I don’t know about you, but before the 2022 MLS season started, I had a lot of questions about how things were going to shake out on the field this year. There’s a new team in the mix and there are plenty of new players and coaches, too.

I don’t know about you, but I still have a lot of questions after Week 1. I’ll tell you what, though: We’re one weekend of games into the MLS season and that means we have some interesting data on each team in this league.

What are Charlotte FC trying to do? How do all of these new managers plan to play? How will some of these new Designated Players fit? We don’t have enough information to make sweeping conclusions about any single team just yet, but Week 1 certainly taught us some things.

With the help of Second Spectrum’s data and my own eyes (which are a bit tired from watching a heap of games this weekend, I’ll admit), let’s take a look at five notable on-field takeaways from the first weekend of the season.

1
Charlotte FC show their foundation

It’s hard (read: pretty darn near impossible) to be thrilled about a 3-0 loss in your first MLS game, but there were some undeniable positives that emerged from Charlotte FC’s opening day loss to D.C. United. Maybe the most useful thing that came from Saturday’s game was getting a real look at Charlotte’s approach in a meaningful game.

Miguel Angel Ramirez wants his team to build attacks with precision, even when under pressure. Looking at all 28 teams, Austin FC were the only team that spent more time in the maintenance phase (which 2S defines as when a team is “focused solely on keeping possession of the ball”) than Charlotte. At times, we got to see some fun attacks like this one stem from their ball possession:

From the technical center backs to the shot assist from Titi Ortiz, there’s a lot to like about that above clip. Other times, though, Charlotte looked out of sync with the ball – especially in transition moments – and were either too content to sit back and possess or were overly rushed (or even some combination of both of those things).

Seeing how Charlotte’s attacking play progresses over the next few games (and months) will be fascinating.

2
FC Cincinnati’s goalkeeping issues

It’s early days, but Cincinnati’s goalkeeping hangover was a major data-driven storyline from this past weekend. Since FC Cincinnati joined MLS in 2019, they have finished in the bottom three in the league in post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed (per FBref) in every single season. That means their goalkeepers have allowed more “savable” shots to turn into goals than almost any other team over the last three years.

In 2019, their goalkeepers allowed 13.8 goals more than expected, which was the worst total in MLS that season. In 2020, they allowed 6.2 goals more than expected (third-worst in MLS). Last season, they allowed a staggering 14.7 goals more than expected (worst in MLS).

Alec Kann might be the answer to Cincinnati’s problem…but he also might not be. In his team’s 5-0 loss to Austin FC Saturday, Kann allowed five goals, one of which was an own goal. Based on post-shot xG, Kann is already sitting at a two-goal deficit. It’s too early to tell if Cincinnati will have another detrimental goalkeeping year, but controlling the near post (where he allowed two goals against Austin) will be a good first shot-stopping step for Kann.

3
LAFC's aggressive counter pressing

When one coach leaves and is replaced by another, things change. That’s true of any coaching change in any sport – and it’s true for LAFC. In their first game under Steve Cherundolo, a 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids, LAFC had four new offseason acquisitions in their starting XI and used some possession rotations (like dropping Kellyn Acosta deep in the buildup to form a double pivot with Ilie Sanchez) that we didn’t see much of under Bob Bradley.

One principle that didn’t change from Bradley to Cherundolo is their counter-pressing. After Week 1, LAFC have the second most counter pressures (70) and the second most counter pressures in the final third (32) in MLS. Last year, Bradley’s team finished second in the league in those same two statistics.

Defensively, LAFC corralled Colorado over the weekend, holding Robin Fraser’s team to just 0.47 open-play xG on seven total shots. Offensively, LAFC didn’t create a ton of high-quality chances directly from counter-pressing moments, but plays like this one show how dangerous they can be after hunting down and winning the ball high up the field.

Using 2S’s tactical cam, we can see how quickly Diego Palacios steps to the ball and how LAFC’s midfield and defensive players compress to eliminate Colorado’s forward options.

The coach may be different, but we’re still seeing a lot of the same, hyper-aggressive LAFC.

4
Ideas starting to take hold for FC Dallas, Toronto FC

It didn’t take long for Nico Estevez and Bob Bradley to put their respective marks on their respective teams. If you were squinting, you could’ve been forgiven for mistaking FC Dallas and their 4-3-3 shape for the US men’s national team, where Estevez coached as an assistant before joining his new team.

Toronto, for their part, had a slightly more lopsided shape. It was less of a standard 4-3-3 and more of a lopsided 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 with Jonathan Osorio just ahead and to the left of Michael Bradley and Alejandro Pozuelo much higher and to Bradley’s right.

For my purposes right now, however, I’m not all that interested in either team’s shape. I am interested in how both teams used the ball in their shapes. Both teams blitzed the optimal assist zones — the outer corridors of the box.

Lowery optimal assist zones

FC Dallas had the most passes of any team in Week 1 that started in those zones and ended in the middle area of the box, with eight. One of those eight passes resulted in a goal from Jader Obrian:

Toronto were just behind them, finishing the game with seven of those passes, which puts them tied for second in the league with Columbus. One of those seven passes resulted in a goal from Osorio:

Teams who can regularly access those optimal assist zones tend to be good at creating chances. Let’s see if Toronto FC and FC Dallas can create more this year than they did last.

5
Pressers start to emerge from the pack

As with every Week 1 takeaway, this should be taken with a shake of salt, but we are slowly learning which teams want to press and which teams aren’t so eager to step forward. Unsurprisingly, Hernan Losada’s ultra-high-pressing style is back again this year: D.C. United registered the most team presses (a coordinated press by two or more players on the defending team) in their 3-0 win over Charlotte*.

*2S was unable to capture data from the New York Red Bulls3-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes, but you can be sure that Gerhard Struber’s Red Bulls will be fighting with D.C. for that top pressing spot.

Pat Noonan’s FC Cincinnati are second on Second Spectrum’s high pressing list – Noonan brought a page from Jim Curtin’s “Book of the 4-4-2 Diamond” with him to Cincinnati. Sporting Kansas City are third, LAFC are fourth, and Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Toronto FC finished the weekend tied for fifth in high pressures.

I’m very curious to see how Cincinnati, Vancouver, and Toronto, who all pressed last season, but not at a top five level, balance pressing with defensive stability this year.

We’ll find out as the year goes on!