Colorado will be upset at leaving a couple of points on the board, having to settle for a 1-1 draw at Houston after a poor William Yarbrough goal kick gifted Tyler Pasher a 90th-minute equalizer.
The Rapids had allowed the Dynamo just one truly good look all night to that point and, in their Rapids way, had gotten a goal of their own off a corner kick because of course they did.
Also, after I waxed poetic about Diego Rubio last week, he registered zero shots and just five touches in the box all night.
8. Xherdan Shaqiri has been registering shots since matchday one, and finally, in matchday four, he registered his first goal, converting a PK early in the second half to give his Fire a 2-0 lead en route to a 3-1 win over visiting, short-handed Sporting KC.
One thing to note about Shaqiri thus far is that while he has not been particularly expert at weighting his through-balls, he’s always looking to play quickly, which increases his margin for error, and puts Chicago’s wingers in spots where they can do work against scrambling defenders:
That's not the optimal angle to play young Brian Gutierrez through, but because it all happens so quickly, Sporting don't have time to send help. Gutierrez is able to roast his guy in space and pick his pass, and then Kacper puts the game away.
This is simple stuff, but as with Cincy, getting the simple stuff right is a great way for a bad team to improve. Chicago are no longer a bad team; they are resolute and compact defensively in Ezra Hendrickson’s 4-2-3-1, and the new central defensive pairing of Rafael Czichos and Wyatt Omsberg have avoided stepping on rakes in the way that last year’s Fire defense did. And the year before that. And the year before that. And the year before that.
Sporting, meanwhile, are in a world of hurt right now, to the extent that Peter Vermes actually moved away from his typical 4-3-3 to a much more conservative 5-4-1. It didn’t work.
7. I am not sure where to start with breaking down Atlanta’s 3-3 home draw with CF Montréal, which had maximum #MLSAfterDark energy even though it was an afternoon game. I guess I’ll just begin by saying that somehow it was not the first time this season – not the first time this month!! – an MLS team has come from two goals and a man down to secure a home point. This league is absurd.
And now, rather than write anything coherent, I’m going to give you a list of bullet points:
- Gonzalo Pineda called out his team afterward for their “arrogant” first half. I could see that, as once Atlanta got up 1-0 they clearly stopped taking Montréal seriously.
- The first Montréal goal came courtesy of a Quakes-caliber mess of a corner kick routine from the Five Stripes.
- Ismael Kone had as high-impact a performance as you could possibly expect from a 19-year-old central midfielder. He got caught on the ball for Atlanta’s opener, played Djordje Mihailovic through for Montréal's equalizer, scored CFM’s second with a bursting run from midfield, and then drew a PK for the third with that same type of run. He's in Canada's camp this week, and I won't be at all surprised if he's in Qatar come November.
- I was shocked to discover that Dom Dwyer’s 67th-minute red card was just his third in MLS.
- Montréal melted down in the second half, as all four of the teams who played midweek CCL did.
- Thiago Almada had the most Ezequiel Barco-ish half possible, as he was basically a non-entity until producing an exquisite banger of an individual effort.
- Credit to Brooks Lennon for putting his equalizer on frame, but Sebastian Breza got maybe the worst jump I’ve ever seen from a ‘keeper on a free kick.
In the end, the point was probably just for both teams, and both teams badly need the international break – Montréal to get some rest, and Atlanta to get fully healthy and onto the same page.
7. Most other weekends, RBNY's 1-1 home draw with Columbus would've gone down as the wildest game of the matchday, but what they produced on Sunday afternoon couldn't quite pip Atlanta/Montréal. What it did have, though, was a potential miss of the year (Gyasi Zardes), a Crew own goal in the 84th minute after they'd dominated the previous 25 minutes, and a Crew equalizer in the 95th minute that came literally all the way from one endline and ended at the other. And they got it as they were playing with 10 men, because Lucas Zelarayan had limped off moments before with an unspecified leg injury.
I can not stress to you how little this game produced through the first hour and then how completely it went off the rails at the 65-minute mark.
Also, if you ever want to blueprint in how not to kill off a game, the Red Bulls gave it. From Gerhard Struber's decision to take off his d-mid, to Ashley Fletcher's decision not to either play in a teammate or just take it to the corner, to Cristian Casseres' decision to overcommit to pressing despite the clock and the game state, to Luquinhas deciding to just jog back instead of actually getting stuck in and working to stop the counter... just a brutal way to turn a home win into a draw.
All hail Chris Wittyngham. And if you don’t, you don’t get the show!
