Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Galaxy gift El Trafico to LAFC, Red Bulls blew it with Carnell & more from Matchday 8

Doyle 4.16.23

Teams are starting to find themselves, though a few at the top of the table lost themselves this weekend.

Chronological order time. Let’s dive in:

Charlotte FC 2-2 Colorado Rapids

Both these teams have been better over the past month than what we saw from them out of the gates – here is where I have to tip the cap to my colleague Andrew Wiebe for spotting it with the Rapids before anybody else really did – but they’re on pretty different paths.

For Charlotte the path is to continue to mix and match personnel within Christian Lattanzio’s preferred blueprint: 4-3-3 single pivot with one of the fullbacks pinching in to turn it into a 3-2-2-3 double pivot in possession. Look at this network passing graph:

charlotte network v colorado

No. 25 is Harrison Afful, the right back. That’s not where right backs usually operate in possession, but it is in Charlotte.

The upshot of that rotation is it allows one of the central midfielders – No. 7, Kamil Jozwiak – to push up the wing and create width, which in turn allows the right winger – No. 11 Karol Swiderski – to pinch inside and become something of a second forward (and, in theory, something of a goal threat).

Even though the Crown’s playing better than they were a month ago, I still don’t really believe such a complex system gives them a higher upside than the more straightforward 4-2-3-1, with Swiderski underneath a center forward, that we saw last season.

Part of the reason why is because Charlotte can get so unbalanced if any of these rotations aren't crisp and in perfect sync.

Related: I’ve circled Afful in the moments before the Rapids made it 1-0:

afful positioning

That’s Diego Rubio down at the bottom of the screen. He dropped to that touchline basically every time Afful went up and in, because why would you not?

And that, in turn, is the key to Colorado’s improvement over the past month: They are pragmatic about how they do their business. If teams are giving them space on the wings, they will take space on the wings. If there’s room to hit a big switch, they will hit a big switch. If they have numbers up in midfield, they will play through midfield.

Colorado are now unbeaten in four, with three of those coming away and one very good home draw against LAFC. I’m not expecting a 2021-esque push up to the top of the West, but this team’s not the roadkill they looked like on Matchday 1.

CF Montréal 0-1 D.C. United

Montréal, on the other hand, are probably much worse than they looked on Matchday 1. They have lost too much talent for one – with Kamal Miller gone, I’d now argue they sold or traded five of their top seven players from last year – and for two, the switch from Wilfried Nancy’s controlled, methodical game model to Hernan Losada’s Maximum Overdrive has been as jarring (and fruitless) as expected.

So they once again created little, and once again were undressed via their inability to deal with a simple long ball up the gut. They’re giving up a goal a week on that type of U-12 defending, have been shut out six times in seven games, and with over a fifth of 2023 in the books are on pace to have one of the worst seasons in MLS history.

D.C. aren’t much better, but at least they’re adding talent (Lewis O’Brien got the game’s only goal) and have a tactical reference point in Christian Benteke up top.

Columbus Crew 1-1 New England Revolution

God this was a good game, one that had an entirely appropriate amount of second-half stoppage time.

The Crew are nowhere near as polished with the ball within Nancy’s system as last year’s Montréal side were, and I continue to believe their upside is limited by the lack of a Victor Wanyama-style field-spreader and tempo-setter at the 6. But they move beautifully together and are probably my favorite team to watch this season.

The Revs are in the top five of those rankings, and a big part of it is the balance they’ve discovered in central midfield – something they badly lacked in 2022. Earlier this season it was young Noel Buck starting next(ish) to Matt Polster in a narrow 4-4-2 diamond, while lately it’s been Latif Blessing next to Polster in a 4-2-3-1 that’s allowed Carles Gil to stay higher and orchestrate in the final third.

But also, Blessing and Polster together allow the Revs to press higher no matter what shape they’re in because those guys read the game so well and cover so much ground. This really bothered the Crew in the first half:

There wasn’t precisely a lot of this that the Crew had to deal with, but there was more than they’d faced in recent weeks. And note that, yes, it’s Blessing who drops deep to help initiate the sequence, and who, 20 seconds later, flashes right through the middle of the box unmarked (if he was 5-foot-8 he’d have made it 1-0).

I assume that the Revs will go back to the diamond next week since Dylan Borrero will be out serving a suspension for his red card, and since DP center forward Giacomo Vrioni now looks like a starter (he didn’t score, but he gave Columbus hell with his movement into the channels all night and his defensive work was good).

Anyway: two very fun teams and a very good game capped by a pretty dramatic goal off a great header from young Sean Zawadzki.