Anyway, Orlando City are grim and gritty right now, doing that typical Oscar Pareja thing of trying to grind out early season results by defending deep and hitting on the counter. That’s exactly how they conjured the game’s only goal, which happily came from one new DP (center forward Ercan Kara) to another (winger Facundo Torres).
The Galaxy played well, and created a bunch of chances. The worry, though, is that basically all those chances fell to Kevin Cabral, who once again finished none of them, and that once Cabral came off, they created precisely nothing.
Greg Vanney’s staring at a very difficult choice here. Cabral's really testing the "trust guys who get into good spots to eventually figure out how to finish" axiom. Strong Cristian Colman vibes at this point.
4. RSL are tied atop the West on points! They have now beaten Seattle, New England and Nashville on the trot – the first two were heavily rotated, to be fair – and have 10 points from four games. They have been doing this with no Damir Kreilach, no Aaron Herrera, no David Ochoa (Zac MacMath has been playing the best ball of his life) and no DPs. They have a rejuvenated Bobby Wood and an out-of-nowhere Tate Schmitt, who’s providing constant danger from left wingback.
There is no tactical explanation* for these results, which are consistently belying the underlying numbers, so let’s just hear from head coach Pablo Mastroeni:
"From my perspective, all the soccer stuff aside, if you don’t have the right character and mentality, then we wouldn’t have the chance," Mastroeni said. "It’s a game that is unforgiving, and you have to earn the right in these games. I can go through a list of things we didn’t have, but I’ll tell you what we did have: character and mentality."
I will not argue a word of that. No one could, in good faith, given what we've seen from this team to start the year.
(*) While there is no tactical explanation of the results, Pablo did offer a great, in-depth explanation of some of the defensive rotations he's asking of Wood and his center backs, which is well worth a read.
Both of RSL’s goals in this one came off of restarts – one directly off a corner, in which Wood was left entirely unmarked at the front post, and one off a recycled free kick, in which Schmitt was left entirely unmarked at the back post. Nashville have conceded five goals so far in 2022: three off of set pieces, one from a penalty and just one from open play.
I have no idea how this team, which is packed with aerially dominant defenders, can still be so poor when defending set pieces. It is the weirdest thing in MLS right now, and we all know how weird this league is.
3. LAFC's boxscore performance, in 2021, didn't match their underlying numbers. Thus far in 2022 those underlying numbers have stayed elite, and the results have been coming along with them. Such was the case in Sunday night's 3-1 win over visiting Vancouver, which left the Black & Gold atop the Shield standings with 10 points (and a tiebreaking +7 goal differential) through four games.
They've been good in the ways they were good last year and the year before, as in they use the ball better than anyone and are among the most vicious pressing teams in the league. But they're marrying that, this year, with a defense that's not making simple mistakes and a mostly healthy Carlos Vela, as well as some veteran additions who've stabilized what had been a listing ship.
Obviously it is all working very, very well.
They'll have to share Pass of the Week honors.
Vancouver have just one point through four games. They badly need to get healthy and start making up ground on the other side of the international date.
2. Austin play some good soccer. It's not entirely clicking yet – in large part because they just don't have a natural finisher to play as a No. 9, and yes, I'm selling most of my Moussa Djitte stock – but it can be pretty as hell. And in the second half of their 1-1 home draw vs. Seattle on Sunday night, it often was.
But these are the Sounders. Like the other CCL teams, their legs were gone by the halftime whistle, but unlike the other CCL teams, they have the type of depth and institutional knowhow to survive injuries, absences, suspensions, altitude, squad rotation... basically, you name it. It's not always going to be pretty (they were under 40% possession for like the millionth game in a row) but they will murder you on the break and won't hurt themselves at the back with simple mistakes.
They will be glad to have the rest. I can't wait to watch them vs. NYCFC, two of the three best teams in the league, face off in the CCL semis on the other side of the international break.
1. And finally, congratulations to Charlotte FC for their first-ever MLS win, as DP forward Karol Swiderski registered a brace and No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick Ben Bender continued to show why he was picked at that spot in their 3-1 win over the visiting, short-handed and clearly pretty exhausted Revs.
The hosts were hyped, and were right to be:
A thing to note about Charlotte is that, through four games, they’re one of the pressing-est teams in the league, ranking in the top third of most of the tracking metrics. But they’re actually dead last in xG generated off of regains, which seems to me like some low-hanging fruit they could harvest over the coming week (Charlotte play next Saturday, so they don’t have the full international break off).