NYCFC 2-1 Nashville SC

Another very good game, as it usually is when Nashville go behind and are forced to come out of their shell to really play. They can manage that, I swear! Even with Randall Leal still out injured, they have guys who are comfortable on the ball in the middle of the pitch, and their off-ball attacking patterns can be very good. That’s how they got their consolation goal.

But yeah, it was only a consolation goal because the Pigeons took a deserved 2-0 lead in a dominant first 25 minutes. Young Gabe Segal has not yet gotten on the scoreboard, but his insertion into the XI as a No. 9 has pushed Talles Magno back out to the wing, and Talles Magno is really, really good out on the wing:

The other aspect of this play to note is that Keaton Parks doesn’t have license to push up like this if James Sands isn’t back there locking things down as the No. 6. It’s been much closer to a single pivot since Sands returned from Glasgow.

New arrival Richy Ledezma got his first start, playing as a No. 10 in place of Santi Rodríguez, who came on at the hour mark. He looked good, and yes, NYCFC have gotten deeper and better over the past two months.

But with all due respect to Segal, who works hard, they still have a need up top at the 9. And two open U22 Initiative slots. And a week to go before the Primary Transfer Window closes. And a history of splurging with those U22s.

What I’m saying is to turn Twitter notifications on for Tom Bogert’s feed this week if you’re an NYCFC fan.

Toronto FC 2-2 Atlanta United

Rather than talk much about a game that was disjointed and probably not very representative of who these teams are/are striving to be given all the injury and suspension-related absences, I think it’s more interesting to dive into the advanced stats a bit. It is, after all, getting to the time of year when the sample size is just about large enough to divine a bit of the future from the numbers.

And what the numbers, in terms of expected goals differential, are saying about both these teams is that they’re each roughly top 10 MLS sides.

For Atlanta it’s easy to understand how that is: when they’re healthy they’re cooking because of their Landon Donovan MLS MVP-caliber playmaker, a classic center forward, wingers who are willing to run and a backline and deep midfield that’s mostly been good enough.

For Toronto it’s harder to see, but it comes down to their lack of bad turnovers and their rest defense – two things that are very intertwined. After all, if you’re not turning the ball over, you’re probably not giving up many good chances, right? And if you’re not giving up many good chances, your veteran defense and goalkeeper are probably just doing their jobs and getting results.

All of that has come, however, at the expense of most of their attacking dynamism (Richie Laryea scored a great goal in this one, but that’s not a super repeatable pattern of play). They are risk-averse and kind of unbalanced in that they have a bunch of guys in midfield and up top who really want the ball to feet. You have to dig for numbers that adequately explain it, so now I’m naturally going to turn to my friends at American Soccer Analysis and their Goals Added model. That model, which takes into account much more than simply xG, is more bearish on the Reds, putting them 19th in MLS.

Why? Because they are 28th in the league in passing g+, and 29th in receiving g+. That basically confirms the eye test: TFC don’t break lines and get runners behind the defense, and only rarely do they move with and without the ball with enough pace and purpose to create the kind of sequence that led to Brandon Servania’s late equalizer.

But that kind of sequence is now, clearly, in their bag, and with Lorenzo Insigne healthy enough to play a bit, it stands to reason that they’ll start stringing a few more of them together and turning a few draws into wins.

New York Red Bulls 1-1 Houston Dynamo

Houston have a similar approach to TFC and have had a lot of the same problems getting runners behind the defense this year, but that wasn’t on display Saturday night in Harrison. Instead, head coach Ben Olsen smartly stuffed that for the typical “we bet you can’t break down a low block” gambit against the Red Bulls, and it was a good bet. The Dynamo turned a long ball and a knockdown into a breakaway for a 1-0 lead, and damn near held on, only allowing the equalizer when Omir Fernández headed home a John Tolkin corner kick.

Certain teams will want to impose their will with the ball on all comers, but until Gerhard Struber comes up with a plan for his guys beyond “run as fast as you can directly into that wall” I suspect that there’s a lot more of this in RBNY’s future:

Maybe when Lewis Morgan and Luquinhas are back things will change a bit, but also, maybe not.

Austin FC 0-0 Vancouver Whitecaps

Time after time after time:

That has to be a little slip pass to get the runner to the endline to hit a pullback. It is such a fundamental build-up sequence that it’s genuinely shocking to me when Austin do everything to set it up and then absolutely refuse to pull it off.

The ‘Caps, by the way, are now unbeaten in six. Though I’m not sure what the point of using Brian White as a No. 10 is.

Chicago Fire 2-2 Philadelphia Union

In terms of postgame press conference power rankings, Chicago Fire head coach Ezra Hendrickson is probably at the top of the league. This is his first answer to what was a very simple question – one he could’ve blown off, but instead used as a chance to explain the whole game:

“Well, first the injuries. Just unfortunate that we had to take off Gastón \[Giménez\] at halftime. He just pulled something in his upper leg, and then \[Carlos\] Terán was having pain in his knee area, so he couldn't continue. And then later on, Fabi \[Herbers\] also was hurting, so he had to come out.

“But regardless of that, and that affects what you do as far as your subs and stuff like that. But regardless of that, you know, being at home, being up 2-0 again, take nothing from them, it's a good team that we're playing against tonight. They're in the semifinals of the \[Concacaf\] Champions League for a reason. That being said, though, again, at home, up 2-0. We just have to, one, finish our chances when we do get them because there's an opportunity to go up three, maybe even 4-0 and really put the game out and we don't do that.

“And then secondly, it's the second time now, late in the game, that we've had the ball in a box to clear. We don't clear it, we try to play out when we're under pressure and tonight, it led to a PK, because we missed that pass. And then I don't know what the foul was all about. There was no need to foul there. We just made a very, very poor decision on that foul. Once they got that PK, they kind of got some momentum, kind of had us back on our heels a little bit. And you know, we had some moments after that, with \[Georgios\] Koutsias in the box getting some balls from Shaq and stuff. But after that, I think they had the better of the game.

“But at the end of the day, like I told them, at home, you have to have the mentality of, even though it's not a loss tonight, again, it felt like a loss. And so, our mentality in games, late in games, we're not going to have 90 minutes of the ball, we're not going to be on top of a team 90 minutes; rarely does that happen in this game. The key is, when you haven't had the better part of the game, can you keep the ball out of the back of the net? And right now, we're not able to do that. When we're under pressure, we’re kind of breaking.”

And that sums it up: When the Fire are in control of the ball, and subsequently in control of the rhythm of the game (and note that Gaston Giménez, who I’ve ripped a bunch over the years, has been key to that), they play with both more energy and purpose and are actually really good.

When they lose control of the ball and are forced to scramble – to fight and rotate and make big individual plays – they are still the Chicago Fire.

Philly are very much not the version of the Union we’ve come to expect over the past few years, down below the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line in the East with a quarter of the season gone. But they’ve shown a lot of life this week, and I’ll be surprised if they don’t start spinning that into more complete performances within the league.

FC Dallas 2-1 Real Salt Lake

Here is the case for Nico Estévez to stick with the 4-4-2 he’s used the past couple of weeks:

Jesús Ferreira has become a sniff-out-the-chance-before-it-happens goalscorer. Last year he wasn’t really that; last year he was a guy who knew the patterns so well that he could almost think the ball into the net as long as Dallas were controlling the ball.

But there’s more ruthless instinct to his game now, and a very clear understanding of how to use the space a fellow center forward creates. He’s been great in the box in a way he wasn’t last season.

Here’s the case for Estévez to go back to the 4-3-3:

dallas v RSL xG

Dallas were out-possessed marginally and out-shot badly. Their inability to control things through midfield meant they never really threatened to turn that 1-0 into 2-0 despite Ferreira’s form and the fact that they’re playing two up top, and the inability to turn 1-0 into 2-0 is something that has haunted them for the past year.

They were spared another ignominious draw last week thanks to Video Review – it was a good call, but not one that I think is made every time – and were spared again this week when Bernard Kamungo came off the bench to play hero. But even with two wins on the trot, it doesn’t feel like this problem is solved.

It’s two wins, five losses and no draws now for RSL. At some point I would really like to see Diego Luna get a bit of run as a No. 10 since nothing else Pablo Mastroeni has thrown at the wall thus far this season has stuck.

Minnesota United 1-2 Orlando City

Look at the standings and Orlando City are in good shape: 11 points through seven games has them fifth in the East in PPG and is traditionally enough (the PPG, not the place in the standings) for at least one home game. That’s as expected.

But they still don’t really look good, and I’m saying that in spite of an impressive result coming back against this Minnesota side. Part of it is, I think, “Atlanta United Syndrome” in that they have a bunch of attackers – Mauricio Pereyra, Facu Torres and now Martín Ojeda – who all want the ball to feet, and who thus don’t necessarily create a ton of space off the ball. So it’s probably not surprising, then, that the equalizer came from one wingback to another (Orlando played in a 3-4-2-1), and the winner came when Duncan McGuire came on and did Duncan McGuire things, burying a loose ball in the box.

McGuire does not need the ball to be effective. He now has 2g/1a in just 195 MLS minutes, and obviously played a massive role in the equalizer before nearly getting the series-winner in that CCL draw vs. Tigres. It is clearly time for him to start (and I’m not just saying that for the sake of my ETR Golden Boot team).

The Loons actually played very well in this one and just ended up in the bad books of the fickle god of finishing variance. But the lurking horror is their inability to finish matches off with possession: they’ve led in all three of their home matches and managed just two points.

Here is the good news: Newcomer Sang Bin Jeong looked promising as a kind of No. 10. He’s not a maestro like Emanuel Reynoso, but is relentless and direct and should give them a dose of both skill and attacking dynamism in a spot that’s badly needed it.

Portland Timbers 4-1 Seattle Sounders

Our Face of the Week goes to an ecstatic Gio Savarese, whose team continues to dominate the Cascadia Cup:

I’ll list some things here:

  • Portland went from 1-0 down and basically not in the game to 4-1 up in 18 minutes. It’s the fastest they’ve ever scored four goals.
  • Stef Frei had a nightmare.
  • This game was much closer than the scoreline.
  • I don’t necessarily think it’s telling that Portland were rampant once Evander came off, but at this point, I don’t necessarily think it’s not telling, either.
  • It is telling that Seattle’s rest defense evaporated once they switched out of their 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 (look for more on that from our friends at Sounder at Heart this week).
  • Dairon Asprilla is one of the more underrated big game players/emotional leaders in the league.

“It’s not another loss. It’s against the Timbers. We have to get back to understanding that this is a rivalry.”

San Jose Earthquakes 3-0 Sporting Kansas City

The Quakes, who are a good team, did what they were supposed to do when hosting Sporting KC, who are now, officially, a historically bad team:

Know how you can tell the vibes are good for San Jose? Cristian Espinoza, who is putting together an MLS Best XI presented by Continental Tire-caliber season and who has converted both of his PKs this year, as well as all five of his PKs last year, let center forward Jeremy Ebobisse – who had not scored for a month – take a PK late in the first half with the Quakes up 1-0. Ebobisse buried it.

The chance to get his No. 9 out of a slump was more important to Espinoza than padding his stats. There aren’t a ton of DP attackers with that mindset.

Lo-and-behold, Ebobisse made it a brace on the other side of halftime and the Quakes cruised.

Sporting are a mess.

St. Louis City FC 5-1 FC Cincinnati

FC Cincinnati were also a mess for at least one weekend. I’ve been writing in this column, week after week, that the ability to grind out 1-0 wins is an important hallmark of a potential champion. And while I’m still not worried about the Garys despite this ugly scoreline, it’s time we acknowledge the other hallmark of a champion: The ability to play good soccer.

Cincy have not done that this year with any sort of consistency, and on Saturday St. Louis made them pay by utterly dominating the visitors in both boxes following a prolonged weather delay.

Rasmus Alm earned our Pass of the Week for his assist on Nico Gioacchini’s goal, his third of the season:

Bradley Carnell’s game model is completely different from Wilfried Nancy’s, but with a small sample size he seems to have a similar effect on the development of young/underutilized players. Gioacchini, Jared Stroud, Indiana Vassilev (now a combative ball-winning central midfielder), Kyle Hiebert… these are guys anyone in the league could’ve had for pennies. Now they’re starters on the Supporters’ Shield leaders.

I keep thinking back to the summer of 2020 when Chris Armas was dismissed as coach of the Red Bulls and Carnell took over on an interim basis. He got that team playing good ball almost immediately, and then for some reason RB global went out and spent a reported $2 million to buy Struber out of his contract with Barnsley, his club at the time.

That might end up being a decade-defining mistake.

LA Galaxy 2-3 LAFC

I spent part of my Saturday night sitting in a very big chair on MLS 360, explaining how LAFC’s ability to patiently build from the back – they still have that, and killed Austin with it last week – seemed like a knife pointed right at the heart of the Galaxy’s biggest weakness: the inability to get concerted pressure to the opponents during build-out, which leads to them getting pulled apart pretty easily no matter their formation.

But that’s not how LAFC clapped the Galaxy on Sunday afternoon. LAFC clapped the Galaxy by feasting off of turnovers – that led to their first two goals – and dominating on set pieces – that led to their third. They went up 3-1 with 20 minutes left and that should’ve ended it.

But this is El Trafico, so of course it did not. What happened was – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – Greg Vanney made some subs, switched to a 3-5-2 and started taking it directly at the champs:

Two forwards in the box! Smart runners out of central midfield who know when to possess and when to release into the attack! Wingbacks who fly forward! The fun of Lucas Calegari, shoved into emergency duty as a right center back, carrying the ball off the backline and beating LAFC’s press Andy Najar-style!

Anyway, the Galaxy lost at home to LAFC for the first time in club history. They did it to themselves.